Book: Half a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Audiobook cover

Half of a Yellow Sun
by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
audiobook narrated by Zainab Jah
published by Penguin Random House
2007 (audiobook in 2017)

How could anything as horrific as a civil war make for such an engrossing, heartfelt book? I am touched, moved, horrified, pained, and I zealously recommend this novel.

Half of a Yellow Sun follows the lives of two women, non-identical twins with a privileged background, living their lives in recently independent Nigeria in the 1960s. One is a university professor who is deeply in love with a political firebrand with a scheming, old-fashioned family that wants him to be with an uneducated woman; the other is a savvy businesswoman and fixer, stepping into her father’s role in the corrupt business world. We get to know them, their lovers, and their households well, the steady patterns of their comfortable lives, the awe in which their rural house staff view them…

And then massacres begin. Massacres of the Igbo people, the ethnic group these characters all belong to within a diverse, post-colonial Nigeria.

It’s clear that the new nation, with many of its persistent, colonial-era power imbalances between groups, cannot stand – the Igbo can’t share a government with people who kill them while calling them infidels. Biafra, a new nation for the Igbo and other southeastern groups, is declared… and a slow-motion disaster unfolds, as Nigeria won’t let them go, the military intervenes, and the major powers of the world take sides – and nearly all take the side of Nigeria against Biafra.

By making the decline personal, by seeing these sisters and those they care about take up the cause of their new nation, and then gradually have their world destroyed, is brutal. The decline, the horror, the hardships, the atrocities, reading about their (fictional but representative) experience of it all while knowing how badly it ended in real life – it is gutting.

I listened to the audiobook version, brilliantly performed by Zainab Jah. Her presentation of the Igbo phrases, the local and British accents, pleading children, shouty-old-ladies ordering people around or accusing them of witchcraft, the swearing Americans – her performance was FANTASTIC!

This is a brilliant novel, and a forever timely reminder of both the damage done by the empires of the past and the absence of a peaceful path for self-determination for groups of all types today, who are trapped indefinitely within the borders of a previous century.

Weekend Under Clouds

Is it time to add another banner? I think it is! This isn’t recent, but I like the texture.

It was a good day to wear a jacket here in San Francisco, but just two and a half hours east where my parents live, it was over 100 degrees Fahrenheit. It was 107 there yesterday. The fact that there could be a fifty degree difference over such a short distance is amazing. I am grateful that the difference is in my favor. Hooray for the cooling waters of the Pacific! Hooray for the insulation of San Francisco Bay!

While my photographic plans today were foiled (they required direct sunlight from the east prior to 11am), I did travel to the eastern edge of town after lunch, and so enjoyed having a shadow for a few minutes.

*

The City still feels… off. Sleeping Beauty isn’t awake yet, and the sounds and sights remain muted. It is lively in spots – Japan Center’s Kinokuniya Building was HOPPING at 11am! – but then I can walk blocks without encountering another human.

Some favorite places are still boarded up. Paper covers too many windows. There are still holes in our urban fabric, and a sad sense that even more people are suffering than usual.

*

A friend has admitted that she dreads full re-opening and what passed for normal, because “normal” was too frantic for her, involved too many obligations and interactions that didn’t really suit her. It was an unexpected insight from someone who had previously just avoided the news.

It is worth thinking about: what the smaller impacts to daily life are that manifest along the edges of this still-unfolding tragedy which we might learn from.

(Aristotle described tragedies as being caused not by intentional villainy, but by a flaw in the character of the hero-protagonists. (See the explanation of Hamartia in Brittanica.) There certainly are a lot of human flaws on display during this pandemic!)

We could all benefit from living more thoughtful lives!

Book: Breaking Ground – Architecture By Women by Jane Hall

Cover image via Phaidon’s gorgeous website

Breaking Ground – Architecture By Women
by Jane Hall
published by Phaidon
2019

The premise behind this book is that lots of women are designing impressive buildings you recognize, buildings that are worth celebrating, but you may not be aware of this because their work is often shown under a firm name or misattributed to men. To correct this gap in your knowledge, this book collects excellent projects, both recent and historical, and tells you about the architects behind them.

So many gorgeous projects, including projects you have seen in magazines or in person! (Via Phaidon’s website)

The selection of projects neatly tilts toward my favorite types: large public works, plus large private projects, both of the type that are experienced by a lot of people: concert halls, offices, museums, schools. Each architect is represented by a brief biography and one or more excellent project photos with key details for further research. Collaborations between men and women are recognized and celebrated in an acknowledgement of the team effort that contemporary architecture ordinarily requires for large scale projects.

Hall is very modest about her research and the limitations of the Europe-centric architectural awards processes that favor Europe and selected other regions, but I am delighted by the geographic range of her selections.

The essay and quotes in the book underline the importance of spotlighting these high quality projects to correct for the erasure of women in the field. Hall calls out the 2014 scandal around having architect Patty Hopkins photoshopped out of a photo of architecture award winners, while her husband was left in for a BBC show about their shared firm’s work – even though she co-founded the firm, and their shared name is on it! (See the article in Architects’ Journal entitled, “BBC slammed for ‘bias’ after Patty Hopkins is sidelined in TV show” dated March 5, 2014 by Richard Waite and Laura Mark.) It isn’t just about the photo, it’s about the program’s premise that men were exclusively responsible for the shape of contemporary design – the photo was just a reminder that the facts did not support that narrative. If your are actively edited out of discussions about the firm you co-founded and the projects you worked on, just to indulge some stranger’s all-male hero narrative, who is safe? The lone genius theory is bad enough, but diminishing key founders because of their gender is outrageous.

“No matter how my work was published or credited, it was seen as Venturi’s. The notion that we might both design seemed inconceivable.”

–Denise Scott Brown

(This issue is, unfortunately, relatable: a male teacher happily gave my boyfriend/classmate credit for my architecture work because just once I used my bf’s woodworking tools to build a model, though if he had borrowed equipment from me, the reverse would NOT have been suggested. My bf told me he took it as a compliment (to him). Their creepy camaraderie over rewarding him for my work made quite an impression on me.)

This is a beautiful, oversized book of great projects with lovely photos. The core details about the firms behind the designs are enough to send you in the right direction to learn more. The presence and success of the women behind these projects is encouraging and satisfying.

This book also gives you an excuse to visit the Phaidon website, which is GORGEOUS and has many wonderful temptations, especially the fine art monographs and design books.

Book: Breasts and Eggs by Mieko Kawakami

Breasts and Eggs
by Mieko Kawakami
translated by Sam Bett and David Boyd
published by Europa Editions, New York
2019

This award-winning novel tells the story of Natsuko, a young-ish-but-not-young writer who survived her youth of poverty and hardship, only to be uncertain of her purpose and judged by her peers for not living a conventional woman’s life, as they have.

While Natsuko’s dear older sister struggles as a single mother by working at a failing bar, repeating some of their mother’s choices and hardships, Natsuko wonders if motherhood is the relationship that will fill her own life with meaning. While trying to come to a decision, Natsuko approaches those around her with something close to an interviewer’s curiosity, as they reveal their own views, compromises, and dissatisfaction with their choices and obligations.

This novel manages to describe so much: abuse, living hand-to-mouth, the limited options available to women who leave their marriages, they way you can go back to your hometown (but it will NOT be the same), dreary literary readings, creepy pressures from relatives to bear children and tend to thankless in-laws, the (unnecessary and ruinous) shame associated with adoption and artificial insemination, and the atmosphere of countless rooms near train stations where people meet for coffee, rounds of cocktails, deep confessions, and inappropriate offers! (I am transported back to gray November days in Tokyo just writing this…)

The novel covers many years, and so many conversations, Throughout that time, season after season, the pressures on Natsuko to resolve her life situation (and/or finish her new book) never let up.

Breasts and Eggs is a well written, engrossing book about struggling to make a life that works while withstanding (gendered) societal pressures and writers block. It’s well told, and I’m glad I read it.

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
2015

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.

Bookstores: 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 (driftmag.com). 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 (exploratorium.edu), 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
1997

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 (harukimurakami.com).

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
2012

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 (droughtmonitor.unl.edu) 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.

It is HISTORICALLY dry.

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.