Saturday, June 27, 2015

Not My Father's Son by Alan Cumming

Not My Father’s Son is a beautiful book. I honestly can’t decide what I admire most about Alan Cumming’s memoir: the courage it took to live his life or the skill it took to write about it. While reading, I became caught up in the mechanics of the book, paying close attention to the smooth transitions, the pacing, the appropriate balance of humor and tension. His performances on stage and screen must have profoundly influenced his writing style. Perhaps all writers hoping to develop their craft could benefit from some theater coaching. Alan Cumming’s scenes were vivid and cinematic. His delivery of lines was engaging and the way he added onto his stories in suspenseful increments was masterful.

Sometimes I settle for either great writing or an intriguing plot. A book doesn’t necessarily have to have both qualities to keep my interest. But Alan Cumming, in addition to being a great writer, is a fascinating person with a unique perspective. He tells the stories of his childhood in Scotland, living in fear of his abusive father, and all the experiences that shaped him. His father often gave Alan vague and impossible tasks to complete, setting him up to fail just so he would have an excuse to beat him. In one story, Alan’s father took him to a shed full of spruce saplings and told him to separate the good from the bad. I suppose separating the good from the bad is an invaluable life lesson. It’s something I’m still trying to learn and probably always will be.

We’re all the products of our experiences, but, thankfully, we can learn from our experiences and decide how they will shape us. I suppose what I admire most about Alan Cumming’s memoir is his ability to distinguish himself from his father’s hateful view of him. Although treated like one of the runty saplings, Alan was able to separate himself and grow stronger. In the end, he rises above his travails and triumphs.

Sunday, June 21, 2015


“He liked potted plants, playing the oboe, wild boysenberry yogurt, the smell of hot dogs in the winter, and watching films about the ocean.” This line is from one of my new favorite children’s books, Herman and Rosie, by Gus Gordon.

If I could come up with a list of likes to summarize myself in the 3rd person, it would be, “She liked colorful scarves, mushroom risotto, the smell of whiskey distilleries, and enjoying an ocean view from a balcony at a beach hotel.”

I confided to two of my friends that I was having a tough time transitioning to summer. Now that my life is no longer a demanding ruckus of work and school, I spend my days daydreaming, tripping on my own flip flops, forgetting books on coffee shop counters, attempting to pay for things with my bus pass, and other absentminded blunders. Both friends recommended the book, Transitions, by William Bridges. Recurring book recommendations are not to be ignored, so I promptly put a hold on it at the library.

I also accompanied my mom to Cannon Beach and spent one night at the Stephanie Inn. She was writing about all things culinary for a magazine article and I assumed the role of assistant taste tester. I’m used to eating on the go, so fine dining is a rare treat. I learned the Lazy Susan Cafe makes the best marionberry scones. The mushroom risotto I ordered at the Stephanie Inn was delectable
and the agave spirit I drank at the Cannon Beach Distillery was divine. We also attended a vinaigrette cooking class with the executive chef of the Stephanie Inn.

The Stephanie Inn has rotating pots of fresh coffee in the lobby, a luxury I took advantage of, even at the cost of sleep. Overly caffeinated at 5 AM, I forfeited my erratic sleep to go drink more coffee and enjoy the beautiful view from the windows in the comfortable lobby, where Mozart played from the speakers.  

The smell of ocean air has a revitalizing effect on me The beach reminds me how important it is to relax in life. I’m so used to there being a surplus of tasks to complete each day. But listening to the ocean waves, breathing salty air, and taking time to properly nourish myself was all I needed to put the important things in life into perspective. 

Monday, June 15, 2015

Just So Happens by Fumio Obata

This book unfolds slowly, like the controlled movements of a
martial artist’s hand cutting through the air. Just So Happens, by Fumio Obata, centers on a young Japanese woman who has made a home for herself in London. After her father’s sudden death, she must return home to Japan and attend his funeral. Surprised by her own stoicism, she goes through the funeral ceremony with a critical eye. The chanting holds no significance to anyone at the funeral, yet everyone goes along with it for the sake of tradition. Holy Buddhist names can be given to deceased relatives, a practice known as kaimyo. The names come with different ranks and different price tags. It all seems very artificial to Yumiko, who’s assimilated somewhat to life in London. She must find a way to make peace with her father in a way that doesn’t feel staged.

I love the gentle water colors in this book. A double-page spread of a London street reveals layers of water color, perhaps to show the transparency and openness of Londoners. Later in the book, there’s a very stiff, opaque rendering of the funeral home in Japan, revealing the very different moods each setting inspires in the artist.

Fumio Obata stitches together snippets of dialogue, memory, dreams, and imaginings from Yumiko’s life. An artist of inferior skill might try something annoying to indicate they are skipping around in time or switching from reality to a dream sequence. They might alter their drawing style completely. For example, all childhood memories are stick figures and everything in the present is drawn realistically. Fumio Obata does something very subtle. He just inserts a drawing of a bullet train or a canal or some other type of scenery. The subtle alteration sends a signal to the reader’s brain that, okay, we’re daydreaming now, or whatever the case may be.

Just So Happens is now one of my favorite graphic novels. My enjoyment was magnified since my fascination with Japan is at an all-time high. (Thanks to Miyazaki movies.­) But I suppose if I look way back, my interest in Japan was tangible when I used to wear a kimono to school. My mother pointed out that when she was pregnant with me, she was learning Japanese and taking tea ceremony training, so maybe my contact with Japanese culture as a fetus had an effect on the type of adult I have become. 

Sunday, June 7, 2015

I am woman

Women are apologizing to men (as we have been conditioned to do) for having the nerve to refer to our sex organs by their proper name. Some biological women don't want to exclude or discriminate against transgender men who want the title of "woman," but lack the traditional physical makings of a woman. Okay, so let me get this straight. Women don't want to offend the platinum elite members of womanhood: those who've benefited from male privilege while wanting to fulfill their need to become female, so we're going to let men define what it means to be a woman? All in the name of progressiveness? I don't think so. 

Bruce Jenner, now Caitlyn Jenner, was a card carrying beneficiary of
white male privilege his entire life. He told Diane Sawyer that the thing he looked forward to the most about being a woman was the chance to wear nail polish. This stereotypical facade of femininity is alluring, understandably, just like it's alluring to little girls playing dress up. When we're young, we have no inkling of the hard road ahead. We don't know that being a woman entails sexual assault, discrimination, discomfort, and double standards. Reality, we soon discover, is way different than the fairy tale Disney feeds us. 

Elinor Burkett wrote an illuminating article for The New York Times about Caitlyn Jenner's new identity as a woman and her misconceptions of what it means to be a woman. The Vanity Fair photos, from what I saw, were stunning, but they were photos of a woman who has not had to fight for women's rights. Caitlyn Jenner also told Diane Sawyer that "My brain is much more female than it is male." That would have been a bold statement for a neuroscientist to make, let alone an Olympic athlete. It seems, judging by this quote, that Jenner is perfectly happy resting in her naive bubble, a bubble  insulated by a lifetime of male privilege. If Caitlyn Jenner were truly clued into the workings of a female brain, she would know some of the activity which women's brains share based on our collective experiences.  Women's brains fear walking home alone at night, being followed, being date raped, the nausea of street harassment, the anxiety of waiting for your next period with the calendar on your lap.

If we're not careful about allowing others to define womanhood, we risk having our struggles erased, our fears trivialized, and being reduced to our body parts, our sexy negligees, and our nail polish. 

Please, let's not let that happen.