Category Archives: Non-fiction

Crying in H Mart

This week I’ve been listening to the audiobook, Crying in H Mart, by Michelle Zauner, also narrated by the author. It’s been a very moving experience which has touched my heart in many different ways.

It is a memoir of a young woman, a talented musician (her band is called Japanese Breakfast) and the only daughter of a Korean mother and an American father. It is the story of her growing up between two cultures, of her relationship with her mother, and of the loss of her mother to cancer.  It is a very honest and introspective book as she described the struggles between mother and teenage daughter, mother and young adult daughter, and the struggle to establish her own identity. It is a story of growth and grief, and of love and loss.

Her experiences were both unique and universal. I identified with many of the struggles of her teenage years (from my perspective as both a daughter and a mother), and I was fascinated with her cultural and language struggles with extended family. Michelle had just reached young adulthood when her mother was diagnosed with cancer. It was just at the time when her relationship with her mother began to settle into a more adult closeness after the struggles of the teenage years. The descriptions of her mother’s decline and death were heart wrenching, and I found myself in tears numerous times. I couldn’t help but remember and compare my own mother’s death three years ago, and appreciate once again what a kind death my mother had in comparison to the death of Michelle’s mother to the ravages of cancer with it’s prolonged decline. I just wanted to reach out and hug her and tell her how much I admire her honesty and the courage she showed in dealing with that devastating experience.

Michelle’s writing is beautiful. She is not only a talented musician, but is a very talented writer. I am hoping she continues to tell stories because I will look for and read any book she writes. This book is currently on the New York Times best seller list, so there was a long wait for it at the library. But I enjoyed listening to her own voice narrating it, so I highly recommend listening to the audiobook.

A favorite quote from the book:

I’ve just never met someone like you,” as if I were a stranger from another town or an eccentric guest accompanying a mutual friend to a dinner party. It was a strange thought to hear from the mouth of the woman who had birthed and raised me, with whom I shared a home for eighteen years, someone who was half me. My mother had struggled to understand me just as I struggled to understand her. Thrown as we were on opposite sides of a fault line—generational, cultural, linguistic—we wandered lost without a reference point, each of us unintelligible to the other’s expectations, until these past few years when we had just begun to unlock the mystery, carve the psychic space to accommodate each other, appreciate the differences between us, linger in our refracted commonalities. Then, what would have been the most fruitful years of understanding were cut violently short, and I was left alone to decipher the secrets of inheritance without its key.

An after-reading-the-book experience:

Food was a huge part of her relationship with her mother, so H Mart was an important part of this book. I had never heard of H Mart before, but since the author grew up in Eugene, Oregon, and the H Mart there is the one she wrote about, I thought it would be interesting to perhaps visit that particular store. In searching for it on the internet, I discovered that there are numerous stores even closer to home, so my sweet husband and I drove to Tigard yesterday morning for our first-ever shopping trip to H Mart. Yesterday’s pilgrimage won’t be our last, though, because we were thrilled with the produce and enjoyed shopping there. We came home with some wonderful baby bok choy, a fine looking napa cabbage, a variety of wonderful greens, some new instant noodles to try out, and all the regular weekly items on our shopping list.  And since Korean food was such an important part of the book, I picked up the ingredients to try a new recipe I found for Korean Noodles with Black Bean Sauce. Yum!

Brown Girl Dreaming

Brown Girl Dreaming is a lovely memoir written by Jacqueline Woodson. Written completely in verse, she chronicles her growing up years in South Carolina and New York.

From the publisher:

Raised in South Carolina and New York, Woodson always felt halfway home in each place. In vivid poems, she shares what it was like to grow up as an African American in the 1960s and 1970s, living with the remnants of Jim Crow and her growing awareness of the Civil Rights movement. Touching and powerful, each poem is both accessible and emotionally charged, each line a glimpse into a child’s soul as she searches for her place in the world. Woodson’s eloquent poetry also reflects the joy of finding her voice through writing stories, despite the fact that she struggled with reading as a child. Her love of stories inspired her and stayed with her, creating the first sparks of the gifted writer she was to become.

It may seem unusual to write her story in verse, but the beauty of poetry is that a story can be told so powerfully in few words. Reading this book was a delight, and it was well-deserving of the awards and honors it won. 

  • 2014: National Book Award for Young People’s Literature
  • 2015;  Coretta Scott King Award for Authors
  • 2015:  Newbery Honor Book
  • 2015:  NAACP Image Award for Outstanding Literary Work in Young Adult Fiction
  • 2015: Robert F. Sibert Informational Book Medal

Here is an example of her beautiful and poignant way of sharing her memories with us:

“Deep winter and the night air is cold. So still,
it feels like the world goes on forever in the darkness
until you look up and the earth stops
in a ceiling of stars. My head against
my grandfather’s arm,
a blanket around us as we sit on the front porch swing.
Its whine like a song.

You don’t need words
on a night like this. Just the warmth
of your grandfather’s arm. Just the silent promise
that the world as we know it
will always be here.”

I should have read this book years ago!  It is definitely one of my favorite books read so far in 2021.

Jacqueline Woodson

I chose this book to read for my personal challenge, “WANDERLUST: Reading the States,” an effort to read books that are from or take place in each of the 50 United States. Part of this book was set in South Carolina.

I also read this book as part of My Anti-Racist Education project.

 

Hanok: The Korean House

My husband is a retired architect, so we are always interested in finding wonderful ‘coffee-table books’ about different architectural styles, projects, etc. So we were both excited when I found a book about the historical and traditional Korean house. Hanok: The Korean House, by Nani Park and Robert J. Fouser is full of gorgeous photographs and very interesting information about the traditional Hanok and the modern updated versions that are so popular right now in Seoul. I thoroughly enjoyed reading it and learned a lot about both historical and modern Korean culture.  

From the author:

My aim in this book is to expand readers’ awareness of Korea by adding another word, one that is an integral part of Korean architectural history and, with it, culture. The word is hanok and it refers to the traditional wooden house structure that originated in the Joseon Dynasty in the late fourteenth century.

From the publisher:

Hanok: The Korean House provides new insights on the stylish traditional Korean homes that are experiencing a resurgence of popularity in Seoul today. While the exteriors of these houses are indistinguishable from traditional hanok built decades ago, the insides have entirely changed and adapted with the times. Korea is a nation that has radically transformed itself in recent decades, yet amidst the glass-and-steel skyscrapers and luxury apartments, the Korean design of the hanok still survives and plays a surprisingly important role. This book showcases 12 very special hanok that have been selected to reflect the Korea of today.

The original hanok design has not changed. Traditional craftsman-made materials of stone, wood, and clay are still the only components used in these houses. They also incorporate natural elements such as wind and sunlight, and baesanimsu(better known in its Chinese form as feng shui) is used to position the hanok in harmony with the natural forces and geographical features of the site. Each hanok has a unique story to tell, and this book studies the personality of each house from the point of view of its owners, many of whom are talented devotees of Korean architecture themselves.

The photographs in this book are just beautiful. Two favorite examples are below.

I also loved the names given to many of the Hanoks. Here are two examples that I thought were wonderful.

We have a huge old Cedar tree in the corner of our yard, and I immediately thought that we should name our house, “House Cherishing an Old Cedar Tree as a Lifelong Friend.”

This is a fun read for anyone who enjoys reading about architecture or looking at house books of all kinds, and for anyone who is interested in Korean culture.

The Bukchon Hanok Village, a neighborhood in Seoul, South Korea.

The Measure of My Days

Age puzzles me. I thought it was a quiet time. My seventies were interesting, and fairly serene, but my eighties are passionate. I grow more intense as I age.

I have had this book on my shelf for ages. But as I move into the years she wrote about, her seventies and eighties, I decided to finally read Florida Scott-Maxwell’s, The Measure of My Days. It’s a quiet book, with many thoughts about her daily life, about aging, and about death. I do not live alone at this point, but I am touched by her thoughts on aging and being alone, and think of my mother and how she handled those years. I see them coming ahead of me, sooner than I would like, and look for guidance and wisdom to help me along. And she most definitely has wisdom and guidance to share with me! Here are a few examples of some of her thoughts that resonated with me…

I wonder if living alone makes one more alive. No precious energy goes in disagreement or compromise. No need to augment others, there is just yourself, just truth—a morsel—and you. You went through those long years when it was pain to be alone, now you have come out on the good side of that severe discipline. Alone you have your own way all day long, and you become very natural. Perhaps this naturalness extends into heights and depths, going further than we know; as we cannot voice it we must just treasure it as the life that enriches our days.

It is not easy to be sure that being yourself is worth the trouble, but we do know it is our sacred duty.

The crucial task of age is balance, a veritable tightrope of balance; keeping just well enough, just brave enough, just gay and interested and starkly honest enough to remain a sentient human being.

When a new disability arrives I look about to see if death has come, and I call quietly, “Death, is that you? Are you there?”. So far the disability has answered, “Don’t be silly, it’s me.”

I want to tell people approaching and perhaps fearing old age that it is a time of discovery. If they say “Of what?” I can only answer “We must find out for ourselves, otherwise it wouldn’t be discovery.”

One cannot be honest even at the end of one’s life, for no one is wholly alone. We are bound to those we love, or to those who love us, and to those who need us to be brave, or content, or even happy enough to allow them not to worry about us. So we must refrain from giving pain, as our last gift to our fellows.

Florida Scott-Maxwell, painted by Amanda Brewster Sewell.

When I bought the book, I hadn’t heard of her, I just liked the concept of the book. So, for those of you who have never heard of her, either, I’m including a short biography of Florida Scott-Maxwell from The Poem Hunter.com:

Florida Pier was born in Orange Park, Florida, and educated at home until the age of ten. She grew up in Pittsburgh, then moved to New York at age 15 to become an actress. In 1910 she married John Scott Maxwell and moved to her husband’s native Scotland, where she worked for women’s suffrage and as a playwright. The couple divorced in 1929 and she moved to London. In 1933 she studied Jungian psychology under Carl Jung and practised as an analytical psychologist in both England and Scotland. She died in Exeter, England. Her most famous book is The Measure of My Days (1968).

 

 

.

I chose to read this book as one of my 50-books-in-5-years for The Classics Club.

Ada’s Violin

Ada’s Violin: The Story of the Recycled Orchestra of Paraguay, by Susan Hood and illustrated by Sally Wern Comport, is a true story told in picture book form. It’s a very heartwarming story about the power of music and creativity to bring hope to the slums of Paraguay.

from the publisher:

Ada Ríos grew up in Cateura, a small town in Paraguay built on a landfill. She dreamed of playing the violin, but with little money for anything but the bare essentials, it was never an option…until a music teacher named Favio Chávez arrived. He wanted to give the children of Cateura something special, so he made them instruments out of materials found in the trash. It was a crazy idea, but one that would leave Ada—and her town—forever changed. Now, the Recycled Orchestra plays venues around the world, spreading their message of hope and innovation.

It’s so nice to find a story of inspiration and hope. Ada’s dreams of playing the violin were fulfilled beyond her imagination, thanks to the work of Favio Chávez. Here are some links to more information on both Mr. Chávez and the Recycled Orchestra.

Click here to see a live performance on YouTube of the Recycled Orchestra.

Click here to see an NPR report on the Recycled Orchestra.


I chose this book to read for my personal challenge, “Wanderlust,” an effort to read books that are from or take place in each country of the world. This was a book based on a true story from Paraguay.

Facing the Lion: Growing Up Maasai on the African Savanna

Facing the Lion: Growing Up Maasai on the African Savanna, by Joseph Lemasolai Lekuton, is a wonderful introduction to the culture of Kenya, and a fascinating memoir of a talented Maasai boy. Mr. Lekuton tells his boyhood stories and tells how, with the help of his tribe, he was sent to study in an American college, St. Lawrence University in New York.

from the publisher:

Joseph Lemasolai Lekuton gives American kids a firsthand look at growing up in Kenya as a member of a tribe of nomads whose livelihood centers on the raising and grazing of cattle. Readers share Lekuton’s first encounter with a lion, the epitome of bravery in the warrior tradition. They follow his mischievous antics as a young Maasai cattle herder, coming-of-age initiation, boarding school escapades, soccer success, and journey to America for college. Lekuton’s riveting text combines exotic details of nomadic life with the universal experience and emotions of a growing boy.

After graduating from St. Lawrence, he taught middle school in Virginia for many years, and then was accepted at Harvard University where he earned a Master’s degree in International Education policy at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.

He returned to Kenya in 2007, and was elected as a representative in the National Assembly of Kenya. He was reelected in 2013. His work has been dedicated to improving the lives of young Kenyans through education.

To bridge cultures you must mix people together,” he says. “Education and travel are the best teachers.

This was a very enjoyable book, a wonderful introduction to Kenya and to a young boy who grew up to be an inspirational man.

Click here to listen to Joseph Lekuton’s TED Talk, “A Parable for Kenya.”

 

I chose to read this book for my personal challenge, Wanderlust,” an effort to read books that are from or take place in each country of the world. This was a book about Kenya.

Icelanders

As part of my ongoing project of reading books from different countries of the world, “Wanderlust,” I found a delightful and humorous book about Icelanders. When I was teaching sixth grade many years ago, I had a lovely Icelandic girl in class. She sparked my interest in Iceland and it’s spectacular geological history, but I actually know very little about the people and the culture, so this book was a fun introduction to both!

The book is called:  The Little Book of the Icelanders: 50 miniature essays on the quirks and foibles of the Icelandic people, written by Alda Sigmundsdóttir.

After more than 20 years away, Alda Sigmundsdottir returned to her native Iceland as a foreigner. With a native person’s insight yet an outsider’s perspective, Alda quickly set about dissecting the national psyche of the Icelanders. This second edition, from 2018, contains new and updated chapters from the original edition, reflecting the changes in Icelandic society and among the Icelandic people since the book was first published in 2012.

It was an interesting way to learn about a culture, through humor. Alda Sigmundsdottir has written a whole series of little books about Icelanders, and I’d like to read them all! I laughed a lot while reading this book, not AT the Icelanders, but at ourselves as human beings. By the end of the book, I was totally taken by the quirkiness and warmheartedness of the people, and would love to visit there (but not until after I read her book called The Little Book of Tourists in Iceland: Tips, tricks, and what the Icelanders really think of you.).

Here are some quotes from the book, that give you a glimpse of the people and culture of this country of starkly beautiful landscapes.

“Grasping the national psyche of the Icelandic people is like trying to catch a slippery fish with your bare hands.”

Hláturinn lengir lífið, the Icelanders say – “laughter prolongs your life”. There is no doubt in my mind that laughter has not only prolonged the life of individual Icelanders, but has been a source of formidable strength for the nation as a whole.”

If there is one phrase that captures the Icelanders’ innate sense of optimism better than any other, it is this: Þetta reddast. Þetta reddast should be emblazoned across the nation’s coat of arms, for it is a phrase that captures the essence of the Icelandic national character perhaps better than any other – their optimism, their irreverence, their faith, their tenacity. It also happens to be a phrase that the Icelanders use constantly. Þetta reddast basically means: This will all work out one way or another. Just lost your job? Þetta reddast. No money in the bank? Þetta reddast. Economy just melted down? Þetta reddast. Volcano just spewed ash all over your arable land? Þetta reddast líka. I love the phrase þetta reddast. To me, it incorporates a profound philosophy. Because when things are totally dark and you really can’t see the way out, often the best thing you can do is let go and trust that somehow, some way, things will work out for the best. And the amazing thing is that … they almost always do.”

 

I chose this book to read for my personal challenge, “Wanderlust,” an effort to read books that are from or take place in each country of the world. This was a book about Iceland.

They Called Us Enemy

 

They Called Us Enemy, by George Takei, is a beautifully written and illustrated autobiography of his childhood years when he and his family were relocated to the American concentration camps during World War II.  This is a book that I think should be a must read for everyone. It is so alarmingly relevant today, and I mean this very day, with Iranians now being detained at our borders and children that continue to be separated from their families and incarcerated at our southern border!

from the publisher:

In a stunning graphic memoir, Takei revisits his haunting childhood in American concentration camps, as one of over 100,000 Japanese Americans imprisoned by the U.S. government during World War II. Experience the forces that shaped an American icon—and America itself—in this gripping tale of courage, country, loyalty, and love.

I was very moved by this book and learned a lot that I didn’t know about that shameful period of time in our nation’s history. It was both moving and uplifting. An excellent book, in my opinion, and one of the most important books I’ve read in a long time!

The Landscapes of Anne of Green Gables

This beautiful book called to me from the library shelf just recently. I’ve thoroughly enjoyed reading it and am sad to have to return it soon. The Landscapes of Anne of Green Gables, by Catherine Reid, is the story of the author, L.M. Montgomery, and her beloved fictional character, Anne Shirley. It is an exploration of place, creativity, and the inspiration of the natural world. I love reading books about authors, especially authors of favorite books, and this one was lovely. The place where L.M. Montgomery lived, Prince Edward Island, shaped and inspired the author in her own life and became central to her writing and to the life she created for her character, Anne.

In the journals she kept throughout her life, Maud Montgomery reveals so many similar experiences to those of Anne Shirley that much of the novel appears to be autobiographical.

I didn’t know that much about L.M. Montgomery, so it was very interesting to learn about her life. The photographs of Prince Edward Island were beautiful. That beauty was a driving force in Montgomery’s life and work.

What we do know of Anne is that her goal is to create something beautiful, something memorable, as she says in Anne of Avonlea, “I’d like to add some beauty to life.”

For Maud Montgomery, writing was all those things and more, as necessary as sleeping or eating, providing her the moments when she was most alive and happy. Through writing, she brought together her fertile imagination, her love of beauty, and her reverence for the natural world.

“Oh, as long as we can work we can make life beautiful.”

…photo from blackberryrambles.blogspot.com

It was lovely out this evening. I went up over the hill in the clear pure November air and walked about until twilight had deepened into a moonlit autumn night. I was alone but not lonely. Thought was quick and vivid, imagination active and bright. . . . Then I came in, still tingling with the strange, wild, sweet life of the spirit, and wrote a chapter of my new serial—wrote it easily and pleasureably, with no flagging or halting. Oh, it is good to feel well and vivid and interesting and all alive! ~ from THE SELECTED JOURNALS OF L. M. MONTGOMERY, VOL. 1

Learning more about the life and work of L.M. Montgomery made me want to visit Prince Edward Island and experience that beauty and inspiration firsthand. It also made me want to read and re-read all her works. Somehow I missed reading the Anne of Green Gables books when I was growing up. My Mom and I discussed that at one point and couldn’t figure out how we missed those wonderful books! What a lovely summer project it would be to read/re-read them all, one after the other!

If you love Anne Shirley, this book about Maud and Anne and Prince Edward Island is a must!

 

I chose this book to read for my personal challenge, “Wanderlust,” an effort to read books that are from or take place in each country of the world. This was a book from Canada.

Remember the Ladies

During this Women’s History Month, I want to share some memories of my mother and parts of an email she sent me a few years ago in response to a book about Abigail Adams that I had given her as a gift. She was thinking about what it means to be a feminist, and of course, delighted in reading and learning more about the important women in our history.

My mother passed away just three weeks shy of her 99th birthday last July. Even at that advanced age, she was still very much “with it” right until the end.  I loved that she was able to text me using her iPhone, and that we talk every day on the phone, most often about books. She was an avid reader of fiction and non-fiction, with a life-long love of history. She was very politically informed, reading daily articles from The New York Times, the Washington Post, and her local newspaper (both paper copy and online!).  If you have followed my blog for awhile then you already know that she was my reading mentor/buddy, but she was also my feminist guide! She lead by example in our family, and with all who knew her. She was very much involved in women’s issues, and would be so happy with the new level of women’s involvement in the new Congress in Washington, D.C.  “Remember the Ladies” and “It’s Up to the Women” are quotes from two of her favorite historical figures, Abigail Adams and Eleanor Roosevelt, and she often talked with great respect about both women.

In the letter she sent me, she included a link to a History Channel page that quoted from a letter that Abigail Adams sent to her husband John Adams.

In a letter dated March 31, 1776, Abigail Adams writes to her husband, John Adams, urging him and the other members of the Continental Congress not to forget about the nation’s women when fighting for America’s independence from Great Britain.

The future First Lady wrote in part, “I long to hear that you have declared an independency. And, by the way, in the new code of laws which I suppose it will be necessary for you to make, I desire you would remember the ladies and be more generous and favorable to them than your ancestors. Do not put such unlimited power into the hands of the husbands. Remember, all men would be tyrants if they could. If particular care and attention is not paid to the ladies, we are determined to foment a rebellion, and will not hold ourselves bound by any laws in which we have no voice or representation.”

Mom then shared with me some of her thoughts on the changing roles of women in our culture today, ruminating about her own experience with the women’s movement of the 1960s and 1970s.

…It did made me think and try to identify where I fit in at that time. I began my own search of books I’d read that emphasized changing roles in women’s lives. I began first to recall women in history. Much that influenced me seemed far removed from the active, dramatic time of the bra-burning, when it was no thank you to men opening doors, or in any way making us feel weaker and dependent on them.

Eleanor Roosevelt, whom I admire so much, came immediatey to mind for she was truly a powerful role model. She made a mark in world history. Doris Kearns Goodwin said of her, “She as America’s most influential First Lady blazed paths for women and led the battle for social justice everywhere. She set women’s rights and involvement to a higher level.”

Reading Natalie S. Bober’s book Abigail Adams, I was charmed and loved Abigail. She was a quiet, dignified lady, and was a feminist ahead of her time. “Remember the Ladies,” she said to her husband John, then serving as delegate to the Continental Congress, who played a leading role in persuading Congress to adopt the United State Declaration of Independence. He laughed at her and said he’d be laughed out of the congress if he suggested such a thing.

There were other women during the early days of our country’s history that I consider feminists. At her peril, Dolly Madison’s courage saved us our most treasured painting of George Washington. Rosa Parks was a true feminist whose courage changed history. These women were our early feminists, ahead of their time…

I realize I was incredibly fortunate to have a mother who shared these thoughts and ideas with me, a mother who was a strong positive role model who encouraged me (and my brothers) to be strong and understanding, have integrity and courage to speak out, and to make a commitment to improve the lives of all women.

I miss her very much, but her ideas live on and her gentle guidance continues to influence me and our family.

A few of the books that she enjoyed reading and which shaped her thoughts on women’s rights: