Book: Eco Living Japan: Sustainable Ideas for Living Green, by Deanna MacDonald

How is that for a cool cover?

Eco Living Japan: Sustainable Ideas for Living Green
by Deanna MacDonald
published by Tuttle, Rutland, Vermont

This is a beautifully illustrated survey of Japanese building projects which show a commitment to environmental sustainability.

This book grabbed me right away by immediately explaining something that had always confused me: why are homes made with renewable, traditional materials so rare? The answer that explains it all: insurance companies won’t insure old houses. One MUST tear down and rebuild to new codes every 30 years to get insurance. And so houses are basically disposable, and less sustainable materials can be cheaper, faster, less flammable, or more fashionable.

Some of the edgy, innovative Japanese house books I’ve seen are now so easily explained: no one is building for the long term, so being over-specific for a point in time, or taking risks, and being daring makes more sense – you won’t have to grow old in what you build! (Even in the recent Japanese fiction I’ve been reading, families tear down buildings to sell an empty lot – this seems to be considered the best choice almost always…)

This book profiles a range of projects from architects with a range of attitudes and credentials about environmentally sustainable building. It is a buffet of different eco-emphases: some projects focus on energy use, some on thermal insulation, some on traditional wood treatments (like charring to protect against insects), some on attempting to preserve the natural features of a landscape by resting on smaller foundations (which involves using a lot of steel, however), and all result in a range of reasonably conventional homes that wouldn’t jump out as eco-friendly without some explanation.

By showing a diversity of approaches and solutions, the book provides a good survey of concerns that CAN be addressed and SHOULD be considered. You CAN have a normal-looking house while making better choices!

As with all architecture books, I get a better sense for how living in the spaces could be when they have signs of human life in them, such as art or furnishings, so I am relieved that several of the homes are furnished, at least minimally. While a few of the homes are absolutely palatial (the vast, full floor height, insulated windows in some of these projects alone probably cost more than my entire house), there are some modest / practical ones in the mix. I also appreciate the interludes to cover topics such as the use of landscaping, and kit homes (hello, Muji!), and the inclusion of some international projects to tie what is happening in Japan to global trends.

Overall, this is an attractive, nicely presented book showing how many potential approaches there are to improve the sustainability of residential construction, especially in the climate and circumstances found in Japan. I enjoyed it.

Bookstore: Kinokuniya (San Francisco)

Photo from the Kinokuniya website for the great store in San Francisco’s Japan Center.

Oh, how I have missed browsing in bookstores!

While I have been vigilant about ordering books I want online from my local booksellers, visiting an actual bookstore is a very different experience. I go in wanting something in particular, but usually find something within each local shop’s speciality that also interests me, and so I expand my worldview by another, unexpected book.

My first physical visit to a bookstore since restrictions were lifted was to Kinokuniya. I went in to order an illustrated book published only in Japan, and came out with an armful of other books and a box of (intimidating) Japanese kanji flash cards. I have been shopping at Kinokuniya since the 1990s (!), when it was my go-to source for Japanese architecture books, and always find something I enjoy.

Most of my purchases are from their design section, which is what I go to them for most. There is something about the collection that they stock, beyond even items that are specific to Japan, that really aligns with my photographic habits, my ‘collectors eye.’ Many of the books they choose to stock have a savvy, design-documentary bent with great photos/illustrations.

It is the sort of bookstore where you would go if you were looking for a heavily illustrated book about a certain coat, a certain kind of door, a certain font, a certain COLOR. There are entire books that are just about logos that are rendered in metallic silver; there is another book in that same series for logos that use neon colors…

While their collection of Japanese language magazines is impressive, they also stock design-savvy US items, such as the stunning coffee culture magazine, Drift ( A magazine exclusively about one beverage, where all of the urban photography and writing centers on the theme of coffee. Do you see how this fits?

Depth, specificity, great photography, a nearly obsessive focus…

It’s also great to see what is popular for Japanese readers, whether or not those items are ever translated into English. (My Japanese is very basic, but I am someone who periodically buys foreign language publications for the photography.)

While ‘western’ publishers love to publish books about exotic details of Asia, ‘eastern’ publishers put out the exact same books on the exotic details of Europe. I saw great examples here. I love the idea that everyone can find someone else’s location and culture exotic & stylish, and then photograph them in a way that glorifies those other cultural touchpoints. Pale children in chunky-knit sweaters sit on oatmeal colored chairs while holding eggshell textured ceramics to set a Scandinavian tone – this is a design fetish perfectly rendered, with the sort of freshness that we all hope for when documenting for our home audiences. I love it, love it, love it.

I am happy to be able to visit bookstores in person again, and felt delighted (and safe!) during my visit to Kinokuniya. I am looking forward to my order arriving, so I can return to pick it up – and browse again.

Life: Peeking Outside the Fog Belt

While I grew up on the sunny side of San Francisco, I currently live near the edge of the fog belt. I love fog, but not every day – I like variety.

When the fog belt limits visibility, I often believe that it is foggy EVERYWHERE, but sunny weather may be just a streetcar ride away! As a lighting-obsessed photographer, always interested in which buildings and other features are lit from which direction, I began to rely on live webcams back in 2004 to tell me if the fog belt has an edge.

The fancy webcam I currently use and recommend is at the Exploratorium (, now located at Pier 15 along the Embarcadero. (Embarcadero = the pier(s) in Spanish.) It looks eastward from the pier, toward the east bay and our Bay Bridge, day and night. It not only provides a view, but also weather station and other monitoring equipment measuring the wind, any rain (we wish), water depth, salinity, and other cool data. This screenshot gives you a preview of what I mean:

It’s not looking good for the sunlit scenes I was hoping to capture today…

At the moment, I can see that it was too optimistic of me to take film out of the refrigerator before I even had breakfast this morning, but at least I know now, rather than after I’ve geared up and headed out.

The link for your enjoyment is here:

Yes, there is a Wikipedia page devoted to June Gloom, which also names “May Gray,” “No-Sky July,” and “Fogust” as some of our regional nicknames for these anti-postcard weather patterns, if you need to sound like a local over your artisanal, locally roasted cup of coffee.

Book: The Wind Up Bird Chronicle by Haruki Murakami

The Wind Up Bird Chronicle
by Haruki Murakami
translated by Jay Rubin
published by Vintage Books, New York

This is an imaginative novel that somehow weaves its story within contemporary suburban Japan, historical occupied Manchuria, and an supernatural parallel space filled with danger.

Toru Okada is an ordinary man, who left his law office job to find something more satisfying while his wife’s job pays the bills. During his time of reflection, his cat disappears; then his wife starts working very peculiar hours, and stops coming home altogether. That’s when strangers begin to reach out to him with cryptic warnings about the flow of water, he hears rumors of a cursed neighborhood home, and the malevolence of his in-laws appears to take on a supernatural force.

This is not the sort of Isekai story that I’ve written about in the past: instead of the ordinary Japanese protagonist falling into another world, the ordinary world is instead revealed to be much stranger than the protagonist had noticed.

Odd characters, almost all of them women, interact with Okada in emotionally supportive and/or physically intimate ways as he navigates the altered reality that is gradually revealed to him.

(Okada seems especially comfortable when women of any age are with him, even without knowing their real names (!), who they are working for, or much about their motivations. This gives me some ideas of why his marriage didn’t succeed (other plot events notwithstanding), but this combination of being easygoing and oblivious is entirely plausible for the character.)

The author of this book provides a classical soundtrack for the chapters, which matches Okada’s musical tastes: you can access this musical guide on his website (

This is surely the least predictable novel I’ve read in years. While the protagonist seems so ordinary, the story that unfolds around and through him and his supporting characters is engaging, suspenseful, atmospheric (the humidity of summer rains or chill coldness of being underground are so well described), and is engrossing. This is my first Murakami novel, but won’t be my last.

Book: The Goddess Chronicle by Natsuo Kirino

There are several other gorgeous covers available to this book. My image doesn’t show the fabric-like texture of the image, which extends to the woman’s skin…

The Goddess Chronicle
by Natsuo Kirino
translated by Rebecca Copeland
published by Canongate, Edinburgh

This is a beautiful, sad, vivid retelling of a Japanese myth (Izanami and Izanagi) that I was previously unfamiliar with.

This story is narrated from the underworld, by someone who died young, and who writes of her misfortune. On a beautiful, isolated, tropical island, she was one of countless underfed locals. Her childhood came to an abrupt end when she was forced into a traditionally necessary taboo role… which prepared her, in some respects, for another role in the afterlife, where she learns that women being forced into taboo roles has a VERY long tradition.

This story is lyrical, harsh, and has haunting imagery. The modest narrator’s experiences of hunger, love, attachment, and betrayal give her deep sensitivity to the suffering of the goddess she comes to serve, and their stories interact in unexpected ways. It is a moving story written in a timeless way.

Environment: California Drought

We Californians always complain about how dry it is, and how we are feeling the long term effects of climate change slowly desiccating us. But what does that LOOK like?

The UK Guardian, which has a fantastic US bureau (I am a happy digital subscriber), pulled these images together to show you what a dry spring looked like.

And it’s even drier now.

To give you a sense of how widespread this is, the US Drought Monitor ( makes simplified graphics to show how the many different climates of California, from snowy mountain to redwood forest to foggy coast, are in various stages of water shortage.


This isn’t just abstract news for us. This is why trees and plants that never needed supplemental water are now dying in our local parks and gardens; why our forests are vulnerable to insects and fires; why people who retire to the Sierra foothills suddenly can’t get insurance for their homes; why salmon can’t make it out to sea from far up the rivers where they hatched; why farmers are watching their orchards from a more optimistic expansion era dry up…

We have always been zealous about drought tolerance and water conservation, but there is only so much we can do at home when the natural systems that get that water first are already dry.

Stamps: Sun Science

These are gorgeous and science-y and geeky all at the same time.

The US Postal Service has released images of the sun in different wavelengths of light, which you can buy online or at your local post office. They are SUPERB.

(You were expecting me to write about the Star Wars Droid stamps, but I won’t indulge you. Ha!)

Book: Binti, The Complete Trilogy by Nnedi Okorafor

Binti (2015)
Binti: Home (2017)
Binti: the Night Masquerade (2018)
Binti: Sacred Fire (2019)
by Nnedi Okorafor
published by DAW Books, Inc., New York

Binti is a very good student, a math genius, and a traditional Himba girl adorned with fragrant red clay. When she’s the first of her people to be accepted to an interstellar university, her family just shrugs it off – Himba girls don’t DO that. An education would just upset her family and damage her chances of marriage.

She goes anyway, and just when she is getting to know the other students on the university-bound starship, the massacre occurs…

Binti won a Hugo and a Nebula, and it’s easy to see why! This collection of novellas covers so much ground, from living ships to parental disapproval, from bullying to interspecies mass murder, from tradition to homesickness, from the weight of being the first of your people to do something to the awkwardness of having your friends meet your family, and the rather outrageous burdens that are put upon the heroine’s shoulders while she copes with what she has experienced…

Okorafor moves at a fast pace, and does compelling worldbuilding without getting bogged down in minutiae. It’s fun! There are lots of characters, but they all have a purpose. There is ancient tech of unknown utility, which is one of my biggest weaknesses. (*squeal!*) Descriptions of organized university biomes and the seeming madness of people with hidden communication devices were some of many satisfying elements in Binti’s world.

I’m especially glad I read this collection after it was fully compiled, so I wouldn’t suffer suspense over what happens next.

P.S. The author also gives a concise explanation of the difference between Afrofuturism and Africanfuturism, which is referenced in the list of Africanfuturist recommendations on

Book: Cabins by Philip Jodidio

by Philip Jodidio
published by Taschen

This hefty, dense, trilingual (English, German, and French) volume features extremely charming illustrations by Cruschiform (Marie-Laure Cruschi), great photos, consistent and clear floor plans (!gasp!), and outdoorsy-buildings, only some of which are cabins.

While the promotional text discusses rustic simplicity, and there are a few rugged/utilitarian structures, MOST of these aren’t modest buildings you could track mud into. I mean, there are some without heating, or that are only intended for seasonal use, but many are fully developed, large, contemporary homes for the well off.

I adore this “boathouse,” but we have boathouses in our public parks here in SF, and they are basically uninsulated garages for boats that are rusting and have bird poo on them. They don’t look like this:

This home by AR Design Studio in the UK is fantastic. Too fantastic for cabin-hood! It is a retreat from… another home on the property.

The design of the book is great – the illustrations are stylish, fun, colorful, and provide clear transitions between projects. The consistent floor plan graphics help explain how the buildings should work. The index is well organized, and the essay at the front is worth a read.

The projects themselves range from translucent structures that you can camp in, to wine country vacation homes, to buildings where you could live normally, to those that are better suited for ‘glamping’ (pretend glamour camping). There is at least one where I can imagine snowshoeing in from the edge of the property with a sled full of cocktail ingredients and catered food, though unpacking supplies in the immaculate kitchen that appears to have no food preparation tools of any kind would be daunting. 🙂

It’s difficult to tell what the criteria for SUCCESS in the design category is. The program for a cabin (a real cabin) is looser than one for a home, but that leaves their utility ambiguous. Are we snow camping, or are we entertaining? Can our older parents visit, or is it too difficult to access? Is it comfortable for a weekend only, or a week, or a month?

The structures that are fully furnished are easier to interpret – I know my parents could sit down without me having to bring furniture, so that’s great. Some bedrooms are completely filled by a bed. Why? Should you need to leave the bedroom to open a suitcase and dress? Should you need to climb a ladder into a loft to sleep? Does the enormous trap door in the floor without railings feel sketchy when you’re hauling in your supplies? Is a glass-enclosed bath a great idea if your parents are visiting for the weekend?

The client’s desires and goals for using the space are mentioned at various levels of detail, but without giving away too much, I’d love to have a scorecard to compare the programs on a practical level, considering the range of projects. Accessibility (how able-bodied do I need to be to get in, and how many stairs am I hauling supplies up), is there enough floor space to dress in the bedroom; is there enough light to read; is there space to draw/paint/write; is the temperature range comfortable in its intended seasons, is there any storage space for the outdoor gear you need to get there… This would be especially valuable because of the glossy architecture magazine convention of showing most of the spaces without human occupants, without normal personal possessions, and without any normal living functions being performed.

This is a fun collection to leaf through, and I do have at least one new Swedish island cabin getaway fantasy now, so I think this book has accomplished its mission.

Book: Fugitive Telemetry (the Murderbot Diaries) by Martha Wells

Yaaaay, Murderbot!

Fugitive Telemetry (the Murderbot Diaries)
by Martha Wells
published by Tor
April 2021

Yes, everyone’s favorite socially-awkward security unit is back for the sixth novella in the Murderbot Diaries. Yes, due to the fast nature of the novellas, you MUST read them all in order, as the characters and situations that brought them together are all assumed to be understood by the time you arrive at this novella.

I also recommend reading the short scene, Home, Habitat, Range, Niche, Territory that Wells published on before reading this volume, as it refreshes your memory about why everyone is… a little high strung! (It’s charming!)

Without spoilers, I can say that this novella is… a MURDERBOT MURDER MYSTERY! No, I didn’t see that coming. This fast-paced adventure allows Murderbot to help station security solve the murder of a human within their ordinarily very boring jurisdiction. Is the killing related to Murderbot’s favorite humans? Are they in even more danger than usual? Is Murderbot itself a suspect?

One novelty to this novella is that Murderbot ordinarily provides great running commentary of all of its thoughts/fears/fluid-losses, and this time around, it HOLDS BACK so you have to find out during an action sequence who did it. That was a sneaky surprise!

Of course, this novella just makes me want another, and while I’m happy that Wells has signed a contract to write more, I WANT THEM NOW. You’ll want them, too, and I recommend this volume to tide you over slightly longer while you wait impatiently for more.