Tuesday, December 29, 2009


Ewan Mockett Drummond

An early Christmas present--Ewan Mockett Drummond was born on December 18th, here in New York City. We weren't actually expecting him until January and up until he was born, were wondering if he'd turn out to be a Capricorn like his mother, or an Aquarius like his father. Turns out he had his own ideas. (Though I still don't put much stock in astrology).

After a stay in the hospital, both Ewan and I are home, and getting along just fine. This does of course mean that posting will be light for a while, as we all adjust to our new business hours (or lack thereof).

A few words about the name. My father's first name was John, and my father-in-law is Ian. The names Ian, Sean and Ewan are all Scottish versions of John. My dad was not into the whole dynastic Junior-Senior designation thing, but we thought it might be nice to pay tribute to him-and to Gordon's father. So there you have it--Ewan is a "new John" and a "new Ian" for our family, but with his own unique name.

We've much to be grateful for here in our little apartment in New York this year--so many old and new friends have shown tremendous support for my novel, and I thank you. And now we will be ushering in the new year with a new little person. Hoping your new year brings you joy in equal measure.

Sunday, December 13, 2009


The Nervous Breakdown Interview

For a number of years now, people have mistaken me for a vegetarian. I don't know why this is. Sometimes it's a bitchy and snide woman who will look at me and say, "So, you're a vegetarian, right?" (Oddly, a man has never done this to me). In my favorite experience, two women made me go to a burger joint, convinced I would have nothing to eat (girls are not always nice). And then there are the Buddhists from the subcontinent, who hope that I am following the laws of strict Buddhist vegetarianism and that we are kin, and to whom I have to explain that, no, I eat almost anything.

I've never been a vegetarian. It's not even something that I'm interested in pursuing. In fact, I'm probably--as my friend Alexi would say--a more adventurous eater than most people, and one of the reasons I knew I'd met a guy I could marry was because he had no eating hang ups. When we went to Japan, there was none of this fear about breakfast or dinner, or begging to go to McDonald's for security, or needing to give the inn proprietor a list of things that were not to be served (which, FYI, they'll probably ignore). I am interested in our food supply, and in eating a whole and balanced diet. So, yes, I do care about food. But not in the way that some people seem to think.

When The Nervous Breakdown asked me to do a self interview, I was a little stumped. My husband said, "Why not talk about your whole mistaken vegetarian problem?" And really, it's not a bad way to investigate certain stereotypes. So, here you go--an interview on how I am not a vegetarian, which somehow also turned into my thoughts on why ghosts are scarier than devils.

Thursday, December 10, 2009


Largehearted Lit and The Knitting Factory

A couple of months ago, I participated in the Largehearted Boy Blog series, in which authors put together a music playlist to accompany their work. Check it out if you need a refresher.

The writer Jami Attenberg has rather brilliantly put together a reading series around this subject--writers gather at The Knitting Factory to not only introduce the audience to their writing, but also to the music they chose to feature. It's a smart idea. As Jami said to me, there are so many reading series, and it's interesting to get at a new book in a slightly different way.

When she asked me to participate, I was excited--and nervous. I didn't want to embarrass her in any way, particularly since I was concerned that my musical choices would be so different. But I put together a program, and presented it this past Sunday, along with fellow writer Emma Straub (who is just lovely in person).

On to the presentation itself. An example. If you have read my novel, then you know that the protagonist Satomi has been trained since childhood to be a piano playing prodigy. In Tokyo, however, she is told that her musicality is "extreme" and that she is too emotional. An off-campus teacher rescues her, and suggests she study in Paris where her emotional gifts will be welcome--but the teacher warns that Satomi will sound as though she "plays with an accent." Indeed, in Paris, Satomi is considered "unemotional" and all but bullied by her French teacher for this deficiency. The original version of these scene was much harsher--I toned it down for what you see published.

An editor once said to me, out of exasperation: "I can't tell from this description what kind of a musician Satomi is!" And I said: "Yes. That's the point." And we went back and forth on this subject for a bit, till I deferred to her, all the while thinking to myself that this particular editor must not have traveled abroad too much in her life. Or, if she had, then she hadn't noticed how it is that our emotional cues--the things we are sure that make us "us"--don't necessarily translate overseas. I've watched this happen over and over. A cool and hip Asian person looks dorky here. An energetic and extroverted westerner looks down-right rude over there. Etc. If you want to challenge your sense of self--go to a foreign country.

For fun, then, I read the audience at the Knitting Factory some reviews of the Chinese pianist Lang Lang, who, like many Asians before him, has been accused of being very technical, and not really emotional. And then there have been criticisms like this:

Listening to Lang Lang, I think of the absurdist pundit Stephen Colbert, who promises not to read the news to his viewers but to feel the news at them. Lang Lang feels the music at you, in ways both good and bad. He advertises his love of performing simply by the way he charges onstage, and he creates a giddy atmosphere as he negotiates hairpin turns at high speed. Stereotypes to the contrary, you wish at times that he were a little more impersonal.

(The bold is mine).

Contrast that to the obituary for Arthur Rubinstein, who was also accused of being an overly technical as a young man, but who is now regarded as having been one of the greats.

"In the pantheon of 20th-century pianists, Mr. Rubinstein's place is assured as one of the titans. With his remarkable technique, golden tone and musical logic, with the elan he brought to his interpretations, with his natural, unforced and unflurried style, he was unique..."

After reading all this (and a bit more), I played clips of Rubinstein and Lang Lang both playing the exact same segment of a Chopin Nocturne, then asked the audience to guess who was who. I'd say they were evenly divided. (Below are two clips--not the same ones I chose--but still fun for you to listen to and contrast).

And then we talked a bit about whether or not there was a "right" way to play a piece of music. Or if someone from another culture might be able to reinterpret something pre-existing, thus finding something new, which, for example, is the argument sometimes made in favor of Engrish.

The bias for and against musicians who aren't western when playing a western musical form--like jazz--is common. And the reverse is true too, of course. But there are also very sophisticated musicians at work, borrowing and reinterpreting music from their non-native cultures. Or in some cases reintegrating foreign influences into what is native. A favorite example:

It was a good evening, and I enjoyed the chance to talk about music and the way the theme of cross cultural art plays out in my novel. And, quite frankly, having been brought up as a musician, it's made me want to use my ears even better. There's much to learn from disciplines other than the ones we practice.

Finally: I need to mention that I managed to get the start time for Largehearted Lit completely wrong--and that I apologize to those who might have been waiting for me. I'm afraid that by week 35 of being pregnant, I'm somehow not as coherent as I used to be. If you know me, then you know it's very unlike me to make such a major mistake. I take this as a sign that I need to take a break from readings for a while. (And, once again, I'm terribly sorry and embarrassed).

Wednesday, December 02, 2009


The Hillside Club, Berkeley, California

The Hillside Club in Berkeley, California is an arts club, which regularly hosts musicians, scholars and writers. Their roster of visitors is pretty impressive, so when I was asked to read, I immediately jumped at the chance. The interior of the building is just beautiful. Apparently, the original structure burned down in the Great Fire of 1923--all that was left is the lamp you see in the photo above. But it's still a gorgeous building, and we did feel as though we'd entered some kind of dream when we walked inside.

The reading was also a chance for some of my family and friends in Northern California to come and hear me--I was very, very happy to see them. We'd originally intended to spend part of the holiday together, but since I got sick during Thanksgiving, our socializing time was cut short.

The room that evening was mostly full--we must have had around 50 people--and I was excited to share. There were students and neighbors and Club members, all sitting by the fire.

I started off the evening with my presentation on Japanese fairy tales. I've found that this is a good way to put my novel in some context, since much of the book is influenced by a kind of storytelling and an aesthetic that is slightly new for some readers.

Gordon likes this slide: it shows me presenting the "Nyanko shumai," or kitten shumai toy. I'm trying to explain at this point how animism was and is a huge part of Japanese aesthetics. We aren't to think of these kittens as having been turned in dumplings, but rather that dumplings themselves as so cute . . . they are as cute as kittens. Most of the audience leaves eventually understanding my point, but there are always a few for whom this concept is just too strange.

I read a section of the novel next, and answered questions.

Mrs. Dalloway's, the venerable Berkeley bookstore, came prepared to sell my book. And we did sell quite a few copies! This was a great deal of fun. Some women spoke to me about the role of "talent" in their lives, and their believe that talent could help and protect them. Others wanted to talk about the lure of Japan. Some had read the book, and felt that the fairy tale lecture changed their perspective of it.

I had a lot of fun interacting with readers and future readers. This, after all, is why we write books--so people will have something new and interesting to read. In some ways, this event has been my most favorite experience yet. The crowd was large, there were strangers and friends and family all mixed together, and I got to talk seriously about my work.

I do have to say--a book tour takes some getting used to. It takes a while to get your bearings and to understand what you are trying to accomplish and what you have to say. I am enjoying this part of having published a book more and more.

I was so happy to see a couple of Bread Loafers as well--here I am with writer Kirsten Menger Anderson, who is also pregnant, and who was across the hall from me this summer in Vermont. And here too is Yang Huang who just found herself a smart agent. It's really neat to travel from place to place and see Bread Loaf alums. It is true that the impact of Bread Loaf lingers--in a very positive way.

The next day, we were up early to fly back to NYC. I am always sorry to watch San Francisco Bay disappear from sight. I generally stay glued to the window till we cross the Rockies, and then I try to sleep.

I don't have a photo of New York from the sky, but the air that evening when we landed, was so clear and the lights were all so bright. And I thought to myself I was very lucky to be able to go from one glittering city to another in the space of a day.


To San Francisco

It's long been a dream of mine to one day stay at the St. Francis Hotel in San Francisco. As a child, there was no more glamorous thing to do than to go to that hotel's lobby during Christmas and partake of an afternoon tea (and to ride the glass elevators to look at the view, and then jump as the elevator descended, just to generate some butterflies int he stomach). Sadly, the tea lounge has been replaced by an upscale restaurant. But the hotel is still there and, thanks to the recession and internet rates, not as prohibitively expensive as expected. We decided to use the St. Francis as our SF base in preparation for my reading at Berkeley. Normally Gordon and I stay at the San Remo hotel, but being pregnant made me rethink the whole going-down-the-hall-to-go-to-the-bathroom thing (which I usually don't mind doing, but would mind doing five times a night).

The hotel was quite festive--here is a "sugar castle," made by the restaurant pastry chef. Apparently, the whole thing gets more and more elaborate each year. I spent a good part of my childhood making miniatures, so of course this kind of thing appeals to me. I like these constructed worlds.

I'm still a sucker for the top floor of Macy's in Union Square, what with all the Christmas trees and fake snow. I was sorry to miss Santa by about ten minutes, but at least we got a good view of the ice skating rink, out door Union Square tree, and general crowd madness. Before I moved to New York City, Union Square in SF was my barometer of glamorous city life. (It's still glamorous, if small).

In the morning, we crossed the Golden Gate Bridge to head to Marin. You can see how gorgeous the weather was. I don't recall a time that I've ever crossed the Golden Gate Bridge and not feel incredibly happy.

A rainbow was waiting to greet us.

We stopped off at Book Passage in Corte Madera--a truly wonderful independent bookstore. It's actually much, much more than a bookstore. Here is a group of musicians providing a live soundtrack to a children's book. The kids were incredibly attentive. Since I'm about to be a parent, I now notice these things much more and thought to myself that if I lived in Marin I would, of course, be bringing my child to something like this.

And here I am signing my books--I was too shy to take a photo next to them on the shelf. At this point, I was still feeling sick and not terribly photogenic. But I was so thankful to see my book at such a venerable establishment. I've been very fortunate to have had so much support from booksellers.


Thanksgiving 2009

First Thanksgiving at home, without my father. It is true that you feel your losses more deeply during the holidays. But this year, we were all aware that next year there would (knock on wood) be a little boy to whom we would be trying to teach American traditions. It's strange to think that out of the three of us--my mother, my husband and me--I'm the only American.

As for the photo above--that's the California coastline. I was hoping that the plane would fly far enough over the water that I could watch the coast the entire way, and perhaps see my hometown, but the pilot went inland a bit once we were north of Santa Barbara. Also, lately, the pilots flying into Monterey seem to delight in making very sharp turns. I don't know if this is due to air traffic control asking for hairpin turns, but I kind of find that hard to believe. I like to think that the pilots are having fun. It makes actually landing on the runway sort of . . . acrobatic.

It was straight to sushi on the Tuesday before Thanksgiving. And for those keeping score, yes, this does mean I ate sushi while pregnant. Did you know that the latest fad for pregnant women is fish oil tablets, along with a multi-vitamin? Like, fish is good for you while you're pregnant. But you shouldn't eat it raw, even though women do in Japan . . . is it really better to take some extract? (???)

Here is yours truly, Mrs. Kurasaki and my mother. The Kurasakis are pretty much extended family.

I ended up sick on Thanksgiving day (no, not the kind of sick that comes from bad sushi), and so was completely unhelpful with any cooking. This was a shame--I like to cook and the pie is my specialty. Fortunately, Gordon and my mother managed. They also figured out the turkey rotisserie, which my father used to handle every year. It was bittersweet to hear Gordon opening and closing the door to the laundry room where the turkey was rotating--familiar and unfamiliar all at once.

I worried that Angus might try to get at the turkey, but as it turned out, he was recovering from an injury too. For those who know Angus--he's a big cat, very gentle but also quite ferocious when necessary--we think we may have to turn him into an indoor cat. It was one thing when he was fighting bobcats and raccoons at night. He has now taken to fighting during the day, and this is worrisome, as he's getting older. My mother also reports that he came home in the middle of the day--a sunny day at that--sopping wet. We have no idea what happened. But there appear to be some enemies afoot.

As you can see--the turkey came out looking just splendid, and we all enjoyed a wonderful feast. Next year I hope to join Gordon in drinking some wine.

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