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Some of my favorite books by female authors

There are so many authors and readers in our Delft MaMa community that I felt inspired today to write about women writers. Books have always been one of my passions. At one stage growing up, I would finish my homework and then devour a book a night. These days, I do not have the luxury of finishing a book a day, but I generally manage to carve out some time from my busy schedule to read. Believing in the power of literature and being enamored of a wide range of authors, I, however, find it jarring to see how much the literary world still reflects biases in our society. Female authors are reviewed less often reviewed than their male counterparts, and fiction written by men or about men is more likely to receive literary awards. Furthermore, a large swath of popular novels by women are deemed less worthy of praise than more “serious” literature, generally written by men, as shown in this exchange.

With so many exciting and excellent female writers to choose from and with the summer holidays around the corner, I decided to make a short list of some of my favorite works of fiction from the last fifty years by female authors. Over the upcoming holiday, perhaps you can spend some of your well deserved rest and relaxation time discovering one of these gems. The list idea is inspired by the Guardian’s weekly Top Ten book series, which I also highly recommend.

I will start my list with a Arundhati Roy, an Indian author and activist, whose first work of fiction in twenty years will be published next week. Before you dive into her new book, The Ministry of Utmost Happiness, I would recommend taking the time to read her spellbinding The God of Small Things. Set in Southern India, this novel shows how a series of prejudices linked to class, gender, and religion combine to produce a tragic outcome. Its evocative, lyrical prose is made all the more vivid by the fact that the story is told through the eyes of two children, fraternal twins Esthappen and Rahel. This evocative book was the first Indian novel to win the Man Booker Prize, and I am sure it will linger in your mind long after you reach the last page.

Elena Ferrante’s engrossing Neapolitan Novels (My Brilliant Friend, The Story of a New Name, Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay, The Story of the Lost Child) follow Elena (Lenù) and Raffaella (Lila) from girlhood in a tough Neapolitan neighborhood through many twists and turns to arrive at old age. Ferrante masterfully paints a portrait of a friendship that is both a source of strength and anguish and examines the inner lives of her characters with lucid intelligence. Ferrante has never revealed her identity, considering her biography irrelevant to her fiction. Unfortunately, a journalist recently reported to have unmasked the “real” Elena Ferrante, an endeavor that many describe as sexist.

Angela Carter’s The Bloody Chamber and Other Stories offers a refreshing perspective on traditional European fairy tales and their underlying themes. Carter’s heroines are not helpless damsels in distress but strong, independent characters that define their own destinies. Her depictions bring to light the sensual dimensions underlying most of these traditional tales and her gorgeous, gothic prose is a joy to read.

Another collection of short stories that I would strongly recommend is Lorrie Moore’s Birds of America. These excellently crafted stories delve into the everyday of lives of people, most often women, to find deeper meaning. The prose is subtle and minimalist, especially if compared to that of Carter, but the stories manage to pack a true emotional punch. For example, the poignant “People Like That Are The Only People Here” brings the reader inside the painful reality of life for parents of a child diagnosed with cancer.

In the wake of Donald Trump’s election, Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale become a bestseller again. Atwood’s dystopian vision documents the life of Offred in Gilead, a theocratic military dictatorship that subjugates women. The story is a page-turner and a frightening prediction of where the dogma of limiting women’s rights and wilfully destroying the environment could lead. If you are interested to find out more about this prolific Canadian author, the New Yorker recently published an intriguing profile of Atwood.

Another page turner, but one based in the past rather than an imagined future, is Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall. Mantel plunges the reader into the intrigues of King Henry VIII’s Court and brilliantly portrays the ambitious Thomas Cromwell. Her prose is vivid, and the tale is thrilling enough that the reader never feels overwhelmed by the large cast of historical characters. Wolf Hall and its sequel Bring Up The Bodies both won the Man Booker prize. The third and final part of the trilogy, The Mirror and the Light, has yet to be released.

Penelope Fitzgerald only published her first book at the age of 58, but her late blossoming career left us with a remarkable body of work. One case in point is The Blue Flower, a short but elegant novel that immerses the reader in moments of the life of the 18th century German poet Novalis. Fitzgerald shares a multiplicity of sensations and meanings through a series of vignettes, but the tale retains an aura of mystery that will keep you searching for what the blue flower truly represents long after you have put the book down.

On the fence between journalism and fiction writing is the work of Svetlana Alexievich, the 2015 Nobel Prize in Fiction Winner. In Secondhand Time: The Last of the Soviets, Alexievich weaves together interview segments to show how the collapse of the Soviet Union impacted everyday citizens. Many qualify Alexievich’s work as oral history, but she prefers to call her literary technique, “a novel in voices.” No matter how you classify the book, it offers a remarkable and compassionate portrait of post-Soviet society.

I have read all of the extremely talented Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s works, and my favorite is her powerful account of the Nigerian Civil War, Half of a Yellow Sun. Rather than focus on battles or glory, Adichie offers a devastating assessment of the disappointment and violence wrought by this conflict. You may also be familiar with Adichie from her TED talk on why we should all be feminists.

The list would not be complete without a work by the brilliant 1993 Nobel Prize laureate, Toni Morrison. Beloved, a virtuosic novel in every sense, tells the tale of former slave Sethe and her process of “rememory.” It is even more tragic to note that the book is based on an actual case from the 1850s. For those interested in the topic of the value of work or how work relates identity, I also encourage you to read a short piece by Morrison from this week’s New Yorker.

Additional resources :

For the very ambitious, the New York City Library created a list of 365 Books by Women Authors to Celebrate International Women’s Day All Year.

Danielle Dutton recommends her top ten Top 10 Books About Wild Women.

Marta Baussels lists 10 Inspiring Female Authors that You Need to Read.

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First taste of mosaic making

American mosaic artist living in Delft, Nan Deardorff McClain, greets me by the door of the building where her atelier is located. Eight to ten women have RSVP’d to her mosaic workshop during this particularly different Delft MaMa night out. It has been raining throughout the day and she’s hoping people will show up despite the weather. As a matter of fact, when the weather is scruffy, there’s no better way to spend some time relaxing than creating something new, Nan points out.

Mosaic making
Nan Deardorff McClain introducing the basics of mosaic to first-time workshop mamas.

Altogether seven moms show up. The table is full of snacks and drinks generously provided by the attendees; asparagus wraps, deviled eggs, chocolate, grapes, strawberries, nuts and all sorts of wines. This is shaping up to be an especially good moms’ night out, I’ll say!

Mosaic Making

Nan introduces us to her workroom. It’s filled with different mosaics, big and small, finished and unfinished, glued and those waiting to be grouted. My eyes are drawn to a Delft Blue vase, but unfortunately those are out of the question for an outdoor mosaic. The tiles for outdoors are different: they are harder to work with and has no pours to prevent them from sucking up moisture and possible cracking when freezing.

The room next door is already set up for the workshop. The collection of different colored tiles is in small plastic containers. Nan says we can start with making mosaic flowers, because those are easy to utilize in multiple projects. Many moms whip out their phones to google flowers they want to trace on a piece of paper, but some moms simply work with the shape of tiles, letting them speak for the look of the flower.

The styles in the room are as versatile as the moms attending, but a few things they have undoubtedly in common: there is a lot of use of color, everyone seems to be staying true to their own point of view and they are all shaping up to look like real mosaics!

Mosaic making
Delft mamas getting creative during the mosaic making workshop

Two hours go swiftly by. We barely remember to drink and eat, which tells how much everyone has seemingly enjoyed creating something. “People need to create to feel accomplished”, says one of the mothers at the end of the class and everyone agrees.

I never knew I enjoyed arranging tiles to a particular shape until Tuesday when I tried it for the first time. The workshop was such a success that in the future Nan is planning to organize the remaining Delft MaMa mosaic workshops the same way. Personally, I cannot recommend it highly enough! Hope to see you there!

Mosaics
The result of a 2-hour mosaic making workshop.

The big piece of art Delft MaMa is planning to put up on a wall in the Achtertuin playground will need all levels of support to get finished. You can start by sharing information about this with your friends, roll up your sleeves yourself and take part – or you can show your support to us here, and below is a video of what the workshop looks like in real life 🙂

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Year Video - show your adventures to your family on new year's eve!

Personalized video compilation of the year – step-by-step instructions

Can you believe it’s Christmas this weekend? Again. Right?

All the Christmas preparations are coming together in our house, and that reminds me: we’ve a digital goodie that became a new tradition. A couple of years back the New Year’s Eve was a bit different from ‘just’ dressing up, decorating the house, eating the ‘usual’ salty Hungarian cookies, playing board games and drinking champagne.

What set it apart was that we would also watch a “year video”, to see what happened to us that year (nota bene: only that made it to be filmed). Now it’s a tradition, no way out of it. 😉

The year video was a huge success. We were all remembering stories, little details, fun adventures. Some things didn’t make into a small video during the year,  so they came to light now. Suddenly we had long conversations bloom with parents, children, siblings alike.

Living far away from one’s family has the effect that your lives develop in (unexpectedly) different directions. The little things in our daily lives go unmentioned, however strong our connections are through Skype and such. The video really helped to spark that connection again.

I got another surprise: grandparents wanted to watch the video again, although for me it felt long. And they wanted to do so right away! Wow, talk about a great audience! 🙂

I say long, because we are not used to watching anything longer than three minutes on the web (actually, most people spend 1:30 minutes, and click away) – unless it’s super-interesting or hilarious. I compare that kind of watching with watching home videos, because of their long history being generally torture to watch. That is: too much zooming, panning, too little action and too much waiting for that aforementioned little action.

The point is, the year video was more than 15 minutes, and it was a success nevertheless. I was a bit nervous about it, but I got shushed, when I tried to apologize for the length of it.

No one minded the 15 minutes length, because it was personal for everyone in the room.

And for those who were not in the room, for the other side of the family far-far away it was also a delight. They were too very happy to see how the kids were growing and what happened to the house in the time they could not see it for themselves.

Although I could scare you off with an (otherwise wonderful and super thorough) article at Videomaker… just have yourself a two-three hour window in the next couple of nights (I know I’m asking a lot from you!), ie. let someone else cook/shop/bake for a change.

Follow these tips to create a “year video”

  1. Sit down in peace and quiet. Choose – even randomly if you have too much – video files from your mobile or camera to use.
  2. Put them next to each other chronologically in an editing software (like PowerDirector by Cyberlink).
  3. Trim away the “waiting for action” parts, and be ruthless about it: the finished video will be longer than you think!
  4. You can always get fancy with titles, but generally a simple “January”, “February”, etc. will be enough to mark the months, no need to spend too much time on that
  5. Make sure you have a fade-in and fade-out for your clips (audio too), so it’s not too jarring to watch, on the other hand, if you…
  6. …put FUN songs “under” the video, you can get away with it. It’ll glue the clips together, and the peppy sounds will make everyone happy. Make sure you are not sharing socially if it’s copyrighted material. There is a whole hell loose because of that, but it’s a rant for another day, really.
  7. Don’t sweat it. It’s far better to be READY than be PERFECT – a decade late. Use the 20-80 rule: 20% of your action will give you 80% of the results you seek. You can always spend weeks on polishing something, but let’s face it: who has the time?! Yes, professionals, they do – they also have a price tag (just go ahead and ask me already 😉 !)
  8. Use the “fun” parts the most, and make sure close your video with that – like a bloopers reel, that can really leave your audience “high”, wanting more.
  9. The best is if you choose clips you really loved filming, and you want to remember. However, the little gems that are one-offs and don’t fit anywhere: they shine in a good video compilation.

This list is of course not going into details, you know I can’t hold your hands through the process. For that, check that Videomaker article, it is great. Still, give it a shot, it’s really not that hard. And if you feel like it’s overwhelming, just start early next year – you can’t go wrong with it. You’ll always wish you would have done it, so give it a go. Let me know in the comments how is the process going, and in the end how did the audience cheer!

 

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How to film your child(ren)’s birthday and have an after movie ready the same evening

Tips & Tricks

Here are some quick tips in case you have your child(ren)’s birthday coming up, and you’d like to have a small memory of it. Maybe you want to share it with family far away, or simply for yourself to remember. You can film with practically anything: a phone, a digital compact, a DSLR, the Red Epic – you name it, just be prepared to shoot to edit 😉

Don’t worry, with a smartphone you are ready in a ‘mum’ of time! (pun well intended!) Read more

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