Happy new year!

I prepared Christmas Eve dinner and loved how it felt to give the gift of food to family. My brother was fully expecting me to defrost a pre-made dinner from the market.

I prepared Christmas Eve dinner and loved how it felt to give the gift of food to family. My brother was fully expecting me to defrost a pre-made dinner from the market.

I’m so eager to read all the year-end book and recap posts that I’m seeing in my reader, and I also want to post my own lists of favorite books and other 2013 reflections. Alas, I think I’m going to have to wait a few more days. I didn’t realize just how much solitude reading and writing required until school let out for my son and my brother flew in for a visit. I spend my early mornings working for clients and I’m too tired at night to write. So right now I’m craving creative time while simultaneously savoring the presence of my family, a happy kind of tension, and a privilege to have the possibility of both.

I hope that whatever you are doing this holiday, you are enjoying your own good balance of solitude and time with loved ones. I am so incredibly grateful to all the friends whom I have either met or reconnected with through this blog. My experience reading and writing this year has been a powerful affirmation that words and stories are important – both in reading them and in sharing them (to feel connected and to heal). Thank you so much for reading and for giving me a reason to write each week. I wish you a memorable new year full of all the things that make you happiest!


Love, loyalty, hurt and anger – the powerful world of mother-daughter relationships

I am so honored to be contributing to the wonderful writer D.A. Wolf’s series on mother-daughter relationships. This was by far the hardest piece of writing I have ever done, and more than once I asked myself why I had promised to contribute a piece. But I’m so glad for this experience writing and collaborating with D.A., which literally changed me.


I’ve just spent my fourteenth holiday without my mother. In the years since I packed up two suitcases and moved from the States to Japan, a defining event in our relationship, we have been a long distance family, missing milestones and special occasions like birthdays, holidays, and the birth of her only grandchild.

There have always been reasons: the distance (even now that I’ve moved back to the States), her health, my work. I try to see her once a year and when I do I realize how much I miss her… how for so many years we knew the daily rhythms of each others’ lives and now that’s no longer the case.

For many years I had been the dutiful daughter. I acted as my immigrant parents’ interpreter from the age of seven when they moved from Peru to New England, and I helped them to navigate life in America. I attended college ten miles away from where they lived, and I moved back home after graduation. It was a shameful admission to my American friends that I was choosing to live with my parents, and a slap in my mother’s face that I was wishing I had chosen otherwise.

To continue reading this piece please click here to go to D.A. Wolf’s blog Daily Plate of Crazy.

Lessons learned in 2013

It’s been a while since I’ve taken the time to look back on a year, but I decided to do it this year. Here are some of my reflections from 2013:

[Addendum: I apologize for my horrendous numbering system below (no 4 and 2 6’s)! I edited this post literally 15 to 20 times before hitting ‘publish’ but I completely neglected the numbers. I’ve decided not to fix it, however, since some readers cited by number the items that resonated with them. I’ll leave the list as is for reference 🙂 ]

1. The world is kinder when I change the lens.

I’ve always had a tendency to look too much into things. If someone consistently fails to say hello or respond to some of my emails, my mind reaches for the negative: I’ve done or said something wrong, or she thinks I’m a bother. I’ve been reminded not infrequently (usually by books and male friends) that when something like this happens it says more about the other person than it does about me.

This year, I began trying to give others the benefit of the doubt. The acquaintance who appears cold and does not respond in kind? Perhaps something is going on in her life right now, and she is not in a place to extend herself. My world became softer and kinder when I changed the way I made assumptions about others’ motives.

2. It does feel good to not beat myself up.

The comments were so innocuous (or regular) that I couldn’t even see anything wrong with them until a therapist pointed it out to me. Judgments like “I’m such a mess” or “I look awful” or “I’m such a bad mom,” when piled up day after day, year after year, can do a number on your psyche.

3. My child is not perfect, but he is terrific.

All my unrealistic expectations of myself trickled down to my child and I struggled this year to let go of the fear that every flaw signals potential trouble ahead. My son will make mistakes. He will forget things. He will miss answers on a test. He will be careless. He will get overly emotional. He will be tired and he will be hungry and he will be stressed and he won’t always be able to put on a happy face in these situations. The thing is, what human being doesn’t do this every now and then? I’m living proof of the damage that can be done when the bar is set to the sky, and now it’s my responsibility to bring it within reach for my son.

5. There’s a certain decibel level of my voice that no one should ever have to hear.

I would never have labeled myself a yeller, but in fact I do yell. Or I did. I am trying to make that the past tense. There is nothing in my life that warrants shouting. My son’s behavior is never so beyond the norm that it cannot be addressed by a regular or at most firm tone of voice. And even if he ever really did cross the line, I doubt that shouting would be effective or productive.

6. I need to be kinder.

Not more polite and not gentler but actually kinder, whether it’s mumbling criticisms about a waiter at a restaurant or judging someone’s behavior or arguing with my husband.

6. I want to remember the man I fell in love with. 

Twelve years of marriage and almost ten years of parenthood have turned our pre-parenting memories to black-and-white. Something triggered an old romantic memory the other day, and I allowed myself to go with it, to rewind through the last 10 years to a time when it was just the two of us. I realized that those memories are an important anchor in a family dynamic that has since changed so dramatically.

7. I deserve at least 2 hours to myself each day.

My busiest two weeks of work are ahead of me, but so far I’m holding firm to my new rule of not working at night. I am not a rescue worker and no one’s going to die if I don’t respond late at night. After Fred goes to sleep, it’s me and my books or my writing.

8. My emergency oxygen mask is this, in this order: sleep, water, exercise, a (reasonably) tidy home.

I blamed everything from hormones to depression this year when in fact what I needed was basic self-care. I need to have all 4 of the above before I can care for anyone else properly.

9. We all speak different languages.

I’m planning to write more about this in a future post, but it really hit home for me this year how certain conflicts I’ve felt have been a result of the fact that loved ones and friends and I speak different “love languages.” Example: Max shows love through actions while I show it through words. In fact, I view and relate to the world through words but I realized that not everyone does.

10. Motherhood has more than one job description.

At 4 Fred drew a series of t-shirt designs for each of us. On his dad’s shirt he drew the American flag; on his he drew a dinosaur; on mine he drew a computer. He said that it was because I liked to work.

I’ve felt guilty for almost the entire time I’ve been a mother, because I’d failed to live up to my image of the “ideal” mother. I don’t do arts and crafts, I don’t cook and bake more than I have to, I don’t enjoy playing, and I am not all-sacrificing. It was thanks to your responses to a post I’d written on the subject that I began to swap out the old picture for a more realistic one that depicts the kind of mother I actually am: a travel-loving, book-loving, word-loving, conversation-loving, thinking-loving and independence-loving mom. I realized that I don’t need to trade in who I am in order to love and raise a child.


In their own words: great book recommendations by great kids

Not all adults love books but I’m hard pressed to find a child who doesn’t. I recently polled some kids (or, that is, asked their moms) to ask them about their favorite books. Here is what they love and also what they have to say about it:

Leonardo-the-Terrible-Monster-209x300Leonardo the Terrible Monster, by Mo Willems

Why do you like this book? “I don’t know.” – Pickle, age 2

dinosaur bookALL dinosaur books “‘Cuz I love them.” – Jules, age 3
magictreehouseThe Magic Treehouse series, by Mary Pope Osborne

“Because all the adventures they take are so fun.” – Little Miss, age 5

green eggs and hamGreen Eggs and Ham, by Dr. Seuss

“Well, I really like how he tries the green eggs and ham at the end. I really like how more animals come on the car. It’s funny.” – Sophia, age 5

rainbowfThe Rainbow Fairies series, by Daisy Meadows
“I love the different fairy characters and the adventures they go on.” – Joni, age 7
gingerbreadmanThe Gingerbread Man, by Jim Aylesworth
“I don’t know how to describe it. It’s a feeling. It’s just a feeling. Well, I like the story. It’s a long story, and we make it a song.  And we buy the food. And we use the recipe, and I cook with Mama.  And when Mama works the oven, we act it.  And I chase Papa when he pretends.  And I’m the Gingerbread Man. It’s my favorite book. Forever.” – Ashley, age 8
percyjacksonPercy Jackson and the Olympians series & Heroes of Olympus series, by Rick Riordan
“I like the Percy Jackson series because it has Greek gods and lots of action in it – weapons (but no guns), special elemental powers, etc. There are almost always cliffhangers at the end of each book, so you would want to read the next book. And I like it because it’s a series so there’re more books so I don’t have to look for another book to read. But now I have to wait for next year for the next book.” – Fred, age 9
ifunnyI Funny: A Middle School Story, by James Patterson“It’s really good, and it’s about a kid who is in a wheelchair, and he has jokes that gave him hope. It’s a very good book, and I like all the humor, jokes, and sarcasm in it. It is fiction.” – Auggie, age 11
hackingharvardHacking Harvard, by Robin Wasserman
“I recommend this wonderful book to anyone who enjoys a good comedy mixed with action and romance. In this book, there is a bet to try to get a brainless boy into Harvard. With the risk of losing twenty five thousand dollars and losing their parents’ support, this may end their lives or give them a new start.” – Elizabeth, age 11
cityofemberThe City of Ember, by Jeanne DuPrau“I liked the setting of the book—that there’s an underground city and the kids have different jobs. I thought that was cool.” – Luke, age 12

The most fun part about putting this post together was definitely hearing the words of the kids. Thanks so much to all the parents who helped me with this post!

Looking back over our 9 years of reading with Fred, here are some of Fred’s favorites:


All Mo Willems books (BIG hit!)

Are You My Mother?, by P.D. Eastman

Spot the Dog books, by Eric Hill

Eric Carle books

Chicka Chicka Boom Boom, by Bill Martin, Jr. and John Archambault

The Big Wide Mouthed Frog, by Ana Martin Larranaga (BIG hit!)

early elementary

The Frog and Toad series by Arnold Lobel (Mom loved these especially)

Henry and Mudge series by Cynthia Rylant

Nate the Great series by Marjorie Weinman Sharmat (BIG hit!)

The Magic Treehouse series by Mary Pope Osborne (BIG hit and a wonderful transition from leveled readers to independent reading)

Alvin Ho series by Lenore Look

middle grades

The Warriors series by Erin Hunter (the series that turned our temporarily ambivalent reader to an obsessed one…until he decided after two sets that the books were getting too formulaic and predictable ;-))

Diary of a Wimpy Kid series by Jeff Kinney

Wonder, by R. J. Palacio

The One and Only Ivan, by Katherine Applegate

Inside Out and Back Again, by Thanhha Lai

The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind, by William Kamkwamba and Bryan Mealer (an adult book but readable; however, there is mention of prostitution (didn’t see that until it was too late))

National Geographic Kids Quiz Whiz: 1,000 Super Fun, Mind-bending, Totally Awesome Trivia Questions

Scholastic Almanac for Kids

Guiness World Records

And, as mentioned above, the Percy Jackson series by Rick Riordan. The Percy Jackson series is wonderful in that kids of all types are characters in the books. Riordan is known for his inclusiveness as a writer, his ability to make all children feel a part of his stories. There was a minor (?) uproar over his most recent book The House of Hades for including a gay character.

What are your kids’ favorite books, or what were your favorite books growing up? Are you giving any children’s books as gifts this holiday? If so, which ones?

Apologies – inadvertently published post

I’m so sorry! I was preparing my blog post for Tuesday morning and was experiencing technical difficulties. I recruited my brother to help and the post accidentally went live for a few minutes. I mention this because e-mail subscribers likely received a post with a lot of gibberish in it.

I’m scheduling my post – Great Book Recommendations by Great Kids – for Tuesday morning. Please watch for it then. Thanks!


Disillusionment in marriage, home, and life: The Buddha in the Attic, by Julie Otsuka

The Buddha in the Attic is Julie Otsuka’s 2012 PEN/Faulkner Award-winning novella about Japanese picture brides trying to start new lives in California during the first half of the 20th century.

The book opens with the young women’s journey at sea. They are frightened, nervous, hopeful, excited, and uncertain about what awaits them. They are from different walks of life and from different parts of Japan, but they all have in their hands (or in the sleeves of their kimonos) the photos of hope: handsome, young men who have promised that they can provide for them well in the new country.

Once the brides are literally off the boat, they cannot find the faces to match their photos. The young and handsome businessmen are, in fact, older, haggard, and sometimes cruel farmworkers and laborers. It hits the women at this point that they have been deceived and, unbeknownst to them, that this is only the beginning.

The chapters that follow cover the new wives’ lives over the next few decades: marital rape, infidelity, hard labor and long hours, sexual harassment, the struggles to care for their children, children who reject them and are embarrassed by them, acculturation, racism. The book ends with the mass exodus of these now Japanese-American wives and their families and neighbors to internment camps as per Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Executive Order issued shortly after the 1941 bombing of Pearl Harbor.

I’ve read other longer, more plot-driven books about the immigrant experience and I was surprised at how powerful this experimental novella is. This is both for your information and a warning: Otsuka’s narrator is a lyrical, first person plural. The book doesn’t focus on any single character or even a handful of characters, but instead covers the range of experiences of the collective group of brides. Here is an excerpt from the second chapter, entitled “First Night”:

That night our new husbands took us quickly. They took us calmly. They took us gently, but firmly, and without saying a word . . . they took us flat on our backs on the bare floor of the Minute Motel . . . They took us in the best hotels in San Francisco that a yellow man could set foot in at the time . . . they took us for granted and assumed we would do for them whatever it was that we were told . . . they took us violently, with their fists, whenever we tried to resist. They took us even though we bit them. They took us even though we hit them . . . They took us shyly, and with great difficulty, as they tried to figure out what to do. “Excuse me,” they said. And, “Is this you?” They said, “Help me out here,” and so we did . . . They took us with more skill than we had ever been taken before and we knew we would always want them. They took us as we cried out with pleasure and then covered our mouths in shame. (pages 19-22)

I didn’t feel that the narration took away from the intimacy I felt with the characters’ experiences (though admittedly it is a different kind of intimacy) and in fact maybe it is the collective voice that makes this book so powerful: seeing the range of experiences drove home for me how much these women were going through and what it meant to be a picture bride in a country that was, at the time, still very hostile to unfamiliar cultures.

The women in this book arrive as strangers to both their Japanese-American husbands and America. It is a tale about what it’s like to land in hostile and unfamiliar hands, and it is as much about marriage (and its disappointments) as it is about immigration. The issues are heavy but somehow Otsuka’s writing translates the difficulties and hopelessness into something that is emotionally impactful and not bleak. I would have read this book in one or two sittings if I had the uninterrupted time (I read it in three); I thought it was wonderful.

Finding an oasis in the midst of (December) chaos

December is never an easy month for me, no matter how many preventative measures I try to take. My peak month at work coincides with the holidays, cold and flu viruses, and school vacation (= no childcare). In fact, we’ve already rung in the new month with a bad bout of food poisoning (Fred) and a cold (me).

But in the midst of all this promised craziness are a couple of new discoveries:


A cozy new cafe (not sure if you can see the photo too well) that serves organic teas and coffee and a lot of soothing ambience. Max and I went there for lunch the other day and I actually found myself breathing. It sounds like an odd thing to do but I realize that when I’m stressed I tend to intermittently hold my breath. Without doing anything except sit in my chair, I felt my body responding to my surroundings and the tightness letting go.

Which takes me to my second “discovery,” though it isn’t really a discovery as much as it is my own doing: my home.

Months ago I had bought a livingsocial deal for an interior decoration consultation. I mean, to me that’s like rehearsing a speech for my Best Actress award at the Oscars. It’s so presumptuous because what our house has always needed was a big garbage pick up. I’d bought the voucher because I thought it would give me incentive to clean up. But looking at the interior designer’s website and photos I thought we were lightyears away.

Well, a lightyear comes a lot faster than you think when there’s an expiration date involved. So on the date my voucher was expiring I made an appointment with Laura, and it took every ounce of will power in me to not reschedule. Despite a cold coming on and deadlines looming over me, I worked up to the final minutes before the doorbell rang to declutter the house. I was expecting a lot of psychological talk about what I am looking for and how I would define serenity, etc., but Laura pretty much got right down to business. We were all sitting but she jumped up and said, “Do you mind if I stand? I want to stand back here so I can get a good view…” And by the end of our one hour we’d rearranged the layout of our living room and dining room in a way my non-designer mind would never have bothered to conceive. Laura completely changed the look and feel of our space even just by shifting some of our picture frames around!

I am so happy in this new space now, even working right now on the couch instead of retreating to my bed, which is what I’d normally do if I’m under the weather. Every loose or stray item feels like fingernails on a chalkboard now and I don’t want anything tainting my space. Even Fred has been so much more focused on his homework since we got the new look. Coincidence? I am guessing not.

Mind you, we didn’t get a makeover like the ones you see on cable t.v. (Laura was only here for an hour) but I feel that we now at least have good, basic “feng shui.” Laura’s gift to us was helping us to break out of the rut of how we view our space and from here we can start thinking about our walls, windows, etc.

My cold has still left me weak and tired, but I’m also happy and not stressed. I think I’ve found my cure.


How do you find calm in the middle of craziness? 

Scandal and Secrets: The Wife, the Maid, and the Mistress, by Ariel Lawhon

I’m happy to do my second post for the Literary Wives virtual book club. There are six other members posting as well, and I’ll share their links at the end of this post.

December’s read is The Wife, The Maid, and the Mistress, a debut novel by Ariel Lawhon. It’s a fictionalized account of the 1930 disappearance of Joseph Crater, a judge on the New York City Supreme Court.

Image courtesy of Goodreads

In Lawhon’s version of events, Joseph Crater was last seen on August 6, 1930 getting into a taxi with his mistress Ritzi, a showgirl. The two had just spent the evening with Crater’s lawyer friend William Klein at the night club owned by notorious gangster Owney Madden. Partway through the evening Crater had said to Ritzi, “Why don’t you go powder your nose? . . .  Now.” (p. 29). Of course, that’s code for “Let us adult men talk.” Ritzi, while indignant, knows her part and does as Crater says. She spends just enough time in the ladies’ room to let them finish whatever it is they need to talk about, and when she returns to the table she catches pieces of their conversation, which hint heavily at some kind of attempt at a cover up and threat of foul play.

In the taxi Crater tells the driver to take them to the Belasco Theater, where Crater is only able to get one ticket for that night’s show. Ritzi offers to go home, but Crater redirects the driver to Coney Island. Crater books a hotel room for the two of them and it is here that Crater is last seen.

The rest of the novel moves both forward and back from alternating perspectives of Crater’s wife, maid, and mistress, to show the investigation following the disappearance and also the back story that finally reveals what happened to Crater and who was involved.

Here are the two questions we’re talking about:

1. What does this book say about wives or about the experience of being a wife?

2. In what way does this woman define “wife”—or in what way is she defined by “wife”?

Maria, the maid, is married to a member of the NYPD whom Crater pulls some strings to promote to detective. Following this favor, he says to Maria, “I do wonder . . . how the daughter of Spanish immigrants managed to snag one of New York’s finest.” (p. 19) Stella defends Maria, but adds, “You are smart enough to know that a woman is only as good as her husband is. The better off he is, the better off you are. Many women don’t understand that.”

She is speaking of the times, of course, when the financial quality of a woman’s life was really only as good as her husband. Stella has scarified everything in terms of personal choice and peace (and, yes, integrity) in order to enjoy her life of luxury with a corrupt and wealthy politician. At the possibility of ruin, she cries,

“If they [find and convict Joe], it ruins everything . . . My life! Everything we built. Every night I spend alone. Every compromise I made for him. Every one of Joe’s affairs. Not to mention every penny we have. All for nothing!” (p. 226) Stella’s extreme dependence on her husband for a certain lifestyle puts her in shackles, and she is stripped of any power to speak up or to expect respect from her husband.

However, marriage appears happier, kinder, safer, and more equal for the working class Maria and Ritzi, who has a husband in the book (I can’t say much more about Ritzi’s marriage without giving things away). Maria works two jobs as a maid and a tailor and is married to a man who loves her fiercely. Jude is very protective of Maria, and for good reason given the circumstances, but there is that sense that as a wife she needs to be protected. While in the bath together one evening, there is this interesting imagery:

“Their knees rose from the water like mountain peaks from mist, and she was locked between his legs.” (p. 234)

Jude will work hard to protect Maria, even decades after her death.

Finally, Ritzi, despite also being locked in her own shackles as a puppet for Owney Madden, has an iron will that drives her to try and take charge of her life on her own terms, as much as she possibly can given her own difficult circumstances and the constraints on women at the time. In the very few scenes that we see her with her husband, we get the sense that he is someone who loves her as she is, as he accepts her under less than ideal circumstances.

I think it is no coincidence that the most internally liberated woman in this story is the one in the most (presumably) egalitarian marriage. Ritzi is the one who has the greatest sense of autonomy and confidence in herself.


Overall I found The Wife, the Maid, and the Mistress a fun, entertaining, and fast read. I enjoyed it in part for the mystery but more for the story about women. It’s a story about what it meant to be a woman in the early decades of the 20th century and it’s a story about husbands and wives. I can’t say that I was terribly surprised at the ending but it was still an entertaining read with some twists and a conclusion that will satisfy those readers who don’t enjoy loose ends, like those that exist in the real life story of Joseph Crater.

Please also check out my fellow book club members for their take on the book!

Ariel of One Little Library 

Audra of Unabridged Chick – Audra has a wonderful Q&A up with Ariel Lawhon, with questions from us.

Carolyn O of Rosemary and Reading Glasses

Emily of The Bookshelf of Emily J. 


Lynn of Smoke & Mirrors