Everyone needs a panda hold onto

End of a week. It’s nearly quarter to five Friday night and of course I shouldn’t still be up, but I did the thing again.

I just stood on the scale after avoiding it for a few days. Pleasant surprise. If my scale is to be believed (and I’m seldom convinced it is), I’m down seven pounds in three weeks and I’m down seventeen pounds since June 1. It’s been something of a roller coaster in between, so I’m really not looking back to June 1, the day I brought the scale home from Target.

However, the three weeks thing is a big deal to me because I’ve been actively trying to drop some pounds. More on that later.

We had our holiday party at work this afternoon via Zoom, as we did last year. It was pretty fun for a Zoom gathering. We had a couple of games and a fun gift drawing based on our performances during the games. It was also blessedly short, but of course its being (comparatively) brief means it was quite lacking in interpersonal goodwill, the vibe I most like about our holiday gatherings.

This stupid virus.

I’m feeling super down about the news these days, and the news is not especially bad. It’s just the normal bad. I think I’m feeling super sensitive to it lately.

Thursday I finished the book I’ve been reading during my lunch breaks. Every Day the River Changes: Four Weeks Down the Magdalena (2021) by Jordan Salama. I don’t read very much travel writing, yet I always enjoy it when I do. Saw mention of it on Twitter one day and bought it on impulse. And yeah, the title.

Today I got into Kazuo Ishiguro’s Klara and the Sun (2021). So far so good. I’m leading a book discussion group in the office and this is our new selection. I didn’t select the novel, but I’m glad we’re reading it. I’ve meant to get into Ishiguro for a super long time.

Breakfast was overnight oats. Yes, I’m back on the overnight oats train. Lunch was at Panda Express: orange chicken and string bean chicken with super greens. That super greens side is the draw for me. Broccoli, cabbage, and kale. It’s a short walk from the office and by the time I have lunch, there are very few fellow diners. Good space for reading.

Dinner was a small bowl of granola with yoghurt (the yoghurt I made in my Instant Pot last weekend) and raw honey. Second dinner several hours later was a couple of quesadillas with whole-wheat tortillas. Those whole-wheat tortillas, I tell you, are not terrific. At the office, I snacked on pistachios. At home in the evening, I had two palmsful of popcorn: the Smartfood popcorn with Cap’n Crunch crunchberries mixed into it.

Five minutes after five. To bed.

Review: On the Horizon

On the Horizon by Lois Lowry

It turns out Tae Keller, 2021 recipient of the Newbery Medal, is not the first Hawaii writer to win the award. Lois Lowry, who won the medal twice, was born in my home state in 1937 and lived here for a couple of years. As a pre-teen, she moved with her family shortly after World War II to Japan.

Lowry mentions these connections in an author’s note at the back of On the Horizon, a collection of poetry set mostly in 1941 Hawaii and 1945 Japan, telling the stories of people touched by both sides of the war in the Pacific: the beginning and end, the United States and Japan.

Writing poetry for children is supremely difficult. Make it too artsy and it never connects with its audience. Make it too explainable and it loses poetry’s ineffable magic. I’ve seen very few collections that hit the sweet spot consistently, and On the Horizon doesn’t quite do it either.

It’s a really good attempt, though, as Lowry employs a few traditional forms of verse without being teachy or preachy. She sticks mostly to rhyme, but doesn’t settle into a ricky-ticky rhythm that would work against the sobriety of her subject. She’s writing about the deaths of young men in war, after all.

She does use a lilting, melodious voice when writing about her young self, and young readers will likely grab quickly onto these poems:

I wonder, now that time’s gone by
about that day: the sea, the sky . . .
the day I frolicked in the foam,
when Honolulu was my home.

But I appreciate other moments, as when Lowry personifies the ships (a centuries-old tradition) and plays with words a little:

Their places
(the places of the gray metal women)
were called berths.

Arizona was at berth F-7.
On either side, her nurturing sisters:
and Tennessee.

The sisters, wounded, survived.
Arizona, her massive body sheared,
slipped down. She disappeared.

Lowry makes it work, grouping poetry in three sections. “On the Horizon” contains poems set in Hawaii. “Another Horizon” contains poems set in Japan. A third section, “Beyond Horizons,” connects the first with the second in ways I won’t spoil, but the poetry in this last part is the reason to read this book, offering a collective thesis and theme. It’s rather devastating and lovely.

It’s also a keeper. Young readers will find second and third readings rewarding, especially if the grownups around them resist the temptation to unpack it all for them. Here’s hoping they do!

Three of five stars: I like it.

Review: Class Act by Jerry Craft

Class Act (New Kid, #2)Class Act by Jerry Craft (2020)
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Jordan Banks and his classmates at Riverdale Academy Day School are in eighth grade now, no longer the babies of the school, but they’ve got a whole new set of problems to go with some continuing stressors from the year before.

Jordan’s feeling overlooked by Black schoolmates because his skin’s a lot lighter than theirs. He’s self-conscious about his fondness for comic books and drawing, worried they are signs he’s still a child. And the physical aspects of his adolescence don’t seem to have kicked in yet.

His best friends have issues too. Drew still won’t play basketball, his favorite sport, because he doesn’t want to be a stereotype. He’s become increasingly aware of the differences between his experience catching two buses to and from school every day, and some of his friends’ experiences, dropped off and picked up by drivers.

Jordan’s other best friend Liam’s parents never come to his soccer games, and their arguing at night makes it difficult for Liam to get sleep.

In Class Act, Jerry Craft tells the story of a school year, weaving young people’s social weirdness with their school’s awkward, sincere effort to improve multicultural understanding. The themes are heavy, but the storytelling is silly and fun, and Craft’s tone-setting illustration moves between dramatic, melodramatic, whimsical, and poignant as his story dictates.

There are smiles everywhere in this graphic novel, some of them right in your face as the artist parodies popular literature for young readers (including his own book!) or draws emojis next to characters’ faces to show their moods.

Some chuckles are subtler, and likely intended only for the grownups in his audience. In one panel, Jordan and his friends meet in front of an ice cream truck called EZ Like Sundae Mornin’, a visual gag unlikely to be appreciated by even forty-year-old readers, never mind middle-schoolers.

Teachers at RAD attend a conference held by the National Organization of Cultural Liaisons Understanding Equality with never a reference to an acronym. These little, silly touches are everywhere, and they make Class Act a joy to read.

Yet Craft doesn’t try to laugh everything away. When Jordan’s father is pulled over in his car by a white cop, it doesn’t matter if the officer is friendly and helpful. It’s a routine traffic stop for the officer, but there’s no such thing as a routine stop for someone like Jordan’s dad.

Craft’s New Kid won the Newbery Medal in 2020, and as I write this, the announcement for 2021’s recipient is two days away. It would be a first for a writer to win the award in consecutive years, but because Class Act is at least as good as its predecessor, a touching, thoughtful story right for its audience and time, it would be well deserved, and it wouldn’t be a shocker.

Review: The List of Things That Will Not Change

The List of Things That Will Not ChangeThe List of Things That Will Not Change by Rebecca Stead (2020)
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

When Bea’s parents tell her they are splitting up, they give her a green spiral notebook with a green pen. On the first page is the List of Things That Will Not Change. Number one, of course, is “Mom loves you more than anything, always.” And number two is “Dad loves you more than anything, always.”

Bea has trouble managing her feelings. Anger, joy, worry, embarrassment, and guilt don’t always know where to go in Bea, sometimes leading to hurt feelings, injured bodies, profound loneliness, and judging glances by her classmates’ parents.

But she has this notebook, plus two adoring homes and a friend named Miriam, whose office Bea visits once a week. Miriam helps Bea sort her feelings.

Two years after the divorce, she’s still carrying the notebook, occasionally adding to the growing List of Things That Will Not Change even as certain other things do change. Big things.

I continue to be blown away by Rebecca Stead’s agility navigating the daily tragedies of preteen life without a shred of condescension. The classmate bragging about a bottle of root beer. A parent’s new homosexual relationship. They are both highwires for Bea to traverse, and she handles this one gracefully and that one awkwardly, and she doesn’t know why, and the author handles it all with an amazing touch.

There’s a lot in The List of Things That Will Not Change for the middle elementary schooler to sort through, and a lot for the grown-up to help unpack. And it’s quite a rewarding story.

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Review: Utopia Avenue by David Mitchell

Utopia AvenueUtopia Avenue by David Mitchell (2020)
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

David Mitchell wrote the singular Cloud Atlas, a novel so ambitious and creative it deserves first mention even in a review of any other David Mitchell novel. Although I’ve now only read two of his books, I feel okay saying if you read only one, it should be Cloud Atlas. It’s not for everyone, though, so maybe his latest is as good a starting point.

Utopia Avenue is a different creature entirely, and it reminds me not one iota of Cloud Atlas, yet some things are consistent. Mitchell’s fondness for the English language’s music and flow:

On the table is a pot of tea Jasper doesn’t recall making, the core of an apple he doesn’t recall eating, and a page of staves, notes, and lyrics he knows he wrote.

His clever descriptions of people, places, and moments:

It’s a classy Victorian pub with brass fittings, upholstered chair backs, and NO SPITTING signs.

His combining the physical with the cosmic, sometimes without explanation and always without apology:

If a song plants an idea or a feeling in a mind, it has already changed the world.

And always an understated, wry humor:

The cellar of the 2i’s Coffee Bar at 59 Old Compton Street is as hot, dank, and dark as armpits.

It’s set in the second half of 1967 and the first half of 1968, mostly in London, the days following the Summer of Love. Levon Frankland, a band manager, invites four local musicians he admires to form a band. It’s almost Monkees-like, one character observes, but these are players with serious chops, selected not for their looks but their talent and disparate playing styles.

Elf is the folksy singer-songwriter-keyboardist. Jasper is the long-haired psychedelic guitar god. Dean is the bluesy rock bassist. Griff is the jazzy drummer. Each has something to say apart from the others, but the band clicks because each has something to say to the others and with the others.

Utopia Avenue is most enjoyable when the writer captures the musicians’ responses to one another, as they’re performing and as they’re creating. The energy generated and absorbed by each player, and the musical conversation they have with one another, spoken in riffs, fills, and solos, makes the reader want to pick up whatever instrument he or she once studied and get the band back together. Mitchell’s capturing this feeling of creativity in motion is my favorite aspect of this novel.

It’s a great story with compelling characters. When you change your mind about who’s your favorite character from chapter to chapter, a writer has come up with some good ones. Real-world figures play supporting roles: Hendrix, Joplin, and Bowie make appearances, among many others, but where their presence could easily be nostalgia-pandering gimmickry, it is instead the color and flavor of life for this nearly-famous band with talent recognized by successful musicians first, and not yet by the consuming public.

For readers averse to certain cosmologies, the story will bog down a bit near the two-thirds mark. I admit I found myself skipping lines, then forcing myself back to read more attentively. I was happy I slogged through this bit because the payoff is worth it, although I wonder if it would have been a stronger story without it.

Still a highly recommended read, and I may be turning into a David Mitchell fan.

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Review: The Beast Player

The Beast Player (2006; this translation 2019)
Nahoko Uehashi; translated by Cathy Hirano.

The coastal village of Ake is a breeding and training ground for the Toda, ferocious seadragon-like creatures handled with utmost caution by select caretakers.  Elin’s mother is descended from a different people, rumored to have a dangerous magic enabling her to control the Toda.

Elin’s green eyes give her away as descended from the same people, and she seems to have inherited some of the same abilities, but when she’s orphaned as a little girl, she has nobody to instruct her in the lore of her mother’s ancestors or in their abilities.

Nahoko Uehashi’s The Beast Player series, published between 2006 and 2009 in four installments, inspired a manga series and an anime series.  This 2019 English translation by Cathy Hirano combines Uehashi’s first two novels in one volume, and was a Printz honor book and a Batchelder honor book (for young adult literature and translated juvenile literature, respectively), a dual recognition inspiring my purchase.

I was immediately drawn into Uehashi’s elaborate fantasy world’s politics, mythology, and geography, but it’s Elin herself who kept me turning pages.  The young, abandoned woman applies her problem-solving intelligence and innate sympathy for animals to developing profound relationships with a few very kind people.

Yes, Elin is held in some awe when people see her green eyes, but when she engages them, they become better versions of themselves.  This is not the story of a woman gifted with deep understanding of the world’s most feared beasts.  It’s the story of how she uses it to affect the people around her, possibly even in a way that changes centuries of political conflict.

This is the ambition the best fantasy literature sets out with.  Alienation plus special talent plus international conflict is a well-established formula, but set against this new, Japanese-flavored world, it feels special, at least to this half-Japanese reader.  Certain elements remind me of Anne McCaffrey’s Menolly character in Dragonsong and Dragonsinger, but Elin is a special heroine I can’t wait to read more of.

Review: New Kid

New Kid
by Jerry Craft (2019)

Jerry Craft’s New Kid won the 2020 Newbery Medal.  It’s the first graphic novel to be awarded juvenile literature’s most prestigious honor, so it’s worth checking out simply on these merits.

Told episodically over the course of a school year, New Kid is the story of Jordan, an African American teen sent to a private school by his mother, who works in the business world, and his father, who runs a community center.  Jordan’s parents are fully aware that the adjustment is difficult for their middle-schooler, but they value his chance to attend a highly regarded institution, like any parents would, and they do their best to help him get through.

click to view larger (and read text)

There are only a handful of Black students on campus, and they don’t necessarily become Jordan’s best buddies, even while they all experience seeming built-in microaggressions aimed at their otherness.  One teacher never gets Jordan’s name right, a running gag through the novel, and a secret joke for Jordan and one of his Black classmates.

It isn’t only the color of Jordan’s skin that alienates him.  He’s a teen, after all, so alienation is built right in.  Add his newness and his desire to attend art school instead of college prep, and there is plenty of separation for Jordan everywhere he turns.  One of the best things about the novel is an occasional excerpt from Jordan’s sketchbook, where we get a first-person glimpse at his subjective teen experience.  They are hilarious and clever and add a dimension to the narrative you don’t often see in traditional prose.

I’ve spent my life adoring the Newbery, mostly as a reader but also as an educator.  I wrote my Master’s thesis on it, and I therefore have all kinds of biases about what’s Newbery-worthy and what’s not.  I sort of can’t help it: my favorite novel is a Newbery winner, and several other Newbery winners are among my most cherished books.

Graphic novels are a different kind of literature, and it’s silly to pretend they aren’t, with advantages over prose fiction and disadvantages too.  I had to be won over the way I expect every book with the gold medallion on its cover to win me over, but I admit this one had a few additional speedbumps to get over, just because it’s the first of its kind.

It delivers.  Hard.  It’s engrossing, amusing, entertaining, contemporary, emotional, and loaded with attitude.  Craft’s terrific illustrations guide the reader’s attention across the page like the best-crafted verbal narrative.  The artist-writer tells you when to slow down, when to speed up, when to scrutinize little details, and when to take in everything at once.  It’s beautiful and a total joy to read.

Review: Empire State by Jason Shiga

Empire State – A Love Story (or Not) by Jason Shiga (2011)

Jason Shiga’s Empire State is a graphic novel reminiscence of a bus trip from Oakland to New York City, told episodically in a manner best left to the reader’s discovery.  Jimmy aspires to a high-tech career, but he feels trapped in Oakland by familial expectations, a lack of worldliness, and seemingly minimal ambition.

He finds motivation to venture outside the Bay Area when his best friend Sara takes an internship with a New York publishing house.  With romantic notions of seeing the country and romantic notions of confessing his love, he purchases a bus ticket rather than a flight, thinking a bus ride will truly let him experience the country along his way.

Although I find the narrative to be tone-perfect, I’m also a romantic 51-year-old never-married English major who got on a plane in his twenties to propose to a woman.  Others may find the story unsatisfying, the way even great short stories can feel incomplete.

Where Empire State scores best is with an overall slacker, angsty mood.  References to Dreamweaver and Sleepless in Seattle set the era.  Sequences of wordless scenery provide the uncomfortable mundanity of aimless, post-college existence many of us remember as we contemplated stepping into a dreadful world inherited from boomer yuppies.

If you or a friend had a freshly printed college diploma in the mid-to-late 90s and a McJob shelving books in the local library, you’ll recognize Jimmy’s world, and you’ll probably recognize Jimmy, too.

A nice, quick read.


PS: Don’t pass it along right when you’re done.  It rewards a second reading.

2019 Consumption recap: written word

This year, the number of books I read is greater than the number of movies I saw, I’m pretty sure. It’s possibly the first time this has happened since the year I wrote my master’s thesis, although it’s possible the year before getting hired where I work now at least came close. That was a lean year.

Prioritizing sleep and exercise will do this to you, I guess. Especially sleep. Because I dislike crowds, I favor late movies, or matinees on weekdays. The late movies were tougher to attend while being conscious of my sleep hours, and honestly I’ve missed my cinema time.

The other big reason for my film decline is just what it is for most of us: too much media competing for my attention. Shortly after the 2016 election, I resubscribed to the Washington Post, largely out of a sense of responsibility. Most of my daily reading is a balance of the WaPo and Google News, with the Post usually as my breakfast reading.

Of non-fiction, the best thing I read is A History of Heavy Metal by Andrew O’Neil. I still need to go through my notes, which include bands I need to check out and some history I’d like more info on.

For novels, I may remember 2019 as the year of the re-read. I went back to favorites I haven’t read since high school, such as Louise Fitzhugh’s Harriet the Spy, and books I read for my thesis but didn’t have time to soak up as I’d have liked, such as Patricia MacLachlan’s Sarah, Plain and Tall, Lynne Rae Perkins’s Criss Cross, and Linda Sue Park’s A Single Shard.

Also in the old favorites revisted category: Danny Dunn and the Anti-Gravity Paint and Danny Dunn and the Swamp Monster by Jay Williams and Raymond Abrashkin. The fifteen books in this series were among my favorites in fifth and sixth grade, and when I saw that some had been converted to ebook format, I had to see if they are as good as I remember. They’re not, but they’re still quite good. I expect to buy a few more in the series this year.

Of course, what took up most of my time (mid-January to mid-spring, I think) was my first re-read of the Harry Potter books, and my first read of its final installment, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. I don’t understand people who dismiss the series as mere children’s literature, although I don’t understand the dismissal of anything as mere children’s literature. It’s a beautiful story, and while J.K. Rowling is not especially skilled with the language, she’s a heck of a storyteller. I think I’m going to re-read the last book this year.

I’d like to make 2020 the year I finish a bunch of books I started but never completed. I’d like also to read something from the English major canon I never got to, perhaps something Russian or Victorian English.

If that salt has lost its savor, it ain’t got much in its favor

It’s Veterans Day here in the United States, a federal holiday and a state holiday, which when I was a teacher usually meant a one-day weekend. Saturday and Sunday for work, Monday for relaxing. Normal two-day weekends were seldom real weekends — I usually worked both days.

Thank God we have more state holidays than any state in the union. We also have the longest life expectancy, and I don’t think the two are unrelated.

Now that I’m out of the classroom these eight (wow) years, I no longer really work all weekend, but I still put a good amount of time in, either on Saturday or Sunday, so a three-day weekend usually means a normal two-day weekend.

I went to the office Saturday, but only for a literal couple of hours. In the morning, I met two of the NaNo regulars for a small write-in, where I banged out about 4,000 words. Then got a few things moving in the office, then we had Penny’s birthday dinner at Chicken Factory. I was going to try to wring another thousand words or so out of my brain at the boba spot, but I did the Friday 5 instead. It was good for me.

Sunday I did a little bit of tidying up at home and worked on specs for steaming broccoli in the microwave oven. Broccoli is one of my favorite foods and I prefer it blanched above any other method, but I’m trying to take healthier lunches to work during the week, and while blanching isn’t exactly a hassle, if I can work out a good system for microwave steaming, the time and energy I save will be worth the slight decrease in epicuniary pleasure.

I think I’ve almost got it. Also, I ate a ton of broccoli Sunday.

In between attempts, I just napped. It was such a stressful, tiring week. Then I went to the folks’ place to hang out, watch football, do laundry, and have dinner. I did a couple of crossword puzzles, too, which may have been the most therapeutic activity all weekend.

I’d already blocked today off for work and NaNo, and it was pretty productive both ways. I went over the 20K words mark for NaNo (yay) and am ahead of the pace by about a full day, I think. In the very late afternoon I wasn’t feeling physically well, so I took myself for a long walk. Okay, no. I think that was the most therapeutic activity all weekend. During lunch (microwave-steamed broccoli and rice) I got halfway through Linda Sue Park’s 2001 Newbery-winning A Single Shard, which I’m rereading for the first time. I read it the first time when I was working on my thesis and haven’t been back to read it for pleasure. I thought it was time.

My next read was going to be Erin Entrada Kelly’s Hello Universe, the 2018 Newbery winner. I bought it right after the award was announced but never got to it — in fact, didn’t know anything about it — and was really looking forward to getting to it this weekend.

But, you know. NaNoWriMo. November is the worst time to start a new book. I was trying to work out a reward system, where I’d allow myself to read X pages for every 1000 words I wrote this month, when Crush Girl mentioned to me that she thought it looked interesting. So I lent it to her, alleviating myself of my problem while also doing something nice for her, so double win.

I did not know that Kelly is a writer of Filipino descent, which makes it three Asian American writers who’ve won the Newbery. Linda Sue Park’s A Single Shard, Cynthia Kadohata’s Kira Kira, and now this book by Kelly. At a time when people seem to question my American-ness, I have to say this really resonates.

I practically begged Crush Girl to take her time with the book. I really shouldn’t get started on it until December 1.

And speaking of her, I got to hang out with her outside of our usual context for a very brief moment this weekend, with a small group. It was nice. I managed not to spill anything, offend anyone, or break down crying over the sorry state of the world and my sorry place in it, which I’m always in danger of doing when I have a drink or two.

You gotta love alcohol. It really lets you be yourself!

I’ve been moody as heck all day for no discernable reason, unless it has something to do with the work stress, which has been formidable. I feel like I’m on the verge of plunging into the darkness. I was already kind of teetering on the edge because of some of the other work stuff that’s been bumming me out.

Which is why I’m doing this instead of working on NaNo. Just needed to open up the laptop and write whatever. I think it’s helping, at least a little.

The plan, once I finish this, is to put myself to bed at a very early hour (it’s only 8:30 now) and face the new week determined to reflect light, no matter how many attempts others make at putting it under a bushel. If you hide it under a bushel, it’s lost something quite crucial. Don’t quote me — that’s from Godspell.

My calming mantra all of last week was “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called the children of God.” It helped. So this week I’m going to repeat the light of the world stuff to myself and see what happens.

I like it because it is bitter, and because it is my heart. That was my mantra for weeks before last week. I liked it (I liked it because it is bitter and because it is my heart) but I think maybe now I need to focus on more forward-thinking thoughts. This week’s episode of Heavyweight has convicted me about not being who I was, but being who I am and who I hope to be.

The Heavyweight podcast usually inspires while also making me want to stab myself in the heart (my bitter heart) with my own pen because the writing is so good it’s maddening, but this week it just inspired me. It was either not written quite as amazingly as usual, or I’m pretty pleased with the quality of my own output this week.

I just deleted a funny, self-deprecating line here because it wasn’t in keeping with the positive note I hoped to end on. So you’ll just have to imagine it. You’d have laughed!