Reflection: Girl Through Glass



The trouble I have with coming-of-age stories is that I like to linger in the past and shy away from the present. To stay within the past is to observe a life before its turning point, before the possibilities that initially appear infinite abruptly narrow to one. In Girl Through Glass (Harper, 2016), chapters alternate between past and present, so each time I arrived at a present chapter, I hastily skipped ahead to remain in the past: in the 1970s, in Mira’s youth, in the esoteric world of New York City ballet. But the present continuously resurfaced to rudely interrupt the past. Sensing such inevitability, I soon only allowed myself a peek before dutifully flipping back to the present.
 
Mira Able is a quiet 11-year-old whose devotion to ballet demands the utmost obsession. The book brims with knowledge of ballet, citing famous figures, prestigious schools, Edgar Degas, and the physical toll: “Her bones will knit together in new ways. Her hands will grow strong, her fingers blunt, and her feet rough and calloused as tree bark.” As Mira ascends through the ranks, she forms a relationship with Maurice DuPont, a strange, wealthy balletomane who renames her Mirabelle, and then Bella. He becomes her mentor, saying such fanciful things as, “If the dark is coming, make it your friend” and “She is not beautiful but she moves towards beauty.” Halfway through the book, it is obvious that Mira’s relationship with this older man will determine how the story unfolds, a rather uncomfortable setup. Why does the man hold so much sway? Presently, Mira is a professor of dance who goes by Kate Randell, and the author perfectly paces the stories of both past and present until they converge, revealing the much dreaded turning point.
 
Obsession is tireless and exhilarating, and ballet puts obsession on full display. How bizarre that ballet is some kind of girlhood rite-of-passage, when what it demands and celebrates is so specific and often unattainable, “some old dead guy’s idea of beauty.” But of course it is more than that. The strive for perfection, for mastery, is nothing short of inspiring. The author does an exquisite job of merging ballet’s many faces into one, a portrait of great beauty and greater sacrifice. Or is it the other way around?
 
Best, Yuri
@yuriroho
 
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Note: Early February

February, what a delight. After the never-ending holiday season, followed by the long stretch of January – an intimidating month, one that highlights our inadequacies and demands resolutions – I welcome short and sweet February.
 
I bid final farewell to the apartment in Berkeley, handing off its keys to the property manager after a two minute walk-through. The original owner was a spectacular chain smoker who cited the apartment’s proximity to Spenger’s Fresh Fish Grotto as one of its winning attributes, a place we understandably failed to dine at over the course of three years. As shiny new apartments sprung up tall around us, in time the largest real estate firm in the area took over our tired building, as is the trend in these shapeshifting neighborhoods. Finally standing bare and empty, the apartment never felt so small. In fact, it seemed to shrink with each visit since we began moving out in early December, as if distance inspires a fresh understanding of dimensions. The apartment indeed felt small while we lived there, its close quarters made obvious whenever a friend visited or a neighbor’s cat slipped in, easily overwhelming the space. But its familiarity bred comfort, and that comfort distracted from the smallness of 500 square feet. I suspect that comfort is what also led us to prolong the move like we did, to flip back between two chapters for just a bit longer. After the walk-through, I left Berkeley quickly only to take the long way home, driving Highway 37 through the southern tips of Sonoma and Napa. It felt like moving on, like settling in. A couple days later, I searched for the apartment’s listing on Craigslist and there it was, the rent almost double what we paid. So it goes.
 
Of the books I plan to read this month, I eagerly begin with Girl Through Glass by Sari Wilson, a coming-of-age that unfolds within the obsessive world of 1970s New York City ballet. The subject provokes awe, the tone is reverent, and I anticipate the book to be a fixture of this first weekend in February. Then there is All Stories Are Love Stories by Elizabeth Percer, a favorite new author whose first book I adored; I remember lines in An Uncommon Education like, “she passed in a full sail of silence” and “living within shouting distance of each other.” Her second book centers on a group of survivors in San Francisco, the city in ruins after it is struck by two earthquakes within one hour. It is a scenario that feels scarily inevitable, and a reminder that we merely tiptoe around nature, a character of extremes that operates of its own accord. I am also very curious about Blackass by A. Igoni Barrett. February is a short one, but what is fleeting has left a permanent mark before.
 
Best, Yuri
@yuriroho

Reflection: The Light of the World

In the quest to read the books I missed last year, I prepared a list. On that list, The Light of the World by Elizabeth Alexander is listed third, and next to it in parentheses, “First Lady.” I unabashedly took note of her favorite book of 2015, and upon reading its first paragraph, I felt the familiar pleasure and anticipation of knowing there is so much left to read. “Poetry logic is my logic,” the author explains, and the book is as close to poetry as prose can be. Here is the first paragraph:
 
“The story seems to begin with catastrophe but in fact began earlier and is not a tragedy but rather a love story. Perhaps tragedies are only tragedies in the presence of love, which confers meaning to loss. Loss is not felt in the absence of love.”
 
The Light of the World is a moving portrait of the author’s husband, an impressive man named Ficre Ghebreyesus, her coping with his sudden death, and of course, their love story. She discusses Africa, art, flowers and food (there are recipes); she annotates poems on death; she recalls dreams; she introduces an endless stream of family and friends; she shares the most intimate details of marriage. “We shared days I can only call divine,” she writes.
 
As I neared the book’s end, I prolonged the inevitable by flipping back through its pages, revisiting scenes here and there. “Memories are what you no longer want to remember,” Joan Didion writes in Blue Nights, her own memoir of loss. But perhaps in their very ability to awaken the past, memories alone are redemptive. Within his wife’s prose, there is still Ficre, his presence strong. Reflections on death, especially ones written so beautifully, can be tricky to process. As a reader, it can be tempting to romanticize heartache, to become lost in a kind of reverie. But in The Light of the World, there is no such luxury. Love and loss sit side-by-side to emphasize each other, to draw out each other’s extremes. “Ficre everywhere, Ficre nowhere,” she explains, and the magnitude of that is felt on every page.
 
Best, Yuri
@yuriroho

Note: Two Weekends


I woke up two Saturdays ago with the ocean in mind, so off we drove to the Sonoma Coast, where we passed beaches with names like Salmon Creek, Goat Rock, Portuguese and Schoolhouse. Of all the new neighbors this move has introduced, these beaches are by far my favorite, and I hope they will tolerate my frequent and unannounced visits. The ocean was loud, its waves wild, which I bet means catching it on a good day, in high spirits. Grays, blues and whites intertwined to create a palette familiar to those who have spent a winter in California.
 
The following weekend, last weekend, we headed west once more. The subject of octopuses has lingered on my mind since reading and then re-reading The Soul of an Octopus, so off we drove 170 miles to Monterey, to go see one. The Monterey Bay Aquarium has several species of octopus on exhibit, but as with siblings and seasons and most everything else, a clear favorite quickly emerged. The Day Octopus was mesmerizing, stretching itself to its full length, plastering itself onto the glass, and changing color and texture on the fly. It was clearly showing off for us spectators – alone in its tank, without the bleating commands of trainers – which I thought generous and kind. How special that it puts forth such effort. Does it care what we think? We responded approvingly, with exclamations of awe and clicks of the camera.
 
The trip to Monterey confirms books to be reservoirs of ideas waiting to inspire our lives, often in the simplest of ways; like when I tell a friend a bee won’t sting her if she sends it love because “every little thing wants to be loved” (The Secret Life of Bees), or recommending a chicken sandwich and a glass of milk to someone in distress (Franny). I save songs referenced in books so that that gems like Rachmaninoff’s “Prelude in G Minor, Opus 23” (All My Puny Sorrows) and Yusef Lateef’s “The Plum Blossom” (The Light of the World) boldly slip into an otherwise humble music collection. If reading just a few books can inspire habits or playlists or weekend outings, surely reading hundreds of books can eventually inspire a life, and what is yet to be discovered excites me endlessly.
 
Best, Yuri
@yuriroho

Note: Mid-January

Tiny efforts here and there have made the difference in settling into the new home. Like a new calendar, fresh flowers, and endless cups of peppermint tea. In the spirit of cultivating new habits and routines for the new year, I’ve subscribed to the New York Times, and I must say that it is bizarre to have the day’s world news printed on paper and dropped off at my doorstep before I am even out of bed. It creates the illusion that the world is patient and its news finite; things happen, and when they do, we have a 24-hour window to pause, read and think, until we receive further word the next day. It also gives the paper an air of authority, seeming to assure readers that it is indeed the irrevocable news on record, which is perhaps an attitude to be suspicious of. News read online feels like a mere suggestion, one of infinity, which I suppose is worthy of suspicion as well.
 
In what feels like days we have reached mid-January, assuring me that the speedy passage of time was not unique to 2015, the erroneous conclusion I draw about each passing year. As there is every reason to expect another swift one, I feel inspired, or more so challenged, to approach each day wisely. Though the beginning of the year generously offers a chance to reflect on what that may mean and plan accordingly, mid-January seems to be the time to wrap up such prep work and simply begin doing. I fear that I tend to linger in the planning phase of any given goal, unknowingly settling for the pleasure of anticipation rather than that of accomplishment. But 2016 seems to be asking more of me, of all of us, and I am prepared to oblige. Cheers to this quickly passing, and oh so wonderfully rainy, start of the year.
 
Best, Yuri
@yuriroho

Reflection: The Soul of an Octopus

As I continue to catch up on books missed in 2015, I recently finished The Soul of an Octopus by Sy Montgomery. The book was a finalist for the 2015 National Book Award for Nonfiction, though the award ultimately went to, of course, Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates. Coates was seemingly everywhere in 2015, and while I do agree that his book is important and deeply moving, I am always taken aback as to how quickly we amplify a single voice. The Soul of an Octopus explores questions like what is the soul, what is consciousness, and are we alone in those tremendous feats or are animals like the octopus in our company? The author is sensitive and soulful, as seen in tidbits like this:
 
“While stroking an octopus, it is easy to fall into reverie. To share such a moment of deep tranquility with another being, especially one as different from us as the octopus, is a humbling privilege. It’s a shared sweetness, a gentle miracle, and uplink to universal consciousness – the notion, first advanced by pre-Socratic Greek philosopher Anaxagoras in 480 BC, of sharing an intelligence that animates and organizes all life” (p. 90).
 
Much of the book takes place at the New England Aquarium, where the author forms bonds with people and octopuses alike. There are four octopuses – Athena, Octavia, Kali and Karma – and each exhibits a wholly unique personality and “sparkling mind,” as do the octopuses encountered in the wild. Octopus facts are scattered throughout (it has a beak like a parrot, a remarkable curiosity, an ability to change color and texture instantly), as if the most useful parts of a National Geographic documentary are woven into a much more relatable, nuanced narrative. We are often skeptical of animal intelligence or consciousness, and this book serves as a fascinating and eloquent defense of octopuses being in possession of both. Every turn of the page forces you to think bigger, to push aside the idea that everything non-human is “the Other.” The Soul of an Octopus inspires you to breach the supposed boundary between humans and, well, everything else, and when you do, the beauty of life on Earth astounds all the more. We are left, as we inevitably are, with the staggering truth of how little we know, and that reminder should make us feel all the more human.
 
Best, Yuri
@yuriroho

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Reflection: The Turner House

I promised myself to catch up on the books that I missed in 2015, in whatever meager way that I could, and I’m using the first few weeks of the new year to do just that. 2016, please be patient. I have five books on my catch up list, and I recently finished the first, The Turner House by Angela Flournoy. The book was a finalist for the 2015 National Book Award for Fiction, an impressive feat for a first-time author. My reading of The Turner House spanned countless locations, including the messy floor of an old apartment, the empty floor of a new home, on a plane flying south, under a weak light bulb in the early morning dark, and at Triste Cafe while drinking a $4 glass of red wine, where I was delighted to find the woman to my left engaged in similar activities (different book, same wine).
 
The Turner House is the story of Francis and Viola Turner and their 13 children, and continuously jumps between two eras. The first era stretches from 1944 to 1951, during which we learn of Francis and Viola’s Arkansas beginnings and their move to Detroit. The second era takes place in Spring 2008 and focuses on the children. While the eldest, Cha-Cha, is a baby in some pages of the book, in others he is 64 years old; the book stretches far and wide, in the way good ones do. At the center of the story is the house they grew up in, which now sits in a nearly abandoned East Side Detroit neighborhood. Francis is long dead and Viola is ill, so the children must debate what to do with the house. The book is described as “a major contribution to the literature on American families,” and it is a largely unromantic one, as in full of health problems and resentment and awkward moments and lost jobs. The book does not relieve readers of reality’s blemishes, but rather scatters them throughout its pages, creating a world that is recognizable, and thus meaningful beyond the dealings of one particular family.
 
The Turner House reminds me of the legacies that are behind each of us, of the infinitely nuanced lives that precede our own, yet how so much of it remains unknown; either forgotten or erroneously retold or simply never shared, sometimes with intention. I think of my own day-to-day, stories woven together from this and that, and I wonder if any of it will live on, how quickly details can lose their precision. And perhaps that is perfectly alright. But if that doesn’t sit well with you, The Turner House offers hope, as it suggests that in a myriad of ways, for better or for worse, the past is inherited by all of us, and even the details seem to work themselves in.
 
Best, Yuri
@yuriroho
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Note: December


This year’s December invites the mixed emotions that often accompany the end of one chapter and the beginning of the next. After three years in Berkeley, James and I have moved 50 miles north to Sonoma County. Our new home sits quietly on a short stretch of land, a far cry from our tiny Berkeley studio, which a friend once generously called the “quintessential in-your-20s apartment.”
 
I’m curious to discover a new day-to-day, to begin tracing familiar routes and establishing go-to spots. Of course, what is a 50-mile move? I have made much farther leaps, over land and sea, in the past. But having moved so many times while growing up, I’ve learned that once you have a day-to-day, once you’re immersed in any kind of familiar, it doesn’t really matter how many cities, states or countries you’ve crossed. Where you come from always feels far away. Besides, if our lives are simply made up of the various random items that fill every 24-hour window, then indeed the smallest of changes can result in the entirely new. Through all of the bittersweet emotions wrapped up in moving, logic never fails, and logic says every experience only informs the next, and I’m very eager to see how informative this new one is.
 
As I reflect on 2015, one of my biggest regrets surfaces when I realize how many books I missed this year. What did 2015 in books look like, feel like? The single perk of a largely unproductive year in reading, that is, the perk of waiting until December to survey the year’s offering in books, is that major honors like the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award have already been bestowed. The winners and finalists are promised to be the very best of all that was published in 2015, albeit in the United States, and I’m putting some faith in that. I’m using this and this as guides for the year’s final to-read list. It’s time to catch up! Better late than never, I hope.
 
Best, Yuri
@yuriroho

So Long, See You Tomorrow

“When I got home from school I did what I had always done, which was to read, curled up in the window seat in the library or lying flat on my back on the floor with my feet in a chair, in the darkest corner I could find. The house was full of places to read that fitted me like a glove, and I read the same books over and over. Children tend to derive comfort and support from the totally familiar – an umbrella stand, a glass ashtray backed with brightly colored cigar bands, the fire tongs, anything. With the help of these and other commonplace objects – with the help also of the two big elm trees that shaded the house from the heat of the sun, and the trumpet vine by the back door, and the white lilac bush by the dining-room window, and the comfortable wicker porch furniture and the porch swing that contributed its creakcreak…to the sounds of the summer night – I got from one day to the next.”

So Long, See You Tomorrow, p. 9–10
By William Maxwell
Published 1980