Addictions and obsessions

I have amusing memories of having seen my dad sometimes sneak past the kitchen and up to the attic when he used to come home from work. He was a clothes horse and a bargain hunter, and he was sheepish about letting my mom know so he would hide his purchases in the attic.

My dad’s “addiction” was never harmful, though; he was always dutiful to his family and financially responsible. But he worked long hours and had little in the way of an outlet. I think that he found it therapeutic to shop.

I had had my share of addictions and obsessions growing up too: books, boys, Gone with the Wind, celebrities, women’s magazines, Culture Club. I tended to go all out and spent a little too much time in fantasy land. For me I do think it was bordering on unhealthy, since I was constantly creating escapes for myself; the addictions served a definite purpose.

As an adult I’ve had interests (fashion, photography, yoga, Japan, writing, wicker baskets…), but nothing obsessive. Of course, the real killer has been the internet, and maybe that fits best the definition of addiction. Unlike my childhood addictions there is little that’s pleasurable about not being able to unstuck myself from the computer at 11 at night. My eyes are glazed over, my neck and shoulders are stiff, and my lower back aches. And I get on Facebook the way I used to bring my tray over to sit at a table with people I didn’t really like. Yet I won’t unfriend or block certain people because I don’t want to appear rude, and then I don’t want to miss the posts by people I actually do like. I’m on the computer for hours past my actual need, and once I’ve managed to log off and get myself into bed, I then proceed to check my iPhone a couple of more times before actually turning out the lights. The internet is my technological potato chips;  after gorging I usually regret it.

On the other hand, a fun and good addiction can make life so much rosier. A couple of years ago, I started to develop a gradual addiction to books (followed by coffee), which is what led me to buy all this at a local library sale last week, maybe the fourth one I’ve gone to this year:

booksale books

I can’t explain why I have this compulsion to attend these things knowing that each time I go I will find something, and at this point I already have a year-and-a-half of reading (at least) on my shelves. I can’t stop. At one point the thought of adding to my to-read pile actually caused anxiety, but I got over that pretty quickly.

Fred said to me the day before my much-anticipated trip to the book sale (I had been counting down), “Mommy, you have too many books that you haven’t even read. You shouldn’t get any more until you are down to 4 or 5 on your shelf that you haven’t read yet.”

Um, yeah.

You know you’re addicted when you can’t even care if you are setting a bad example for your child. I told Fred that I really needed to go.

Then there’s the issue of my husband. He reads occasionally, but he doesn’t fantasize about books. I hold my breath each and every time I walk home with another bag of books and am surprised when he doesn’t complain. In fact, after he picked me up at the sale this last time he actually agreed to get another bookshelf, and to turn our family room into a home library lined with shelves of books. He has become my abettor! I think he’s just grateful it’s not shoes.

My dad used to explain his addiction to clothes to my mom this way: “You know, I don’t drink, I don’t smoke, I don’t go out. I just work, and I like my clothes.” I guess there are worse things in life than finding joy in clothes…and in books. I’ve never met a book that made me feel badly or judged or lonely or rejected or just negative in any way. And they will always wait quietly and patiently for you.

I had to lay them all out, the way my son lays out all his Pokemon cards to admire.

booksale books laid out                                                              

I’d love to know what your addictions are! What can’t you get enough of and does your family mind it?


Image courtesy of

Americanah is the third novel by Nigerian-born Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. It’s the story of Ifemelu, a young middle class woman who, due to the many strikes that have disrupted her university at home,  decides to go to the U.S. for college. She attends a school in Pennsylvania and we learn about her experiences as both an international student and a non-American African in America. She struggles financially for quite some time, unable to get hired for part-time work. Out of sheer desperation, she finally takes on a humiliating job in which she compromises her dignity. This leaves her in a depression (or triggers an identity crisis?) during which time she also ends up cutting off all ties to the boyfriend she had left behind in Nigeria.

Her boyfriend Obinze is a seemingly good man, her intellectual equal, and he adores her. He is heartbroken and confused when she no longer returns his calls or e-mails, but eventually moves on. He goes to England but outstays his visa, and soon he is working illegally under someone else’s identity, and he makes arrangements to marry a British citizen in order to stay in the country.

Meanwhile, Ifemelu recovers in the U.S. and finds great success writing an anonymous blog entitled Raceteenth or Various Observations About American Blacks (Those Formerly Known as Negroes) by a Non-­American BlackA central part of Americanah is a study on black-white race relations in America, in particular, the experience of the African in America versus that of the African American. Ifemelu says that she never even thought of herself as black – she never thought about race – until she stepped on American soil. She picks up on the peculiar ways in which people react to subtle issues of race. For example, while paying for an item at a clothing store the cashier asks which of the two sales women had helped her. The cashier would identify the two sales women by hair length (if I recall correctly) but not race, when one of them was clearly black and the other white. She finds race a volatile issue yet something that people aren’t really supposed to notice or talk about directly.

She also experiments with her own assimilation, from trying to straighten her hair to letting it go natural, from trying to perfect an upper-middle class (white) American accent to finally returning to her own. After leaving behind Obinze she dates Curt, a wealthy, white software entrepreneur, and then Blaine, an African American faculty member from Yale. One powerful part of the book is when Blaine stops speaking to her because she had chosen to attend a university department talk over the campus protest he had organized to speak up against the unfair arrest of an African American security guard. Such is the terrain that Ifemelu walks, as an African immigrant who has not lived the American black experience and who needs to learn to fully “get it.”

Race is a central theme in the middle of the book, but by the end the story evolves into more of a love story when both Ifemelu and Obinze are back in Nigeria. They meet again, and are faced with a difficult, life-changing decision.

This was my first time to read Adichie, and I have become a new fan. Americanah is one of those books where the author’s writing fit me – the book is no lightweight, at nearly 500 pages, but I glided through for the most part not feeling as though I was reading. There was a lot that I was able to relate to, in my experiences as an expat and immigrant and having worked with many international students. At the same time, it was an eye-opening read for me as it gave me a window into the Nigerian experience in America as well as a first-hand tackling of sensitive race issues.

Many readers, I’ve found, have either loved the book or felt disappointed by it. Those who don’t like it have complained that they felt lectured to on race. There are certainly parts in the book in which the race discussion feels contrived. For example, Ifemelu is a quiet and often uneasy observer in Blaine’s regular get-togethers with his sister and intellectual friends. The group is a diverse one, and during these dinners they would all discuss some topic on race. I felt the same about a conversation between Ifemelu and Obinze about the present state of Nigeria. There’s a bit of unnaturalness there, like the characters are placed there to be sociological mouthpieces.

Adichie also closes some chapters with Ifemelu’s blog posts. The following is an excerpt:

Sometimes they say “culture” when they mean race. They say a film is “mainstream” when they mean “white follks like it or made it.” When they say “urban” it means black and poor and possibly dangerous and potentially exciting. “Racially charged” means we are uncomfortable saying “racist.”

I was probably too fascinated by the discussions to mind the presentation of the race issues. As Ifemelu says, it is more palatable to people if an African rather than an African American writes about race in America. And that is exactly what Adichie has done, albeit to mixed reactions.

Taboo books, songs, and conversations, and kids

Photo credit: FreeSpeechDebate

Well, it’s National Banned Books Week, a week that celebrates our freedom to read and to access ideas that we all should have a right to. I checked out a few lists of the most commonly banned books, and frankly all except for Fifty Shades of Grey (kidding) leave me shaking my head, or maybe my inability to comprehend the need for censorship reflects my own lack of open-mindedness?

Among the books that have appeared on banned lists are To Kill a Mockingbird, The Harry Potter series, The Bluest Eye, The Diary of Anne Frank, even Charlotte’s Web! Thoughtful, provocative books reflect life and its realities, and opening ourselves to them makes us more compassionate, less ignorant and hopefully less prejudiced. I can’t imagine telling someone what he or she can and cannot learn. I can’t imagine trying to raise a humane child by preventing him/her access to different ideas.

As a mother I’m fairly liberal, and I draw (an ever adjustable) line only if I feel my child is not yet ready for certain material. I started talking to my son about race and racism when he was four, homosexuality and homophobia when he was seven, and terrorism around the same time. Now, it’s not like I have an agenda and I’m intentionally infiltrating his pliable mind with all these issues, but these topics come up naturally in conversation or when we have the television on, and while I’ll of course adjust the depth and language accordingly, I don’t shy away from answering Fred’s questions, the way my mother used to, dangling the “I’ll tell you when you’re older” carrot. When my then-six-year-old asked me specifically out of just which part of my body he exited, I told him matter-of-factly and even pointed (in the general vicinity; I do have some level of modesty ;-)).

Of course, these open discussions are a bit easier when we have some control over them. Things get trickier when the kids enter school, and suddenly they’re hearing about mass shootings from other people first, or their friends are introducing them to rap music, which is what happened with us at the beginning of this school year.

“Mommy, I’ll give you $2 if you help me buy these two AWESOME songs!” (My Fred is now nine.)

I was ready to just mindlessly hop onto iTunes and get the songs for him when I suppose maternal instinct kicked in and I decided to google the lyrics first. Rap is unmapped territory for me, though at that point I had some vague idea that some, but not all, rap music was explicit. So I found the lyrics and, sure enough, the two songs my nine-year-old wanted happened to be explicit. I don’t remember the exact words but I do remember “my cock” in the very first line, and more choice words following. The second song was something with Britney Spears featuring a somebody or other who would jump in every few lines calling her “B*tch.”


Ms. Liberal Mom minded, finally. And Fred being Fred, I knew he was going to press me for a reason, especially seeing as I had just said “yes” a few minutes before.

Having to say no led me to try to understand when and why I draw the line and when and why I believe something is acceptable, even right, to censor. It is hard, though, when the reason is something that you feel, rather than something that you know. Why do I not want him listening to this music? Because he’s nine and because I don’t want him listening to a litany of cock, f*ck, and sh*t at this age. B*tch is a little easier. It’s misogyny.

But Mommy, I’m not stupid. I already know a lot of cuss words, but it’s not like I ever go around using them.

I know. I know that he knows right from wrong. I know he’s got a will of steel, as I have seen him stand up to his father and me as well as withstand boy herd mentality.

Don’t you trust me?

We do. But I told him it wasn’t about trust. What I didn’t want was for him, at nine, to enter a world that is no place for a child. Even if he won’t be using the words, I don’t want him getting so used to hearing women being called “b*tch” that it almost becomes normal, and I don’t want him mindlessly regurgitating words whose concepts he hasn’t the faintest idea about. He will get to all of that eventually – the strong emotions, the sex – and at some point in the not distant future, I will be entrusting him to make more and more of his own decisions. But he is not there yet. Surely there are other rap songs that are less…inappropriate.

He was disappointed but in the end he understood. He told me that there are “clean” versions of those songs available and he showed me how to find them. He said that he just liked the way the music sounded.

What are your thoughts on censorship? Have your parents and/or teachers ever tried to forbid you from certain books or music? If you have older children, how do you deal with all this??

The non-kitchen wife and mother: my struggles with domesticity

Over coffee some time last week Max and I were looking through his Facebook newsfeed together when we came across a photo of a French dinner that a friend’s wife had prepared, a full table cloth and silverware setting and wine kind of spread that she seems to prepare nearly every weekend at home, even with a toddler in tow. I joked to Max, “I’m sure you’re thinking, ‘Now why don’t I have a wife who can cook me some Facebook worthy meals??'” (Slap knee!) Because if anybody ever came up with a ranking of The Wives with the Most Oft-Posted Meals on Facebook, I would probably be in the bottom

Max just kind of looked at me quizzically because, bless his heart, I honestly don’t think he ever thinks that. When I’ve seemed apologetic for not being more…culinary, his answer has always been, “That’s fine, because I don’t mind cooking.”

I don’t not cook, but I don’t cook a lot. In fact, I don’t bake a lot, I don’t clean a lot, and I am in general not in the kitchen a lot. There is minimal traffic in our kitchen. Someone is there when a meal is to be prepared and when the dishes are washed, and then everyone is out of there. Looking at my friends and at my own mother, I’ve always been conscious of being an anomaly. “Oh, God, yes – like, why can’t they pick up their own socks, right? Do they think they’re actually going to walk to the hamper themselves? Sheesh!” I sometimes need to talk the talk among girlfriends in order to keep my cover.

I have even gone so far as to psychoanalyze myself. I love eating, and yet the idea of planning a meal saps all the life out of me. I’ve dug deep, back into my difficult childhood years: Did I associate meal times with trauma? Had something terrible happened in our family while my mother was preparing meals? I draw a blank each and every time. I don’t remember anything from my childhood meal times except the savory aromas from the dishes my working mother never failed to prepare from scratch.

Housework rulesThen three weeks ago I sat in a therapist’s office. It had been well over a month since we’d finished all our traveling, and I was still exhausted, even less motivated than usual to do anything around the house. I felt as though I had checked out as a mother and felt paralyzed to do anything. The thing is, my mother would never have gotten paralyzed. Her love for her family was enough force to spring board her out of bed each day to cook and clean.

And worst of all, I wasn’t spending enough time with Fred.

My therapist asked me, What do you like to do with Fred?

Ugh…I knew that my list was going to be short. Because along with being non-domestic, I’ve often felt non-maternal as well. I love my child and I love being a mother, but I was not one of those women who always knew she wanted to have children. I came into motherhood after two years of soul-searching, weighing the “pros” and “cons,” and talking with my husband. My heart has more than caught up since the moment I found out I was pregnant, but my tastes and interests haven’t. I knew what I wasn’t going to say; I wasn’t going to say that I enjoyed baking cookies or getting down on the floor with my child to play or doing arts and crafts.

I like to read with him, I started.

and I like to talk…actually, we love to talk. We talk about everything. The Boston bombings. Women’s Role in Society Through the Ages. What I’m reading. What life might be like on Mount Olympus. His grandparents’ life story. Homosexuality. Racism. What’s really in those McDonald’s cheeseburgers and chicken nuggets. How it feels to screw up. How awesome it is to get over something hard.

Then, after another 20 seconds or so, I threw in going to the museum and beach and taking day trips to fatten the list a little bit and to sound less lame.

My therapist nodded. She said it was quite something, that we loved to talk. She said, Do you know how many parents struggle with this once their kids get into their teens? Do you know how many parents lose their children at that age? She told me that I am building the groundwork of our relationship.

I don’t know how to properly describe how my therapist changed me in that instant. I honestly had never thought of it that way. I mean, yes, of course I know that it’s great that I can talk with my child. What I hadn’t allowed myself to accept was that that – my particular brand of mothering – would be enough.

In Japan, where I’d lived during my first four years as a mother and where there is really only one accepted brand of mothering, I was dealing with jokes from girlfriends like “Do you know how to boil water?” And I would make myself giggle along with women who oooh’ed and aaah’ed over my husband, this rare and exotic Japanese bird who never expected me to be in any place except his heart and who has happily (?) stepped in to take over the laundry and to color code my undies. It’s all rather ridiculous, because I contribute financially to our household, a contribution some people had a hard time recognizing. And while I am no fixture in the kitchen, I am hardly lying in my chaise longue munching grapes. I have absolute certainty that, without my contributions (in discipline, financial management, education planning, etc.), our family life would not be the same. But I continue to feel that my value is measured by my domestic life. Having a husband who does his fair share around the house has not meant that we as a couple appear 50/50; I’ve sometimes felt that it means I appear only 50% as a woman. I’ve allowed the scraps of an arcane definition of Mother and Wife to make me question my self-worth, even back here in America where we’re supposed to have progressed so much as women.

No, there was no trauma in my past that has led me to rooms outside of our kitchen. I’m a woman who loves her family and I am the way that I am, for no particular reason at all.

Picture credits

You are the Best Cook!

Housework rules!

A Re-education in literature

Before I get to talking about the subject of my post title (my re-education in literature), I thought I’d share something from My Ideal Bookshelf, which I had posted about last week. My Ideal Bookshelf is a collection of short essays by writers and others who discuss the books that have impacted them most. As the book doesn’t include a summary of the titles that appear, I took the liberty of doing my own informal calculations. The following are rough counts of the titles and authors that appear most frequently as books that have touched the contributors:

Most frequently cited books

Moby Dick (Herman Melville)

Lolita (Vladimir Nabokov)

Ulysses (James Joyce)

The Complete Stories: Flannery O’Connor (Flannery O’Connor)

The Great Gatsby (F. Scott Fitzgerald)

The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle (Haruki Murakami)

Jesus’ Son (Denis Johnson)

Most frequently cited authors (female)

Flannery O’Connor

Virginia Woolf

Doris Lessing

George Eliot

Toni Morrison

Joan Didion

Most frequently cited authors (male)

Anton Chekhov

F. Scott Fitzgerald

William Carlos Williams

T.S. Eliot

J.D. Salinger

Vladimir Nabokov

Ernest Hemingway

Gabriel Garcia Marquez

I have read the majority of the authors cited here and half of the titles. Unfortunately, I don’t remember much about most of them. I suppose time is an issue, since I read these all during high school and college and I’ve been out for some time. I also read the classics during an age at which I wasn’t able to absorb or appreciate literature as much as I would have liked to. The distractions, the youth – I’ve often wished that I could have gone to college when I was 30! So now I am trying to play catch up, to not only read books I haven’t yet gotten to but to re-read those that I have.

Yesterday while organizing my bookshelves (I am trying to now also rearrange my surroundings to support my reading life) I came across this hefty book that I had picked up a few years ago at a library bag sale:


Literature: An Introduction to Fiction, Poetry and Drama is a compilation of stories, poems and plays complete with literary analysis. By the time I get through this 2,251 page tome I will have had a pretty good refresher course on English literature, I think. What I’m most excited about is that I get to have a taste of nearly 60 fiction writers from Chinua Achebe to Chuang Tzu to Ernest Hemingway to Alice Munro to John Steinbeck to Alice Walker. The poets who are included are even more numerous, and there is a good collection of plays as well (Ibsen, Shakespeare, Sophocles, etc.).

Of course, I’m working on a classics to-read list as well as I hope to actually conquer the books in addition to the short stories and essays in the compilation. I love that it’s never too late to “major” in English Literature again.

What are your favorite classics and do you have any must-reads to recommend? What’s on your to-read list? And how do you define a “classic” – does it have to be old?

On beauty and looking “American”

asian woman

photo credit: Time

I was going to post something more innocuous today until I read the status update of an Indian/Japanese-American friend on Facebook: “It’s really hard not to take this personally.” She had posted a link to the angry outbursts on social media over the fact that an Indian American was crowned Miss America last night.

I’m not going to rehash the racist and other asenine comments here. But the issue made me think about what it means to not look “American” in America, to be bombarded with images of beauty that are not only difficult but literally impossible to attain.

I am Asian and I grew up in America. I was and am petite – thin framed and with a soft face that, for better or worse, makes me look perpetually youthful or perpetually childlike depending on your interpretation. As a child I went from worshipping Snow White and Cinderella to worshipping Charlie’s Angels, especially Farrah Fawcett, Cheryl Ladd, and Jaclyn Smith. I was much less interested in the brainy and skinny Kate Jackson, whom I probably had more in common with than the other three sexier and more curvaceous Angels.  I wasn’t much older than my son is now when I began collecting celebrity magazines and analyzing actresses’ facial features and bodies. The cruel secret that I didn’t know at the time, when I didn’t yet know to distinguish white from brown from yellow and continued to hold up pictures in front of the mirror to compare against my own face, was that I would never, with any amount of exercise, diet, hair color, make-up, plastic surgery and positive thinking, look like a beautiful Caucasian – American – woman.

In late night talks in my women’s college dorm, after spending our days studying English literature and economics and feminist theories and doing good in the community, my Asian-American girlfriends and I would sometimes trade tips on how to look less Asian and more white: clothes pins to elongate our noses, hydrogen peroxide to lighten our hair, blush applied strategically to create more angles on our even faces. We would envy friends who were blessed with double eyelids.

According to ethnic identity theories, it is often during college that we in the 2nd and 3rd generation would become curious about and appreciative of our heritage, after having spent our adolescence rejecting it. We would enroll in ethnic studies classes, look for same-ethnicity peer groups, and start using chopsticks in the college dining hall. I followed lockstep with this model minus the chopsticks, but the one thing that stayed was the dissatisfaction with my appearance. I often felt self-conscious and less than in student gatherings and campus parties, allowing my appearance to stand in for who I was inside, and worrying that others – including and perhaps especially members of the opposite sex – would find me as attractive as I found myself.

My mother used to say to me, “In Hong Kong you would not be small. In Hong Kong you would be so normal. The girls in those beauty pageants are all your size.” At some point I had seen a photo of Hong Kong pageant contestants, and indeed many looked like me – petite, narrow shouldered, narrow-hipped, small busted. I still judged them against the American ideal though, thinking, how pubescent they looked, how unwomanly. But at least now I knew that somewhere in the world, even if 6,000 miles away, someone like me was not so far off from the standard of beauty.

Whether it was my surroundings or maturity I don’t know, but I started to obsess less and less with my appearance after I moved to Japan when I was 30. I went for a personal challenge, and ended up staying for nearly a decade. What’s interesting is that the emphasis on beauty in Japan is even more insidious than that in the U.S. In Japan you’ll never see any woman running around with a suit and sneakers, or with hair wet from the gym. Hair is perfectly coiffed, nails are clean and polished, and make up is flawlessly applied. Beauty is not just aesthetics but evidence of personal responsibility. Still, it was during my years in Japan that the expectations of beauty began bouncing off of my now hardened skin and ego. Definitely it made a huge difference to be surrounded by images of people who resembled me, but I was also living on my own and in a foreign country for the first time, and running a $1.25 million department in a Japanese company as the sole woman manager. I was doing things I never thought possible during those earlier years when I hid behind a mask of learned helplessness and obsessed over things I couldn’t change. Working in Japan I barely had time to pee let alone manicure my nails, and I was the most satisfied with myself I’d ever been.

America literally looked different when I came back, five years ago. Barack Obama was running for U.S. president, and my son was introduced to Dora and Wendy Wu on children’s television. However, as evidenced by the reactions to President Obama and to Nina Davuluri, the new Miss America, there are still many places in our country where the American face is supposed to look one way only.

At the moment, I am at a loss as to how to make any changes at all, except to start with my own child. We don’t talk much if ever about people’s appearances, and usually when Daddy can’t contain himself and has to tell Mommy she’s beautiful.  And we’re fortunate enough to be able to choose where we live: in an open-minded and internationally diverse town with like-minded neighbors. This year my then 8-year-old caught a glimpse of the Academy Awards red carpet for the first time, and watching him react was like watching him land on another planet. Why are the women so tall? Why do their faces look like that? To watch Hollywood is to open the American dictionary of what beauty should be, and I closed that book fast. I don’t know how long it will last, but right now we are going to bask in our 9-year-old’s world in which it is decency and not looks or narrow expectations that define us.

The ideal bookshelf

I took this lovely book out from the library a couple of weekends ago:

ideal bookshelf

My Ideal Bookshelf was put together by Thessaly La Force and is a compilation of one-page essays by various writers and other creative people discussing the books that have touched them. Each essay is also beautifully illustrated (by the artist Jane Mount) with paintings of the contributor’s books. I’ll admit that the best part about reading this book is looking through the bookshelves, especially those of the writers (I found that many of the non-writers tended to cite books related to their trade).

There are essays by a little over a hundred writers, artists, architects, chefs and others. Among the contributors are Rosanne Cash, Jennifer Egan, Dave Eggers, Atul Gawande, Malcolm Gladwell, Pico Iyer, Mary Karr and George Saunders. I recognized some names but not many others. However, I was thrilled to see four of my favorite writers included: Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Junot Diaz, Yiyun Li and David Sedaris.

They say you can learn a lot about a person by seeing what’s on his bookshelf; in this compilation, you can also see a lot about the person through the way he describes how he’s been impacted by books. I know I’m biased, but I loved what Junot Diaz wrote:

Immigration first got me reading . . . In reading, no one could criticize my English. In reading, I could practice English; I could live in English . . . These books show that I’m trying to understand the world. I’m trying to understand what it means to be an American in what we would call the long American century. . . For me there’s always the wonder of how closely we can exit under such impossible odds, the wonder of a new life brilliantly told.

junot diaz bookshelf

Junot Diaz’s bookshelf

Then there’s the  mega-selling mystery author whose name I won’t mention, who seems to want to focus a little more on himself and his own success than on what has impacted him. 😉

Of course, you can’t read this book without thinking about what you would put on your own ideal bookshelf.

In the book’s preface, La Force writes:

Select a small shelf of books that represents you – made you who you are today, your favorites . . . It’s a snapshot of you in a moment of time. You could build an ideal bookshelf every year of your life and it would be completely different. And just as satisfying.

And it is here that I appreciate what George Saunders has to say about putting together and sharing his ideal bookshelf:

Forget any pedantic bullshit, forget trying to make my list look smarter than everyone else’s – what books would I actually get off on? 

george saunders bookshelf

George Saunders’ bookshelf

And so, with that in mind, here’s my list as of today. I have other favorites, but these are the books that have impacted me in some way or were read at some critical point in my life:

Deenie (Judy Blume) – I don’t know if I could have survived adolescence without Judy Blume. Deenie was the first book that made me realize I could almost find a friend inside a book, and find a voice that I could relate to and identify with. Deenie was also my favorite Judy Blume character.

Gone with the Wind (Margaret Mitchell) – I read this in the 6th grade and it was my first “grown-up” book and the first and only story I’d ever gotten obsessed with. Deep down I think I was in love with Rhett Butler, beginning a long trend in gravitating toward “scoundrels” (a dysfunctional tendency that luckily ended before I met my husband!).

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn (Betty Smith) – I think I read this some time when I was 12 or 13, a hard time in my life for family reasons and also just because of the fact that I was 12 or 13. All I can remember is that A Tree Grows in Brooklyn helped fill a deep void inside of me at the time.

The Diary of a Young Girl (Anne Frank) – I’m seeing a pattern emerging here; I think I was very much drawn to the personal voices of girls around my age, girls who had gone through some hardship. Anne Frank’s story was, of course, the most frightening and unimaginable of all.

Crime and Punishment (Fyodor Dostoevsky) – I read this in high school and it triggered my interest in Russia and Russian novelists. I think this is also when I first became fascinated with stories of internal moral conflict and anguish.

The Bell Jar (Sylvia Plath) – This found me or I found it, during my own period of depression in college.

Wuthering Heights (Emily Bronte) – Similar to Crime and Punishment, Wuthering Heights catalyzed my fascination with moral and other internal conflicts in love.

The Yellow Wallpaper (Charlotte Perkins Gilman) – I was lucky enough to study English literature at a women’s college, where I really couldn’t get through a course without being asked to think about the voice and position of women throughout history. So I don’t know which book is the one that really raised my feminist consciousness, but if I had to choose, I would say The Yellow Wallpaper.

Strangers from a Different Shore (Ronald Takaki) – This is the sweeping historical account of Asian-American immigration to the United States from the late 19th century to 20th century. I knew virtually nothing about the context of my family’s history until I read this book.

The DaVinci Code (Dan Brown) – I had taken a long, regrettable break from reading after graduate school, and during the harried days of my first year as a mother, it was this page-turner that turned me back on to reading for pleasure. I would have one hand on the frying pan and one hand on this book, or I would sneak in a few paragraphs while my son’s back was turned. I realized that if you want to read, you honestly can make the time to do it.

Operating Instructions: A Journal of My Son’s First Year (Anne Lamott) – Another book that I picked up as a new mother. Except I had to pick this up more than once. At first I couldn’t get into it. I lost interest when I realized it wasn’t the memoir of a “regular” mom but that of a single (never wed), recovering alcoholic mom. I couldn’t relate, I thought, and, yes, I judged her as a mother. But then one day the book clicked for me, and not only did I fall in love with Anne Lamott and her voice but I could relate to her and to all her insecurities and her indescribable love for her son.  I think that was the last time I ever thought I wouldn’t be able to relate to another mother.

Prep (Curtis Sittenfeld) – I was trying my hand at writing again and started writing this blog. And then I read Prep and I thought wow, I love this voice – I love how personal and real she allows her character, Lee, to be. We get so close to Lee that it’s painful to watch her sometimes because she can be so neurotic, but she is very real, almost audibly real. I am still struggling with my voice in blogging but Sittenfeld made me realize how authentic human voice can sound in writing.

Me Talk Pretty One Day (David Sedaris) – I hoped and expected to laugh, but I didn’t expect that I would actually relate to so many of his stories. I saw myself and my family in Sedaris and his family (scary but comforting at the same time). It was fun to be able to laugh at the things that had always been so serious or negative for me.

A Fort of Nine Towers (Qais Akbar Omar) – This is an absolutely beautiful memoir of a young man’s coming of age in Afghanistan that I believe deserves much more attention than it’s gotten. I had not read much from the Middle East/South Asia, and since then I’ve been on a quest to read more from non-American writers.

This is How You Lose Her (Junot Diaz) – I picked this up from the library soon after it first came out because it was available, surprisingly, and I wondered what the hype was all about. I had never read Junot Diaz and had no idea what to expect. I was floored by his voice and by his own personal story as an immigrant from the Dominican Republic who has made it into the literary elite (i.e., respected). He speaks out against racism and sexism and is a voice for those who aren’t listened to. I don’t know if I can ask for anything more in a writer.

I always love looking at people’s bookshelves, but since I can’t go to your house, tell me what’s on yours. What have you loved, or what has touched or impacted you the most? What do you recommend?

Your reading tastes: heavy or light?

I was a little surprised when earlier in the year a friend turned down my enthusiastic recommendation to read The Light Between Oceans by M.L. Stedman. I had loved it, and just gave her a synopsis of the book, mentioning also that at one point I was bawling. She said, “I don’t want to cry.”heavy books

The Light Between Oceans, which came out in 2012, is a novel about the young wife of a lighthouse keeper in Australia at the end of WWI. The book describes the isolation of lighthouse keepers and their families and tells the tale of Isabel, who, after a series of miscarriages and a stillbirth, decides to keep a living baby that is washed up onshore one night. As the story goes on, we see up close the love and the negotiating that are required to maintain this kind of secret and to live with this kind of decision. At a later point in the book, the secret becomes at risk of being discovered.

The book is a heart-rending read, especially if you’re a parent. You understand and empathize with Isabel’s hunger to have a child just as well as you can judge and even condemn her for her maddening rationalizations. As one reviewer put it, it is a story about good people making bad decisions.

I, of course, understood why my friend (also a mother) chose not to read this. I have found that many people have certain lines that they find difficult to cross when it comes to reading. I have rarely shied away from heavy content but since becoming a parent, I have so far not been able to pick up books in which the main story line is that of a child dying, regardless of how strongly they come recommended.

I also can’t read books in which there is excessive violence, in particular torture scenes, or stories about genocide. This is unfortunate because I have a strong interest in reading about war and revolutions, stories that capture the human experience of war and revolution. This is the only thing stopping me from reading Laura Hillenbrand’s well received Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption, Eli Wiesel’s Night, and other memoirs about the Holocaust and Khmer Rouge regime. However, I did read Nien Cheng’s Life and Death in Shanghai, an eloquent and fierce memoir of her captivity during the Cultural Revolution in China. The torture scenes are limited and I am grateful to have read what is one of the most powerful stories I have ever come across.

The lines for me are not steadfast, and I guess for me it depends on degree. I can’t read a story of a child dying but I have chosen to read Message from an Unknown Chinese Mother by Xinrana compilation of true stories of mothers who had chosen to give up their daughters under China’s one-child policy. This is one of the most difficult books I’ve ever read. But the stories are not so much about girls being abandoned (and worse) as they are about the incredibly complex forces at play that push a mother to make seemingly impossible and absolutely inhuman decisions, decisions that many end up literally not being able to live with. I chose this book because I wanted to understand and, in the process, I became humbled; I closed the book no longer judging but newly aware of my privilege as an American mother.

And I think that is a major reason I often choose heavier material for my reading pleasure: I want to learn and understand as much as I want to be entertained. I think it is also a function of where I am in my life right now. My son is more independent, my work is manageable, and there is both mental and physical space for me to handle weightier issues. I’m at a place now where I want to deeply think.

Of course, there is only so much heaviness I can take, and so I’ll intersperse my readings with lighter (literally and figuratively) fare (at this point anything under 300 pages is appealing). For example, following The Light Between Oceans, I read – and loved – the quirky Where’d You Go, Bernadette by Maria Semple, a satire of upper middle class suburban families. David Sedaris is my go-to writer when I need a laugh and I also love hypnotic psychological thrillers like Before I Go to Sleep by S.J. Watson. And then there are always the light non-fiction gap fillers. I went through a phase earlier this year where I was reading how-to’s on decluttering and this past weekend, to take a breather from two hefty novels I am juggling, I took out from the library a small pile of books on…books (My Ideal Bookshelf, The Book That Changed My Life – 71 Remarkable Writers Celebrate the Books that Matter Most to Them, etc.). These worked great because they were compilations of short essays and lists. Then, when my brain is really overloaded, I just take a complete no-words break.

What do you find yourself gravitating toward? Are there also certain subjects or types of books that you can’t read?

Sunday mornings, then and now


Wake up from sound sleep and with a near heart attack at 5:30 a.m. to a little pair of eyes staring down at me, willing me to wake up. Wonder how long he had been standing there. Get pulled out of bed to play. Silently curse…curse a lot.


Wake up at 6:00 a.m. to the pitter-patter of footsteps approaching our room, then stopping abruptly to read the “Come back to Mommy and Daddy’s room after 8 a.m.” sign on the door. Hear and can’t help smiling at child who lets out a very audible “Awwww!” and slumps down on the floor against our door to wait. Hear him giving up after 10 minutes, and allow myself to fall asleep again at the sound of his retreating footsteps.


Wake up at 7:30 a.m. from the sound of husband closing the bedroom door behind him. Fall back asleep. Wake up again at 7:57. Reluctantly sit up and reach over for laptop. Check e-mails and Facebook. Go downstairs to say hello to child at 8:30. He is playing a video game, watching t.v., or reading quietly. Say good morning three times and make him respond. I wrap my arms around him and playfully squeeze him, asking him how he slept. I take his mumbled “good…” for now. He nods when I ask if he has already eaten something. I go back upstairs to bed, to my laptop. Twenty minutes later, I hear his footsteps running up the stairs, more staccato now, less pitter-patter. He gets dressed and washes up. He and his best friend Jack had already made an appointment to meet at 9, at his house.

All I ever wanted was sleep, and now the house feels so quiet.

What are your Sunday mornings like? 🙂