How Did Cinderella Get Into Her Stepmother’s House in the First Place?

princess bookHow did Cinderella get into her stepmother’s house in the first place? If you’ve ever asked yourself this question, then this book is for you. The Witch and the Baby Princess by David Rich is a fun, action packed explanation of Cinderella’s background along with the events that led up to the whole stepmother scenario.

More than just a prequel, however, this book is meant as a story for kids and parents to share. The author, an avid reader, active storyteller and involved father, didn’t want to just hand his daughters a book – he wanted to create something he could share with them and that they could read together, which is exactly what he has done.

This book does not have a big, glossy cover or thousands of pictures with a few words on each page. This is a full-on, meaty story. Oh, it has a bunch of really adorable illustrations, but that’s not the focus here. The focus is the story itself. It is meant for a parent and a child to sit down and read together. There are words in it that a child under twelve is not going to understand. There are concepts such as the shades of grey between good and evil, which parents should be excited to discuss with their children. The book is rife with big, tough topics such as friendship, love, beauty, goodness, envy, and expectations that are designed to spark good talks between children and the adults who love them.

What Rich has done is created a springboard for parents so that topics that can be hard to broach for adults and harder for kids to understand, become gentle and accessible for both parties.

The story itself is quaint, sweet, and lovingly told. In a land far away, a baby is born to a great witch, but the queen of the fairies does not want the baby to be evil and instills in the young girl a conscience and a particle of free will. What the child grows up to do and become, and how she uses her gifts in the context of her parents’ expectations of her becoming an evil witch, is the crux of the story. It’s easy to see how the idea of parental expectation is juxtaposed against the personality of the child – good lessons for parents and children alike. The characters are drawn with great care and attention to detail. At any moment I could “see” each person and the location as well due to the strong and exhaustive descriptions that only add, not detract, from the plot itself. Emotion is tended to with care and the plot moves along with a mix of action and feelings.

In a world where the bonds between children and their parents have become increasingly fractured, kudos to David Rich for creating a lovely story, as well as something to serve as a binder of families.

Lessons in Control and Empowerment

CI’ve been reading Sheryl Sandberg’s controversial book Lean In.  Chief Operating Officer at Facebook, Sandberg took a lot of heat for her views about women in the workplace.  Many women felt her expectations and ideas were great for a family of a certain means and that her advice is not applicable to “every-woman.” Sandberg writes convincingly and powerfully, but many of her suggestions come with the double-edged sword of a position of privilege.  That being said, the book has wonderful ideas about how both men and women can change themselves AND the workplace to create an environment of equality.

One thing that resonated with me is Sandberg’s chapter on how women need to make their husbands true partners if they want to succeed in the workplace.  By true partner, Sandberg means that division of labor has to be equitable in the home when both partners work.  Sandberg admits that in her house, the labor is divided along gender lines – he pays the bills; she plans the birthday parties. She also says that it’s a constantly evolving balance that they negotiate often.  The key, she says, as with many things in marriage in general, is communication, not always an easy task in itself.

In the chapter, Sandberg encourages, no, instructs women is to empower their husbands.  She cautions that if women are constantly criticizing the way men actually DO the jobs they are assigned in the house, then the men won’t feel motivated to continue doing the jobs and women will be worse off than before – doing their husbands’ jobs themselves when the men give up for lack of support.

This reminded me of a story.  When my son Bailey was born, my control-freaky self went ballistic trying to have everything done perfectly.  It actually took a therapist to tell me that it didn’t matter if I did the top of the carseat buckle first and my husband buckled the bottom latch first – the end result is a baby who is safe in the car.  I had actually been criticizing the way my husband was buckling the baby into his seat! It’s no wonder I was feeling overworked and annoyed all the time – if my way was the best and only way to do everything, then I was causing my own problem by making Marc feel unmotivated to do anything for the baby, or for me. I learned to let go – a little.  Letting go is still an evolving process for me fourteen years later.

But is precisely now, fourteen years later, that this lesson is coming back to haunt me, both in light of the carseat story and Sandberg’s point. I have been in the U.S. since June taking chemotherapy for lymphoma.  My husband took the kids back to Tokyo in August to start school again.  There was no reason to take them out of their “normal” lives in Japan, especially when we don’t have a home in the U.S. and I was in no position to take care of them.  Marc has done an exceptional job of primary parenting so far, with about six weeks to go (if all goes well).  The kids are happy, healthy, doing well in school and haven’t missed a single event. Marc attended back to school nights, grade-level coffees, football games and violin lessons. He does some of these things in our “normal” life, but not all of them.  He has done it all while holding down a full time job.  Yes, we have a great nanny, so that has helped, but the primary responsibility is still Marc’s.

My job, my only job, has been to focus on getting well.  That being said, I generally talk to the kids twice a day and try to help where I can – sending emails and doing any necessary online research.  It’s not much, but it’s the best I can do. There are a thousand things I think of every day I would like to do for my kids – or do differently than Marc is doing.  I would like to handle the homework situation in a stricter way, make arrangements for playdates further in advance and even allow the kids less TV time.  But I would never tell Marc any of that (please keep my secret). As often as possible I sit on my hands and keep my mouth shut. I want him to feel like he’s doing a great job and motivated to continue the hard work. If I criticize, he’ll just feel defeated and then we would all be up a creek.  I mean it when I say Marc is doing an amazing job – handling everything with grace and aplomb.  Even when I don’t agree 100%, I still cheer him on.  From what he tells me, Marc appreciates the support I can give him, and in some ways, is enjoying the experience – certainly enjoying being with his kids more than he ever has been in the past.

This is yet another unexpected gift cancer has given us: Marc has had a taste of primary parenting and consequent juggling, and I have had a real lesson in abdicating control.  Obviously I’m not yet sure what parts of this we will take away from the experience, but I hope we have all gotten messages about control and support – both in giving and taking.  Sheryl Sandberg is right: it’s not about perfection – it’s about empowerment. Marc and I can appreciate each other for doing the very best job we are capable of doing, and thus all four of us are motivated to improve on our best selves.

Approaching the Speed of Light by Victoria Lustbader – What I’m Reading Now

VickyRight up until the last moments of the book, Approaching the Speed of Light leaves readers wondering what will happen to poor, broken Jody. The author, Victoria Lustbader, draws the main character with such precision that any person who has ever been hurt or watched someone hurting can identify with some of his story. Somehow none of the options laid out for him seem precisely right, and Lustbader helps the reader come to terms with the varying array of hope and hopelessness so that the ending, which should be explosive, seems just right, almost sedate, – in the best sense of the word.

The inner life of Jody, the protagonist, comes through in several different ways, including first-person narration, but also in third person stories written by the character about his childhood.  Jody’s childhood was anything but normal, however.  There are elements of great kindness in it, but the kindness comes from an evil source. Somehow, the author evokes pathos for such evil by highlighting Jody’s starved boyhood and his craving for love, a craving that never quite leaves him, despite his protestations to the contrary. After all, don’t we all crave love and kindness at the most basic level? The variation of voice and style, as readers drift through and around Jody’s vision, does not impede the flow of the work, but instead adds variety.  When grappling with point-of-view issues, Lustbader keeps the reins tight, not wanting to get lost in other voices.  Make no mistake, however, the other characters are as deep and rich as Jody, as seen from his lens.

The plot of the book is not always straightforward, and readers have to have patience with the way it unfolds.  It is worth the wait.  What I found most interesting about the plot is the way Lustbader convinces me to mildly “suspend my disbelief” when a story takes a particular turn or something happens that seems too unreal to be true.  I didn’t mind “going there” with the prose.  Coincidences happen when they shouldn’t, and there seems to be something mystical afoot that the author does not address directly, but allows the reader to find for himself.

This book is one I will be recommending to my book club since it is rife with possibility for discussion. In addition, I will be looking at it further to learn how to create characters with such depth and emotion, painted with a few spare words.  There are so many ways to approach the story that I’m looking forward to sharing it with others – and to further make meaning of it for myself.


A Real Resource For Writers

Gardner bookAgent Rachelle Gardner has kept a blog for quite a while and most of it consists of advice for writers.  She covers topics such as getting an agent, editing issues, understanding your agent, and other topics that are of interest to writers who are interested in publishing their books.  Her newest foray is as an author herself and she has published the first of her series of e-books for writers.  The first one, titled How Do I Decide? Self Publishing vs. Traditional Publishing is a workbook for authors to decide precisely HOW they want to get their books – their babies – out into the world.  With self-publishing become so dominant in the field and having moved way beyond just vanity presses, the decision is no longer simple.  Gardner’s e-book is a hands-on workbook that forces authors to confront their own styles of not only writing, but also their attitudes about marketing and other issues that first-time writers might not know at the start.  It’s a must-read for people who are getting started.  You can click here to see the book on Amazon. Here’s the text of my Amazon review:

“What I like best about “How Do I Decide?” is that it’s chock-full of resources for authors. It contains checklists and resources that a writer can use to make the all-important decision on whether to self-publish or try to go the traditional route of publication. The writing is clear and the advice is detailed and at times, brutally honest. The book goes through the ins and outs of the traditional publishing process along with the pros and cons involved, and then also goes through the whole process of self-publishing in the same detail. It acknowledges that different writers have different personalities and attitudes towards the business end of the writing process so Gardner encourages self-reflection in these pages so that authors can make a informed decisions about the process of publication with their own needs and desires in mind. This is helpful so that writers can work within their comfort zones on what can potentially be a difficult procedure. As a writer myself looking to make these all-important decisions, Garder’s book was really helpful to me. I’m going to give the book another read and fill out the checklists and such before I make a final choice, which feels very easy to me now. Gardner’s aim is to help authors make the process as painless as possible, and she’s off to a great start with it. I’m looking forward to Gardner’s next endeavor.”

Gardner has a series of four e-books to start, with one of them being on the ins and outs blogging, which will come out soon hopefully.  I will review them as they appear so you can check here to see what’s happening with the books.

Please pass this important info on to your writer friends!

A Book to Make You Consider…

Gideon Lewis-Kraus’s book, A Sense of Direction: Pilgrimage for the Restless and the Hopeful,  is meant to take you on a journey, both literally and figuratively.  In this memoir, the author himself is on a journey of self-discovery and takes the reader along with him on what turns out to be quite a ride.

Lewis-Kraus paints a picture of himself at the beginning of the book as a person who is rootless and unsure of where he wants to go with his life.  He’s young, he’s flexible, and he has a career, writing, that can take him anywhere in the world.  Beginnings like this, particularly when the author is young (nearing thirty as he writes), have the potential to reek of self-pity and extreme overindulgence.  When I started, I was concerned that it would be like the first fifty or so pages of Eat, Pray, Love, in which the author reveals herself to be selfish and self-indulgent enough to walk away from a marriage to “find herself.”  Throughout Eat, Pray, Love, I was annoyed with the character (so ably played by Julia Roberts in the movie, though – this was a case where the book was better than the move) for neither considering nor mentioning anyone but herself at any point of the journey.  But Lewis-Kraus has taken a completely different approach to the journey novel than Elizabeth Gilbert since his narrative is inclusive, rather than exclusive of others, most notably his family, most of whom he clearly adores.

The book begins with Lewis-Kraus living with his younger brother, Micah, in San Francisco since Micah has a great job and a nice apartment.  He flounders around there for a while, then decides to move to Germany to the art scene in Berlin.  Here the book does get a little indulgent with descriptions of parties, drinking and other incriminating behaviors.  But then everything takes a turn to the left as Lewis-Kraus and his friend decide to take a walking pilgrimage through Spain.  Lewis-Kraus is a master descriptor.  His visions of color, sensation and feeling really come alive.  When he talks about the people he meets on the month-long journey, he introduces them with a finesse and insight that make the people walk right off the page.

After the journey through Spain, Lewis-Kraus spends a bit more time with Micah before trying a different, more difficult type of pilgrimage in Japan on the Island of Shikoku.  This trek is harder both mentally and physically and the tone of the chapters takes on a more menacing feel.  The author isn’t mean, just brutally honest.

Throughout the book, one of Lewis-Kraus’s main struggles is with his relationship with his father, and so for the final pilgrimage of the book, he invites his father to take a trip with him to the Ukraine at the Jewish New Year where annually, a huge group of Orthodox Jewish men from around the world go to purify themselves for the coming year.  His brother goes with them, and the three men learn a lot with and from each other on the trip.

When Lewis-Kraus relays dialogue, the voice is snappy and somewhat theoretical.  In various portions of the book, he lapses into his own thoughts in a very academic  way that shows him to be a thinker as well as a do-er.  He has rational discussions of the idea of expiation of sin. He goes into great detail about the physical and social idea of a community. He explores the social psychologist Wittgenstein along with the famous Lubavitcher Rebbe Nachman as they relate to various parts of his journey – in the physical and emotional realms.  However, just when you think you cannot take a moment more of his theorizing, he puts in a  completely inane comment that relaxes the scenario and lets the reader know that he doesn’t take himself too seriously.

A reader doesn’t have to be on an actual journey to appreciate this book. It helps, though, if you can imagine your own life as a personal journey and relate to the idea of self-exploration as a positive trait that exists beyond mere navel-gazing, going toward true discovery.

The end made me cry in a beautiful way.

Enjoy the book.

Reconstructing 3/11

No one can see into the future, but certainly some people are more adept at analysis and prediction than others.  To that end, there is a special book that has just come out for the first anniversary of the disasters and I would urge you to get your copy now.  This is not a book of quake or tsunami experiences.  This is a book comprised of pieces by journalists on various aspects of the disaster, recovery and reconstruction efforts.  What is happening now in Japan? What may happen as a result of the nuclear crisis in the country?  What about the economy?  How is the clean-up really going?  What are the people thinking?  If you have any of those questions, then this book is for you.  You can download it here for your Kindle, and if you do not have a Kindle, you can get a free Kindle-reading-app for your computer.  If you buy one book of analysis of the country one year later, this should be it.  The hard-nosed journalism mixed with the appropriate amounts of compassion and skepticism make this book real and believable.  Some of the proceeds go to support various charities, but regardless, you want to own this book. At $2.99, it’s worth every penny.

For those of us who live and work in Japan, the specter of the Great Tohoku Earthquake is never really off of our minds, even now, one year later.  We lived through it; we continue to have contact with the effects of it; and we are living in a world where everything is divided into “before” and “after” March 11th.  Earthquake drills at schools take on new meanings. Earthquake kits have been beefed up and put in more accessible spots. More furniture is now bolted to the walls.  And as one major after-affect, the closets of every single person I know have been cleaned out more than once so any extra things that we were hanging on to will go to good use for those people up north who lost everything – clothes, kitchen items, bedding, everything.  Japan did not have a lot of non-governmental organizations (NGO) before the quake – the government was always able to take care of everything.  But this was just too huge and people genuinely wanted to help in various ways.  There are tons of new charities around Japan that help with everything from simple financial assistance to bicycle donation to fresh food deliveries to areas where the soil is no longer viable due to radiation concerns from the Fukushima nuclear reactor.  Understand us.  Buy the book.


Great Reading – With A Dictionary

The book, complete with my bookmark in it!

This month’s book club selection is The Hare With The Amber Eyes.  It’s a wonderful piece of nonfiction by British author Edmund De Waal, who inherited a large collection of netsuke (small, carved, Japanese curiosities) from a great uncle.  He traces the netsuke from their initial purchase in the late 18th century and then through his family line until they come to him.  The greatest part of it is that he is from a prominent Jewish family who were involved with Renoir, Proust and the like in 19th century Paris, and then the Hapsburgs in early 20th century Vienna.  The author, who is also a sculptor in his real life, paints the landscapes of upper class Europe with broad strokes and meticulous attention to detail.  The interiors of the homes and the luminous cityscapes come alive almost as characters in the narrative.  I am almost halfway through the book, and I can say with certitude that I’ve never been able to “see” a scene as well as De Waal helps me to do.  It really is as if he is painting with words.  I can’t tell you if the book ends well, or what happens to the family – or the netsuke – during the wars in Europe (yet) but I can tell you that it’s a beautifully written book.

To that end, I admit that I am doing something that I have not done in years and years: I’m reading with a dictionary.  The author uses sweeping sentences and high language that sometimes require a second read.  Somehow, though, I’m not bothered by it because the prose is so beautiful and rich.  I don’t mind pausing to look up a word, and have indeed installed on my iPhone for that purpose.  Here’s a few of the words I have looked up:

  • feuilleton – the part of a European newspaper devoted to light literature and/or criticism
  • incunabula – The earliest traces of something, particularly a book in the 1500’s , before movable type
  • imprimatur – official sanction or approval
  • bibelot – small object of curiosity, beauty, or rarity
  • fiacre – a small, horse-drawn carriage
  • orotund – characterized by strength, fullness, or richness

Those are just a small sample of what I’ve found.  Ask me if you want a few more.

I am enjoying every second of this novel, from the story, to the characters and settings, right down to the opportunity to increase my vocabulary.  What a gift.  I’d highly recommend it.

The Gift of Group Reading

This month’s book was Let The Great World Spin by Collum McCann and I spent last evening in the company of six delightful women discussing it, several related books, and various other topics germane to reading, but also to women in general.  Being a member of a book club, especially one like this, is a real gift.

A while ago someone told me that book clubs these days are like the consciousness raising groups of the sixties and seventies for women.  I am not sure if I agree with that statement fully.  For sure, women need the support of other women, but book groups don’t have an agenda like those groups did.  Those groups back then had the awesome job of creating change in the way women thought and the actions they took.  I do feel my group exists partially as an extension of those times; without the work those women did together in the sixties and seventies, then my group would not exist.  We sometimes discuss the place of women in society or the glass ceilings of modern companies, but not as often.  We still discuss our children, but more in terms of the future and the world that they are facing.  Our group is free to discuss the future in an unobstructed way so that we can all see the realms of possibilities that lie before us.  That’s the legacy we’ve inherited.

Mostly, however, we stick to books.  We discuss characters we loved – or hated.  We discuss the methods by which the author brought those characters to life.  We discuss which characters are dynamic and fully human, and those that fall flat and are not believable.  We discuss the plot and how we might have acted in the same circumstances.  We talk about what other material this particular book reminds us of – because it always reminds us of something else we’ve read – either together or on our own. We are all voracious readers.

The women of this group are an eclectic mix of working and non-working, older and younger.  Some are involved in their children’s schools, and some are not as involved.  Most are American or have had a lot of American experience.  Without fail, all of them are bright and engaged humans, willing to take apart the issues of the day as well as the pages of a book.  Oh don’t get me wrong – there are plenty of laughs to be had.  Some of us are teachers and gleefully share the escapades of the day.  Heck, all of us share wacky husband or children stories and we laugh uproariously.  And here’s the rule: what gets said at book group STAYS at book group.  It might as well be Vegas.

Last night we had a lot to say about the book, which all of us loved.  That doesn’t happen all the time – most often some people like it and some don’t; that’s what keeps it interesting.  We discussed the way McCann uses the idea of groups to illustrate relationships between people; the discussed how the character of the artist woman is too flat and not believable but so many of the other characters are so rich and full of pathos.  I didn’t like the character of the judge that much, but other disagreed with me.  Therein lies the beauty of having a group of thoughtful, engaged women together – we can agree, disagree, discuss and enjoy the process.

Because we live in Tokyo in an expatriate situation, we sometimes lose group members when they repatriate or move on to the next assignment.  In the precarious economic environment of today, it happens more often than we’d like.  We do have the core group of long-timers, of which I am fast becoming a member, but it is painful when we lose a compatriot.  We are all bracing ourselves for a loss this December, in fact, and have picked up the pace of our reading a little bit so we can get in as many meetings as possible while she is still here.  We are also getting ready to have a new member join us next month, something we do somewhat sparingly.  It’s part of the process, so we will bring our new member into the fold and hope that she enjoys the meetings and shares the delight of books and each other, as much as the rest of us do.

I feel privileged to belong to this group.  Next month we’re reading A Visit From the Good Squad by Jennifer Egan.  I’ve already started and I love it – but more than that, I am really looking forward to the meeting and discussing my thoughts on it with these great women.