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Rarely There

A collection of discourses - myriad, profound, uplifting...
Bah! Who am I kidding?!
It is just a blog.

Wednesday, June 10, 2015

Binge-Reading: Lee Child and Daniel Silva

Lee Child and Daniel Silva Jack reacher gabriel allon


It seems like every summer or thereabouts, I get into this binge-reading mode where every spare time is devoted to feverishly finishing one  novel after another till I am saturated for the time being.

The key is "spare time" - viz., time not spent working 9 to 5, cooking, cleaning, chauffeuring - but includes time when I am eating. Yep! The house rule is that when one is eating alone at the table, one can have their book for company on weekends. Weekdays are a blur, so dining together is a luxury we enjoy. Although reading while eating is technically a no-no in our house, I have set up loopholes which my daughter has discovered lately.

Anyway, of late, I've read one Jack Reacher novel after another, in no particular order. Starting with Personal, I went backwards a bit, and then decided to read them as and when I could get my hands on one.

Of course, commercial/pulp crime thriller is a sweeping label, but, there are well-written crime novels and there are poorly-written crime novels. Jack Reacher novels fall in the brilliantly-paced always-a-can't-put-me-down category for me.

I was skeptical when I picked up Personal on a whim. It was on my To Read list since its release early this year, along with other Jack Reacher novels.

I am not for scouring the Best Sellers list often and reading them all within 3 months of release date and discussing it avidly among fellow fans and such. I'll read the books at my own pace and at my own time of choosing, when my lifestyle allows such luxuries on and off.

And cosmically, the binge-reading bug bit me at the same time that Personal showed up in Parent Book Exchange shelf at my kids' school a few weeks ago. I snatched it up for my "car book" right then.

I have a book in my lunch bag, "the lunch book" (which currently is Hook's Revenge by Heidi Schulz), to read at lunch time in the lunch room at work. I have another in the car, "the car book", when I am waiting in the car to pick up the kids and chauffeur them as needed (which currently is A Wanted Man by Lee Child). Another book nestles in my backpack, "the bag book" (which for a few weeks has been Forget Me Not by Fern Michaels, with slow progress). Plus about 3 or 4 sit on my nightstand (which happen to be  Jack Reacher and Gabriel Allon books for now.)

On any given day, there may be 2 or 3 books that I am "currently reading"...

Over the last 3 weeks, in my spare time, I've managed to read a few Jack Reacher Novels:

  1. Personal
  2. Never Go Back
  3. The Affair
  4. Bad Luck and Trouble
  5. 61 Hours
I remember feeling a certain strong and favorable emotion for Jason Bourne back in my youth when I read them with starry eyes. After a long time, I can admit to feeling the same strong and favorable emotion for Jack Reacher now.

While some Reacher novels are in first person, I like the omniscient third person narratives better. Through Reacher's lines, we start shaping an image of him that fits our requirements. One might object to the overtly technical elements in physical confrontations that the author, Lee Child, tends to throw out frequently, but, it is relevant and sophisticated nevertheless, and it establishes Reacher's pedantic nature and his precise actions.

I also read a bunch of Daniel Silva. The two older Michael Osborne novels - The Mark of the Assassin and The Marching Season - appealed to me a bit more than the later Gabriel Allon ones. I've read the first four of Gabriel Allon, plus The Messenger. And so far, Allon is not evoking the same strong and positive emotion that Jack Reacher is evoking in me, that Jason Bourne originally fired up in me.

Silva's book are intelligent and well-researched, with just enough of the improbable to keep it interesting. Not quite as intense as a Dan Brown but certainly not as boorish as a James Patterson either. However, Silva's books could use some tight editing, and a change in the narrator's tone that doesn't come across as pompous and high-handed -- it gets rather tedious and meandering at times, leading off in paths that have no relevance to how the plot ties up in the end.

I used to devour Robert Ludlum, Alistair MacLean, John le Carre, Frederick Forsythe in my youth. While crime thriller, espionage, and mystery are not my top genre anymore, I have constantly read a fair share of them over the years only to be saddened by the deteriorating standards in presentation and the formulaic plot points.

For now, I am all set for a few more weeks with Reacher and Allon, and they all promise to be a satisfying read.


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Sunday, May 24, 2015

Plugged and Screwed


plugged eoin colfer book review

Plugged: A Novel,
Screwed: A Novel
by Eoin Colfer


After being introduced to the wry style, colorful characters, and an intricate yet fulfilling story in the Artemis Fowl series, I was curious about Colfer's novel for adults. I wasn't disappointed.

Plugged introduces Daniel McEvoy, a disenchanted ex-military Irish guy working as a bouncer in a sleazy New Jersey club. While not instantaneously charismatic, Daniel grew on me as the story unfolded. His heart is in the right place, he is rugged and resourceful, and he happens to be lucky as well, else there would be no story to tell.

A strange concatenation of circumstances takes Daniel from tragedy to calamity to disaster to near-annihilation. Being the main character, we know he'll survive somehow. At least, we hope he will, as the story is told in his flippant voice.

Clearly, Plugged isn't anything like Artemis Fowl as it is not a Young Adult fantasy but an adult crime thriller. However, it is anything but predictable. Though contrived, the plot is tight and unfolds at a rapid pace that kept me frantically flipping the pages in anticipation.

I used to devour Robert Ludlum, Alistair MacLean, John le Carre, Frederick Forsythe in my youth. While crime thriller, espionage, and mystery are not my top genre anymore, I have constantly read a fair share of them over the years to notice the deteriorating standards in presentation and the formulaic plot points. The more recent James Patterson books co-authored with others comes to mind as the prime example of disappointing novels. Women's Murder Club books were difficult to read. Somehow tedious repetition is supposed to project urgency and direness of the situation when all it ends up being is annoying. But, I am digressing...

The pleasures of reading any genre for me lies in the language nuances and style of narration. Most crime thrillers are fairly predictable - the hero is invincible/lucky/resourceful etc., the villain is devious/evil/equally resourceful etc. The circumstances arrange themselves to allow for plenty of action, and our protagonist and antagonist are physically supreme and well-matched, and possibly mentally as well. And yet, some of us keep going back to the same authors and protagonists wanting more because of the immense reading pleasure we derive.

The irreverent comedic undertones along with Daniel's sardonic wisecracks add to the reading experience. Early on in the book, we learn that Daniel has recently received hair plugs/implants as he is self-conscious about his receding hairline. And then, we encounter a disembodied sidekick Zeb, the "doctor" who performed the hair transplant, who talks in Daniels' head, thus adding a bit of zest to Daniel's monologues.

The subtle nod to erstwhile master of the espionage genre brought a smile: "I am surprised. ‘A disk? A bloody disk. What do I look like to you? Jason goddamn Bourne?”

Early on, in chapter 2, as Daniel slowly unfolds his personality for us, it was perfectly amusing when he asks: "A hair-obsessed ex-army doorman. What are the odds of those Venn diagram bubbles intersecting?"

It is these little nuggets that kept me reading on in furious pace. Of course, there's the usual drug turf war, murder, mayhem, ruthless mob boss and other such typical elements to keep the story moving, but, it is how Daniel moves through these elements that makes it worthwhile.

The sequel, Screwed, is equally cheeky and endearing at the same time.


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Sunday, May 10, 2015

Sewing: Refabrication: Value-added Custom T-Shirts

I made some fun t-shirts for the ten year old. Or, to be precise, I added some iron-on transfers to store-bought $3 t-shirts which I customized for her style.

One t-shirt got a scalloped hemline plus some photo pile-like arrangement of pictures (iron-on t-shirt transfer) from her recent trip to Winston Wildlife Safari, Humboldt Redwoods, Golden Gate Bridge, Monterey Bay Aquarium and such.

custom t-shirt fringed hemline easy hand-made


One white t-shirt was partially dyed blue to evoke a feeling of flowing water in which I ironed on some pictures from our recent trip to Monterey Bay Aquarium.


custom t-shirt fringed hemline easy hand-made


One t-shirt got an angular and slightly asymmetrical hemline, to which I added cute picture of her pets - cat and guinea pig - with the words, "Make new friends but keep the old; One is silver and the other's gold."


custom t-shirt fringed hemline easy hand-made


And her favorite is this white one with a picture of the cake pops that she had made a couple of years ago; the special feature being the fringe hemline and sleeves that I added. Coupled with white capris, this t-shirt has become her favorite outfit of late.

custom t-shirt fringed hemline easy hand-made




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Saturday, April 11, 2015

Sewing: Refabrication: Flags T-Shirt


oblasts krai bundeslander flags t-shirt

The shirt front has flags of 6 Russian oblasts, krais and republics; the back of the shirt has 6 German Bundesländer flags.

The youngest was into studying administrative divisions of various countries and wanted badly to have shirts with flag of his choice.

Simple iron-on transfer, no fuss, no mess.

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Saturday, December 20, 2014

Sewing: Mug Rugs



I completely sat out the Mug Rug fever at its peak. I told myself it is a glorified place mat no matter what everybody else wants to call it. I've made enough place mats in my life so far and we didn't need any new ones at this time, I convinced myself.

Then, around the time when I was wondering what to make for my family as Xmas present, Mug Rugs took hold of my consciousness. I could not ignore them. I could not let them go. I had to make a few.

On Friday evening, after tucking kids in bed, I took a piece of paper and drew some tentative designs. The next morning, being a weekend with no outside commitments, I raided my stash of fabrics and scraps. There was no turning back.




I made 4 Mug Rugs with simple applique depicting winter designs I had drawn the previous night. I had enough inexpensive felt fabric which I used as batting for these mug rugs. I intended to quilt them, but they looked fine as-is so decided not to.

Being a bit lazy, I didn't iron the white background fabric well enough, and not being one for measuring accurately, the rectangular fabric pieces were skewed a bit causing some pinches and folds. I thought I can handle it in the finishing process, and possibly hide it with quilting.

A simple pine tree design - a favorite around this time of the year.




A heart-warming scene of mittens and stockings hung to dry from a tree, with a giant ornament suspended from somewhere in the upper regions and two little birds perched meditatively.




A pair of cutie birds roosting on a winter-bare tree, with diamond accents adding the elegant touch. (wanted a plain fabric for all the diamonds, but, ended up with a self-design blue one somehow)




And, liking the birds too much, and finding myself with a lot more triangular trees cut out and ready-to-go, another wintry scene, bringing in the cute birdies and the diamonds.



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Sunday, November 16, 2014

Napoleon's Buttons, Disappearing Spoon, Organized Mind

There are these 'must-read' books that keep getting added to my Reading Wish List depending on my mood. Sometimes it is action-packed YA escapism, sometimes it is pure brilliant humor, sometimes it is a stack of poetry picture books, and sometimes it is mind-opening non-fiction.

After intense YA action with the Heroes of Olympus series, I was in the mood for non-fiction and devoured the three books that I am writing about here. The style of writing, the facts, and the nature of  the topics made them fascinating.


Napoleon's Buttons 
17 Molecules That Changed History
by Penny Le Couteur & Jay Burreson


From Peppers, Nutmeg, and Cloves - the spices that gave birth to the Age of Discovery, to Morphine, Nicotine, Caffeine; and Chlorocarbon compounds that made refrigeration an everyday reality for food preservation, the book talks about seventeen molecules that the author feels were pivotal in bringing about changes that led us to where we are today.

Engaging style and crisp text makes this an absorbing read. Chemical structure of these compounds are shown diagrammatically, with clear explanation to follow along. Having enjoyed organic chemistry in high school and college days, I found it engaging to compare the structures of closely related molecules.




The Disappearing Spoon
by Sam Kean


With a cheeky voice and affable sense of humor, the book tells us about the Periodic Table of Elements.

Early in the book, the author types out a complex page-long name of a molecule which I sincerely started to read; then, conveniently flipped to the next page thinking it might not make a difference if I read the whole confusing name or not.

But, the author catches us skip-reading! With a mild reprimand, he sends us back to the previous page to discern the pattern in naming the long molecule, referring to it as the "anaconda". I was hooked.

The title derives from a practical joke that was popular in the early days, when a spoon made of Gallium would be given to an unsuspecting guest at tea; the prankster-chemists would watch with glee when the poor guest's spoon dissolved while stirring the hot tea.

Relevance of chemistry to the real world is impossible to ignore. yet, somehow, the curriculum texts ignore this connection and make the study of the subject as insipid and sterile as possible.

For the nitpicky experts, there might be some sticky points and outright errors in this book, but as a science-loving semi-layman I found this book well worth the time.



Organized Mind
by Daniel J. Levitin


If we've ever lost or misplaced our keys or cell phone, we know the frustration.

And when we take an inventory of our “miscellaneous/junk” drawer only to notice rubber bands, old batteries, maybe an unnamed CD or DVD, some loose change, ticket stubs, assorted pens that don’t write and half a dozen other things, we are afraid to throw them away as they might be needed the minute they are tossed out.

The author, Daniel Levitin, professor of behavioural neuroscience at McGill University, explains that when everything has an allotted place - in the house, and in our memory - there is minimal chance of things ever getting lost.

And when things that don’t easily fall into a predefined category and cannot be organized in a coherent manner, we tend to file them under the “miscellaneous/junk” section, both physically and mentally.

Now, what happens when we have way more things than slots to organize them in? That’s where we run into issues.

The book is organized in three parts. Part One sets up the scenario where we have too much information and too many decisions to make in our current lifestyle, and explains how Attention and Memory work. Part Two is all about organizing - our homes, our social lives, our business, our time, and all the information we need to make the hardest decisions. Part Three gives a glimpse of the future by laying out what to teach our children, and finally the significance of having a “junk drawer” to make our lives manageable.

I was particularly interested in Part Three. Whereas in my pre-Internet school days, if I wanted to know anything in particular about prehistoric life on earth or about firewalking, I had to look it up in a book, possibly at the library. Sifting through index catalog and getting the librarian's help, I might narrow down a handful of books and microfiche to look up, with no guarantee that the exact piece of information I am seeking will be in any of those books.

But my children, when stumped by questions, unabashedly say, “let me look it up” and they dash to the iPad or iPhone or laptop, whichever is handy, and simply “google it”. Is this form of getting information quickly any better than the delayed gratification of physically poring over shelves of books at the library? And, are the online search results reliable? What happens when they run into contradictory information? How can we help our children develop the ability to screen and weigh the information and recognize patterns in general and organize it efficiently, and apply the scientific methods to delve deeper and gain expertise?

[image source: amazon.com]




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Sunday, October 12, 2014

Heroes of Olympus



After zipping through Percy Jackson and the Olympians series four years ago, I knew that if Percy and Annabeth return for another quest, I must find out how it went.

So, when Blood of Olympus was finally released, I was ready to get my hands on all five books at once and read them back to back. And, circumstances so arranged themselves that I was ill one Friday and was curled up in bed. But, I was patting myself and smiling smugly as I had just picked up the first four books from the library. The fifth one, being a recent release, was in high demand and my place was 97th of 130 holds on 8 copies or something impossible like that.

Anyway, that's how I managed to finish all four books by that weekend, just recovering in bed, and escaping into the demigod world.

The books have all the right elements to make them a rollicking fun read. Non-stop action, one thing after another, impossible odds that our favorite demigods mange to beat... all with light-hearted exchanges and quick-thinking under duress. Hints are tucked in here and there, and the picture unfolds bit by bit... I could easily see my 9 year old willingly entering Percy and Annabeth's world and staying there, much like she wanted to with Harry Potter and Hermione.

As I've already mentioned my main discomfort and objection to the demigod adventures in the Percy Jackson post, I am copying and pasting the same here, as it applies in triple-fold to this series.

Being a jaded adult, I naturally shake my head and roll my eyes when the movie hero artfully dodges the bullets from multiple machine guns fired by the demented assailants and somehow manages to target every single one of these machine-gun-toting assailants with a mere pistol and triumph in the end.
Something about stacking up the odds against the hero completely disproportionately, only to make his victory seem all the more meritorious irks my senses.
However, that does not stop me from getting entangled in a well-spun yarn.

Giants abound, huge and menacing, and yet our tiny demigods manage to thwart them somehow. Especially the fourth book, House of Hades, set in Tartarus, with Tartarus rising towards the end, and the giant Bob along with a tiny cat aids Percy strategically, seemed completely unbelievable. I felt almost as if I was reading a screenplay written explicitly for action-oriented colossal CGI effects. 

At every tough spot, it seems like our favorite demigods summon the last of their strength, exhausted beyond recovery, to avoid certain death, only to find that a few minutes later they again summon the last of their strength to avert another major disaster that could end the whole world... It is nice to have a tight deadline to keep things moving, but right in the first book, The Lost Hero, the three demigods Jason, Leo, and Piper, manage to go all over the country and get bashed up and lost and betrayed and chased and hunted and blackmailed and defeat the giant and save Piper's father, all in 3 days' time.

One other thing that irked me was this deliberate twisting of mythological characters just for the shock effect. Like, Heracles/Hercules is a pompous, deluded jerk in this story. We already read about Dionysus in the original series and we learnt to accept him as the character had some novelty then.

Having said that I am a jaded adult, I must also admit that I look for enough internal consistency for the story to resonate with my young-adult heart. As an academic pursuit, I cannot but wonder at the author's immense energy and talent to write five 500+ page stories that make the kids want to read. Over and over sometimes. 

I like how the narration switches between the main demigods and we learn about them as we follow along their adventures. I like the peppering of Greek and Roman elements in this series. I like the irreverence and the heart-warming aspects inter-playing to a perfect balance. 

I like that it was not all about Percy and Annabeth, and in fact, Percy is overshadowed by Jason and Frank and Hazel and Piper and Leo, five of the most wonderful characters kids can relate to; plus Reyna and Hylla come across as strong and courageous. I did not want to put the book down till I knew everybody was safe, for now, until things started going haywire at the next turn...

And the best part for me? Having my 9 year old pick it up voluntarily and read it feverishly and discuss it with me, completely defending the book and dismissing any objections or inconsistencies I bring up. Of course, Mist will take care of stuff like that. Of course, you are not a demigod so you can't know how well they can do what they do... Of course, you are thinking like a human mommy...

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Sunday, September 7, 2014

Sewing: Handmade "Bumblebee Dress" with Cross-stitch Motif


I don't have the patience for cross-stitch for some reason, although I love to do hand-embroidery on and off. My mom loves cross-stitch and has this fantastic technique where she likes to stitch right onto the dress fabric!

Basically, she bastes the canvas on to the dress or shirt or skirt on which she wants the cross-stitch, then, does the cross stitch as usual on this canvas, using interfacing as needed depending on the weight of the fabric. When done, she very carefully removes the waste canvas, thread by thread. This is a zen-like activity that she enjoys more than the cross-stitching itself, sometimes.

Anyway, a while back, for her grand-daughter's birthday, my mom had sewed this yellow+black dress and added cross-stitch to the neckline, chest, and skirt-front that is just too precious.

Now that my daughter is outgrowing it, I am thinking of ways to recycle it so I can still use the precious work on another outfit and hopefully keep carrying it forward for as long as the fabric and stitches will last.




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Sunday, August 17, 2014

Sewing: Upcycle Adult Skirt to Girls Asymmetrical Hem Dress



On a whim while shopping with a friend over a decade ago, I had bought this skirt with a sort of tiger-like print as I liked the flow and the style. I wore that skirt about thrice in the last decade as it was not exactly my style, the print at least. But I didn't have the heart to give it away as I thought I could reverse engineer and learn how it was made.

I really liked the design of the skirt - flowing lines, asymmetrical hem, a little detail at the front that gives the illusion of layers... but, after a decade of no reverse engineering, it seemed like it was ready to go.

My daughter, however, wouldn't let it go. Her heart was set on it as she loves that print.

So, I upcyled this old skirt into a nice dress/tops for her to wear over capri shorts or Bermuda or biker shorts, or even leggings. It has all the hallmarks of being a favorite and most-worn dress in the near future.

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Sunday, July 20, 2014

Sewing: Boys Summer Shorts



I had a small stash of quilt cotton remnant, identical pattern in two different colors, more than enough to make a pair of shorts for the 6 yo to use over summer, plus something for myself.

I used one of his old shorts to trace and cut out a pattern in a brown paper bag and used it as a template to make a few pairs of shorts over summer. Nothing fancy like flap-pockets or zipper/button fly, just an elastic waist one.

But, I don't like the puffy stomach that elastic-waist tends to make, so, the front is flat, no elastic, and the back has the necessary elastic to fit snugly and make it easy to pull on/off.

While I was at it, I had enough left of the two fabrics that I made a summer dress for myself - just a simple sleeveless bodice, with paneled skirt part, no shaping/fitting, just a casual dress.


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Sunday, June 8, 2014

Luka and the Fire of Life, Boy, Snow, Bird, and Whisper

Of the half a dozen fiction over the last few months, these three were the most enjoyable read.


Luka and the Fire of Life
by Salman Rushdie

Having read and re-read Haroun and the Sea of Stories over the last two decades, I couldn't skip Luka and the Fire of Life. So, after the frenzy surrounding its launch died down, I quietly picked this up and relished the story-telling.

An inadvertent curse sets things in motion and the story progresses rapidly with a lot of action, a la video games, full of imagination and fantasy that only a master can relate with such deceptive simplicity.

There is a beauty in All's Well That End Well endings that is hard to ignore. The feeling that some books generate where you don't want to leave the magical world and return to your own reality is something truly special.



Boy, Snow, Bird
by Helen Oyeyemi

Brilliant writing. Superb crafting. Oyeyemi is a delight to read. After Mr.Fox, I was looking forward to more of Oyeyemi. And this book just perfectly fit the need. If I could, I'd quote about 70% of the book, but am indulging myself just a few - the passages that make one wonder if the author just thinks in those words or crafts it with precision, chiseling and honing till the brilliant sentences remains with us forever.

"... it's not whiteness itself that sets Them against Us, but the worship of whiteness. Same goes if you swap whiteness out for other things-- fancy possessions for sure, pedigree, maybe youth too... we beat Them (and spare ourselves a lot of tedium and terror) by declining to worship."

"But the shrieking went on and on, primal, almost glad—this protest was righteous. I couldn’t make up my mind whether the baby was male or female; the only certainties were near baldness and incandescent rage. The kid didn’t like its blanket, or its rattle, or the lap it was sat on, or the world . . . the time had come to demand quality."

"It was one of those ones they call screwball comedies, where people mislead and ill-treat each other in the most shocking and baffling way possible, then forgive and forget about it because they happen to like the look of each other. Only they call it falling in love."

"School is one long illness with symptoms that switch every five minutes so you think it's getting better or worse. But really it's the same thing for years and years."

Though the ending felt rushed and apologetic, the mingling of the magical fantasy with the very real social issues as well as the ever-confounding family quirks makes this quite a page-turner.


Whisper

by Christina Struyk-Bonn

Not another dystopian tale set in some indeterminate time period. This is happening in our world in some form. In a society that abandons such rejects - viz., babies born with deformities, hope can be hard to come by.

Whisper is born with a cleft palate, correctable, and yet she is abandoned by her family. Still loved by her mother, Whisper spends the first few years of her life accepting her situation, not thinking beyond what she faces each day.

As we follow Whisper's life, we wonder how many kids around the world are experiencing similar fate at this very minute. Things turn out fine for Whisper because she has a talent - her music is sublime. But what about the many who have nothing special to bank on for hope and salvation?


[image source: amazon.com]

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Sunday, April 27, 2014

Sewing: Up-cycled dresses for girls from adult tunics (kurtas, kurtis)

A few of my old tunics from India - kurtas and kurtis and kameez - were collecting cobweb as I don't fancy those colors or patterns anymore, opting for a more sober brown/black/navy palette for my everyday wear as well as work wear.

They were perfect candidates for up-cycling into little girls' dresses. The colors which were my rejects just happen to be my daughter's favorites. So, when my mom visited lasted year, she turned these old one-size-fits all adult kurtas/kurtis (tunics) of mine to a few dresses for the little girl by chopping and trimming and adding her unique style.

I love how each turned out differently!

Flowing halter-tie maxi dress - the tiny lilac calico print is the main attraction



Calf-length tie-back dress from a really old kameez my mom gave up wearing.



A similar one from another old kurta- a lilac print that I used to like... makes a really nice tie back free flow dress.


Skirt and tops set made from a large kameez that I never wore often enough to warrant keeping.


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Sunday, March 16, 2014

Sewing: Old-fashioned pieced long skirt



With all the scraps from quilt cottons and sarees, my mom decided to make this gorgeous full skirt for the 8 year old.

It turned out perfect for her pioneer peasant girl costume for her school play, when paired with the peasant tops I had made for her a couple of years ago; plus the apron and bonnet I quickly sewed the weekend before the play.

A uniquely lovely skirt that brings a certain vintage charm to her wardrobe.




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Sunday, January 5, 2014

Lilian Jackson Braun and The Cat... books with Qwilleran


Lilian Jackson braun The Cat Who books Qwilleran

Quite by accident, I came upon a pile of Lilian Jackson Braun's books and loved the first one I picked up at random, The Cat Who Went Into The Closet (15th book in the series).

It is no secret that I love cats. And, with prescient Siamese Koko and Yum Yum, Ms. Braun has hooked in the cat lovers with ease.

James MacIntosh Qwilleran is a fine character developed from a recovering alcoholic to a prim and proper newspaper columnist who just happens to be a millionaire, thanks to an inheritance which he diverts sensibly for charitable causes, mostly anonymously.

Qwilleran aka Qwill and his intuitive Siamese cats, Yum Yum and Koko, investigate odd incidents near and far in Moose County, "400 miles north of everywhere."

The books can be loosely termed as mysteries, but some are rather meandering and dull. However, the writing is never dull. The daily life of this quiet place and the nice people seem to be plagued by unsavory criminal incidents which Qwill, as an amateur sleuth, tries to solve.

Of course, Koko and Yum Yum are the real solvers - they turn up clues and evidence, without which Qwill can't dream of closing up the case. Along the way, cat lovers are treated to the comfortable pleasures of detailed descriptions of typical cat behavior that endears them to the said cat lovers.

I found only a handful to be true mysteries worth investigating; and the solution seemed pretty droll, sometimes rather far-fetched. But, Moose County and Pickax seems like a place I'd like to spend a quiet retirement vacation, preferably in summer.

Next on my list to read:  “The Cat Who Killed Lilian Jackson Braun” by Robert Kaplow.

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Tuesday, December 10, 2013

The World Until Yesterday

The World Until Yesterday
What Can We Learn From Traditional Societies
by Jared Diamond



As a Geography Professor, Diamond's prolific thinking and field research at New Guinea has brought out many books, and engendered severe criticism for his tendency to make generalizations based on just a handful of data collected by social scientists.

After, The Third Chimpanzee by the Pulitzer-winner, I was curious about The World Until Yesterday. It is a hefty volume, detailed and elaborate, wherein he argues for us WEIRD** people to learn something from traditional societies.

We have come take for granted the written language, travel, organized government with fine-tuned (and complicated!) laws, a society which strives to be ever-safe and progressive, and our unwavering faith in our abilities, despite the fact that these are pretty recent accomplishments in the human history.

Starting with what is a traditional society, we read about such things as child-rearing practices, treatment of or caring for the elderly, expectations of each member of the society, and constructive paranoia about dangers in the world.

Whereas some societies tend to kill a disabled child at birth, or even kill their old and ailing member to save the rest of the tribe, there are also such societies that treasure the wisdom and experience of the elders and care for them well.

The books has three real life situations the author experienced which were eye-opening not just for the reader but for the author himself.

Now, there's always two sides to a coin. What about brutality and warfare and even petty skirmishes for natural resources? What about law and order and a prescribed form of punishment applicable to all? In one incident shared in the book, a family that inadvertently killed another family's young child was not punished in the modern way of incarceration or death penalty. The families sat with each other, talked, and forgave, and agreed to move on without harboring ideas of revenge or hatred. Plausible in a close-knit group where members need to stay together to survive.

The book covers many aspects which is hard for me to describe here in detail. But, certainly a worthy read, even if we may not agree with some of the ideas therein.

**Western, educated, industrialized, rich, and democratic (“WEIRD”)

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Sunday, November 10, 2013

Sita's Ramayana

Sita's Ramayana
text by Samhita Arni
art by Moyna Chitrakar



I was bowled over by Mahabharata - A Child's View by Samhita Arni. She was just eight when she wrote it. And illustrated it.

Having read many versions of the epic through the years, by various scholars, in English, as well as the miscellaneous abridged and interpreted versions in my mother tongue, I have a special fondness for this tale. Bhagavad Gita, which forms a part of this tome, has been a huge influence in my formative years.

The other famous epic tale from India, The Ramayana, has always taken second place in my hierarchy of beloved ancient tales, right from childhood. I did not like the way Sita was treated. I did not like the way Raamaa used trickery to help Sugriva. I did not like the wasteful war and death over a woman who simply wanted to live her life. Again, having read various versions of it in a couple of languages, not to mention the distilled child-size doses in picture books and Amar Chitra Katha graphic books, it was something I took for granted.

But, when I came across Sita's Ramayana, I loved it! It is a graphic novel where the illustrations take the center stage, with crisp minimal text. The story is told from Sita's point of view - the main female character in the story who has often been sidelined in other presentations.

It is a quick read, if one excludes the time spent in poring over the gorgeous pictures. But, well-told from Sita's perspective - what she probably knew, what she saw, what she felt, what she suffered. Finally, Sita simply retires into the womb of her mother - Mother Earth - unable to take the callous treatment of her by her husband, the impeccable Raamaa.

"Chandrabati Ramayana"/"Molla Ramayanamu" pioneered by two 16th Century women poets took this unique perspective of retelling the tale from Sita's point of view. Possibly deemed a "feminist Ramayana", it is easily ignored or condemned. I am yet to read their translated versions as I am not proficient in the languages they were written in - viz., Bengali/Telugu respectively.

[image source: Author Samhita Arni's website]

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Sunday, October 13, 2013

The Adventures of Sally

The Adventures of Sally
By P.G. Wodehouse


It seems silly for me to write about P.G.Wodehouse's books here. Although inherently averse to fanaticism, I have held PGW's books in very high esteem practically from teenage when I first encountered them. They are a class apart.

If I were forced to pick one writer as my favorite, I would easily choose TP&PGW - opting to club them together as one entity (TP = Terry Pratchett). Only because they both inspire me immensely.

Well, enough of this gushing.

Moving on, The Adventures of Sally is not about Jeeves or Blandings Castle or Uncle Fred or any of the more popular staples associated with PGW. Nevertheless, it is a brilliantly written story, with the characteristic twists and turns and entanglements, all ending to everyone's satisfaction.

What's amazing about both PGW &TP is that they are keen observers of human nature, and they unfold the emotions behind the actions in a brilliant yet stark way that leaves us keeling over with fits of laughter. And they both know how to tell a tale - seemingly innocuous, yet profoundly complex.

Enough said.

I just wanted to list this book here as it is a hugely satisfying read, over and over.

[image source: Wikipedia]

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Thursday, September 12, 2013

Comedy Books

I'm Dying Up Here: Heartbreak and High Times in Stand-up Comedy's Golden Era
by William Knoedelseder


Coherent narration, weaving in the drama and tension, while keeping the characters real and staying objective, is not easy; especially a story about now-famous comedians before they were famous.

However, in I'm Dying Up Here, the author has managed to present a page-turning account of the golden age of comedy, and the events leading up to the strike that ended it all.

Back in the days, if one wanted to be a performing artist, especially theater/stage art, one had to make it in New York City; and for the aspiring stand-up comedian, the place to be was The Improvisation founded by Bud Friedman, a Broadway producer who simply wanted the performers to have a place to get together and exchange tools of the trade.

However, around mid 1970s, there was a mass exodus of comedians from NYC to LA, following Johnny Carson's The Tonight Show moving to Burbank, CA.

Many talented comedians like Jay Leno, Letterman, Dreesden, Lewis moved to L.A. in the hope of making it big. And, the yardscale for success at that time was being invited to perform at The Tonight Show - the only nation-wide stage on TV at that time.

When they get there, they gravitate towards Mitzi Shore's Comedy Store which allows them to try out their material and hone their craft. However, making ends meet is always a challenge and for many of the struggling artists, starvation was a reality. Resentment builds as Mitzi's strict control and non-payment policy  begins to seem unfair to the few who went through that system onto a more successful career.

Which led to an organized "strike"/"walkout" that had its own complications. And, thus started the downfall of this cozy system that seemed to have worked for many of the major players we've grown to adore from that era.

Along the way we learn about the nightclub scene and the drug culture prevalent in those days.

All in all, a fantastic read, absolutely well-narrated, full of pathos, and yet somehow larger than life.

[image source: npr.org]



Comedy at the Edge
by Richard Zoglin


Starting with Lenny Bruce, setting up the scene for what was comedy then, the author takes us through the changes and comedy subculture that evolved to its present-day irreverence, all thanks to some wild and crazy guys who dared to do what they wanted to do in the name of stand-up comedy.

Profiling several key comedians of the era like Richard Pryor, George Carlin, Robert Klein, Albert Brooks, all the way out to Jay Leno, Andy Kaufman, Robin Williams, Steve Martin, Jerry Seinfeld et al, we are walked through the gradual changes in the business, and the demands it put on the performers.

Dense with information, the book identifies the shift in focus of the material presented by the comedians - how the changing times influenced what they talked about on stage in an attempt to make people laugh. Starting with stringent socio-political commentary of Carlin's era, to Steve Martin's goofball buffoonery, to Seinfeld's observational comedy, we see how the "Age of Irony" took over the age of emotional rawness...

Drug abuse was accepted, perhaps even expected, to give the performers an edge - how else can Robin Williams excel at his craft day after day, club after club, gig after gig, not slowing down, not running out of energy and material?

Leno and Letterman come out strong in terms of talent, the drive to entertain and the determination to remain drug-free.

[image source: http://www.comedyattheedgebook.com/]

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Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Detective,Mystery,Crime Binge


I've been on this binge-of-sorts lately - of detective/mystery/action/legal/crime/suspense type paperbacks.  Nelson DeMille, John Grisham, Daniel Silva, James Patterson et al.

I've been reading them without rhyme or reason - just whatever I can get my hands on - Run For Your Life, The Associate, The Last Juror, The Messenger, Plum Island, The Lion's Game... and, often, not waiting to complete one before starting the next novel.

Most days I switch between 2 or even 3 books I am "currently reading"... Easier to do as I have one book in the car, one in my backpack, two or three on my night stand so wherever I happen to be, I have a book handy to read.

Of course, even in this genre, there are some really well-written books with attention to language and plot and characters just as there are some quick cheap thrillers. Nelson DeMille's John Corey vs. Daniel Silva's Gabriel Allon vs. James Patterson's Michael Bennett... International Terrorist vs. Domestic Psychopath... it's all in the game. Just light reading.

And then, I've been re-reading some of the traditional classics of the detective mystery genre - Agatha Christie, Sherlock Holmes, P.D.James, John le Carré.

Though nothing much about these books inspired me to write a detailed post here, they satisfied a certain craving nevertheless.


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Monday, May 20, 2013

My Sherlock Holmes: Untold Stories of the Great Detective


My Sherlock Holmes: Untold Stories of the Great Detective

My Sherlock Holmes: Untold Stories of the Great Detective
 edited by Michael Kurland
stories by Barbara Hambly, Michael Mallory, Norman Schreiber, Peter Tremayne, Mel, GIlden, Richard Lupoff and others


The anthology of 13 stories contributed by various authors about one of my favorite literary characters seemed promising, especially since the stories are narrated from the perspective of some of the secondary characters, not Dr.Watson's; and, edited by Michael Kurland whose other Holmes books had a diametrically opposite perspective that it made me sit up and explore the possibility.

I decided to read the stories in this book in no particular order.

A handful turned out to be quite interesting and impressive, some were rather insipid, and a few were quite uncharacteristic and lacked respect for Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's stalwart detective. But they all projected the spirit of the times in the style reminiscent of Holmes' original adventures.

"Call me Wiggins" was one of the stories I enjoyed. The young urchin, the Baker Street Irregular Wiggins, that Holmes employs as his eyes and ears in the streets often, is apparently taken under the great detective's wing, educated and trained, and even allowed to solve a case, on his own, successfully at that. Lewis Carroll's private life dragged into this story was a bit distasteful but the narration was quite tight and consistent.

"The Adventure of the Forgotten Umbrella", "The Riddle of the Young Protestor", "Mrs.Hudson Reminiscences", "And the Others", "Mycroft's Great Game" were all quite enjoyable. Couldn't say that for some of the other stories.

However, having tremendous respect for writers, especially ones who can take a famous character and write in a different voice, a different perspective, and still maintain authenticity and integrity, I did enjoy reading this book. I am no armchair literary critic - I prefer to share the books I enjoyed and not invest time in writing about the ones I didn't.

There were no apologies or excuses given for Sherlock Holmes in Doyle's narration - he is who he is. I liked that. Despite the coke addiction, despite the brusque and supercilious nature, Holmes had a certain sense of justice even if he had little regard for the law. As a result, I think I am biased against perspectives that try to make him appear amiable and even congenial, or for that matter tyrannical and vindictive.

As long as they keep publishing such collections, I think I will keep reading them.




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Saturday, March 30, 2013

A Short History of Nearly Everything, Longitude, Ignorance

A Short History of Nearly Everything
by Bill Bryson

Here's a book that has to be read in installments, savoring every detail, smiling quietly at the humorous presentation, sitting down awe-struck at the staggering amount of information we inadvertently absorb from it.

The title says it all - cosmology, geology (when geology wasn't even legitimate discipline on its own), chemistry, physics, life sciences...  the book is packed with history of the sciences, liberally strewn with anecdotes about the great minds throughout history who dedicated their lives to get one step closer to understanding our universe and how we fit in it.

This is the kind of book I wish I had read as a high schooler struggling to see the bigger picture, trying to figure out how all that I've been taught fit together, while at the same time getting a feel for the lives of the great minds.

[image source: amazon.com]




Longitude: The True Story of a Lone Genius Who Solved the Greatest Scientific Problem of His Time
by Dava Sobel

I came across this book as it was referenced in A Short History of Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson. Not necessarily in glowing light, but, intriguing nonetheless.

The Longitude problem was a huge one, one that stumped great minds of that time, one whose solution would immensely ease the lives of sea-faring folk.

Latitude was well established. Going 15 degrees eastwards takes us one hour ahead in local time, and going 15 degrees westwards puts local time one hour behind from our starting point. So, in addition to latitude, if we can know the local times at two different points on Earth, we can calculate how far apart those places are in longitude.

Growing up with GPS, today's children have no idea of the time when most of the ocean was uncharted and finding one's relative position was made all the more difficult  not knowing the longitude.

The subtitle describes the tone of this book: it is all about John Harrison, an incredibly gifted watch-maker who had no scientific background or training, yet dedicated his entire life to making an accurate mechanical  clock that would keep the time on sea.

While the rest of the learned folk turned to the skies for a celestial solution, Harrison quietly focused on designing and building a reliable chronometer.

Clocks were notorious for losing time in those days, even on land - temperature, pressure affected their performance - so, add to it the pitching and rocking in the seas and the extremes of weather, there was no way any of the clocks of that time could be relied on.

Galileo and Newton bent their minds towards this problem with no success. The British government got desperate enough to form a Board of Longitude, offering a hefty reward for the best solution.

Although it reads more like a human interest story, rather long drawn out and repetitive without additional value, the book is an interesting read, even if quite biased, possibly muddling the intentions and abilities of the other giants involved in the story.

Not much is shared about the inner workings of  H1, H2, H3, H4 and why it made them better - possibly because it was never blue-printed and shared by Harrison voluntarily; and there are not many pictures or images to help the reader recognize the beauty of this instrument.

[image source: neebo.com]




Ignorance: How It Drives Science
by Stuart Firestein

The author argues that ignorance, not knowledge, drives science. Not the willful ignorance that is empty of knowledge but the belief in seeking the unknowable, realizing that one answer raises a hundred new unanswerable questions, and that mysteries allow for possibilities hitherto not entertained.

"Being a scientist requires having faith in uncertainty, finding pleasure in mystery, and learning to cultivate doubt. There is no surer way to screw up an experiment than to be certain of its outcome."

Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle, Phrenology, Gödel's challenge to completeness of mathematics... allowing for a possibility even if it seems improbable is the result of acknowledging ignorance - we cannot already know everything there is to know.

"It is very difficult to find a black cat in a dark room— especially when there is no cat."

The book is full of anecdotes and cases supporting the author's ideas. A very engaging and thought-provoking read on what drives science and motivates scientists.

"Science, then, is not like the onion in the often used analogy of stripping away layer after layer to get at some core, central, fundamental truth. Rather it’s like the magic well: no matter how many buckets of water you remove, there’s always another one to be had. Or even better, it’s like the widening ripples on the surface of a pond, the ever larger circumference in touch with more and more of what’s outside the circle, the unknown. This growing forefront is where science occurs… It is a mistake to bob around in the circle of facts instead of riding the wave to the great expanse lying outside the circle."


[image source: cen.acs.org ]


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Thursday, November 29, 2012

The Professor and the Madman

The Professor and the Madman
A Tale of Murder, Insanity, and the Making of the Oxford English Dictionary
by Simon Winchester


Growing up with a dutiful reverence for the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) and the Wren & Martin Grammar book thanks to some dedicated teachers, I had never really wondered what it takes to make a dictionary. How does one know a word is really a word, when was it first used, in what context and how do you explain its meaning without being convoluted and ambiguous? For instance, how does OED define the word 'art'?

When James Murray took over the making of the OED, he called upon volunteers from all over the country to contribute as much as they can within the guidelines he meticulously developed for them. Among the many thousands of volunteers, a handful seem to have gone the extra mile, taking upon themselves the excruciating task of reading volumes after volumes of text in order to make up a precise definition of not just the more exotic words, but even the most common, mundane ones.

One such prolific contributor was Dr.W.C.Minor.

From his East Indies stint with his missionary parents, to his career as an American Civil War army surgeon, Dr.Minor's life was anything but 'normal'. Somewhere along the way, he acquired a mental condition that completely wrecked his career and any semblance of normalcy in his life. Retiring in England for a change from the increasing paranoia plaguing his life, Dr.Minor ended up inadvertently killing an innocent man. Convicted and sent to Broadmoor lunatic asylum in Crowthorne, he spent the rest of his life there, never getting better, never probably even diagnosed correctly or medicated as needed.

It was during his stay at Broadmoor that Dr.Minor chanced upon James Murray's call for contributions to the grand OED project. Being a man of means and superb literary taste, Dr.Minor already possessed a huge collection of rare books, which gave him the impetus to correspond with James Murray offering his services.

James Murray on the other hand grew up rather poor, was self-taught, a rather bright and enterprising man who just happened to be at the right place at the right time in history to make a major contribution to the English lexicon.

The book is a blend of history and facts, with quite some interesting speculation by the author, about the story of James Murray and Dr.W.C.Minor, with the OED being the common bond between the two men.

I liked the fact that the author did not sensationalize many of the horrific events, but instead chose to present it in a matter-of-fact way - especially the autopeotomy which left me trembling with disbelief.

However, there are parts of the book that was more speculation than historical facts, which in small doses was fine as it is the author's prerogative. But, it was hard to nail down the flow as at times it seemed like a murder mystery, at times a fairy blase biography, sometimes peppered with elaborate speculation.

Rather than setting out to tell a chronological series of events, the book juxtaposes information in a slightly jumbled way fitting the current part of the narration without being disorderly and confusing, yet being a bit tedious as it bounces back and forth between the lives of the two main characters.

The book certainly affected me more than I expected: the plight of Dr.Minor (and others like him) certainly made me appreciate the delicate balance of brain chemistry which can easily go wrong leading to terrible consequences. I've often reached for Oliver Sacks books and shied away from it precisely because I don't think I have the strength to learn about all that can go wrong with our amazing brain...

And as a bonus, I learnt a few obsolete words, and many interesting facts about the English language.

A wonderful read, rather heavy, yet quite rewarding in its own way.

[image source: amazon.ca]

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Sunday, November 18, 2012

Dodger

Dodger
by Terry Pratchett

Pratchett's 50th novel, Dodger, is set not in the fantastical Discworld but in Victorian London with its nobs and downtrodden, heroines and villains, not to mention Benjamin Disraeli (PM of GB), Sir Joseph Bazalgette (Sewer Network Engineer), Henry Mayhew (social researcher and co-founder of Punch magazine), Sir Robert Peel (Metropolitan Police), and Charles Dickens himself.

The story is rather straightforward and predictable - young Dodger,a street urchin, can do no wrong despite living in the slums, orphaned, and resorting to thieving, and finally settling for rummaging in the sewers for 'lost' objects of value. He has the necessary skills to survive, has the beautiful heart to be generous, plus has a mandatory mentor who shares his living quarters with his dog Onan and the enigmatic Dodger . (If the dog's name is curious, the author urges us to 'google it').

Young Ms. Simplicity escapes from a loveless and abusive marriage to a rich and powerful European but is tracked and beaten up in London, somewhere near Dodger's usual haunt. Gallant and quick as he is, he saves the lady, who is then escorted by Henry Mayhew to his own home where his wife cares for such 'cases'.

Dodger grows very fond of Ms.Simplicity, who reciprocates in kind. Ms. Simplicity is not just any girl, a runaway - politics is involved, wars can start if she is not returned to her lawful husband. But, is it right to send her back to die?

Enter 'Charlie' Charles Dickens, with whose help Dodger quickly climbs up the social ladder, thanks to Ms. Burdett-Coutts and the right concatenation of events. It seems Dodger is favored by The Lady (of the Sewers) as well.

After a slightly tough start (for me, reading-wise), Pratchett's characteristic wit takes over and the story unfolds with the usual humor and twists that make it such a pleasure. The confusing contradictions of the Victorian England - women's place in society, the class distinction, the tenuous relationships between countries... all make for an interesting backdrop for the story.

Solomon, Dodger's mentor and landlord, is full of wisdom, dropping gems at the right moment, hinting at his exotic and checkered past just enough to preserve the air of mystery.

All's well that ends well. Boy gets the girl, villains are thwarted and justice prevails, sort of.

[image source: http://terrypratchett.co.uk/index.php/us/books/dodger]

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Friday, November 16, 2012

Sewing: Kids Fleece Tops


An easy and useful sewing project is to make fleece tops for kids, especially as the weather gets colder. I like the anti-pill soft fuzzy warm Polar fleece which I get on sale on and off. It is usually 60" Wide and so even half a yard is plenty for making one. I usually make a Size 5/6 which fits both the 4 yo and the 7 yo at home.

The fun part is to just add a small applique or detail to the front to personalize it, make it unique. I remember my daughter's favorites when she was about 3 or 4 - I was gung-ho about making a series of Nursery Rhymes themed appliques for her fleece tops.

Of course, the kids grow out of them before the fabric wears out so we've been able to pass the tops on to keep other kiddos warm. The Baa Baa Black Sheep applique one I had made about 5 years ago is still fine and is a great hand-me-down to the younger child. Of course, I 'extended' it a bit to fit the little guy with a band of blue fleece.



And, then, an elephant one, which is actually a Pajama Set.



One with race cars when race cars were the rage with Og

A green one, with a Cat, which was part of his Pine Tree Costume.


A grey one for the little girl, with a similar Cat.


And a very jolly Holiday one with a merry bird.




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