Recent Reads: Japanese, Japanese, Not-Japanese

Library books

I never stop reading, even in the midst of cross-country-move prep, but my interests rarely overlap with M’s. Which sucks, because sometimes you just want to talk about what you’ve been reading, you know? So, blog readers, you’re up. Here are some of my recent book choices and thoughts on the same. Agree? Disagree? Have other must-read suggestions? Feel free to comment!

Japanese Farm Food

Japanese Farm Food
Nancy Singleton Hachisu
Andrews McMeel Publishing, 2012
ISBN 978-1-4494-1829-8
At a library near you

I was surprised and a little ashamed by my reaction to this book. Reviews were glowing, people were swooning, and I’d been putting off reading it because I wanted to savor the anticipation as long as possible. I believed I would fall completely in love with it. But… I didn’t.

Don’t get me wrong, it is a beautiful book. I’m a total sucker for pretty pictures of places and food. The typography is good, the color scheme is lovely, and the use of Japanese patterns for page edges and spine works well. I brought it home from the library and immediately sat down to read (I generally read cookbooks like novels first, then note recipes to try after). The reviews I had read were not wrong. Hachisu’s writing draws you into Japanese farm life (with a bit of an expat twist) and immerses you. She talks about how their bicultural life requires its own rules, but also notes how much they insist on maintaining old traditions. It left me feeling a little unsure of her point (of course, maybe she wasn’t trying to make one), and that feeling extended a bit into the recipes.

Sometimes she dismisses haute kaiseki cuisine and assures you that humble ingredients are just fine. But she is also sometimes extremely particular about local (virtually impossible to get elsewhere) and organic ingredients. This tied in well with her anecdotes and essays about local farmers and specialty food artisans, which were delightful and informative. But I was somehow left with the sense that apparently the only way to be authentically Japanese was to be a rural farmer. I own several Japanese-food cookbooks written by Americans and Japanese who didn’t marry farmers and move to the country, and the food is still authentic. I have (or try to have) no illusions about Japan. I know that it’s not all geisha and master craftsmen and high art. But I’d rather not swing the other way and ignore that part, either.

It’s telling that my favorite page in the book included images of traditional ryokan architecture and artisanal charcoal. Long story short: Hachisu’s work is immersive and it is evocative of her lifestyle. It’s just not a lifestyle that appeals to me. And that’s perfectly fine! I’ll check it out again. The recipes were still attractive, and I made note of a couple dozen to try. As an Elizabeth Andoh fan, I’m interested to compare the two approaches, both by American women married to Japanese men and living in the country for decades. I wonder if it will show a clear town-country distinction, or if it will simply be Japanese.

Ultimate Sashiko Sourcebook

The Ultimate Sashiko Sourcebook
Susan Briscoe
KP Books, 2005
ISBN 0-89689-186-0
At a library near you

As previously mentioned, I’ve been dabbling in sewing lately. As with most things, it didn’t take me long to want to move from the basics to something new. My Japanophilia drove me toward sashiko, a traditional Japanese embroidery style generally acknowledge to have begun as decorative mending in rural villages. It’s just so simple and graphic that it immediately drew me in. I started looking for books to learn more (my eternal m.o.) but was generally disappointed. They always seemed to be about machine sewing, and I couldn’t let go of the feeling that sashiko was meant to be done by hand, that the machine was simply approximating the look and not the actual craft.

Reviews on Amazon led me to Briscoe, and I am so glad. Though the book cover looks similar to any number of those machine-based titles, the inside is anything but. The pattern library alone is swoon-worthy. It may be a shallow generalization for me to make, but I believe the Japanese have a word for everything, and it’s so interesting to learn the names of all the patterns. It’s also fascinating how much meaning is (or was traditionally) attached to each pattern. Different patterns were applied in hopes of particular outcomes (good harvest, safety, health of a child, etc.), and their popularity waxed and waned throughout history.

Speaking of history, Briscoe opens the book with possibly my favorite part: eight pages of the history of sashiko, liberally illustrated with objects and photographs from her own collection. She succinctly demonstrates the inspiration of various patterns, talks about how trade may have spread the art, and explains why it evolved the way it did. I love me some strong history to bolster the learning of a craft, so it was a no-brainer to fall for this book.

Interestingly, the only thing I wasn’t slavering over were the projects. Oh, I definitely aim to do some, like the samplers and greeting cards. But a coast-swapping move precludes starting new hobbies that require an outlay for tools and materials, so for now, I’m just getting inspired. Lots of promise but not practical yet. When I’m ready, though, this book (and Briscoe’s follow-up) will be my go-tos.

How to Archive Family Keepsakes

How to Archive Family Keepsakes
Denise S. May Levenick
Family Tree Books, 2012
ISBN 978-1-4403-2223-5
At a library near you

This book surprised me a little. I earned my library science Master’s with a focus in archives management, and I’m used to seeing popular writing on the topic that ranges from incomplete to downright wrong. I was pleasantly thrilled, then, when I flipped open Levenick’s book.

I found it when searching for works that bridged the scholarly-popular divide. I have a family reunion coming up, and lately there has been more discussion of the papers and (especially) photographs we hold that need some care. My training has taught me how to provide that care, but I do it almost exclusively in a library/archives repository setting. I’m unused to helping with the stewardship of private collections (aside from my own). I wanted some guidance on how to discuss the issues without, I hope, coming across as too academic or snobbish. (I also wanted a book I could just hand over for perusal, because let’s be honest: sometimes advice is easier to receive when it’s coming from a neutral party.)

Levenick’s book fit the bill so perfectly that, in a time when my impulse-shopping tendencies are firmly kept in check, I was ordering a copy on Amazon the day after I brought the book home from the library. Why, you ask?

Her chapters are concise and well-organized. She starts at the beginning (the idea of the family archive, the inevitability of someone becoming—not necessarily by choice—its keeper, the many and varied materials that might be involved) and takes the process step by step. There are plenty of checklists, worksheets, and resources to help keep track and take it further. Levenick addresses aspects of both intellectual organization and physical storage (including the dreaded plastic tubs), and she’s realistic in her advice.

That’s probably the biggest draw of this book as opposed to the more scholarly/professional books I own and consult for work purposes. The audience is not professional archivists but people who may abruptly find themselves caretakers of dirty objects, warped photographs, and disorganized files. Unlike professionals, who are expected (though not always able) to maintain industry best practices, the people Levenick addresses probably don’t have access to specialized tools and supplies, and she is matter-of-fact about that.

Her advice is remarkably thorough, covering physical objects, digital files, and genealogical recordkeeping in enough detail to be useful but not going so far as to be dizzying. It might help, frankly, that Levenick is not herself a professional. She does not have a library degree but instead pursued an informal education based on her genealogical and research needs. The information she collected formed this book, just as it informed her family archives stewardship. She learned these lessons honestly, and I hope I can share them with my family in the same spirit.

Note: This post was very spur-of-the-moment. I had some thoughts about a book and really wanted to get them out of my head and into a potential discussion. Though this is unlike anything I’ve written here before, I enjoyed it a lot and expect to make it an occasional series. There will be a brief break while we relocate, but my reading list for Portland is already nearing triple digits, so another Recent Reads post is inevitable.

Miscellany: Sunlight

It’s been awhile since I did a miscellaneous post, and it is exactly the sort of post I need to do right now, when my mind seems to be sparking in a dozen directions.

Speaking of aimlessness, I’ve been going through an unsettled music mood lately. Do you ever have times when you just don’t like any of the music you try to listen to? That’s where I am now. Or was, anyway. Then I put on a playlist of Trio Mediaeval‘s albums. The group is a trio of Scandinavian women who sing (mostly) medieval polyphonic music. I am a fan of that genre anyway, but it’s usually sung by men. Hearing it done by women adds an even more haunting quality.

Speaking of haunting, I’ve had Dinan on the brain. Dinan is a town in Brittany, France, where I spent five days during a study abroad trip in high school. At the time, it was the second half of a two-week trip, so I was getting a little tired, and it was basically another French town. I saw an album of photographs of the town on Flickr the other week, however, and now I am remembering what could have been. Dinan is an old town with beautifully preserved half-timbered buildings, a lovely riverfront, and a quirky steep medieval street called the Rue de Jerzual. We carefully made our way down the latter daily with the daughter and cousin of the family with whom we home-stayed.

This is the part I am kicking myself over. We stayed with a French family in a traditional stone farmhouse outside of town. As it was summer, there were a few relatives in and out, and farmhands occasionally joined us for dinner. We ate outside, on a beautifully set table, enjoying wonderful food and speaking ever more fluently (the patriarch of the house gently insisted that we resort to English only when at an absolute standstill). In the mornings, we drank coffee out of latte bowls and bathed quickly in a tub under the low eaves.

It was, in essence, precisely the sort of envious existence reveled in by American ex-pats in any of a number of recent books. We lived that beautiful life for five days, and I barely remember it now. I certainly didn’t appreciate it fully at the time. It was fun, to be sure, but my primary thrill was how easily my French was improving. Now I find myself craving an almond croissant from the bakery in the medieval town and wanting to stroll along the river. It’s a very odd feeling, given that I haven’t been there in fifteen (!) years. But hey, I have out-of-brain-to-London moments daily, so I suppose it’s not that much of a stretch.

Speaking of traveling to France, I have been playing a lot of Sims 3 lately. (Bear with me, it connects, I promise.) The reviews for Sims 4 are rather troubling, so I will not be spending money on that game anytime soon. However, they have reignited my love for the franchise in general, so I’ve been firing up Sims 3 after dinner and just letting it play on my laptop while I do other things. I check in occasionally to make sure the house isn’t on fire or to send my Sim on a trip. One of the destinations in the World Adventures expansion is “Champs-les-Sims,” a faux French village (see, the tenuous segue!). I’ve had her there exploring tombs and making wine and generally living it up. Now I think it’s time for the next step.

I have played Sims in one edition or another for years, but I was recently reading Carl’s Sims 3 Guide (such a good resource) and realized that I have not been doing Sims 3 to its full potential. Now I’m sort of stuck between keeping it casual so I can leap to chase this guy off furniture or really getting into it and playing. I suspect I’ll do a bit of both. I love playing games, but every so often I hit a TOO MUCH wall and have to pull back. Good thing M has Destiny back starting tomorrow. I can lean back and watch that.

Speaking of things to watch, APPLE EVENT TOMORROW. I am an unapologetic Apple fan (though not opposed to other products – that intriguing new curved-screen Samsung, for example), but this event feels even bigger than most. Part of the anticipation is that I am really tired of my Fitbit. It’s ruining the clothes I clip it to, it’s falling apart, and it gets lost too easily. I’m ready for a wearable that tracks more data while not looking obvious, and I hope that Apple can provide exactly that. I am worried that it won’t work with my aging iPhone model, though. I cannot afford to get both.

Speaking of shopping, I am really looking forward to this ink. Maybe it will prompt me to drag out my dip pens more often.

Speaking of dipping into things (such a stretch; I’ll make this the last thing), I have been reading up on heraldry in my ongoing quest to learn about my family’s history and genealogy. I have no idea if we have any associated arms, but it’s so fun to read about in general. It reminds me that I still have not finished A Game of Thrones, which I was mostly drawn to because of the sigils. But the research I’ve been doing gives such a fascinating look at medieval (and later) history and the way human beings always find a means to craft a self-identity. I’ve been trying to create a personal badge, and the list of elements I have considered and rejected is long. It is surprisingly difficult to distill your entire personality, interests, and allegiances into a few basic symbols. Nevertheless, I keep at it, even just to have a letterhead for stationery.

I hope everyone had a wonderful summer and welcomes the cooler temps as much as I do. Bring on the apple cider doughnuts!

Travels and Firsts

Crossing the Hudson 20140627

Blogging has taken a backseat during this busy month. July started off with a flurry of travel.

My uncle, a distinguished professor of botany, retired after a long career, and we traveled to upstate New York to wish him well. This was Little Bear’s first big road trip. From the North Shore, it’s a seven-hour drive at best. With a baby in tow, I expected to add at least an hour. That expectation ended up being quite close to the reality, but for the trip out, at least, we were in no rush. Western Massachusetts and upstate New York are both beautiful areas, so we just enjoyed ourselves.

LB naps en route to New York

The visit itself was quite a whirlwind. We arrived too late on Friday evening to do more than check into the hotel. LB’s relief at being out of the carseat was palpable. He spent a good twenty minutes just tumbling around on the bed, burning off energy. The retirement party was midday Saturday. It was wonderful to see my family. M’s is mostly close to our home in Massachusetts, so we see them frequently. Mine, however, is scattered, and Bear had only met three of my family members to date. In one fell swoop, he was introduced to my uncle, aunt, two cousins, and their families. M and I met new additions, too. Since the last time we were all together, five babies have arrived. For a little guy with no first cousins, LB suddenly encountered a bunch of related children. It was fun to see them all try to figure each other out.

After the party, and a brief stop at my uncle’s former classroom and laboratory, we went our separate ways, which was sad. My cousins are several years older than me, which was a bit of an obstacle when I was a kid. Now that we’re all grown, we’re discovering new connections through parenting and life, and I wish we had more time together. Now that we know Little Bear can handle the trip, we’re going to have to drive over more often.

Shotgun 20140627

Two good college friends of mine also live in the area, as one of them coincidentally joined my uncle’s department awhile ago. We spent the evening with them, and it was so nice. I’ve made great friends and have wonderful colleagues in New England. But sometimes, I really miss my friends and family from the Midwest. There is no good way to reunite with them all, as very few of us remained in the same place. All I can do is occasionally visit and make a better effort to stay in touch. Thank goodness for video chatting.

We made our way home on Sunday in time to do a quick load of laundry, repack our bags, and get some sleep. We had a normal work/daycare day on Monday. On Tuesday, we drove to Logan and whisked Little Bear off on his first airplane flight. We held our breath, but it was as close to a flawless trip as we’ve ever had. Security that early was empty, TSA and airline staffers were helpful and friendly, and Bear just took it all in with wide blue eyes. He was completely unfazed by the flight itself, napping for the first half and climbing all over his seat for the second.

Little Bear naps 20140701

One of my earliest memories (the first being knocking out my front teeth on a playground slide at the age of 2) was a flight to visit my grandparents. What I mostly remember is crying outside the gate because my dad wasn’t coming with us, not the actual flight itself, but watching LB reminded me of my much-younger self. I am so glad that he had a good time with it all. And I am very glad the women in the row behind us were charmed by his reaching through to them, rather than annoyed.

Hide and seek 20140707

To avoid having to change planes during our first trip with a baby, we opted to fly direct to Minneapolis, then drive south. It made for a long trip, but it was an easy drive through beautiful country. Sometimes I forget how big the sky is in the Midwest.

Big sky 20140701

Peeking 20140705

What can I say about the week at my mom’s house? It was relaxing, rejuvenating, and filled with just enough activities. We went to the zoo, went out to eat a few times, watched fireworks, and visited with old friends. One afternoon, we sat down with family photos and my Ancestry app, and my mom filled in some gaps.

Family history 20140704

I’ve been working steadily, if less frequently than I’d like, on genealogy the last few years. Most of my facts are in order, but my mom’s details fleshed out the stories. I only wish we’d had more time, and that I hadn’t now truly hit a wall. I need to find a way to take the next steps to confirm shaky details and forge a more solid connection to the older names. My dad’s family arrived only about a hundred years ago, but my mom’s earliest North American ancestor landed in the early 1600s. That far back, “facts” take on a hazier quality, and it can be frustrating for a librarian like me.

Anyway. That’s another post entirely.

Storms at sunset 20140706

One major relief of the trip was the beautiful weather. Having lived in Iowa most of my life, I was apprehensive about that horrible summer visitor, the tornado. We missed all the terrible weather but some very strong rain. Shortly before we left, big storms hit to the southeast, providing us dramatic sunset skies. M got a chance to test his camera with lightning, and I got a reminder of how beautiful the Midwest (and nature) can be.

Mom and me 20140707

Sadly, the visit came to an end, and we headed back north to fly east. We took a last couple of selfies and hit the road. The trip back was uneventful, Little Bear had a ball on the plane again, and we made good time.

No NIMBY here 20140707

Nearly home 20140707

And then we headed out of Boston under a tornado warning. Figures. But hey, the rest of the trip was a breeze!

Après Iowa les tornades 20140707