Thursday, September 11, 2014

Books Read: June 2014

June 2nd: They Came to Baghdad, Agatha Christie. Spy thriller from the "queen of mysteries", set among archaeologists in Iraq (where her archaeologist husband worked). Enjoyable. Grade: B.
June 3rd: Gigi and The Cat, Colette. Gigi is about a girl being raised by ex-courtesans, presumably for the same future career; The Cat is about a newlywed's deadly jealousy of her husband's pet cat. Both are excellent. Grade: A.
June 4th: The Reverse of the Medal, Patrick O'Brian. O'Brian's sea officers encounter severe misfortunes of both the professional and personal kind: but it all works out in the end, more or less. Excellent as always. Grade: A.
June 4th: This Earth of Mankind, Pramoedya Ananta Toer. Historical fiction about early twentieth century colonial Indonesia; fascinating for being by an Indonesian writer, which gives a very different perspective. The setting is great, as are the details, the characters are interesting but the writing/story aren't that compelling (maybe a problem with translation?). Grade: B.
June 7th: Don't Tell Alfred, Nancy Mitford. Fluff about upper class Britons in late fifties Paris. Not as good as her other books but still funny and occasionally pointed. Grade: B-
June 9th: Girl With a Pearl Earring, Tracy Chevalier. Not for book club, but could have been as it is such a "book club" type (which is not a good thing). Moderately interesting for its setting of seventeenth century Holland (a time/place I haven't read much about in fiction) but the tone and interior world of the characters is off, much too modern (for instance, religion is barely mentioned). Grade: C.
June 11th: The Scarlet Pimpernel, Emmuska Orczy. Best selling thriller from Victorian times, about a foppish playboy who's really a heroic spy saving aristocrats from the guillotine in Revolutionary France. Great plot is marred by the author's excessively pro-aristocrat bias, which is so pronounced as to be embarrassing. Characters are also cliched and cheesy in a romance novel kind of way. Grade: C-.
June 12th: The Letter of Marque, Patrick O'Brian. The misfortunes of O'Brian's two heroes come to an end after a number of dramatic vicissitudes. Another excellent entry. Grade: A.
June 14th: The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference, Malcolm Gladwell. Maybe this book is too well known? Because reading it was like having extended deja vu, where I kept thinking "I have read this before" (but I hadn't). Not sure if this reflects a lack of originality on the part of the author, or his immense success in communicating his ideas. In any case, it made for a uninspiring reading experience. Grade: C-.
June 15th: The Viceroy of Ouidah, Bruce Chatwin. Really strange book about the horrible slave-trading kingdom of Dahomey, and the Brazilian slave trader who becomes an intimate of their mad king. Fascinating and haunting, if also a bit rococo and over the top. I still think about this book. Grade: A-.
June 22nd: Travels with a Donkey in the Cevennes, Robert Louis Stevenson. Early and great example of travel writing, in this case about donkey camping in the French mountains. Funny, touching and informative. He is too mean to the donkey for my taste, though. Grade: B+.
June 23rd: The Pale Horse, Agatha Christie. Mystery with supernatural elements this time, a good entry by Christie, even if it's almost exactly like all her other books in terms of characters and tone. Grade: B+.
June 25th: Mr. Midshipman Hornblower, C. S. Forester. Since I have enjoyed O'Brian's books so much, I thought I should try the other well known historical fiction series about a naval officer in Nelson's navy. Not as good as O'Brian IMO, but still highly enjoyable and worth a read. Grade: A-
June 27th: Breathing Lessons, Anne Tyler. A novel about how "ordinary" people living "ordinary" lives are really anything but (a sentiment I wholeheartedly agree with philosophically). It's also a great portrayal of marriage and aging (Tyler is a very skilled writer). Unfortunately, the characters all annoyed me extremely with their banality, lack of intellectual curiosity and general stupidity. They just weren't people I would ever want to spend time with (which makes me feel guilty due to point 1). Grade: B-.
June 28th: Revenge, Yoko Ogawa. Creepy short stories (somewhat interconnected) all start out relatively benignly and then take a dark turn. Enjoyable and a quick read. Grade: B.
June 29th: The Year of Magical Thinking, Joan Didion. Memoir about the death of the author's husband, with whom she enjoyed a very close relationship. I did not like it because despite all the author's apparent honesty in describing her feelings, reactions and thoughts it struck a false note, as if she was lying to the reader or perhaps herself in some way and leaving important things out. (Like did her husband have a drinking problem? It wasn't clear). Since it's a memoir, this was a big problem. Grade: D+.

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Childless in Chicago

While B and I were in the US, we made a short trip to Chicago without R. She stayed with my parents, who besides my sister are the only people I would trust with R overnight; since they all live in the Bay Area, this is a main reason R goes everywhere with us, even to not typically child friendly destinations.
Our hotel
We were gone four days/three nights, an amount which caused me a considerable amount of angst, not really because I would miss R (I did miss her, sort of, in that I thought fondly of her, but could have happily stayed twice the time), but because I was worried about the effects of the trip on her. In the end, she was fine if a little sad (the trip was maybe a tiny bit too long for her taste, three days might have been better). B and I had a great time though.
The weather was not good, horribly cold to someone coming from the tropics
I am so used to traveling everywhere with an infant/toddler/preschooler that I kind of forget what a burden children are as traveling companions. R is a great traveler in a lot of ways--interested in everything, cheerful, charismatic (meaning people are nicer to us than they would otherwise be)--but even so traveling with her can be hard. It was so freeing to just pack for myself, to be able to sleep in as late as I wanted, to not have to curtail my activities or preferences at all...
I loved all the architectural details
 I also surprised myself with how relaxed I was: when R is with me, traveling means I am in a state of constant slight tension (what if she gets tired? bored? hungry? how long are we going to have to wait and how is she going to react? etc). No R meant I didn't care if the plane was delayed, if boarding was slow, if going from point A to point B took hours.
No R also meant that it was much, much easier for B and I to indulge each other. B wants to spend hours wandering around looking for the perfect restaurant? Grace wants to spend all day (literally) at the museum? No problem! And having conversations uninterrupted by someone needing something, or prying questioning from little eavesdroppers (R listens to all our conversations now and will grill us if something is mentioned she doesn't understand: very awkward when it's things I don't want to tell her about!): awesome.
The more modern buildings are interesting too
 Instead we could just chat, chat, chat: B and I have never had a problem in coming up with topics to discuss and for the most part keep each other endlessly amused (at least we think we are interesting/funny, I don't know if everyone else would agree!).
Chicago at night, from the Willis Tower
So I was predisposed to like Chicago, and in fact I enjoyed the city greatly, especially the architecture. I knew Chicago was well-known for that, but actually seeing all the early skyscrapers together is an impressive and interesting experience, like getting a glimpse into the birth of modernity.

Saturday, September 6, 2014

Girls' Weekend Out

This is a highly unusual post, because I am writing it ahead of time (I usually write posts in the evening, after R is in bed, and then publish them immediately, thus the low standard of writing). That is because right now I am here!!!
Or nearly (that picture is from Khao Lak, about an hour north). I am spending the weekend with two of my girlfriends in beautiful Phuket, Thailand, without children, husbands or any responsibilities beyond deciding which book to read first and which spa treatment to get. It should be amazing and extremely relaxing. Be back soon!

Friday, September 5, 2014

Flashback Friday: 2007 Xiamen, China

Me on our honeymoon in China, where we toured the country for an entire summer. This is the "piano island" of Gulangyu, formerly a European enclave, as their attempt to escape the noise, dirt and heat of the main city of Xiamen. It is totally charming, so much so that both B and I fantasized about buying a house and moving there. 

Thursday, September 4, 2014

Ardenwood Historic Farm

So what with having a mental breakdown during our last winter vacation, I did not manage to do much that was fun. I got sick over and over thanks to all the stress (three times in a month!), and when I was not sick, I was busy either crying, wanting to cry or recovering from crying. I saw basically none of our friends from home, either not making plans or cancelling the ones we had made because I just wasn't up to it. I only saw B's family once, and R did not even get to meet her cousins on that side this trip (sorry, darling :( ).
R's first woodpile (something else Singapore doesn't have)
One of the few fun things I did manage to do was to take R to Ardenwood Farm in Fremont. Singapore being an incredibly dense city-state of 5 million people means that R's exposure to the natural world is relatively limited. While we do take her hiking fairly regularly, and she's seen various animals in the wild, including monkeys multiple times, otters, and orangutans, she'd never been to a farm or within her memory seen a cow, sheep, goat or any of the other traditional farm animals. So I particularly wanted to take her to Ardenwood, which is a working farm (in the historic style, which is really what people think of when they think of farming: agribusiness is not really how I want to introduce the food chain to R).
R loved feeding the animals
Ardenwood is a great place to take kids. R got to run around outside, see monarch butterflies (which overwinter there), and interact with all sorts of animals, including pigs, cows, sheep, chickens and rabbits. She even got to feed many of them with the help of some very friendly rangers. If we lived nearby I would go all the time: there is even a working traditional blacksmith forge and a horse-drawn train! (sadly neither open during the winter).
Learning about chickens with the ranger, who was awesome
Feeding the calf
R's favorite animals? The rabbits (yes! my work is done)
 We went with Jenna of That Wife and her two young children. Jenna is a great photographer, so maybe not surprisingly her son is also very interested in cameras and photography. I lent him my camera (since unlike Jenna I just use a cheapo point-and-shoot that's already had a hard life) and he had fun taking some photos. I thought they were pretty good!
Me and R
Self portrait
R looking for havoc to cause, per usual
His sister

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Why I Had a Mental Breakdown

R at the Lawrence Hall of Science
I have alluded before to the fact that our trip to the US was mostly disastrous, and ended with me more-or-less having a mental breakdown, that I am only now recovering from. It's still hard for me to pinpoint exactly what happened, but basically I had decided to go off psychiatric medication and try for a second child. One of these, or both, did not agree with me, and I found myself getting more and more unhappy. I decided to go see a therapist.
Dressed as a turtle
Unfortunately, she was highly incompetent. Among other things, I complained to her about B, blaming my unhappiness primarily on him, and using selective examples to bolster my case. I had already started to manifest some BPD-like symptoms, where depending on the day B was either perfect in every way or cause of everything unpleasant in my life. Rather than her noticing that my thinking patterns were distorted, and helping me to unravel them (as one would hope from a mental health professional), she accepted everything I said as the truth and even went farther, encouraging me to perceive B as abusive and mentally unstable (which he isn't). Partly this is my fault, because I wanted her to approve of me (another BPD-like symptom) and thus began to tailor what I said to meet what I perceived as her expectations. After three sessions, she began telling me that I had some serious decisions to make and urging me to divorce B. I did not want to divorce him at all, but felt so confused and mentally fragile that I had a hard time knowing what to do. Instead, B and I began constantly fighting as I quickly oscillated between clinging to him frantically and screaming at him.
On top of the life-size blue whale statue
In the middle of all this, we had to go to the US, to stay with my family for a month. B considered not going (among other reasons, because I had told my family the version of events in which everything was B's fault) but I begged him to come, so he did. However, he didn't want to stay with my family 1. for so long (their house is very small, with very thin walls) and 2. when I had basically turned them against him. I felt this was unacceptable, largely out of fear about what my mother would say/do. We fought about this issue over and over, moving back and forth from B in a hotel and R and me with my parents, to all of us in a hotel, to all of us with my parents, etc. etc. Meanwhile my mother wasn't really speaking to B, I felt caught in the middle and completely confused about what was going on, and B was under a tremendous amount of stress. Eventually things reached a point where I felt I had to choose between B and my family, and I felt that I just couldn't do it. Instead, I became suicidal and extremely depressed (I actually had to go back on medication while in the US). I cried pretty much every day of our visit, sometimes for hours at a time.
At Playland-Not-at-the-Beach
All the drama meant that I did not have a very good time on our visit, though Christmas Day was nice and our trip to Chicago was great (and a welcome reprieve from both fighting and drama in general). I also did almost none of the fun things I had planned on doing. In fact, I only have photos from three outings for the whole month (though we did go on a few more--to Fairyland and a holiday fair with a carousel, for example).
Christmas mini train set
R mostly had a great time--she loved hanging out with her doting relatives--but for me it was extremely traumatic, so much so that I am only able to write about it now, eight months later. We are planning to go back this Christmas, and even thinking of it makes me feel terribly nervous. It is really sad, because I love my family, and miss them so much, and yet being around them caused me so much stress and suffering.

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Books Read, May 2014

MAY:

May 2nd: Treason's Harbour, Patrick O'Brian. Another good entry in the Napoleonic War-era series about two best friends in the British Navy, a swashbuckling captain and a ship's doctor/spy. Grade: A-.
May 6th: Holy Cow: An Indian Adventure, Sarah Macdonald. Memoir of an Australian who temporarily moved to India (for her boyfriend, then fiancee/husband). She is sprightly and often amusing but kind of a ditz. Entertaining if a bit superficial. Grade: B+.
May 11th: The Humans Who Went Extinct: Why Neanderthals Died Out and We Survived, Clive Finlayson. Surprisingly boring, given the (to me) fascinating subject material. I suppose that what's you get when academics write popular books. Lots of interesting information here, including the influence of climate change on human evolution. Grade: B+.
May 17th: Get Me Out of Here: My Recovery from Borderline Personality Disorder, Rachel Reiland. Excellent memoir about a woman's recovery from serious mental illness thanks to her dedicated psychoanalyst. Very honest. Grade: A-.
May 20th: The Geography of Thought: How Asians and Westerners Think Differently...and Why, Richard E. Nisbett. Argues that cultural differences significantly affect people's thought processes, something overlooked in standard psychology/philosophy. I found his argument convincing (for the most part, there are some issues like most experiments cited only included college students, or that the author overlooks other major categories like gender, cultural subgroups, etc. in favor of his pet theory). The book is really boring though, and despite being short I had a hard time finishing. Grade: C-.
May 24th: Your Three-Year-Old: Friend or Enemy, Louise Bates Ames. Oldie-but-goodie on child development. The title says it all for this age. Grade: B+.
May 26th: The Buddha and the Borderline: My Recovery from Borderline Personality Disorder through Dialectical Behavior Therapy, Buddhism, and Online Dating, Kiera Van Gelder. Van Gelder is a better writer (and much funnier) than Reiland, but she uses both her eloquence and humor as kind of defenses from total honesty (what generally makes a memoir compelling). Grade: B.
May 27th: The Dinner, Herman Koch. Strange Dutch novel about yuppies at a highbrow restaurant, there to discuss their potentially psychopathic children (who turn out to have been up to some very sordid things indeed). A little too gimmicky. Grade: C+.
May 28th: Wide Sargasso Sea, Jean Rhys. Atmospheric re-imagining of Jane Eyre, told from the perspective of Mr. Rochester's crazy Creole bride. Memorable descriptions of Creole life, decaying gentility, and the tropics. Grade: A-.