Book recommendation – “Mhudi” by Solomon T. Plaatje

Today I wish to write about a book I read several years ago in its Italian translation: the novel “Mhudi”, written by the South African author Solomon Tshekisho Plaatje in 1919 (published in 1930). Plaatje was the first black South African to write a novel in English; he was a politician, activist, intellectual, translator (he spoke seven languages) and writer.

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The narrative is centered on the development of the Transvaal kingdom, seen by the eyes of Mhudi and Ra-Thaga, a Barolong couple displaced by the Matabele invaders. The courage and hope of Mhudi are the moving forces of the entire story, and her point of view was (and still is) a less well-known insight of tribal wars and South African folklore, deeply intertwined with colonial wars.

I remember reading this book in the spring sun on the banks of Adige river. Mountains around, alpine plants, Italian houses around me could not take me away from the parched plains and hot sun of South Africa. The flow of narration was so captivating that I read it in few takes, feeling enriched by the numerous historical references and the personal story of Mhudi and Ra-Thaga. It also remembered me my stay in South Africa, in Gauteng province, with some trips to northern Limpopo, where I took these pictures:

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I hope you enjoy the novel! Let me know your impressions in the comments.

Cooking… and the universe

Wednesday has become the regular appointment with my “From the kitchen” posts. Today I have no recipe to share, or better, no good pictures of the recipes I wish to share (we were too fast eating them!).

I thought of what I could post about gastronomy… and remembered a quote of a Greek film where the uncle of the main character tells him that the word “gastronomy” includes the word “astronomy”… he showed him a connection between cooking and stars… I found it so inspiring that after 20 years I still remember it.

So here is my astronomy post, with my recent sources of information about the immense, black, mysterious universe around us.

First, ESA’s Picture of the Week that features breathtaking images such this one of NGC 278 in the constellation of Cassiopeia:

Then I present you the project GalaxyZoo, an online citizen science project, that offers everyone a simple tool to help classifying the immense number of galaxies detected by the world’s most powerful telescopes. Citizen science is a way of including non-specialists into actual science projects. I dislike how science is commonly left to specialists, when anyone with just a little patience, curiosity and love for precision can produce high-quality data for further analysis. This has been demonstrated by the many phases of GalaxyZoo, which allowed many scientists to publish papers based on these galaxy classification datasets; and by bird-watchers in many countries, who accurately recorded presence data on extensive areas, an effort that scientists could not imagine to attempt through regular sampling expeditions. It remembers me strongly of the collective mapping of OpenStreetMap. Of course a single contributor makes mistakes, but the strength of this model is in the many eyes that cross-check contributions and improve the dataset every day. And as a former (or dormant?) scientist myself, I know that specialists are not immune to errors either – and that’s why they resort to peer review and collaboration. See the timeline of ceratopsian research – even only the pictures – to see how many attempts were made, how many times some data have been reinterpreted, how many hypoteses have been remodeled and thrashed to come to our present understanding of these dinosaurs. But I am stuffing too many topics in this post! I will expand them in future posts.

Until then, I wish you all a relaxing and cheerful festive season, wherever you are all around the world!

 

 

Drawing streak – eleventh week

Here is the result of one more drawing week:

Day 71 I was feeling tired, but overall good, so I opted for a relaxed, somewhat tired sun.

Day 73 I used watercolours to paint a Protoceratops skull. I still have to learn how to apply more layers of watercolour without diluting the underlying layers, but first, I have to learn to let them dry completely 🙂

Day 74 was hatching day and I drew a horse, with the direction of hatches following muscles and overall body shapes. The right part of the drawing is not so accurate, but  I lost patience at some point.

Day 75 I scribbled with a ballpoint pen, using my coat as subject. The result is not so impressive still.

Day 76 is a simple horse coloured with felt pens. To make it a bit challenging I tried an unusual perspective, and I am quite happy for it!

Day 77 is a sole fish. We ate a lot of fish that day, including very delicate and tasty soles.

Merry Christmas to you all!

Book recommendation: diaries from three Antarctic expeditions

This year’s winter is not yet a particularly cold one. For sure, never as cold as Antarctica!

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December in Antarctica (source: Wikimedia)

I wish to present you a triple review: the narratives of the expeditions of Sir Ernest Shackleton, Captain Robert Scott and Roald Amundsen, that all took place during the Heroic Age of Antarctic Expeditions.

I started by reading The Worst Journey in the World, the narrative of the Terra Nova expedition, written by the expedition member Apsley Cherry-Garrard. I have been moved by the way he presents the reader all their difficulties in that most unhospitable land, with the means they had available (the expedition had issues with funding, and landed in Antarctica before an especially harsh winter). Many times I couldn’t hope that they survive – especially in their journey to collect emperor penguin’s eggs, when in the midst of a storm they lose their tent – but in so many occasions they had to resort to emergency solutions, that it is a miracle that the most of them survived. Cherry-Garrard ends his book with a poignant critique to his country and the whole world, which take benefit from the discoveries of few, poorly supported heroes and martyrs.

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McMurdo Sound from Arrival Heights in Autumn. The sun is sinking below the Western Mountains.From a water-colour drawing by Dr. Edward A. Wilson. source: Project Gutenberg.

The next read was Amundsen’s The South Pole – An Account of the Norwegian Antarctic Expedition in the “Fram,” 1910 — 1912. A completely different atmosphere reigns all over the book. Despite the somewhat abrupt decision to sail for the South Pole instead of the North Pole, all is put in place to reach it, camps are efficiently organised and managed, expedition members endure the hardships with high spirits, with bread daily baked by the cook, and even a tiny sauna built during the winter! The trek to the Pole is comparatively uneventful, crowned by success while marked by the death of almost all sleigh-dogs.

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Amundsen’s journey (source: Wikipedia)

On the wave of curiosity I read Sir Ernest Shackleton’s South! The Story of Shackleton’s Last Expedition, 1914-1917. Another epic journey with dramatic episodes and heavy strain on the expedition members, and the almost unbelievable journey of their last small open boats in search for relief.

What I liked of these three books is the way they show me that these great deeds were done by people who were extraordinary for their motivation and endurance, but ordinary in the other aspects of life. Reading how they organised their meals, they fought against cold, they sometimes quarreled and were sad or afraid, makes me reconnect to them in a way that the dry summary of the significant steps of the expeditions would never achieve.

All three books are available on Project Gutenberg, some also as audio books. I hope you will enjoy these reads! Feel free to share your impressions in the comments.

From the kitchen: coconut sablés

For a friends’ party I challenged myself with a new biscuit recipe. It was risky for two reasons, first because it was a recipe untested by me, second because I am not so good at biscuit baking.

Nevertheless, full of optimism, I baked a batch of coconut biscuits following this recipe from La Tendresse en Cuisine [in French] and this is how they came out:

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They look nice and crumbly but they were way too dry. I believe that my difficulties come from my inability to understand if the intermediate steps are correctly done. Actually, the pâte sablée had a wonderfully crumbly texture. I wonder what I did wrong, or at least, not well enough.

Anyway, they are all gone! Let’s see how I do next 🙂

Drawing streak – tenth week

Tenth week already! This week I focused on textures and different pens.

On day 64 I drew a bread loaf with a ballpoint pen. I tried to render the crumbliness of the crust by a squiggly line instead of my usual hatches. I think it is a step forward, even if the overall shadowing is quite inconsistent and does not really make it look like a bread loaf.

Day 65 I drew water. I chose to copy the picture of a calm lake with my favourite black gel pen. I paid attention to the short lines made by the reflections in the distance, and tried to render the long lines of the gentle waves next to the shore. I am quite happy with the result, even if the lower part of the picture can be improved.

Day 66 was fur day! I found the picture of a longhair cat and tried to copy the long fur of its neck. I found it quite difficult, because the first impulse would be to draw the hairs themselves, but by doing so I would put a dark line where there is light; drawing the shadows of hair tufts is a much slower, more reflective, brainy job. If I could draw with a light pencil on a dark background, that would be much simpler and intuitive.

Day 67 is my attempt to draw a metallic object, namely a sauce boat (source: Wikipedia). The shadows and lights have very crisp edges and the pattern depends on the objects that are reflected on the surface. I don’t know if it looks good enough, first because I didn’t draw the whole object, second because the contrast in my drawing is not so strong (I could have made much darker areas).

Day 68 is a view of Bologna. I attempted to follow John Muir Law’s suggestion to use a broader, darker line for the foreground and a thinner line for the background, as well as stronger vs. lighter contrasts. It looks promising to me.

Day 69 I drew two does. They are next to each other, but don’t look in the same direction. I have since a long time the idea to draw something like this, to represent how two people can be close and still have the freedom to orient their attention where they want, not necessarily on the same things. I had this feeling with people I felt very close with. We could be in the same room and be busy with different activities, and still be connected.

Day 70 is the very early phase of an assignment that I got last Saturday for my Montessori diploma. We are now going through language materials, and one of them is a set of cards with an object and its name written below, and a corresponding set of cards with the same objects, but with the name written on a separate piece of paper. The task is to recognise the objects, read the name and match all names to the pictures. The cards with both object and name are used as control. Each of the course participants has to choose a category of objects for which he/she will produce a set of 15 cards. I chose dinosaurs, and this is my start.

See past weeks here:  week 1week 2week 3week 4week 5week 6week 7week 8week 9.

 

On acting, on roles

I had planned a book review for today, but either it is too long since I read the books I’d love to talk about, either I borrowed them and can not go through my bookmarks to find the excerpts I cherished the most.

So, let today’s post be a reflection on acting and on the roles you can build, or have to fit in, as a human being. I have been fascinated by how the actors of Sherlock have created such rich characters, full of little details and vibrant from emotions, but without identifying themselves in them (you can see how they appear outside of the stage, and even briefly when they pop out of their character’s role on stage. Intriguing). I wondered how it would feel to keep being a given character in real life, and concluded that it would not be possible – as much as a statue or a painting are not as alive as the subject they represent. The way in which these actors carefully build their own characters, line by line, gesture by gesture, is the most artificial way that I can imagine. No one could create his/her image for the public like this, without feeling the varying gap between the character’s personality and his/her own, and suffering from it. There would never be room for truly natural behaviour, as everything would have to be considered by the mind-director before being executed.

Still, I find that the acting process is able to generate extremely valuable insights in one’s own personality. A particular ease or difficulty in acting a line tells much on how one built him/herself during the years; and the stage offers a relatively safe place to test  changements, because it is not you, rather your character who is in the spotlight.

Let me conclude with my love for the backstage – for the basement where the statue stands – for the closeness of actors beyond their characters – for the privilege of knowing how a magic trick (let it be a play, a concert, a dance show, a cooking recipe!) comes to life – for the sweet, subtle pleasure to be among the magicians.

 

From the kitchen: baking with sourdough

Hello all, let me introduce you my experiments around sourdough in my weekly cooking post!

Two weeks ago I went shopping and the baking dry yeast was out of stock, so I decided to try a package of dry sourdough. I baked a bread with half of the package and put the rest in a big glass jar with some water and flour. As expected, it bubbled and grew and developed a nice sour, fruity flavour. (The bread was very good, but I will focus on the sourdough culture.)

This is how it looks today:

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I took this picture after adding a small amount of mature sourdough (around 20g) to a small glass of lukewarm water and an equivalent small glass of flour. I mixed them well, so that the mixture reached a fluid consistency. I read that such watery mixture is the one that is more ready to use, but also more prone to go bad; but as I monitor it every day, and bake once or twice a week, it is not a big risk.

Sourdough maintenance is an art, that however starts very simply. What I gleaned from the Internet and books (especially Das Brotbackbuch n.1) is that you need to periodically “refresh” the sourdough with new water and flour, i.e. food, otherwise the micro-organisms start developing unwanted acidic and alcoholig compounds, that are unsuitable for baking. What I do after four or five days is to take a small amount of the mature sourdough and put it in a new container, with fresh water and flour. With the rest of it I bake my bread. I find it a very convenient arrangement, because I obtain a good amount of sourdough for my baking necessities, while at the same time I reboot the culture every few days.

Baking with sourdough has been a wonderful discovery. The bread gets a fruity, slightly sour flavour that I really love, plus a lovely fine texture of bubbles in the crumb:

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and a crispy crust:

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I hope this inspires you to try baking with sourdough!

 

Drawing streak – ninth week

This week I really had trouble finding ideas for my daily doodles. Most ideas that came to my mind would take too long to be done properly, and would require a bigger paper size. Therefore I decided to explore textures and unfamiliar techniques.

Day 57 is the rendering of the forehead of a horse. You can guess the whirl of short hair in the middle, the darker hair at the sides and the curly forelock on the left. It is quickly done with only one pencil, so most contrast is missing and the result is not so clear.

Day 58 is an aquarelle mosaic, inspired by A Creative Pickle. I like how this technique enables to practice pencil control and colour mixing, without letting freshly coloured areas mix with each other. The result is therefore very clean and rewarding! (Well, it can be clean and rewarding 🙂 )

Day 59 is a drawing made with a single line with my favourite black gel pen. It represents the front legs of a wolf cub. I started with the outline of the leg on the left, did the fingers with claws, went up the leg, down the other, drew its fingers and claws, went up again, and decided to add some idea of shadows all around.

Day 60 is the visualisation of Montessori’s binomial cube, a sensorial material that let preschool children experience mathematical concepts in form of a puzzle.

Day 61 was just scribbling with all the pens I had in my house, after I read John Muir Law’s post about drawing with simple ballpoint pens. When you don’t have a pencil, or want to use all pages of your sketchbook without worrying that sketches will smear on each other, you can use a ballpoint pen that is capable of making lighter shades when you use less pressure. There are a few caveats but it’s totally worth giving it a try.

Day 62 is a comeback of the minotaur! This time, instead of making a lame selfie or lying hopelessly in a mini-labirinth, he is studying. I like thinking of this minotaur as the part of myself that feels sometimes trapped, sometimes active and enthusiastic, but always sort of unusual.

Day 63 is a long-due optional assignment for the NHI101x course. I tried to make a small preparatory study of a bird, that shows the main skeletal features. You have to know a bit of anatomy to guess where the wings are actually attached, because each species has a different amount of “arm” structure hidden in the muscles and feathers of the body.

See you next week for the tenth summary!

Drawing Sunday: step-by-step pencil drawing

Hello all! Today, for my Sunday’s art post, I wish to retrace the steps of the drawing of the leaping horse I prepared for the final assignment of Natural History Illustration 101 eCourse. I hope it encourages you to draw more!

So, first I chose a picture that I wanted to copy, and after a long search, I fell for this one and printed it out:

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English Thoroughbred, by buba_noi (Source: Flickr)

I have been drawing horses since a while, so I am already a bit familiar with their anatomy and proportions. Still, I worked on a preparatory study that shows the main inner structures (not really the bones, but straight lines that are a simplification of the bones):

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In the preparatory study I traced the main structure lines with a pink pencil, to let them stand out more, then I added more lines with a graphite pencil. While doing this study I realised that I made the belly and hind legs too small, so I erased them completely and re-drew them by measuring relative proportions with the other parts of the body that I already drew. The study helped me in the next stages of the drawing, by making me notice proportions, symetries and relations between the different parts of the body of the horse.

Then I took a new piece of paper, went to the window to use it as a tracing table (a transparent surface with a back light, that enables you to overlay two sheets of paper and trace on the top one by following the contours of the picture on the lower one). I have no picture of it, but it was simply the outline and a few more inner lines.

I moved back to my desk with the new sheet and used a 6B pencil to draw the basic tones:

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Sorry for the blurred picture, the camera didn’t get enough light to focus properly. I started with the head and right front leg, then proceeded from left to right (so that I didn’t smear the drawing with my hand). I chose to change how dark to make an area only by looking at neighbouring areas, so when I finished the drawing I noticed that the right hind leg was the darkest area, when on the picture it was not; maybe I should have regularly compared which areas of the whole picture had the same shade.

Then I proceeded with harder pencils (first 3B, then B) and made more definite, crisp, and dark shadows, with care not to cover the very light areas. Again I proceeded from left to right, but in addition I put a piece of paper below my hand, to avoid smearing. I had to catch up with the dark areas of the head, neck and front legs, while comparatively making less tonal adjustements on the back legs.

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The final touch was the rendering of the hair. This horse, and its breed, has very short hair that I could hardly represent in the picture, because I hadn’t any pencil sharp enough to create that texture. So I thought of using my mechanical pencil with HB mines of 0.5mm and made some hatches on the shadows. I refined the shadows of the mane and tail, but am not really happy with them:

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The important things that I learned while making this drawing are:

  • Make breaks when you feel that your concentration level is getting low. You can come back after a few hours or the day after.
  • Get a full mental image of the main tones, so that you have it as a reference when you make shades.
  • Allow yourself to draw a bit and to erase what you don’t like. This is the big advantage of pencils!
  • Make the preparatory study, so that you have the anatomy of your animal in mind, you can guess its three-dimensional shape and consequently lights and shadows. It is also an excellent time to get the outlines right, with as many attempts as you want, before copying them on a fresh sheet of paper.

I hope this explanation encourages you to try drawing your favourite animal! Do also browse the Internet for material and videos about drawing techniques. There are some amazing teachers out there!