Cultural Loss Over the Years

Tomorrow is the Lunar New Year or, as we’ve been calling it for many years, Chinese New Year.

My memories of this holiday growing up are vivid. My mother would spend days scouring the house from top to bottom like a mad woman, because a huge part of the tradition is to clean out the old and presumably evil spirits in order to ring in the new year on a literally clean slate. With a traditional (read: didn’t lift a finger) husband who was always at work anyway and two uncooperative children who couldn’t see the point, my mother was at her crankiest on the days leading up to New Year’s. Every year we spent those final days of the year wishing we could have our old mom back.

Then there were the rules. We had to get our hair cut the week before New Year’s, even when we didn’t need a haircut. We weren’t allowed to say anything remotely hinting of ill fate or that included any version of the word death (as in “Ha ha ha, you’re killing me!” or “Wow, I would die for those shoes!”). Worst of all, we were forbidden to shower, bathe, or wash our hair on New Year’s Day lest we cleansed all the good that had by then reached our bodies (which only led to more cursing about how we were going to die of stink).

And there was the food, lots of it. Chinese New Year is celebrated on not just one day but over a period of two weeks. We had an enormous dinner on New Year’s Eve and another large meal on New Year’s Day to “open” the year. Two weeks later, we would close out the celebrations with another final large dinner.

My brother and I met these meals with some groaning. Because Chinese New Year dinner is not spring rolls and sesame chicken and sweet and sour pork (well, not that my mother ever made those dishes (they’re not real Chinese food, you know)). New Year dinner was a big, pimply, ghost-white chicken with its loopy head and neck still on the plate. It was dishes and dishes of healthy blandness that we normally never saw during the year, with ingredient names like “dizzy ear” and unidentifiable foods that looked like tangled hair.

Chinese New Year, to me, was a lot of Chinese-ness that went against my whole plan to be American and “normal.” So I mopped the floor (reluctantly) and skipped the showers (until I was brave enough to dare the evil spirits to take me on) and ate the bloody chicken (there was literally still some blood in the cracks of the bones). Until about fifteen years ago, which is the last time I celebrated Chinese New Year. Because of my time in Japan and then my work schedule, I haven’t been back to spend any of the holidays with my parents in all these years.

During this time, of course, I’ve formed a family of my own. We’re a tri-cultural family now living in America and following American traditions. Lack of access to ingredients, information, and shared celebratory spirits is one major reason. There’s also the lack of confidence. My Singaporean friend suggested getting together for New Year dinner, and I immediately felt overwhelmed at the prospect of cooking for the occasion. I wouldn’t know where to start. What to cook? How to cook it? How to shop for ingredients?

But maybe saddest is my lack of connection. I’d spent so much of my youth rejecting my heritage, seeing and looking for all the parts that threatened my chances of being accepted in America. By the time I became more curious about my Chinese roots, I’d already distanced myself too much. I sometimes view the Chinese culture now the way any foreigner would.

I only realized how far I was when Fred once remarked, in a crowd of Chinese people, that he and I were the only non-Chinese. He knew he was American and he knew he was Japanese, but he did not know that a significant part of him has its roots in China.

But is this something that I need to worry about? Why does it need to be important for me to maintain my heritage, when obviously I had made my choices long ago in terms of how to live and who I wanted to live as? I think the sadness for me is that in loosening my connection to my heritage, I feel I am losing some part of a shared identity with my parents. We all disconnect in some ways and to some degree as we mature into adulthood. Being on the other side of the cultural divide within my own family just seems more severe, an ultimately necessary part of feeling at home in my own country but a division I hadn’t anticipated.

A Literary Trip Down Memory Lane, from Girlhood to Midlife

It’s my birthday week. Though I’m in far less celebratory spirits than I was when I turned, say, 21 or 25, I’ve made the decision to not rain on my own parade. So in celebration of my, er, maturity, I thought I’d take a trip down memory lane and talk about some of the books that have accompanied me on my slightly turbulent, often clueless, and always eye-opening journey to middle age.

Books that made me happy and feel like a kid

I thank books and their gifted authors for rescuing me during those stressful years when my family immigrated to the States. I’m honestly so grateful that I learned to read quickly since that was the activity I depended on to stay sane. I read and loved many books but these three stand out because they were so much fun:

The Ramona series, by Beverly Cleary

The Mrs. Piggle Wiggle series, by Betty MacDonald

Harriet the Spy, by Louise Fitzhugh

The first books that made me really think and feel

In late elementary school I began to gravitate toward the kinds of stories that I would eventually seek as an adult: human stories about inner conflicts, struggle, and growth:

A Summer to Die, by Lois Lowry

Deenie / Are You There, God? It’s Me, Margaret, by Judy Blume

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, by Betty Smith

Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl, by Anne Frank

Books I read on the verge of becoming a woman

One summer during my teens my mother confronted me about my copy of Judy Blume’s Forever, which she found in my bookcase. I got angry at her for snooping around in my room but decided not to tell her that I actually hadn’t picked up the book again since I was twelve (or was it eleven?). Hormones and curiosity were running high, and these were some of the more memorable books that opened my eyes to sex, lust, love, passion, and a world with the opposite sex:  

Forever, by Judy Blume

The Thorn Birds, by Colleen McCullough

Flowers in the Attic / Petals on the Wind / If There Be Thorns, by V.C. Andrews

The Scarlet Letter, by Nathaniel Hawthorne

Wuthering Heights, by Emily Brontë

Looking for Mr. Goodbar, by Judith Rossner

Delta of Venus, by Anaïs Nin

Good Bye, Columbus, by Philip Roth

A Doll’s House, by Henrik Ibsen

Books I read while exploring an emerging adult identity

It was during college and graduate school that I began to really notice the negative space around me. How had I been shaped by biology, circumstances, geography, and history? I began appreciating what it meant to be a woman and racial minority in the United States. Here are some of the books that made an impression or impact on me during this time:

The Bell Jar / The Journals of Sylvia Plath, by Sylvia Plath

Jane Eyre, by Charlotte Brontë

The Awakening, by Kate Chopin

The Yellow Wallpaper, by Charlotte Perkins Gilman

The Woman Warrior, by Maxine Hong Kingston

Invisible Man, by Ralph Ellison

This Bridge Called My Back: Writings by Radical Women of Color, by Cherríe Moraga and Gloria Anzaldua

Making Face, Making Soul/Haciendo Caras: Creating Perspectives by Feminists of Color, by Gloria Anzaldua

Strangers from a Different Shore, by Ronald Takaki

Reviving Ophelia, by Mary Pipher and Ruth Ross

Books as therapists

And then I started looking for Mr. Right…and was so clueless as to why I kept dating nasty men that I began turning to the kinds of books that I had to hide in my underwear drawer whenever I had guests over. This is just a fraction of the self-help books that lined my shelves during my twenties and just those with the less embarrassing titles. The very last one I bought was The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work, which I read together with Max when we were engaged. Since then I haven’t read another book on relationships; now I figure that the best way to understand my husband is to talk to him myself.

He’s Scared, She’s Scared: Understanding the Hidden Fears that Sabotage Your Relationships, by Steven A. Carter

You Just Don’t Understand: Women and Men in Conversation, by Deborah Tannen

The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work: A Practical Guide from the Country’s Foremost Relationship Expert, by John M. Gottman

Books that helped me in the hardest, most perplexing job in the world

This is only a tiny fraction of all the books I have read, purchased, or borrowed on the subjects of pregnancy, labor and birth, childrearing, and child development. These two that introduced me to the sisterhood of motherhood were among my favorites because honestly, the non-judgmental sisterhood is the only thing I’ve needed besides an equal parenting partner.

The Girlfriends’ Guide to Pregnancy, by Vicki Iovine

Operating Instructions: A Journal of My Son’s First Year, by Anne Lamott

The first book I read for fun since becoming a parent

I read this while bleary-eyed from sleep deprivation during Fred’s first year and I even read it with one hand on the frying pan. It was a fun page-turner that made me realize I can make time for reading no matter how exhausted and overwhelmed I am. After this, I slowly eased back into pleasure reading for the first time in a long time.

The DaVinci Code, by Dan Brown

The book that I needed to read

Those peak career and parenting years are a self-absorbed time. With a tunnel vision I focused on my own family while allowing my parents to fade into the background. Then one day I picked up Please Look After Mom by Kyung-Sook Shin and I was devastated. It’s the story of an elderly Korean woman who goes missing in a crowded Seoul subway station, and over the days and weeks that her husband and grown children try to find her, each family member reflects on his or her past with the woman. Almost all have regrets of not having appreciated enough the woman who had given her life to them. I recognized myself in the grown children and my mother in the elderly woman.

In the years since I’ve begun to develop a new relationship with my mother, and for the first time I learned of her early love for reading and writing, how she grew up in rural China with almost no books except a few Russian novels in translation that belonged to a cousin…and she would devour them, staying up until three in the morning, reading by lantern light. Instead of looking at my mother as someone from a foreign time and place, I’m now seeing her as a woman who was once a girl with interests and dreams very similar to my own.

Thank you, Mom, for giving me a life so rich with books and hope and love and opportunity.

Please Look After Mom, by Kyung-Sook Shin

What books have left a mark on you? What did you enjoy reading while growing up? And did you also read V.C. Andrews? 😉

On Burning Out and Getting Away

For years I fell into a state of malaise between January and March. I’d have a sudden need to withdraw socially, turning down invitations from friends to get together, feeling intense dread over having to talk on the phone or sometimes even respond to emails. And, as usual, I’d wonder what was wrong with me. Then one day I found this:

  • Withdrawing from responsibilities
  • Isolating yourself from others
  • Procrastinating, taking longer to get things done
  • Using food, drugs, or alcohol to cope
  • Taking out your frustrations on others
  • Skipping work or coming in late and leaving early


These are the symptoms of burnout.

It all began to make sense. My work is seasonal, meaning I do about 80% of my year’s work in a period of five months. About 20% of that work is then crammed into about two weeks over Christmas and New Year’s. Deadlines are back to back and I have little control over the pace as I am dependent on client behavior. Apparently perfectionistic tendencies and a need for control contribute to burnout as well.

I’ve taken what measures I can to reduce the stress in my work, including reducing my client load. Otherwise, I’ve come to accept its cyclical nature and the temporary impact that it has on me, and to instead learn how to work with and recover from it.

One of the things that helps is getting away, and so last weekend, after my official peak season was over, we took a short holiday to hang out in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina. Florida it is not (temperature-wise), but we wanted an ocean, even if it was too cold to swim in, and we found a resort with two indoor water parks. The perk of going to a cold beach in the off-season is that you can take advantage of some great rates. We got this room where we were able to see the ocean from our beds.


And then we lucked out on Monday, as the temperature warmed up enough for us to stay on the beach for an entire afternoon.


One of my goals this year, by the way, is to do more literary travel. I had a goal to check out several bookstores in Myrtle Beach, though I only made it to two and liked only one, a small used bookstore called Bookends where I hung out for a good 90 minutes while Max and Fred waited in the car, playing videogames. Bookends is quite generous (in my opinion) and I was able to sell four or five of my old books for $10. I then walked out with another three, like I really need to add anything more to my reading list.


As much as I love Max and Fred, I also realized at one point that Max and I really should have given each other more alone time this trip. I don’t know why we enter vacations with glorified images of how perfect everything is going to be, because the three of us attached at the hip for days on end isn’t made more pleasant just because we have an ocean view.

Anyway, on our final evening I left the water park early, promising to get into the shower first so I could free up the bathroom for the two boys when they got back. Instead, I noticed the sun setting in the sky, and decided to run out to the beach to capture a few shots before evening settled. Walking toward the ocean alone I had an almost indescribable feeling – (warning and apologies: cliches forthcoming) of being free, of feeling at peace, and of being overwhelmed by the enormity of the beauty around me. I couldn’t help picturing myself in Kate Chopin’s The Awakening minus the ocean suicide. It was that awesome.



How do you deal with fatigue, stress, or burnout?

Midlife Crisis?

I recently saw The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, which stars Ben Stiller in the role of 42-year-old Walter Mitty. Walter is a quiet, mild, play-it-safe kind of guy who frequently escapes into vivid daydreams in which he is a superhero doing all the daring and admirable things that he can’t or won’t do in real life. And then one day he changes. It was a sweet, silly, funny, inspiring, predictable Hollywood movie which the three middle-aged people in my party enjoyed, in large part because we could all see a bit of ourselves in it. Or, perhaps, I should speak only for myself.

I was that quiet, play-it-safe kind of gal, for a very long time. Circumstances created her just as they had created Walter Mitty, who was a mohawk-bearing, skateboarding teenager until his father suddenly died. Left with little savings, Walter picked up two part-time jobs that same week, and the seed of the risk-averse and conservative adult was planted. Early on my immigrant parents had drummed into my head that security was #1. Save money and stay close to home. Find a career that offers lifetime stability. Marry a husband from the same ethnic group and same city. Change was bad, as were uncertainty and excitement.

I went along with all of this, until I no longer could.

I still remember a recurring dream that I had for a year, one that awoke me with my heart racing every time. I was in an enormous place – a building, or a house – with no visible exit. The owners of the place were planning to kill me, but they would also kill me if I tried to escape.

At the end of that year, a series of opportunities fell into place and I won a one-year traveling fellowship to Japan. The moment I made that decision to move, my recurring dream stopped. The owners in my dream were my parents, whose expectations of me to stay close to them and to follow their instructed path were beginning to stifle me.

One year in Japan turned into eight, and it was there that I met Max, became a mother, created a professional name and started a business. Because of what I experienced and how much I grew, I will encourage Fred to one day consider living abroad, even if it means having him an ocean apart.

So I have my break-out adventure under my belt, a handful of experiences checked off my bucket list. But now, in my 40s, I feel that I’ve come full circle. For the last ten years, ever since I became a parent and a work-from-home business owner, I’ve retreated…retreated from the larger world I used to be a part of and from the larger person that I used to be. Instead of wanting more, I want the same. I wonder where that hunger has gone, that almost insatiable craving to live out of my comfort zone.

It’s a natural progression, you might say; maybe evolution or biology requires me to crave and create security during my early mothering years. In Japanese the word for wife is okusan, literally, “the one deep within/inside.” Without conforming to anyone’s expectations, I have become her, the one deep inside.

The other reasoning, equally valid, is the fact that my eight years in Tokyo were so intense. 70-hour work weeks. Constant pressure under the gun of being terminated to produce and to add to the company’s bottom line. Elbow-to-elbow everyone and everything and everywhere. Language barriers, cultural adjustments. Every minute of every day was a trip beyond my comfort zone. I think I’ve since swung the other direction because I’ve been seeking equilibrium.

The problem now is that, after nine years of this quiet life – which, to be quite honest, I very much enjoyed the first eight years – I’m starting to feel a bit Walter Mitty-ish. I like my lifestyle but I don’t; I’m comfortable but I’m not. What I do know is that I don’t want to go back to my previous life. I don’t want to work 60 or 70 hours a week; I don’t want the stress of networking and being “out there” and making a name. Maybe my life cycle is eight years in one direction, eight years in another. Maybe it’s also the fact that my son is turning ten. He no longer needs my constant care; he’s growing, and so am I, or so I have to. The question now is, in what direction do I go? How do I want to live? Because that young woman in Japan, the one who reveled in being free and unencumbered and in securing each new professional rung on the ladder, no longer exists.

Image courtesy

Image courtesy

A Quiet Psychological “Thriller”: A Pale View of Hills, by Kazuo Ishiguro

A Pale View of Hills (1982) is the first novel by Kazuo Ishiguro, author of The Remains of the Day. It is about a middle-aged Japanese woman, pvh_onlyoublogEtsuko, presumably in the months following the suicide of her elder daughter. Etsuko is from Nagasaki, Japan but has since emigrated to England. A visit from her younger daughter and a dream trigger memories of a mysterious old friend named Sachiko, and Etsuko begins ruminating on that summer back in Nagasaki when they first met, some time after the atomic bombing.

Sachiko is a single mother that summer, with a lonely and equally mysterious child, Mariko. In Etsuko’s reflections we learn of Sachiko’s desperation to move to America, falling for the seemingly empty promises of an American man named Frank. We also learn of Sachiko’s inadequate maternal instincts, as Etsuko continuously finds Mariko alone or lost, but is met by a surprisingly nonchalant attitude from the mother. Mariko is often running away on her own, even in the dark, and spends much time along the river. She is also insistent about her sightings of an unknown woman “beyond the river,” claims that Sachiko constantly dismisses. In fact, Sachiko dismisses so much about her daughter. Near the end of the book, in her preparation to move closer to the U.S., she drowns Mariko’s kittens in an act that sends Mariko running away at night toward the river.

The story moves quietly and at times subtly chillingly, with a frequent sense of forboding. As a reader I wondered how the story of Sachiko and Mariko related to Etsuko and her daughter’s suicide, and then in one unexpected twist in the final ten pages of the book, I understood. Or, I didn’t. I had my interpretation, but I wasn’t sure if it was the “right” one. It was 11:20 p.m. when I got to the last page and I immediately flipped back to page 1 and re-read the first 95 pages to look for clues I may have missed.

The next day I began doing an internet search for analyses of the story. One blogger summed up the different possible interpretations, and I realized I had reached the most commonly held one. Then a day or two later I found this interview with Ishiguro himself, in which he pretty much cleared up his intentions with the story.

This is a book that has really stayed with me. It’s not a thriller in the traditional sense, but a subtle mystery of the human mind: about memory, guilt, coping, and the way we shape our personal narratives as we move through life.

I absolutely loved Ishiguro’s writing. Even more is said in the words that are not spoken and I find this understated style very powerful and appealing. The following passage is the spookiest I can remember ever reading, and it scared me to the point where I couldn’t go into my darkened kitchen to get the glass of water I so needed at 11:30 that night:

The little girl was watching me closely. “Why are you holding that?” she asked.

“This? It just caught around my sandal, that’s all.”

“Why are you holding it?”

“I told you. It caught around my foot. What’s wrong with you?” I gave a short laugh. “Why are you looking at me like that? I’m not going to hurt you.”

Without taking her eyes from me, she rose slowly to her feet.

“What’s wrong with you?” I repeated.

The child began to run, her footsteps drumming along the wooden boards. She stopped at the end of the bridge and stood watching me suspiciously. I smiled at her and picked up the lantern. The child began once more to run.” (page 173)

Ishiguro never reveals what is caught around this woman’s foot, nor does he ever explain why the woman is in this situation or conversation with the girl. We assume the woman is holding a rope, and it’s the second time a scene like this appears. Earlier in the book there is reference to a serial killer and a series of child hangings in Nagasaki. Some questions go unanswered in the story, and Ishiguro in his interviews has admitted to having written a flawed book with too many loose ends, this being his first novel and all. Nevertheless, for me the unspoken adds to the mood of the story and in turn becomes as mysterious and frightening as our minds allow it to be. I thoroughly enjoyed and appreciated the intelligent and quiet thrill of a ride I got in reading A Pale View of Hills, and I’ve since added Ishiguro to my list of must-read authors.

Have you read A Pale View of Hills? How do you feel about unreliable narrators in general and stories with loose ends or endings that are open to interpretation?

Favorite Reads in 2013 (part 2)

Toward the end of 2013 I started to get inspired by all the different favorite book lists that were floating around the internet, particularly those that compiled favorites from different people (“Bill in Accounting loved Inferno; Barbara in Human Resources loved The Divergent series,” ;-)). So I thought it’d be fun to put together my own list.

I asked my fellow book club members in Literary Wives for their favorite titles from 2013 and also some of my book-loving friends. I do apologize for the dearth of male opinions here as I realized that the majority of my reading friends are women. 😦

Alexandra at Good Day, Regular People

My favorite book this year was one I read twice, it was so good, I had to have it again. The Slippery Year, by Melanie Gideon. Loved this book because I found myself in it on every single page. Melanie questions life, parenthood, marriage, aging, the passage of time, her friends, her choice to stay home, happiness, loving your children too much, all of it… and she never pretends that she has answers that others don’t. Her book is like finding that one friend who understands you without you ever having to explain. That one friend who accepts you, without judging, and finds you wonderful. She made me laugh out loud with her sweet honesty and trust, and each page leaves you feeling as if you’ve just been whispered confidences. Melanie leans in and trusts you with questions like Do people like her? How do you know people like you? Why don’t people like her? Is the school carpool lane this difficult for everyone? It’s impossible to not fall deep in love with Melanie Gideon, and even if you don’t have a close friend like Melanie in real life, you’ll always have the endearing friendship of someone who taps the ground first before she takes a solid step, whenever you open The Slippery Year.
Melanie Gideon says it all in her books’ introduction, “I am one of the millions who is currently walking around in a daze, no longer recognizing herself, wondering ‘Is this all there is?’ The Slippery Year is about grabbing hold of yourself, before you slip away. This book is gorgeous, quirky, and pierced my heart with its tenderness.

Ariel at One Little Library

I think my favorite was I’ll Be Seeing You by Suzanne Hayes and Loretta Nyhan. I loved so much about this book. It was a beautiful, touching epistolary novel, with the two main characters writing back and forth to each other. And that’s how the authors wrote it: they wrote back and forth to each other and they’ve never met! I also love that there is so much timeless advice about love and life. The characters are everlastingly hopeful in the face of a terrible war. And they share recipes!

Click here for Ariel’s review of the book from June.


The editor of this blog has given me permission (i.e., begged me) to submit more than one book because male voices are so underrepresented in her post. Here are two:

I don’t know what this says about me but my favourite 2013 book was one written for nine year olds. It’s Jedi Academy by Jeffrey Brown, a graphic novel of sorts about a boy who longs to follow in the footsteps of his father and brother and become a fighter pilot. The pilot school, however, rejects his application and he ends up at the Jedi Academy, a place where he doesn’t fit in. It’s about experiences we can all relate to: dealing with disappointment, finding the people we’re comfortable with who become our friends, feeling a little flush when talking with a crush, facing bullies, and learning and growing as a person, in and out of class. Jedi Academy is a terrific book with life lessons presented in a witty, funny, light-hearted way in the context of the Star Wars universe (the gym teacher is a roaring Wookie who wears a whistle around her neck and Yoda muses that “hunger leads to anger.”)

Last year I was really into military history; the best of what I read was Blackhawk Down (1999) by Mark Bowden, about a small group of U.S. Special Forces dropped onto the streets of Mogadishu, Somalia to capture a warlord. What was supposed to be a quick mission became a debacle, with American soldiers being dragged through the streets by the crowds. Bowden does a masterful job of recounting the frenetic, harrowing, and heart-wrenching action of the ordeal. From the exact dialogue of the combatants to the description of sights and sounds like walls shattering above people’s heads from mortar shells, he makes you feel as if you are right there with them. At one point a soldier loses his hearing from all the shooting he and his partner are doing–just one of many, many details that makes this book come alive.

Carolyn at Rosemary and Reading Glasses

Of the books I read that were published in 2013, it’s difficult to pick a favorite. For beautiful, lyrical composition I’d go with Paul Yoon’s Snow Hunters; for structural inventiveness, Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life; for brilliant creation of a new world, Hanya Yanagihara’s The People in the Trees. But best all-around goes to Anthony Marra’s haunting, disturbing, joyful debut, A Constellation of Vital Phenomena.

Click here for Carolyn’s review of the book from December.

Emily at The Bookshelf of Emily J.

I have so many books that I loved this year, but if it is okay, I’m going to go with one that isn’t fiction. It was A Midwife’s Tale: The Life of Martha Ballard, Based on Her Diary 1785-1812 (1990) by Laurel Thatcher Ulrich.  I loved it because it is a glimpse into the past of a woman who was a professional.  The author is known for coining the phrase “well-behaved women seldom make history,” and this analysis of Martha Ballard’s diary is an example of how a woman didn’t make history, but her diary has survived all of these years to highlight the important contributions she made to her community through her quiet life of work and service.

Click here for Emily’s review of the book from July.


My favorite would have to be Life After Life by Kate Atkinson because it is so inventive in its approach. Aside from telling an entertaining story, it makes profound comments about how small things that we do can affect much larger issues.

Click here for Kay’s review of the book from May. 

Lynn at Smoke & Mirrors

Historical Fiction novels enthralled me the most in 2013: The Aviator’s Wife by Melanie Benjamin and A White Wind Blew by James Markert were my favorites. The former has been the recipient of much well-deserved praise, whereas the latter hasn’t had as much press… All our book club members appreciated this story about the Waverly Hills TB sanatorium in Louisville, Kentucky, following WWI. Although broad in scope, A White Wind Blew presents issues of the day through finely honed characters and a sense of place that make for an unforgettable novel–these people are real to me!!

Lynn has a review of The Aviator’s Wife here.


Sonia Sotomayor’s “big-hearted” autobiography, My Beloved World was my favorite book of 2013.

Sotomayor’s story is awe-inspiring, ongoing, hopeful. Her words jumped from the pages directly into my heart. I felt like a superficial cheerleader in some parts, wanting to chant support alongside; while in other areas, I felt less personal but more drawn to see what one individual could do for an entire nation of people.  She squashes the cliche that everyone can make a difference. It’s true!

I have always enjoyed the human interest side of news when we hear about someone who overcame extreme obstacles and reached a goal. Sotomayor would be the most unlikely to succeed on a reality show today, and she has come to hold a seat in the most powerful positions in the US.


My favorite read was a volume of 8 books called Ryoma Ga Yuku by Ryotaro Shiba, about the visionary leader Ryoma Sakamoto who contributed to the formation of modern Japan. This was written unlike anything I had ever read in history classes during school. I read these in Japanese and think it is a shame they are not translated into English. However, you can also find works written in English about Sakamoto.

Ryoma Sakamoto was a low-class samurai who was able to foresee Japan’s need to modernize and to open itself up to the rest of the world. He helped overthrow the Tokugawa Shogunate, ending Japan’s feudal structure, and paved the way for modern Japan. I learned many things about my country of origin for the first time, since I hated the way that history was taught in Japanese schools. I also came to understand why the Japanese think and act the way that they do. I recommend reading about Ryoma Sakamoto to anyone who is interested in modern Japan.

Ngan at Ngan Made It

My favorite book I read in 2013 was Anthony Marra’s debut novel, A Constellation of Vital Phenomena.  I enjoyed Marra’s expressive writing style and play with chronology as much as I enjoyed the story itself.  It is a beautifully written tale chronicling the plight of a local doctor who rescues an orphan girl in war-torn Chechnya.  This book left an indelible mark on me, not for its darkness and weight, but for the hope and renewal that pulsed beneath the surface of this tale of strangers fighting to survive together in uncertain times.
Click here for Ngan’s review from May.
Rudri at Being Rudri
Heartfelt vignettes in Cheryl Strayed’s Tiny Beautiful Things pierce through the reader’s heart in these essays about love, life, and loss. Strayed’s advice not only brings you to tears, but also lingers with you months after reading the book. I find myself revisiting some of these essays and rereading passages that I’ve underlined. If therapy is not an option, don’t walk, but run to the nearest place for this book. You will not regret it.
The Age Of Miracles by Karen Thompson Walker is my fiction pick. In this debut novel, we learn that a seismic shift changes the way that time operates on Earth. The days are becoming longer and longer and this change is seen through the perspective of a young teenage girl named Julia. We see how her personal world unravels and how she struggles to preserve her life despite how everything around her, literally, is crumbling. Haunting prose, human truths, and an interesting premise will keep readers engaged in learning how the protagonist makes sense of her life. Through Walker’s writing, we also get a glimpse of how so much of our lives are gripped with uncertainty and the actions we take to keep holding on. I read this book in one sitting because I just could not leave Julia’s life. It felt like I, too, would abandon her.
My book pick of 2013 is The Cuckoo’s Calling.
What impressed me was J.K. Rowling’s ability to write well in both the fantasy and mystery realms. Written under a pseudonym, Rowling left no stone unturned with “The Cuckoo’s Calling”. A detective is hired to investigate the death of a famous model. Was it a suicide or was she pushed off the balcony? I could not put it down once I started. I have to admit I picked up the book for two reasons: it was written by Rowling – I loved the Harry Potter series – and I am a sucker for mystery novels. I loved the characters in the book as they were well-developed and utterly believable,  and the writing was witty and flawless.
If you still can’t get enough of 2013 book lists, here are some more, at the following blogs that I enjoy:
And if you missed the post of my personal favorites, here it is: Favorite Reads in 2013 (part 1).

On feeling important and valued, and a Tale for the Time Being (in progress)

I usually alternate my book posts and my “life” posts, but today I’m going to write both.

My first read of the new year is Ruth Ozeki’s 2013 Booker Prize finalist, A Tale for the Time Being, which I’m still in the middle of reading (and enjoying quite a lot). It’s the story of a writer, Ruth, who finds a Hello Kitty lunch box washed up on shore near her home on a Canadian island. When she opens the lunch box she finds the handwritten diary of a seemingly perky teenage girl, Nao, in Tokyo. She begins reading it, and learns quickly that Nao is in fact planning to kill herself. Nao recently returned to Japan with her parents after having spent her whole life in California, and she is being bullied relentlessly at school and her father is unable to find employment. Her father, thinking that he is of no use to the family, throws himself in front of an oncoming commuter train in a failed attempt to end his life.

What’s struck me so far, aside from the fact that the language is a lot lighter and funnier than what my description may lead you to believe, is the idea of feeling important. Nao writes in her diary:

“I hope you understand that I don’t think he [her homeroom teacher who participated in her bullying] was a bad man. I just think he was very insecure and could convince himself of anything, the way insecure people can. Like my dad, for example, who can convince himself that his suicide will not harm me or my mom because actually we’ll be better off without him, and at some point in the not-so-distant-future we’ll realize this and thank him for killing himself.” (page 78)

Both Nao and her dad have suicidal fantasies. Neither feels wanted. Nao feels unwanted for obvious reasons: her classmates actually hold a fake funeral for her in homeroom and make no bones about the fact that they don’t appreciate her existence. But Nao’s dad’s sense of not being needed seems more self-imposed. He’s unable to provide for his family, feels ashamed for not fulfilling his role, and believes that his family will be better off without him. (I haven’t read any evidence of his family actually rejecting him.) It’s only after he sees Nao’s devastated reaction that he realizes he was wrong in his perception of his place in the family.

This got me thinking about the whole concept of feeling entitled – to love, to owning a space in someone’s life. This theme struck me because I’ve felt both loved and not in different areas of my life, and I have known others who have felt the same. What makes us feel wanted and needed? And how do we show others that we want and need them?

For all the griping I’ve done about the often too-close relationship that I have had with my mother, she at least gifted me with a strong self-worth within my family. And because she took her role as a mother so seriously, I carried that importance with me when I became a mother too. I know I am needed, by sheer title alone. I know my place in our family, I know I have a critical role to fulfill, and I know that my loved ones would be devastated if anything were to happen to me.

That may sound obvious to many, but I mention it because I’ve been surprised and hurt to hear important people doubt their self-worth and their place among loved ones. I know that people have walked away from families, or have ended their lives, due to distorted or real views of where they stood in their loved ones’ lives. I have no answers here, only questions.


My early experiences with close friendship were not as positive as my experiences with family. The first “real” friendship that I have clear memories of was with a friend I’ll call M. She and her sister were daughters of my mother’s friend, and we used to all hang out whenever our moms played mahjong together. Then M turned 13 (I was about 11) and she suddenly became mean. She began putting me down about my clothes and my house and led her sister and a couple of mutual friends to begin excluding me, until after a year or two of on-and-off psychological bullying I stopped  accompanying my mother to their house. (And no, I never said a word of any of this to my mother…)

That early experience did define the value I held of myself in terms of girlfriends. I rarely took initiative to start friendships or to pursue them deeply. I left the ball in others’ court. Among groups of friends, I never expected to be included. Then one day during sophomore year I was shocked when a classmate invited me to join her and her friends for a movie. I remember thanking her profusely and she looked at me as if I were crazy. I honestly didn’t realize that my reaction wasn’t normal until I saw her face.

Emmy changed my life, and she gave me the confidence to find more friends like her.

All of this leads me to my next question, which is how do we show others that they are important to us? And the answer is not as forthcoming as I had thought. I am trying to think back to Emmy, and how she made me feel wanted. She was never the sentimental or affectionate type. In fact, she was pretty no-nonsense and blunt. But she included me. She listened. She waited. She always answered my phone calls with “Hey, Seal!” as soon as she knew it was me on the other line, no matter how unenthused she may have sounded when she picked up. Likewise, I think back to the other people in my life over the years who have made me feel valued, and I think about what they did to convince me of it. They included me. They listened. They waited. They were glad to see or hear from me, and they showed it.

It made me think about how I am showing the people in my life that I value them.

How often do I ask questions, and hope to get a long answer? How often do I pick up the phone, and how often do I let it go to voicemail? How often do I carve out time for others, and how often do I say “Unfortunately, I’m working” or “Hurry up!”? When was the last time I invited a friend out for lunch, instead of waiting to be invited? When was the last time I asked for help? When my mother called last time, couldn’t I have mustered a more enthusiastic tone when I heard her voice?

While I know I am important in friends’ and family’s lives, do they know how important they are in mine? I’ve had an extreme need to assert my  independence for most of my life, and in the process I’ve failed to show some of the people I care about most just how much I really need and value them.

Can you relate to any of this? Has rejection or bullying touched any part of your life? Do you allow people into your life and space easily?

Favorite Reads from 2013 (part 1)

I was so eager to make my own favorite books list but then got sidetracked with the holidays and work deadlines. I’m pretty much done now, and can finally start blogging again. Below are the books that I really enjoyed in 2013 (I hope you’re not already sick and tired of these lists!). Most are not new books, just books that I read in 2013. I read many others that I also loved or liked (you can see the whole list here) but ultimately decided to highlight these seven.

A Fort of Nine Towers by Qais Akbar Omar

A Fort of Nine Towers is a deeply personal and tender coming-of-age memoir of a young Afghan man. The story starts when Omar is 9 and concludes when he is a young adult. He chronicles his life and that of his close-knit family amidst the turbulence of all that went on in Afghanistan over the last 30 years. What I found remarkable is that Omar was able to write about such ugliness and fear with incredible beauty and hope. At least once I had to put the book down and cry and yet all I can remember are the beauty and honesty of his writing and his voice. I finished Omar’s memoir so grateful to have entered his world and so grateful that he had the courage to share it.

Tiny Beautiful Things by Cheryl Strayed

Tiny Beautiful Things is a collection of advice “columns” that Cheryl Strayed had written for Rumpus under the pen name Sugar, before she became a household name among readers. I put “columns” in quotation marks because they are really more than that – they’re more like essays. Readers write in with personal stories of pain and grief, from loss to relationship problems to drug addictions to suicide. Sugar’s responses and insights are razor sharp, and she hones in on the real issues in a way that rivals any $200/hour therapist. You don’t need to have gone through the same problems as her readers to come away with important life lessons; I was able to gain something from every letter and I found myself underlining over half the book.

  Interpreter of Maladies by Jhumpa Lahiri

I’d read Lahiri’s novels but not her short stories, for which she is best known. When I finally read this Pulitzer Prize-winning collection I was blown away. She writes about the immigrant experience of Indians but even more universally, she writes about marriage, connection, and loss. Reading her stories made me see how much power a gifted writer can pack into 12 pages and it made me eager to read more short stories in 2014.



East of Eden by John Steinbeck

East of Eden was the first classic that I’d read in several years, and it gave me confidence and incentive to read more. It’s a sweeping saga of two generations and two families in California near the turn of the 20th century. The story centers around two young brothers and is a retelling of the story of Cain and Abel. It is also a story about family, free will, and redemption. There is something about the narrator’s voice and the wisdom of some of the characters that made this a total reading experience for me. The book is a page-turner but the words also made me think long after I put it down.

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot

This book has been huge since it came out a few years ago, and so I was going into this in 2013 with high expectations. To my pleasant surprise, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks lived up to everything I have heard. I loved it and was blown away by the story, the research, and the intimacy of the writing. I was never a “science person” which is why I never picked this up until I found it for $1 at a local used book sale. However, this journalistic-written-like-a-novel account of a poor, black woman in the 1950s who had her cells cultured without permission for the world’s most important medical research is riveting as well as accessible. The week after I finished the book I visited our science museum and went through the biology exhibit with a new eye and new interest.

A Pale View of Hills by Kazuo Ishiguro

A Pale View of Hills is Ishiguro’s first book, a quiet and subtly chilling story about a woman reflecting on her past in Nagasaki, Japan after the suicide of her grown daughter. She talks about a mysterious woman named Sachiko and her daughter Mariko whom she became friends with years ago before she immigrated to England. It is only in the final 20 or so pages of the book that we see the connection between her story and Sachiko’s, and the ending can be open to interpretation (the conclusion can be confirmed in an interview that I found on-line with Ishiguro). I loved this book because of Ishiguro’s understated writing, which says as much if not more through what his characters don’t voice. I also loved it because it appears to open as a meditation on life and yet progresses into a quiet psychological thriller. I finished the book with so many emotions that continually shifted, and few books have made me feel that way. This is a book that you have to talk to someone about once you’ve finished so I will probably be writing a full-length post on it some time in the coming weeks.

Where’d You Go, Bernadette by Maria Semple

As you can see my reading tastes tend to weigh on the heavier side. But one of my favorites last year was Where’d You Go, Bernadette, which was a very fun, funny, smart and layered read. It tells the story of Bernadette, a former star architect battling crazy parent politics at her daughter’s private school, and how on the verge of a nervous breakdown she goes missing one day. It’s a satire of middle class or upper-middle class suburban life, something that I guess a number of us can relate to. I really enjoyed this one and would love to read more books like it. (If you have any recommendations, I’m all ears!)

Later this week I will post Favorite Reads from 2013 (part 2), a list of favorite books by different readers.

What were some of your favorites from last year?