Photos! How about some lovely photos?

Spring is here, which means flowers are here, which means I’m taking pictures. It also means that I’m moving pictures off my phone and finding all sorts of pictures I forgot were there. And so I post.

These are not cherry blossoms. But they’re beautiful.

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These aren’t cherry blossoms either. I’m pretty sure they’re plum blossoms.

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There’s a flock of green parrots that live in our neighborhood. They’re awesome. Here’s a bunch just hanging out.


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This is a very pretty butterfly/moth/winged creature.

 

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There was a display one day at the train station and the girls got to try on train conductor hats and dress up as the little mascot guy.

 

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Maybe he’s not so little.

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I had this for lunch one day. It was delicious. (Banana chocolate french toast.)

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Our train station in a dusting of snow.

 

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The girls being models. I love their model expressions.


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This is possibly my favorite graffiti in Tokyo.

 

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The house down the street where they film a TV show (we think) is being renovated. It’s strange without windows.

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A while back we went to a bunny cafe in Omotesando, and I can’t believe I didn’t post pictures before this. There were cages with bunnies that you could pet or feed, but not take out. Two bunnies could be out at a time, and the people who worked there were the ones who did that moving. The bunnies hopped around the little tables where you could sit and drink tea or hot chocolate, and you could buy cups of food to feed them.

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They may have been a tiny bit excited.

 

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This sign was from the cat cafe next door. It was not as welcoming to young ones, but their sign made me laugh.

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Hope

I’ve needed this quote 3 or 4 times in the last week and couldn’t remember from what book it came. So I’m putting it here for those times when I need it.

It is written not out of despair but out of hope, by which I mean not a simple giddy optimism but the belief that once you know what is right and what matters, you can get there with enough determination. What I have in mind is most likely captured by Vaclav Havel, who said “Hope is a state of mind, not of the world. Hope, in this deep and powerful sense, is not the same as joy that things are going well, or willingness to invest in enterprises that are obviously heading for success, but rather an ability to work for something because it is good.” -Azar Nafisi in The Republic of Imagination

Random thoughts

It is 9:20 pm. The girls are asleep. B is on his way home from aikido practice. I am in the living room. It is cold outside, and only slightly less cold inside.

I have this song stuck in my head, on constant repeat.

The dance is gorgeous. Seriously stunning. I’m getting a little sick of the song being stuck in my head.

As a birthday resolution I resolved to drink the recommended amount of water I’m supposed to drink every day. For me that’s about 120 oz. Some thoughts.

1. 120 oz is a heck of a lot of water.

2. I don’t think I’ve ever in my life drunk the recommended amount on a regular basis. It’s a wonder I’m still alive.

3. I usually don’t drink anywhere close to the recommended amount. Again, a wonder I’m alive.

D. How do people do this on a regular basis? Yesterday I literally felt like I was going to throw up, I was so full of water.

5. I have to pee constantly. It’s ridiculous. Is this whole drink lots of water thing really a toilet paper manufacturer conspiracy?

I’m currently reading a biography of Josephine Baker. It’s fascinating, but I feel like I’ve been reading it forever. I realize that I really only say that about biographies. Is it just that they encompass a whole life that it makes it seem like a lifetime that it takes to read one? I need to finish it because I have a book I have to read for book club next week. It’s All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr. Have you read it? I’ve heard really good things.

My parents are coming to visit in 2 weeks and I’m super excited. It’s the girls’ friends’ spring break this next week, and I’m totally being mean and making the girls do school so that we can take spring break when my parents are here. I’ve stored up two weeks of break that I had scheduled to take earlier and we’ll use them to go explore around with my parents. Not that we won’t explore on school days, but we can leave earlier in the day on vacation days. We have things to see in Tokyo, and then we’re going to explore Yokohama a bit, since we have been neglectful of that area and it’s really pretty cool.

I’ve been thinking about original art over the last couple of weeks, and I posed the question on facebook- what’s the most you would spend for original art. The answers were interesting, but one stood out- he said that if a high quality reproduction is available then he definitely wouldn’t spend the money on an original. It stands out because I’m completely opposite- if the original is available then I want that, not a copy. The exceptions are of course when the originals are $$$Texas, like David Mack collages. I want one of his so badly, but they are SO expensive. And rightly so. But still.

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I do have an original David Mack page from Kabuki: Circle of Blood, and it’s one of my prized possessions. I can’t wait until we’re in our own house and I can frame and put up all my art. It makes me happy to think about. I just realized that I’ve been collecting original art for almost 20 years. That’s a little insane.

Spring is beginning to make itself known around here, even though it’s still cold. Trees that were bare yesterday are sprouting leaves, and bright bursts of flowers are popping up in unexpected places. Once it’s full fledged spring, the colors will be everywhere, but now they’re just nice little surprises. We have lovely little daffodils in our back yard. We’re hoping that the cherry blossoms hold off just a skotch so they’re here when my parents are here.

I’m surprisingly delighted by the rumor that Katie Holmes and Jamie Foxx are dating. Surprisingly because I didn’t realize I really cared about either of them. I think of the two I care about him more.

www.gofugyourself.com, one of my favorite sites, is currently in the midst of Fug Madness- their version of March Madness- pitting the craziest/worst dressed/most sartorially challenged celebrities against each other in a battle to determine the Fug Champion. It is highly entertaining.

That’s all I’ve got. What’s going on with you?

 

Random thoughts:Or, Liveblogging my brain

Last night the weather prediction said that it was supposed to rain today around 11 am. When I woke up this morning, the sun was bright and the next door neighbor had her laundry hanging out, so I decided to risk it. (Pertinent facts: It’s supposed to rain for the next couple days, our dryer is not effective so we have to hang clothes out, B just came back from a week long trip so we have a decent amount of laundry to get done, and I trust my neighbor implicitly on all things laundry hanging related.) As it got closer to 11, the sky got darker and darker, and I began the game I like to call, How Long Can I Leave the Laundry Out? It is sister games with How Dry Will the Clothes Be? As it turns out, all but 1 pair of pants were dry by the time the rain started, so I think I win that round.

I’m planning our school curriculum for next year. It’s a bit early, but my parents will be visiting during April and May, which is when I would generally start working on it, and we’ll be traveling/busy/moving during the summer months and I want things all set and ready to go when the school year starts. That means preparation now. We’re continuing the artist and composer study that we’re doing this year, but without the guidance of a specific curriculum. I found that a lot of the activities that were provided with the composer curriculum that we’re working off of this year are just distracting to the girls and weren’t really serving a purpose. So I’m creating activities that will work better for them. We’ll be focusing on classical composers- Bach, Handel, Beethoven (“It’s under Beet oven in the index”), Mozart, Stravinsky, Tchaikovsky, someone else I can’t recall at this moment, George Gershwin, and John Williams. (I realize those last two aren’t classical.)  As I’ve been pulling out songs to use (I now have a very long playlist of 8 songs per artist) I have been so humbled as I listen to this gorgeous music. It’s just so very beautiful. And breathtaking to think that it came from someone’s mind. I really think that people who say they don’t like classical music either haven’t actually listened to any, or listened to the wrong stuff. Baroque stuff that’s heavy on the harpsichord I can see going a little sour on you. But how can this not make your heart sing at least a little?

For our artist study, we’re focusing on women and Black artists. This year we only had one woman artist in our study, and Tiny pointed out the inequity (be still my heart). I was going to do only women next year, but there aren’t nine women featured in the books we’re using as the spines of our study (to be accurate, there are, but we’ve done a couple of them already), so I figured we’d fill out the year with other non white male artists since we’ve already done lots of those.  I love that I have the freedom to impart values to the girls as they’re learning about things. They’re learning about art, yes, but they’re also learning that anyone can be an artist (and thus, THEY can be artists), and that it’s important to be purposeful and aware in our consuming of art. So we’ll be doing Mary Cassatt, Dorothea Lange, Faith Ringgold, Jacob Lawrence, Horace Pippin, Paul Klee (our token white male, but Tiny will LOVE his work), Frida Kahlo, and Grandma Moses.

We’re also continuing our Shakespeare study, which means I have to sit down and put it together. That’s the one that takes the most work, because I’m creating it all. But it’s fun to put together and the girls enjoy it, so it’s worth it.

While putting together the songs for music I was reminded of Josh Groban (I’m using his version of Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring along with a classical version). Somehow I’d forgotten he existed. Well, not that he existed, because I recently saw a thing about him and Kat Dennings dating, which DELIGHTS me to no end, because I adore her. Her rapport with Thor is far more entertaining than Natalie Portman’s. BUT ANYWAY. I’d forgotten that I really enjoy Josh Groban’s voice. So now I am listening to him. This song just came on and it’s my favorite.  (And I’d totally forgotten about the Corrs too! How does this happen?)

This is good, because I’ve been obsessively listening to Paloma Faith, and I’d gotten to the point where her songs were on constant repeat in my head, which gets a little old. But seriously, listen to this song, it’s SO good. The video has a parent advisory because there’s a skotch of a bare bum and a lot of rolling around on a bed. But it’s very pretty rolling around on a bed. I just realized that it also amuses me because she kind of looks like Billie Piper when she has the blonde hair.

Her pipes are just stunning- she can belt so cleanly.

I watched the 2008 version of Brideshead Revisited, finally. The book is in my top 5, so I had really high expectations. It suffers from the problem of many adaptations- there’s just too much to fit into a 2 hour movie, so a lot of the character development and plot get shorthanded. If you’ve read the book then you’re solid, but if you haven’t then I have to think it would be a bit perplexing. “Why in the world did he do that??” kind of moments. But visually- whoa nelly. It is breathtakingly gorgeous. The casting is perfection. I mean just look. So painful to watch two hours of these people, you know?

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Matthew Goode is Charles Ryder and plays his hopeful obsessive part to perfection. Hayley Atwell is Julia Flyte, and while this should not surprise me because she’s an actress and it’s her job, she plays her so drastically different than her brilliant portrayal of Peggy Carter in Agent Carter. Her Julia is fragile and struggling with her faith and her obligations and she’s just so so good. And Ben Whishaw. Oh my giddy aunt. He plays Sebastian Flyte, who is easily one of my very favorite characters ever, and he SLAYS him. The bravado covering deep insecurity, the fear, the faith, the terror of being a disappointment, the flaws, oh goodness. He’s just so good.

The story, if you don’t know it, is pretty straightforward. It’s set in that magic time period in England between the wars. Charles comes from a modest family and goes to Oxford. He meets Sebastian (who is riiiiiiiiiiiiich and whose family lives in the Brideshead manor of the title) and they tumble headlong into that combination of friendship and love that seemed to happen at men’s colleges a lot. Sebastian doesn’t want Charles to meet his family, wanting to keep him for himself, which turns out to be a good plan, because as soon as he meets Julia (Sebastian’s sister) he is smitten, and when he meets his mother she tries to conscript him into influencing Sebastian the way she wants. Lady Marchmain (played briliantly by Emma Thompson) is staunchly Catholic, worrying more about her children’s eternal happiness than their happiness in this life. That Catholicism runs up against Charles’ atheism and her children’s doubts. Charles makes some hurtful decisions in the direction of Julia, Sebastian makes some hurtful decisions in response, and it’s all more complicated and complex than the movie can sustain, but they do their darndest. Lady Marchmain’s cry of “I just want to see my children safe, and all they do is hate me!” is so heartbreaking.

I read the other day that the most effective scenes are those in which everyone is right (I want you to know that when I read that, I thought, “I should copy this because I’m going to want it at some future point”. But I didn’t. So just now I tried to go through all of the websites I would have looked, in order to find it. And I thought, “if only there was some way to go back and look at the history of all the websites I’ve looked at. Oh wait.” And I just went through my browser history to find it. You’re welcome.) It was Beau Willimon about House of Cards, a show I don’t watch. But he said,

David Fincher told me this maxim and it’s so true and one of the best writing lessons I’ve ever learned: In a great scene everyone is right. And I think they’re both right in that scene. When both people are right, but not right to each other, then you have conflict.

And that’s at the crux of the story of Brideshead Revisited, everyone thinks that they’re right. It’s such a compelling story, and you should read the book and watch the movie because they’re both glorious.

I’ve been struggling with reading lately, I think I’ve started 6 different books and not finished them. It’s gotten to the point that I’m not starting books that I really want to read because I know I’m in the wrong mood for them. I’ve been reading the new Catherynne Valente book for 3 days, which should tell you something, because I inhale those things in hours. (The book, The Boy Who Lost Fairyland, is lovely, the problem is totally me.) I need to get over this because I just got new books early for my birthday, and there is a new Gail Carriger book coming out soon (Prudence (The Custard Protocol) ). My continued existence on this Earth depends upon me reading it as soon as it comes out.

I play a little game when I read the synopsis for books (or movies) that consists of seeing how many words into the blurb I get before I am definitively in or out. Gail Carriger’s books are always within the first sentence of the blurb. My friend was telling me about a book the other day and said, “I’m just giving you two words. Clones and opium.” and I was in. Sometimes it takes more than that- for example, the book  Our Ecstatic Days by Steve Erickson. The synopsis is this:

Our Ecstatic Days begins as the memoir of a young mother desperate to forget a single act, committed out of love and fear, that has changed forever the world around her. In the waning days of summer, a lake appears, almost overnight, in the middle of Los Angeles. In an instant of either madness or revelation, convinced that the lake means to take her small son from her, Kristin becomes determined to stop it. Three thousand miles away, on the eve of a momentous event, another young woman — with a bond to Kristin that she can’t even know — meets a mysterious figure who announces in the dark, “The Age of Chaos is here.”

Are you in, or out? I’m in, at “convinced that the lake means to take her small son”. The lake appearing is good, but her take on it is what makes it interesting. But then you have something like Aurorarama:

New Venice–the “pearl of the Arctic”–is a place of ice palaces and pneumatic tubes, of beautifully ornate sled-gondolas and elegant Victorian garb, of long nights and short days and endless vistas of crystalline ice. But as the city prepares for spring, it feels more like qarrtsiluni– “the time when something is about to explode in the dark.”  Meanwhile, a mysterious and ominous black airship hovers over the city like a supernatural threat–is New Venice about to come under assault, or is it another government ploy?

And I’m close at “the pearl of the Arctic” and fully in at “ice palaces and pneumatic tubes”. Sometimes that’s all it takes.

Or The Rabbit Back Literature Society:

Only nine people have ever been chosen by renowned children’s author Laura White to join the Rabbit Back Literature Society, an elite group of writers in the small town of Rabbit Back. Now a tenth member has been selected: a young literature teacher named Ella.  Soon Ella discovers that the Society is not what it seems. What is its mysterious ritual known as “The Game”? What explains the strange disappearance that occurs at Laura White’s winter party? Why are the words inside books starting to rearrange themselves? Was there once another tenth member, before her? Slowly, as Ella explores the Society and its history, disturbing secrets that had been buried for years start to come to light. . . .  In Pasi Ilmari Jääskeläinen’s chilling, darkly funny novel, The Rabbit Back Literature Society, praised as “Twin Peaks meets the Brothers Grimm” (The Telegraph), the uncanny brushes up against the everyday in the most beguiling and unexpected of ways.

I’m in solidly at “the Game”, and the rearranging words, secrets and comparison to Twin Peaks are just icing on the cake.

Conversely, it’s similarly innocuous things that put me “out”. For example:

Back in the run-and-gun days of the mid-1990s, when a young Billy Graves worked in the South Bronx as part of an aggressive anti-crime unit known as the Wild Geese, he made headlines by accidentally shooting a ten-year-old boy while struggling with an angel-dusted berserker on a crowded street.

“Aggressive anti-crime unit” did it for me. Not interested.

Or:

On a searing August day, Melisandre Harris Dawes committed the unthinkable: she left her two-month-old daughter locked in a car while she sat nearby on the shores of the Patapsco River. Melisandre was found not guilty by reason of criminal insanity, although there was much skepticism about her mental state. Freed, she left the country, her husband, and her two surviving children, determined to start over.

Yeah, no. Out at locking the kid in the car, further out at starting life over.

U., a “corporate anthropologist,” is tasked with writing the Great Report, an all-encompassing ethnographic document that would sum up our era. Yet at every turn, he feels himself overwhelmed by the ubiquity of data, lost in buffer zones, wandering through crowds of apparitions, willing them to coalesce into symbols that can be translated into some kind of account that makes sense. As he begins to wonder if the Great Report might remain a shapeless, oozing plasma, his senses are startled awake by a dream of an apocalyptic cityscape.

Out at “corporate anthropologist”.

Those were all from books Amazon recommended for me based on previous purchases, so it’s not like I couldn’t possibly like them- that’s what makes it interesting to me. Just the question of what draws people in and what doesn’t.

Speaking of what draws me in, I’m super excited about the new Sherlock Holmes movie with Ian McKellen as an older Holmes. It looks so good.

I’m going to go work on curriculum. What’s going on with you?

Books I read this week: Feb. week 3 and 4

These are the books I read over the last two weeks.

Girl on a Wire by Gwenda Bond is an intriguing little book. Jules Maroni is a high wire artist in a family of circus folk, and when an opportunity presents itself to take part in a prestigious new circus, she drags her strangely unwilling family into it. It turns out that another family, the Flying Garcias, are also part of the circus, and there is a long running feud between the two families. Strange, possibly magical things start happening and putting people’s lives in danger, and Jules and Remy Garcia have to figure out what’s going on before it’s too late. It’s clever and charming, but some pieces are a bit too on the nose- the main characters are from feuding families and are named Juliette and Romeo? But the parts about growing up in the circus are interesting, and the magic elements are well done.

Everything could end at any moment. The difference between life and death was one breath, one second, one act. And that meant that life was worth everything, every minute of every day.

Reading Lolita in Tehran is one of my absolutely favorite books of all time. So I was very excited to see a new book by Azar Nafisi, The Republic of Imagination: America in Three Books. In it, Nafisi takes a look at American literature, and how it expresses the American spirit. She also considers how we are tied to other readers all over the world through the process of reading and love of literature- as though we all live in the Republic of the Imagination. Both of these ideas were of special interest to me, having read The Fall of Language in the Age of English not that long ago. Nafisi looks at three novels- The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Babbitt, and The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, and intersperses memories of her own throughout her analysis. I can’t possibly detail everything she covers, as she starts in one place and takes you, conversation like, through a hundred different ideas before you get to the end – just like in Reading Lolita in Tehran. So much of this book is highlighted. All I can say is that I highly recommend it.

The way we view fiction is a reflection of how we define ourselves as a nation. Works of the imagination are canaries in the coal mine, the measure by which we can evaluate the health of the rest of society.

I came to see my passion for books and reading as intimately connected to my life as a citizen, as a teacher, as a writer, and felt I had a responsibility to articulate and share it in a public manner.

What these societies lack- what citizens in Iran and China go to jail and are tortured for, what tyrants are afraid of when they talk about Western democracies- is not technology or scientific prowess but a culture of democracy, a culture that understands and respects freedom of expression, of ideas, of imagination.

Doing Psychoanalysis in Tehran by Gohar Homayounpour was not what I wanted it to be. The premise of the book, at least in the synopsis, was that it would be a look at whether psychoanalysis is possible in Iran, given the deeply embedded cultural beliefs. What it is is a memoir of the author returning to Tehran and attempting to set up a practice, and her own culture shock and difficulties with patients. She raises fascinating questions that she then completely sidesteps and never answers. For example:

Greek mythology seems to be populated with myths about killing fathers, while it is impossible to escape the pattern of killing sons all over Iranian mythology.

This- this is interesting. And she talks about it for one page before going on to something else. There just wasn’t enough meat here for me.

The formatting on the Kindle version is also wonky, so that for a lot of the book, the indenting was wrong, and the margins kept getting smaller and smaller in a strange claustrophobic way.

The Book of Heaven: A Novel by Patricia Storace is fascinating. It reminds me of The Red Tent, in that it’s alternate tellings of some well known stories, but the tone is different. The premise is that Eve is being shown various constellations before she goes to the Garden, so that she can learn from the women behind the constellations. There are four stories, and two of them are based on Biblical stories (I won’t say which because part of the fun is the moment of realizing which story you’re in) and the fourth pulls in a couple of others. The stories are beautiful and sad, honest about the mistreatment of women through so much of history and the strength that they showed despite their treatment. Parts are difficult to read because the injustices are so great, but it’s important stuff to read and to think about. One of the best parts of the book is the “proverbs” at the end of each story.

Every man has prayed at some time in his life to a false God.

A blessing given at another’s expense is not from God.

One sees in God only what one worships.

Like Zeus, men pretend women are cows so that they can pretend to be gods.  Contempt for women is the expression of men’s secret scorn for God.

Rape is a kind of physics, steadily obeying laws of action and reaction. The rapist suffers from his own violence. His only relief is to transmit it to the object he is determined to harm as well as have; when he has replaced love in her with terror, and the lust to kill, he is satisfied. He has then raped in self-defense.

The Center Cannot Hold: My Journey Through Madness by Elyn R. Saks is incredible. Inspiring, harrowing, so so so good. Saks graduated at the top of her class at Oxford, got a law degree from Yale, became a tenured law professor at USC, won numerous academic accolades and awards, has written numerous books, and did it all while suffering from paranoid schizophrenia. That she’s brilliant is obvious- anyone who could take graduate classes as a freshman, maintain stellar grades, and routinely write the best papers her professors had read (her masters thesis report said that while the extent of the thesis was appropriate to a masters, the quality was equal to that of a doctorate), all while hiding the terrifying and destructive thoughts and hallucinations in her mind has to be. She details her thoughts while cogent and while psychotic, and her experiences being committed and treated in mental hospitals in England and the US. It’s sad (I just kept wanting to hug her) and utterly fascinating.

The part that I found the most interesting is that it wasn’t until years and years and years of treatment and medication and relapses that she actually realized that her brain worked differently than other people’s. She truly believed that everyone heard voices and was being controlled by an outside force and could kill people with their minds and saw hallucinations, they just hid it better than she did.  She truly felt that if she could just control her behavior better, she would be normal like everyone else. It wasn’t until a new anti-psychotic was created and she tried it that her brain worked “properly” and she realized that most of the world wasn’t constantly holding back a constant stream of psychosis.

This view into someone else’s mind is invaluable, I think. To get a glimpse of a thought process so different, and still so human. And her descriptions of her treatment are vital- she was rushed to the ER with what turned out to be a brain hemorrhage and was sent home as soon as the intake doctors saw her schizophrenia diagnosis because “she’s just having another episode”. A lot of the disgraceful treatment she was given happened in the 1970s, so I hope that things are better now, but remembering back to All My Puny Sorrows, which was based on the author’s actual experience, I wonder if it is. So often she talks about procedures being done or drugs being administered that are clearly for the convenience of the doctors and nurses, and I wonder how difficult and hopeless it must feel to be a psychiatric doctor.

So many questions, so many thoughts, so many things to think about. Such a good book. I highly, highly recommend it, with the warning that it’s intense reading, but so worth it.

“Yes.” I was desperate. I held my own life in my hands, and it was suddenly too heavy to be left there.

When you’re really crazy, respect is like a lifeline someone’s throwing you. Catch this and maybe you won’t drown.

This is a classic bind for psychiatric patients. They’re struggling with thoughts of wanting to hurt themselves or others, and at the same time, they desperately need the help of those they’re threatening to harm. The conundrum: Say what’s on your mind and there’ll be consequences; struggle to keep the delusions to yourself, and it’s likely you won’t get the help you need.

When you have cancer, people send flowers; when you lose your mind, they don’t.

Books I read this week: February week 2

Mrs. Woolf and the Servants: An Intimate History of Domestic Life in Bloomsbury by Alison Light is utterly fascinating. It’s a biography of the women (and a few of the men, but the focus is on the women) who worked (and in most cases, lived) in Virginia Woolf’s home as her servants.  The details are specific to these women, but their stories shine a light on the larger practice of having servants and the questions and problems that raised. It gives such a clear vision of that time period, and I really learned a lot. The focus on Virginia Woolf’s servants is especially interesting, given her feminism – it’s telling how ingrained some of her cultural beliefs were and how they competed with her intellectual beliefs.  The book covers all of Woolf’s life, so it shows the change in perception of service from the 1880s when service was really the only choice for lower class girls through the World wars when women moved out of service and into other professions.  It talks about various positive and negative social implications of service- orphans taught skills and the ability to earn a living, mistrust of people from a lower class, abuse by employers. It is jam packed with so much information, and I really really enjoyed it.

Those who lived in Bloomsbury felt hampered and irritated by servants, but they could not imagine a life without that division of labor which made housekeeping a female activity, and housework performed, where possible, by women in the lower classes.

Everyone, including Virginia, saw her madness as a sign of her specialness; her friends openly referred to it as a mark of her genius. … Servants’ illnesses were the product of unreason, self-induced or just plain malingering.

The Murder at the Vicarage  by Agatha Christie contains the first appearance of Miss Marple, and somehow I’d never read it before. It’s a typical set up, an aggravating man frustrates a bunch of different people who all threaten to kill him, and then he’s murdered. There are the standard appearances of anonymous notes, snoopy old ladies, clocks broken at the time of death, but they’re all excellently deployed. It’s a great mystery with some nice twists and red herrings.

I just read I Am Having So Much Fun Here Without You by Courtney Maum today, and I had a similar experience to my experience with All My Puny Sorrows. I’d read that it was about an English artist who has an affair and then tries to win his wife back, and I figured it would be a witty little rom-com type story. However, it’s a gutting look at infidelity and its effect on a marriage. Richard is married to Anne-Laure, a gorgeous French lawyer. They have a beautiful little daughter and a lovely life, but Richard finds himself bored and drawn to the excitement of an affair with an American named Lisa. They have a seven month affair and then she announces that she’s breaking up with him to get married to someone else. His ensuing depression tips Anne-Laure off to the affair. At the same time, Richard has sold a painting that he originally painted for Anne-Laure, and it comes to symbolize what has been lost between them. As he travels from Paris to England (to deliver the painting) and back and forth again a few times, he realizes that he still deeply loves Anne-Laure and that he wants to reignite the love between them. At this point in the rom-com, there would be a montage of them going on dates and him sending her silly notes and winning her back over a matter of weeks that take the time of a 2 minute pop song in the movie. But in the book he comes to realize the deep damage he has caused, and it’s messy and painful. There are multiple points where you want to just slap him upside the head, but Maum really captures the sense of “oh crap, I’ve screwed everything up so badly and how do I fix my life” that is so easily skimmed over in movies. I’m not going to say more, but it’s a thought provoking look at marriage and love and not taking people for granted. There are a few fairly graphic sex scenes, just fyi, but they didn’t feel necessarily gratuitous because you’re in Richard’s head and it’s what he’s remembering.

Anne and I have been married over seven years now and I’ve cheated on her once. Depending how you look at it, this is either a very impressive or a highly repellent ratio.

Over dinner, I watched their gentle ministrations in a state of disbelief. I’d always seen their kindness toward each other as proof that they hadn’t traveled far enough or often enough, that they had uncomplicated brains. But now, as I watched my mother trim off a choice piece of fat from a lamb hunk for my father, when he transferred some of his potatoes to her plate when she ran out, when he got up, unasked, to fill our glasses with more water, all I saw was love.

What are you reading?

Chinatown in Motomachi Chukagai

Let me begin with a story. We take the Tokyo Toyoko train line to get to the area we live in. At the very end of the line, the train has the possibility of switching to another line and going further. If that’s the case, that final end point is announced on the train. Motomachi Chukagai is one of the possible end points for our train line, and so we hear it quite often. It’s a lot of fun to say, and when we very first got here the girls would repeat it all the time, but they wouldn’t remember how to say it properly, so they’d call it Madonch Dukanai. That phrase has become a bit of a family joke, and is sometimes a place, sometimes a person.

All that to say, we finally went to Madonch Dukanai Motomachi Chukagai today. There’s a decent sized Chinatown there, and that was our destination. It was fantastic.

I love these balconies so much.

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And this police station.

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Dragons.

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Food.

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Cool buildings.

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Teensy little guard lions. I wanted to steal them, I really did.

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I love this dragon so much.

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No idea what this panda is saying, but I hope it’s a good cause. (There’s tons of panda stuff, and Tiny was in heaven.)

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Panda shirt.

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Flying Panda!

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So colorful and pretty.

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A Hawaiian store in the middle of it all.

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Again, no idea what this panda is yelling.

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A whole bunch of dead ducks.

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Santa!

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Little recycling dog says, “NO!”

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The girls found panda Kitty.

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And a panda store with a very dramatic entrance and a very disappointing interior.

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A Chinese temple.

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This is possibly my favorite picture I’ve ever taken.

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These tiles were set into the sidewalk, and I love them so much. I want them in my house.

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Crazy awesome train station.

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Books I read this week: February week 1

I went on a bit of an Agatha Christie binge this week, and that set me on a roll for the rest of the week.

Cards on the Table: Hercule Poirot Investigates  begins with a dinner party that consists of the host, four people he believes have gotten away with murder at some time in their past, and four detectives. By the end of the party the host is dead, and the detectives are left to figure out who committed the crime. As Dame Agatha herself explains in the introduction, it’s all about psychology, and it’s a good one.

Endless Night  is not a typical Agatha Christie. It’s set up as far more of a thriller than a mystery- you know that something horrible is going to happen and are just waiting for it to explode. That being said, because of a stylistic choice, I figured out who ultimately did it based on reading the very first page. I didn’t think I was right, but ended up being highly amused, because in Cards on the Table, Poirot points out to one of the characters who is a mystery writer (and a thinly veiled caricature of Christie herself) that two of her books have the same plot, and she is delighted that he noticed, because “no one does”. Well, this one shares a major stylistic element with another Christie, and the plot of yet another.  However, it’s still quite excellent; atmospheric and anxiety making.

The Man in the Brown Suit is another non-typical Christie. A young woman stumbles into a mystery and becomes determined to solve it. As she is conveniently unencumbered by family (her father has just died), she takes the last of her money and follows a lead onto a ship headed for South Africa. There are spies and diamonds and drama, and it’s  lovely.

I put off reading Palimpsest by Catherynne M. Valente because my brother read it and hated it. But I love Valente, so it was only a matter of time. I can completely see why he disliked it so much, but I think it’s a lovely part of her canon. The base of the story is that there is a world separate from ours that can only be reached by having sex with someone who has already been there. Once that happens, you visit the city of Palimpsest in your dream. When you wake up, you come back to the real world with a tattoo of a map of part of the city somewhere on your body. To return, you have to have sex with someone else who has been there, and when you dream you will arrive in the part of the city that appears in their tattoo. The city is magical and addicting, which leads to those who want to return making sometimes morally questionable choices in order to get back. The book follows four visitors in particular, who all arrived in Palimpsest at the same time, and are therefore connected. Each has their reasons for wanting to return, and Palimpsest itself has its reasons for wanting them to return.

The sex in the book will definitely be a deterrent for some, which I totally understand. However, having read more of Valente’s work, I think I see what she was doing. She wasn’t just writing a smutty story. (The sex in it isn’t actually very smutty at all, most of it’s just pretty matter of fact.) This is an adult fairy story, and as she establishes in her other books, getting to fairy land takes a sacrifice and costs something. The visitors to Palimpsest are changed, not just because of what they experience there, but because of what they have to do to get there. Some visitors choose to never go back. Some are mortified by what they have to do for their addiction. Some embrace it. And I think that’s also what Valente is doing- looking at addiction and what it does to people.  As one of the residents of Palimpsest states, life in Palimpsest is just life for the people who live there, yet visitors there come to hold it as more precious as their real lives.  Their waking lives are less colorful, harder to live having visited Palimpsest, and they neglect responsibilities and people in their real life for their experience in a dreaming world. I think it could be argued that there is a metaphor here for literature- for the books that we dive into to live a life not our own, but I need to think about that some more.

I would recommend this book on a case by case basis- those looking for another The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland will not find it here, though that particular book does make a thrilling appearance in this one. It does, however, fit beautifully into Valente’s library; her foundation in myth and fairy stories is as solid as ever, and the language is as gorgeous as I have come to expect. She truly is one of my very favorite authors.

‘My mother told me once,’ said Sei softly, to Yumiko’s back, ‘when I was little, she told me that dreams are small tigers that live behind your ears, and they wait until you’re sleeping to leap out and tear at your soul, to eat it up at very civilized suppers to which no other cats are invited.’  Yumiko quirked an eyebrow. ‘Was your mother, if it’s not impolite, totally crazy? I mean, that’s not really a working theory of the subconscious.’

If one has the power, he thought, to make ghosts bleed, one must be careful with it, so careful.

Do you know what a thirteen-year-old girl can do when she is alone and frightened and believes she is right?

 

All My Puny Sorrows by Miriam Toews is devastating. I’ll just state that straight out. I read the synopsis, that it’s about a young woman and her brilliant sister who is suicidal, and thought I knew what I was getting myself into, but no, I didn’t. Not at all. I think I thought it would be a smart, witty story where they take some kind of road trip or something and the sister comes around to the joy of living. Yeah, no. This is the based firmly in reality story of a woman whose beloved sister is acutely depressed and set on ending her life. There are suicide attempts, psych wards, medications, questions. There are family members whose lives are uprooted and hearts that are broken. There are nurses who care and doctors who seem not to. There is history and genetics that have contributed to the present, and a future that no one wants to imagine with a big gaping hole in it.

This book is so so so good, and so so so sad. It raises a lot of really important questions, and it’s made even sadder by the knowledge that Toews wrote this book based on her own experience with her own sister. I think most people have opinions about suicide, and I think this book will make anyone rethink those opinions.  I cannot recommend it highly enough, but go in knowing that it’s going to tear your guts out.

It was the first time that we had sort of articulated our major problem. She wanted to die and I wanted her to live and we were enemies who loved each other.

When my sister was born my father planted a Russian olive shrub in the backyard. When I was born he planted a mountain ash. When we were kids Elf explained to me that the Russian olive was a tough shrub with four-inch thorns that managed to thrive in places where everything else died. She told me that the mountain ash was called a rowan in Europe and that it was used to ward off witches. So, she said. We’re protected from everything. Well, I said, you mean witches. We’re only protected from witches.

Did Elf have a terminal illness? Was she cursed genetically from day one to want to die? Was every seemingly happy moment from her past, every smile, every song, every heartfelt hug and laugh and exuberant fist-pump and triumph, just a temporary detour from her innate longing for release and oblivion?

The accordion is the best instrument for mournful occasions because it is melancholy and beautiful and cumbersome and ridiculous at the same time.

Dept. of Speculation by Jenny Offill was on every single Best of 2014 book list I saw. I was so set to be blown away by this book. I really think I just had my expectations set too high, because while it was good, it wasn’t amazing. Maybe it suffered from coming right after All My Puny Sorrows.

It’s the story of a marriage and a family- an unnamed husband and wife and child, who live in New York. It’s told in snippets that skip forward through time, which is an approach that works well a lot of the time and other times left me feeling like I’d somehow missed a page.  (I spent literally five minutes going back and forth through about 10 pages, trying to make something make sense.) Their lives move forward until there’s a breaking point, and life continues past it. It’s a straight forward story, and all of the raving reviews I read pointed to the deep insights provided by casting a light on the minutiae of daily life, which I just didn’t experience the same way.  There also was a lot of attention paid to the first quote I put below, about being an art monster, but I didn’t feel like that idea was explored enough.

My plan was never to get married. I was going to be an art monster instead. Women almost never become art monsters because art monsters only concern themselves with art, never mundane things. Nabokov didn’t even fold his own umbrella. Vera licked his stamps for him.

‘You are not allowed to compare your imagined accomplishments to our actual ones,’ someone says after the boy who is pure in heart leaves.

Currently I’m in the middle of Mrs. Woolf and the Servants: An Intimate History of Domestic Life, which is FASCINATING. A biography of Virginia Woolf’s servants set firmly in the context of the time period, with analysis of her perception of them and how they influenced her life and ability to write (since she then didn’t have to worry about things like cooking, etc.). It’s SO good. I will write in more detail once I’ve finished it, and then I will send myself off on a trip down a rabbit hole about Vanessa Bell, Virginia’s sister, who, fitting with my previous reading, had to figure out how to live with a sister who wanted to die.

What are you reading?

Books I read this week: January

These are the books I read in January. It always takes me longer to read non-fiction than fiction, so I spent a long time on not so many books this month.

Small Victories: Spotting Improbable Moments of Grace by Anne Lamott is a collection of remembrances of moments of grace. It’s a quieter book than I was expecting, but good. There’s a lot in here about recognizing grace even when answers to prayers aren’t what we want, which connects to an ongoing conversation I have with a dear friend, so that was nice. There are a plethora of aha! passages in this one.

Sometimes we let them resist finding any meaning or solace in anything involving their daughter’s diagnosis, and this was one of the hardest things to do- to stop trying to make things come out better than they were.

People like to say, “Forgiveness begins with forgiving yourself.” Well, that’s nice. Thank you for sharing.

I don’t think much surprises Him [God]. This is how we make important changes- barely, poorly, slowly. And still, He raises His fist in triumph.

Foxglove Summer: A Rivers of London Novel  by Ben Aaronovitch is the lone fiction book this month, and the one I read in a day versus a week and a half or more. It’s the fifth in the Rivers of London series, which is set in a London where magic exists but only a certain section of the population is aware of it. In this one, two young girls have gone missing and D.C. Grant is helping in the investigation. He’s out in the country, away from London, so most of the supporting characters from the previous books are absent in this one, which is a shame because I like them. But the mystery at the core of the book is interesting, and well written as I’ve come to expect. There are more modern day references in this one, which isn’t bad or good, I just noticed. Aaronovitch is doing a great job of widening the world he’s created, and I’m enjoying watching him do it. I just hope the next book moves some of the overriding story points along a little faster.

The Fall of Language in the Age of English by Minae Mizumura is an incredible book. There’s no way I can do it justice here. In it, Mizumura (whose novel, A True Novel, was one of my favorite reads last year) takes an in depth look at the effect that the globalization of the English language is having on literatures around the world. Along the way she looks at the history of the Japanese language (written and spoken), the process of any spoken language becoming a written language, the history of the English language becoming a universal language,  the privilege that comes with a universal language, and the history of Japanese literature.  It’s heavy and thought provoking and utterly fascinating. I think anything that opens our eyes to privilege is useful, and I find this book especially interesting because it was originally written for a Japanese audience- so not for the recipients of privilege in this case.

One of her points is that because English has become a universal language (meaning that many non-native speakers have learned it and speak it as a second language), there is an uneven relationship because non-native speakers can read literature written in English, but books in other languages have to be translated into English to become books that can be read outside their own country.

Another thing she points out is specific to Japan- as the written language has changed over time, classic books have become unreadable because people literally do not know the kanji that make them up. It’s similar to the difficulty people have reading old English (think The Canterbury Tales), except that with Old English you can sound it out. If you don’t know a particular kanji, you have to look it up, or you’re just out of luck.

Anyway, there’s way too much in here to sum up here, but it’s an incredible book and I really highly recommend it.

Reality is constructed by languages, and the existence of a variety of languages means the existence of a variety of realities, a variety of truths. Understanding the multifaceted nature of truth does not necessarily make people happy, but it makes them humble, and mature, and wise.

They are not condemned to know, for instance, that the works that are usually translated into English are those that are both thematically and linguistically the easiest to translate, that often only reinforce the worldview constructed by the English language, and preferably that entertain readers with just the right kind of exoticism.

She cautions that the act of acquiring knowledge is wholly dependent on the language one knows. The less English one knows, the less access one has to global knowledge.

The Silent Woman: Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes by Janet Malcom is also very thought provoking. Rather than a biography of Sylvia Plath, this is a biography (of sorts) of the biographies that have already been written about Sylvia Plath. It’s a look at the difficulties of writing someone else’s story, and the specific pitfalls of trying to write about someone who committed suicide, while family members who played a part in it are still alive and have control over the person’s legacy.  Plath’s sister-in-law Olywn Hughes is in control of her literary estate, and all requests for permission to use excerpts of Plath’s work go through her. As Malcom discovers, she is quick to rescind permission if she doesn’t approve of the tenor of the biography being written- if it doesn’t line up with the story that she wants told. At the same time it raises questions of how we perceive authority- do we want an “impartial” biographer (which is nearly impossible, as Malcom points out, because if the biographer doesn’t have an investment in what happened, why are they writing the book?) or do we want an account from someone who was intimately involved- an account which will then be discounted because the narrator is “unreliable”?

I remember when one of the movies about Sylvia Plath came out- it seems like maybe Gwyneth Paltrow was in it? I’m not going to look it up. Anyway, one of Plath’s children was asked if they were going to see it, and she said something to the effect of “Why would I want to watch the very worst thing that ever happened to me?”  This is a reoccurring theme in Ted Hughes’ correspondence with biographers- reminding them that while Plath is gone, her children are still alive and able to read the things written and speculated about her. This begs the question of what responsibility biographers have to their subjects and their subjects’ families. I don’t have any answers, but it’s interesting to think about.

In a work on nonfiction we almost never know the truth of what happened. The ideal of unmediated reporting is regularly achieved only in fiction, where the writer faithfully reports on what is going on in his imagination.

How can you call it a tribute to her- to make a public spectacle of the one thing she ought to be allowed to keep to herself if nothing else-her infinitely humiliating private killing of herself… – Ted Hughes