Monday, December 31, 2018

In My Kitchen, December 2018

Happy New Year's Eve!

December has been a busy month in my kitchen -- though I suspect calmer than in many people's kitchens! We hosted a couple of holiday parties, tried some new condiments and gadgets, and received some wonderful gifts, including new tea towels for our extensive collection.

Our colorful Christmas lunch. Not too heavy!
A new flavor: yuzu, a Japanese citrus fruit that's often compared to citron.
I bought this yuzu paste as well as some Ponzu, which contains yuzu.
Dumplings served with a squeeze of yuzu paste.
Several tubes of squeezable pastes that are convenient to have on hand!
Another yuzu item, though labeled as Citron Tea. We haven't tried it yet.

Anchovy paste adds some nice umami taste to sauces.
More cooking: roast duck for Christmas Eve!
Duck with mushroom sauce. Later, the duck and the stock made from the trimmings
became delicious duck soup!
Another soup: squash and lentils, garnished with cranberry sauce and Sriracha.

New Tea Towels from England

Top of photo: Oyster Catchers: a favorite bird!
Lower part of photo: Bees of Kew Gardens.
"I'd rather be at the Giant's Causeway."
Images of Kew Gardens. All with great thanks to my friend Sheila.

More Bread Making Equipment

A thermometer probe that signals when your bread (or in summer,
your meat on the grill) has reached the desired temperature.
The read-out device, showing the temperature measured by the two
probes, one on the oven shelf, one in the bread.

As mentioned in an earlier post this month, Len has been baking with a new starter from King Arthur. The results have been wonderful. In addition to baking, he is continuing his research on the theory and practice of bread baking. In particular, he's interested in technical articles about the chemical and biological processes that occur while making dough.

Additional new equipment: a really sharp serrated bread knife and special gloves to keep from cutting off any fingers. Bread made with a starter has a fantastic crisp crust that's very dangerous to slice!

Len's pita bread -- made with the starter. I was eating them
as they came out of the oven. They had very good pockets.

Two Delicious Gifts

One friend made spiced pecans.
Another friend brought us this Lebanese Halawa, which is the best we
have ever tasted. Creamy!
I'm especially offering this December wrap-up of my kitchen to all the bloggers who post at "In My Kitchen" hosted each month by Sherry at Sherry's Pickings, a great blog from Australia.

Sunday, December 30, 2018

"There There" by Tommy Orange

“You know what Gertrude Stein said about Oakland?” Rob says. Dene shakes his head no but actually knows, actually googled quotes about Oakland when researching for his project. He knows exactly what the guy is about to say.  
“There is no there there,” he says in a kind of whisper, with this goofy openmouthed smile Dene wants to punch. Dene wants to tell him he’d looked up the quote in its original context, in her Everybody’s Autobiography, and found that she was talking about how the place where she’d grown up in Oakland had changed so much, that so much development had happened there, that the there of her childhood, the there there, was gone, there was no there there anymore. Dene wants to tell him it’s what happened to Native people, he wants to explain that they’re not the same, that Dene is Native, born and raised in Oakland, from Oakland. Rob probably didn’t look any further into the quote because he’d gotten what he wanted from it. He probably used the quote at dinner parties and made other people like him feel good about taking over neighborhoods they wouldn’t have had the guts to drive through ten years ago.  
The quote is important to Dene. This there there. He hadn’t read Gertrude Stein beyond the quote. But for Native people in this country, all over the Americas, it’s been developed over, buried ancestral land, glass and concrete and wire and steel, unreturnable covered memory. There is no there there. (There, There, pp. 56-57). 
The paragraph above explains the title of There There by Tommy Orange, a novel about American Indians who live in Oakland, California. The paragraph also offers a hint of the complexity of the book.

There There has many characters, all of them narrating their stories. They search for an identity that doesn't even have a single name, though they mostly use "Native." One wrote:
"We are Indians and Native Americans, American Indians and Native American Indians, North American Indians, Natives, NDNs and Ind’ins, Status Indians and Non-Status Indians, First Nations Indians and Indians so Indian we either think about the fact of it every single day or we never think about it at all. We are Urban Indians and Indigenous Indians, Rez Indians and Indians from Mexico and Central and South America. We are Alaskan Native Indians, Native Hawaiians, and European expatriate Indians, Indians from eight different tribes with quarter-blood quantum requirements and so not federally recognized Indian kinds of Indians." (p. 185).
A key idea in the book is that Natives live in many places, mainly not reservations:
"We came to know the downtown Oakland skyline better than we did any sacred mountain range, the redwoods in the Oakland hills better than any other deep wild forest. We know the sound of the freeway better than we do rivers, the howl of distant trains better than wolf howls, we know the smell of gas and freshly wet concrete and burned rubber better than we do the smell of cedar or sage or even fry bread— which isn’t traditional, like reservations aren’t traditional, but nothing is original, everything comes from something that came before, which was once nothing. Everything is new and doomed. We ride buses, trains, and cars across, over, and under concrete plains. Being Indian has never been about returning to the land. The land is everywhere or nowhere. (p. 24). 
Food, clothing, dances, songs, family connections -- every part of their identity is questioned and problematic. 
"They only knew about Indian tacos because their grandma made them for their birthdays. It was one of the few Indian things she did. And she was always sure to remind them that it’s not traditional, and that it comes from lacking resources and wanting comfort food." (p. 181).
And they also have parents, siblings, homes or no homes, smart phones, computers, drones, games, favorite literary works, jobs or no jobs, money or no money, ambitions, and more. Besides the passages about identity, the book has a suspenseful plot and lots of complications. It's not a boring work of navel-gazing, it's about convincingly presented individuals with all sorts of challenges in their lives. I found it very readable and likable. 

Saturday, December 29, 2018

Amos Oz

The death of Amos Oz, Israeli novelist, activist, and essayist, is very sad. His novels and his memoir, A Tale of Love and Darkness, are wonderful books; I have not read all of them, but have read many. He wrote with great insight about a newly-founded country full of optimism and idealism. His books reflected his own experience of leaving his family when he was an adolescent and joining a kibbutz, itself an exercise in optimism. Unfortunately, he saw the decline of Israel's collective optimism and the consequences of its loss, as well as his own declining influence with his fellow Israelis. Most of the obituaries I've read stress that no one can take his place. Fortunately his legacy is strong and I hope it will be lasting.

Friday, December 28, 2018

Some Highly Rated Books of 2018

I've been reading three books this month. All were published in 2018, and all with very good reviews, including winning or being short-listed for some prestigious prizes. A brief report on these:

Number One Chinese Restaurant by Lillian Li.

I enjoyed Number One Chinese Restaurant because it surprised me. I didn't realize that I had a stereotyped expectation for a book about the owners and workers in a Chinese restaurant, but I did. It's a very good book: good plot, well-drawn and numerous characters, lots of action.

The author seems aware of these stereotypes. Her characters have a painful awareness of who they are and who other people think they are: their identity as waiters or busboys or Chinese restaurant owners. They know themselves, and they know how their customers, their bosses, their business contacts, their children, their parents, their wives or husbands, and their lovers think of them.

One waiter, who has been working 6 days a week for 50 years, for example, performs for the customers:
"He hobbled off, cutting a comic figure as he swung his left leg in front of his right. He could still fool the customers into thinking his lurching walk and shaky hands were part of his character, a Chinese Charlie Chaplin who might look as if he’d spill the tray but never did." (Kindle Locations 358-360).
Despite his success, the owner, Jimmy Han, fears stereotypes too:
"Han was hardly reinventing the wheel with his menu. Northern Chinese cuisine could be summed up in three words: meat, onions, and garlic."(Kindle Locations 473-474). 
"All around him were restaurants that were out of his league. The pizzeria boasting eight-hundred-degree ovens and ninety-second Neapolitan pies; the sushi restaurant owned by a Japanese chef with a show on Netflix; the French bistro with tasting menus starting at $145 a person. What would the Glory have? Peking duck carved tableside, like on a fucking Carnival cruise!"(Kindle Locations 1864-1866).
"Was it tasty? Sure. But was it authentic? Was it anything to be proud of? Only the Peking duck fit the bill. His father, not for want of trying, had never figured out how to prepare the duck faster than the traditional way, with the fowls shipped down from Long Island, their skin air-dried then brushed with sugar, and finished off with slow heat in a rotisserie oven. Everything else on the menu was a scam." (Kindle Locations 2090-2093).
“We’re a Chinese restaurant,” Jimmy said. “We buy what’s cheapest.” (Kindle Location 4832). 
My brief review doesn't really get at how the development of characters and situations in this book worked to explode my stereotypes, but it really did a great job!

Florida by Lauren Groff.

"Of all the places in the world, she belongs in Florida," is the description of the hapless helpless woman in the last of Lauren Goff's short story collection. It could be the description of every heroine in the book. Some women in these stories are single,  some have problem husbands, some are homeless, some abandon small children, and a few of them dwell obsessively about climate change or piling-up worldwide trash: "the world my children will inherit, the clouds of monarchs they won’t ever see, the underwater sound of the mouths of small fish chewing the living coral reefs that they will never hear."(Kindle Locations 2191-2192). 

It's a tragic world but somehow sometimes also funny; it strangely makes me think of Carl Hiaasen's hilarious stories in very similar settings -- like swamps and run-down apartment houses. When the air conditioning goes off, civilization goes with it. Even when Goff's women run away to France or to a Northern State, they can't escape their Florida identity.

In one story, a mother is left in the Florida wilderness with her kids. She writes
"I made scrambled eggs with a vengeful amount of butter and cheddar, also cocoa with an inch of marshmallow, thinking I would stupefy my children with calories, but the calories only made them stronger." (Kindle Locations 779-780).
A different story features a woman who escapes her usual life to live briefly in Normandy with her two small sons. She takes them for something to eat in a shack on the windswept beach; her drifting thoughts go from the food to her distant future:
"There, protected by a lufting sheet of clear plastic, she orders three buckwheat galettes with cheese and egg, and one salted caramel crêpe for dessert. At home they eat sugar only on holiday or in emergencies— she knows it is a poison; it can make you fat and crazy and eventually lose your memories when you are old, and she has a severe horror of being a stringy-haired cackler in the old-age home; she has boys, she’s not dumb, she knows that sad obsolescence will more than likely be her fate if humanity even lasts that long..." (Kindle Locations 2350-2353).

Milkman by Anna Burns.

The narrator of this book reminds me of Virginia Woolf's Mrs. Dalloway and Septimus her strange doppelgänger. So sensitive that life just gets in their way. So fearful. Rubbed so raw. So unable to deal with a very difficult present.

In Milkman, the present is really difficult. The unnamed narrator lives in an unnamed town that's torn by violence between two unnamed religions. She has a "maybe-boyfriend," sisters and brothers-in-law, other relatives and friends, and all of them live in a world of tight and somewhat unnamed expectations. For example, maybe-boyfriend has a friend who is interested in cooking, and would like to be a chef. What this means:
"... male chefs – especially of little pastries and petit fours and fancies and dainties to which one could level the criticism ‘desserts’ and which chef here was a maker of – were not in demand and not socially acceptable. Contrary to other chef parts of the world, a man here could be a cook, though even then he’d better work on the boats, or in a man’s internment camp or in some other full-on male environment. Otherwise he was a chef which meant homosexual with a drive to recruit male heterosexuals into the homosexual fold." (Kindle Locations 492-496).
I haven't finished reading Milkman, because I find it a struggle to read it and face the narrator's problems. I promise to finish it soon. (UPDATE: I finished it. It gets better and better in the second half!)

What I plan to read next:
There, There by Tommy Orange

Wednesday, December 26, 2018

Thinking of Friends

It's the end of the year, and I'm thinking of friends and family who are no longer here to celebrate the seasons and the New Year with us. I haven't written about those we've lost, as I keep my blog on not-so-personal subjects. But like my real life, my blog world is full of valued friends. Most of these, I've never seen or met, and I know only the face they show in their posts. One blog friend was Louise Vee, whose blog was "Months of Edible Celebrations."

Cookbook Wednesday was one of Louise's participatory
blogger activities. She designed the logo shown here.
For many years Louise wrote blog posts that reflected her great expertise on American home cooking history, and shared fascinating images from her archives of culinary ephemera. Louise had blogger friends throughout the world. Many of them participated in her blog events, such as "The Picnic Game" that she frequently held in early summer. Her blog included a list of links to their blogs, which automatically updated to reflect their current posts. Every post she made received a large number of comments from all these friends.

Louise often wrote about her grandchildren, about her friend and housemate Marion, and about her garden. In the last few years, after Marion died at the age of 95 or so, Louise did less and less blogging. Occasionally, she mentioned health problems she was having, but also upbeat things such as that she got married soon after Marion died.

A screen shot of Louise's last Facebook post, August 29, 2018.
Last summer on Facebook Louise shared quite a few photos of her garden and the birds and butterflies she saw there, but she had stopped posting on her blog. In the fall, her entire blog disappeared from the internet, and her Facebook page became a memorial.

For the last days of 2018, I wanted to write a post expressing my sadness at losing this friend that I never met -- in fact, I don't think she posted a photo of herself, so I have no mental image of her appearance. I am sad that she's gone, and I regret the great loss of her whole blog. I had thought her blog would always be a reference for the many unusual cooking topics she covered during more than a decade. That's not what happened.

If Louise's blog hadn't disappeared, I'd link here to some of her great posts and some of her photos. Needless to say, it never occurred to me to make saved copies of her work. Blogs have always seemed to exist in a parallel universe that isn't subject to the same forces that affect us -- but I guess they can be just as ephemeral as real life.

In memory of Louise and her wonderful blog, I am concluding this with an image of a cookbook for Cookbook Wednesday, her invention:

A very early American cookbook, from an era
that Louise knew much about.

Monday, December 24, 2018

French Regional Cooking

Recently, a friend asked me to recommend some regional French cookbooks. I found quite a few books about the cuisine of Provence and southern France, but quite a few regions are missing from my collection. To be thorough I would need to find cookbooks that featured the Basque region, Normandy, Brittany (especially for crepes!), Lyons, Alsace (especially recipes for the famous choucroute), and several other regions. My favorite regional French recipes are for Gratin Dauphinois (blogged here) and Salade Niçoise (blogged here), but these are now so popular that you can find recipes in a variety of cookbooks and online sources, and you can order them at many American restaurants as well.

As I looked through my shelves I did find quite a few relevant cookbooks. I've written about many of them before, over my years of blogging. Here's a list of my books that emphasize French regional cooking, with links to previous posts. This list reflects only books that I own, so it's not meant to be comprehensive or systematic in any way.
  • French Provincial Cooking by Elizabeth David (editions in 1960, 1977, and 1983) includes an overview of the cuisine of a number of regions, and then provides recipes and techniques for French cooking.
  • The Cooking of South-West France by Paula Wolfert (1983) describes the agricultural products of this region, along with many recipes.
  • The Cuisine of the Sun: Classical French cooking from Nice and Provence by Mireille Johnston (1976) offers many good recipes, which I've been trying -- most recently a daube, the famous Provençal stew (blogged here).
  • Cézanne and the Provençal Table by Jean-Bernard Naudin and others (1995) is an amusing discussion of the environment in which the artist lived and worked -- with recipes and many illustrations (blogged here).
  • La Cuisine Corse by Christiane Schapira (1979) is unfortunately in French, but I find it intriguing to learn about Corsica, a somewhat exotic region of France; I'm including it because it's my most obscure French regional cookbook!

  • The Auberge of the Flowering Hearth by Roy Andries De Groot (1973) documents his stay in an auberge in the Dauphiné region, with descriptions of the meals served to guests there, accounts of the way the owners shopped and cooked, and also recipes (blogged here).

  • Madeleine Kamman's Savoie: The Land, People, and Food of the French Alps (1989) presents the cuisine of the next region over from De Groot's book.
  • Simca's Cuisine by Simone Beck (1972) is a general French cookbook with many regional recipes; it's often overlooked in preference to her collaborative work with Julia Child.
  • Madame Maigret's Recipes by Robert J. Courtine (1975) includes some of the cuisine of Alsace, home of the wife of the famous detective. If you've read the many police procedurals by Georges Simenon (who of course invented Inspector Maigret, his wife, and her cooking) you'll appreciate this cookbook (blogged here).
  • Quiches, Kugels, and Couscous: My Search for Jewish Cooking in France by Joan Nathan (2010) is not about a region, but about the multi-ethnic Jewish cuisine of France (blogged here).

... of course, if you want to know everything, you can always consult the Larousse Gastronomique!

French food has always been Americans' model of quality and excellence starting when Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson described it to their fellow citizens. French cooking, both in restaurants and homes, has reflected an identity of its own in the US. In particular, we have not been as conscious of French regional differences as French people are. In the late 20th century, Julia Child made a big difference both to Americans' cooking and awareness of French food; since her peak of influence, many English-language works have appeared in books, magazine articles, TV programs, and online, and I would say that French regional cuisine is of increasing interest.

Sunday, December 23, 2018

Dreaming of Sunny Provence

We're in the shortest days of the year -- not much sunshine here. Therefore we craved a meal to remind us of Provence and sunnier days, and invited a few friends to dinner. We used our French tablecloth with birds of the world, and cooked a few recipes with a Provençal theme.

A Provençal salad: arugula, red and yellow bell peppers, artichoke hearts,
tomatoes, hard-boiled eggs, olives, and tarragon vinaigrette was the first course.
Main course: Daube d'Avignon: lamb, carrots, and white beans.
In keeping with the French style of this meal: a cheese course.
One of our friends' iPhones is on the table -- can't live without them!
Len's home-made French-style bread accompanied every course.
Dessert for the season: a Buche de Noel from Zingerman's Bakehouse.
We served a few strawberries with the cake.
The recipes for the daube and the salad were from these very French cookbooks.
Daube d'Avignon (Lamb, vegetable, and herb stew): The Cuisine of the Sun p. 146.
Salade de Broc (Provençale salad of cold vegetables), Simca's Cuisine p. 285.
First step in preparing the Daube: flavor the meat!
Many towns in Provence have a special recipe for daube. In this version, the lamb cubes, onions, herbs, and olive oil stand for several hours to blend flavors, and are then cooked with wine, carrots, and white beans. A few pieces of orange zest add flavor -- the orange zest seems to be characteristic of all daube recipes. The daube d'Avignon is the first time I have seen a recipe where beans were added to the mixture, which I liked very much.

Many Provençal daube recipes use beef; for example, the Daube Arlesienne (from Arles) uses beef from the special cattle of the Camargues region at the mouth of the Rhone river. The first daube we knew was Daube de Cotignac, also made with beef.  Our friend Michelle, who had a family home in the small Provençal town of Cotignac, introduced us to her recipe.

In the oven: I cooked the daube in two casseroles because it was a big recipe.
All photos and text copyright 2018 by Mae E. Sander. Published at maefood dot blogspot dot com. If you read this elsewhere, it has been stolen.

Friday, December 21, 2018

Disappointed in Grindlewald

We finally saw it. As you see from this poster, it's been out for over a month. Unfortunately, we found The Crimes of Grindelwald much less amusing and captivating than the earlier "Fantastic Beasts" film. It repeated a lot of the clever stuff without really being as clever the second time. The character development wasn't even close to past films about the Harry Potter wizards.

I felt as if what I was seeing was FANFIC -- made by a lesser imagination. But with expensive special effects -- lots of explosions and smoke and big twirly things in the sky or under water.  Rowling's Wizards here do a lot of dramatic disappearances in flashes of light and puffs of smoke; they walk on the edges of tall buildings and stuff they were too powerful to bother with in earlier films. But I liked them better when their characters were more nuanced.

The Crimes of Grindelwald left enough loose ends to fill maybe four more films. In fact the ending felt like a cliff hanger in those old time Saturday afternoon movie serials. I'm not as excited about seeing them as I would have been if I liked this one more.

Thursday, December 20, 2018

Harvey Washington Wiley

“To be cheated, fooled, bamboozled, cajoled, deceived, pettifogged, demagogued, hypnotized, manicured and chiropodized are privileges dear to us all.” -- Harvey Washington Wiley, quoted in The Poison Squad, p. 52.
“Whenever a food is debased in order to make it cheap, the laboring man pays more for any given nourishment than the rich man does who buys the pure food.” -- Harvey Washington Wiley, quoted p. 230. 

Deborah Blum's book, The Poison Squad: One Chemist's Single-Minded Crusade for Food Safety at the Turn of the Twentieth Century, presents the life, accomplishments, and political experiences of Harvey Washington Wiley (1844-1930), chief chemist of the US Department of Agriculture. Blum highlights the uncanny resemblance between food politics now and then, particularly during the presidency of Theodore Roosevelt (in office from 1901-1909). After many years of government employment, Wiley founded the test labs of Better Homes and Gardens and created their famous "seal of approval."

At our regular, once-a-month meeting of the culinary history reading group, my friends discussed this book along with many issues that it brought up. The four of us who had read it agreed that it was a very good read!

A few comments from our discussion:

Celeste said: "The book made me feel like we were living through that time." She expressed her shock at some of the abuses as well: "Who would poison cake frostings?"

Dan said about the repetition of history: "It's really discouraging: a vicious cycle, a debilitating cycle. For example, the suppression of the papers that Wiley's team wrote. Beyond food contamination, look at the efforts today to destroy the EPA."

Gene said: "It's all about freedom of choice vs. regulation: it took a while for the government to struggle with  the idea of regulating commerce. The American ideal of freedom had to be lined up with the way that regulation could be beneficial, to get away from the idea that cleaner food would ruin American business. Roosevelt didn't have a problem with big business, and had to understand the danger of allowing them total freedom."

Here are some big examples of the events in Harvey Wiley's career that have uncanny parallels to modern food politics:

  • The alteration and debasement of food, including false labeling, false advertising, and other corruption. For example, in the late 19th century, a process was invented to manufacture corn syrup of corn sugar. Wiley wanted to require it to be labeled by a different name (glucose) to prevent confusing it with real sugar: the industry fought back. Further, manufacturers substituted saccharine for sugar in many products, and adulterated many others with considerably more dangerous chemical additives. Ketchup was a big example: H.J.Heinz demonstrated could be made from real tomatoes and condiments, instead of being "made from assorted trimmings dumped into barrels after tomatoes were canned, then thickened with ground pumpkin rinds, apple pomace (the skin, pulp, seeds, and stems left after the fruit was pressed for juice), or cornstarch and dyed a deceptively fresh-looking red." (p. 212).
  • Self-interest of corporations above the welfare of the public -- notably, Monsanto and Dow Chemical, which both promoted chemical additives that they were selling to industry in the late 19th century. Laboratory studies were often commissioned by corporations -- with results coming out to please their sponsors. Wiley was an important counterweight to this, as he did actual tests to see what chemicals were dangerous to human health and life. He was famous for "the poison squad," a series of studies where he controlled the diet of groups of young healthy men to see what would happen if they ate certain commonly used additives.
  • Corporations abused their workers, who were often helpless immigrants. The book The Jungle by Upton Sinclair especially highlighted the dangerous working conditions in meat-packing plants resulting in horrendous filth being sold as sausage. Growing public sentiment favoring regulation was widely rejected by politicians, but The Jungle stirred up the will of the people, supporting Wiley's ongoing efforts.
  • Corrupt elected officials. The book offers a wide variety of examples of the many efforts to pass legislation that were derailed by unsavory deals and campaign contributions between business and politicians. Wiley struggled with this political scene for his entire career in government service.
  • A gap in the nutritional possibilities of rich and poor citizens, especially in large urban areas. Rich people could acquire wholesome, fresh, and not-mislabeled foods; poor people had to shop where they could and buy the often-adulterated foods they could afford. Wiley was acutely aware of this discrepancy and felt responsible for all people, not just those who could afford to help themselves.
From our discussion, a summary of the main theme of the book: this is about the tragedy of the commons, the conflict of freedom with the idea of the common good. As always, I'm grateful to Gene Alloway of Motte and Bailey Books for sponsoring this great group and leading our discussions!

Wednesday, December 19, 2018

"Convenience Store Woman" by Sayaka Murata

"When I was in my early twenties it wasn’t unusual to be a freeter, so I didn’t really need to make excuses. But subsequently everyone started hooking up with society, either through employment or marriage, and I was the only one who hadn’t done either. (Kindle Locations 356-358). 
Convenience Store Woman,
published in
English in June, 2018.
The narrator of Convenience Store Woman is a mid-thirtyish woman who has been a part-time worker in a convenience store called "Smile Mart" for 18 years. She's never "hooked up with society" -- she's always been a freeter. This expressive Japanese term refers to "people who lack full-time employment or are unemployed" or who refuse the types of jobs society expects them to take (according to Wikipedia). It perfectly describes the narrator.

Laughter through tears was a term for the methods of certain Yiddish writers who used humor to express a kind of existential horror at the plight of certain individuals in society. The human condition in present-day Japan couldn't be more different than the conditions in the pre-war Shtetls of Yiddish lit -- but this short novel seems to me to use the same kind of approach: it's both very funny and very tragic.

The narrator, Keiko Furukura, realizes that other humans have both social needs and social awareness that she can't share. Her earliest memory:
The time before I was reborn as a convenience store worker is somewhat unclear in my memory. I was born into a normal family and lovingly brought up in a normal suburban residential area. But everyone thought I was a rather strange child. 
There was the time when I was in nursery school, for example, when I saw a dead bird in the park. It was small, a pretty blue, and must have been someone’s pet. It lay there with its neck twisted and eyes closed, and the other children were all standing around it crying. One girl started to ask: “What should we—” But before she could finish I snatched it up and ran over to the bench where my mother was chatting with the other mothers. 
“What’s up, Keiko? Oh! A little bird … where did it come from I wonder?” she said gently, stroking my hair. “The poor thing. Shall we make a grave for it?” 
“Let’s eat it!” I said. 
“Daddy likes yakitori, doesn’t he? Let’s grill it and have it for dinner!” (Kindle Locations 78-87).
Utterly puzzled by the appalled reaction of her pre-school friends, their mothers, and her own mother, Keiko suppresses her idea, but still wonders: "My father was always saying how tasty yakitori was, and what was that if not grilled bird? There were lots more there in the park, so all we had to do was catch some and take them home. I couldn’t understand why should we bury the bird instead of eating it." (Kindle Locations 94-96).

Throughout her life she continues to suppress her own reactions and thoughts, relying on her sister to provide tips on what she should say to people whose lives are more socially conventional, people who form relationships and families, but her sister is also always mentioning that she hopes Keiko will be "cured." In order to fit in, Keiko tries to imitate the way that other people speak and dress, which never quite convinces anyone that she's normal, including herself. She sees herself as a foreign body.

Keiko is highly aware of how she is judged, how friends and family are unable to see why she feels so comfortable as a "convenience store woman." They don't understand her commitment to a life of greeting customers, running the till, anticipating their demands, and keeping products ready and available for sale. Over time, other workers come and leave the store, but she stays. Above all, she has to cope with how they view her.

The result of her clueless efforts is highly amusing -- but disturbing. She is in some way one with her store, loving the way it's lit up at night, and adapting to a constantly changing series of managers and other employees. Like much humor, it's hard to tell just what makes this book funny, but there it is:
For breakfast I eat convenience store bread, for lunch I eat convenience store rice balls with something from the hot-food cabinet, and after work I’m often so tired I just buy something from the store and take it home for dinner. I drink about half the bottle of water while I’m at work, then put it in my ecobag and take it home with me to finish at night. When I think that my body is entirely made up of food from this store, I feel like I’m as much a part of the store as the magazine racks or the coffee machine. (Kindle Locations 229-233). 
The plot of the novel involves Keiko's effort to seem normal. To do so, she decides to take in a man, who is even more of a social misfit than she is. Her motive is to try to make her friends, relatives, and co-workers more accepting of her life, but still, she just doesn't get it. Quite funny scenes ensue, as her stray (she explicitly compares him to a pet) begins an isolated life lived mostly in her bathtub, where he sleeps at night and spends his days with his phone. Keiko begins to take showers at a public bath down the street. She brings his meals to the bath tub: often expired food or dented cans from the convenience store. Just the presence of this loser succeeds in making the others in her life see her as more normal -- and gives her some insight into how alienated she really is!

Ultimately, Keiko summarizes her life: “More than a person, I’m a convenience store worker. Even if that means I’m abnormal and can’t make a living and drop down dead, I can’t escape that fact. My very cells exist for the convenience store.”(Kindle Locations 1547-1549).

Why did I read this book? Maybe because the New York Times reviewer called it "a small, elegant and deadpan novel." Or because the New Yorker reviewer said "If Keiko comes off as frightening and robotic, so does the entire universe in which her story unfurls." Or because the Guardian reviewer said "Murata’s gloriously nutty deadpan prose and even more nuttily likable narrator are irresistible." Maybe you would like it too!

Sunday, December 16, 2018

Ann Arbor Street Art

This mural, located in an alleyway leading to a parking lot (with dumpsters), is one of my favorites!
Now that I've been back home for a few weeks, it's time to post some photos of the street scenes of our rather colorful town. I have no idea if the murals and other street decorations here in Ann Arbor are unusually numerous, but they definitely make it a lot of fun to walk around, especially downtown. The murals I've included today are in the campus area near Liberty and State Street in Ann Arbor.

Between commercial buildings on Liberty Street, these walls have slowly been filled with graffiti. People are always there
taking photos -- for example, this photographer with a whole wagon-load of equipment!

Decorated window of a high-tech company. Note that this photo is also a selfie!
Many local utility boxes are creatively decorated. This one is on State Street.
Farther from home: the trash barrels at Ford Lake in Ypsilanti
are amusingly decorated with stencils of little bees.
Our bird walk at Ford Lake was a success: Len took this photo of a small falcon called a merlin that was stretching its claws.

I'll be sharing this post with Colorful World's mural collections when the blog comes back online (it’s on vacation now). Last month, I posted photos of the most famous of the Ann Arbor murals, also in the same area of town:

Five authors: Woody Allen, Edgar Allan Poe, Hermann Hesse, Franz Kafka, and Anaïs Nin. (Blog post here)