Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Flash Afterthoughts: Playing My Mother's Blues

"Dani Carter was seven years old–her sister, Rose, seventeen–when their beautiful, impetuous mother, Maria, walked out of their lives, abandoning her husband and family for a love affair that would end tragically mere months later.  Now, after decades Dani's own loveless marriage is faltering–propelling her into the arms of another and inspiring troubling thoughts of escape from her husband and beloved young son.

Dani fears the sins of the mother have been visited upon the daughter.  And, unlike Rose, who never speaks of their lost parent, Dani can't help but wonder who Maria really was.  It's a puzzle that may soon be solved because, in a time of emotional and physical chaos, Maria, calling herself Mariah, is about to re-enter her daughters' worlds–bearing secrets and bitter truths... and, perhaps, long-awaited answers."

Playing My Mother’s Blues by Valerie Wilson Wesley was a… well… mmmm… well… it was a “meh” read. I just happened to slide it off the shelf (years ago, I saved the book from someone‘s donation pile), believing it would be a quick read to wrap up September. And it was, despite my boredom with it. 

As seen in the above blurb, the premise is appealing.  Especially if you like stories featuring people of color and drama. Nonetheless, Playing My Mother’s Blues was nothing really unique. It’s one of Wesley’s contemporary African American novels. It’s told with the same familiar themes–concerning families and their secrets–seen in her Tamara Hayle mystery series. And in many ways, the story itself reflects her recently released, When the Night Whispers, book. So Wesley’s pattern is clear.  And well... that’s pretty much it.

It was the writing and characters that kind of came across as bland and forgettable. Neither one of them went deep into the offered material. I can sum the book up as simply as a mother walking out on her family due to an affair, and months later the affair ends.  She loses the favor of her daughters, her daughters repeat her behavior as adults (and teens), she begs for the favor of her daughters.  A plot twist is thrown in at the very end... and there you have it. The characters just never go too deep, and many of which come across as one-dimensional all the way to the very end. Though Wesley throws in some hard, tough issues for the characters to confront, everything seemed too safe and pain free.

In all respects, Playing My Mother’s Blues was just a quick, easy read and not too much more.  It was just a story; uncomplicated and wholly simple in its telling.

Saturday, September 27, 2014

So Far From God by Ana Castillo

Okay! So where do I start with this one? So Far From God, by Mexican-American Chicana author, Ana Castillo. It’s the book I intended to read years ago for an ethnic American literature class, but shamefully never did. Nonetheless, I held tightly to it for a rainy day.  It takes place in a New Mexico town called Tome. It’s here that we're introduced to mother and wife, Sofi (short for Sofia), and her four, emotionally dented daughters, Esperanza, Caridad, Fe, and La Loca. Oh, that’s not to mention Sofi’s “five dogs, six cats, and four horses.”  Upon her introduction, we learn that Sofi’s marriage is on the rocks. Her husband walked out on his family years ago, leaving Sofi to raise her four girls alone. This is sort of the cornerstone to the attitude/theme of the book as well as the relationships between the female and male cast.

It’s a book that illustrates how a Mexican-American woman/wife (much reflected in the author and her own career as an activism for Chicana feminism) can gather the strength to inspire a social campaign that defies the conceptualizations of any man’s view of a woman's presuppose “role” as wife and mother. However, Sofi’s activism doesn’t arise without devastating lessons used to shape her agenda.  Many of which revolving around the fates of her four daughters.

I have to say that I really enjoyed So Far From God; four out of five stars seem sound. Nonetheless, the truth is that I kind of struggled with it in the beginning, to the point where I was about to exchange it for something else off the shelf. However, in its finality, it was a great read.  I’m glad I stuck with it until the end. 

See, it started off powerful enough, with the first chapter dedicated toward introducing Sofia and her four girls to readers. Furthermore, that first chapter showcased the magical realism used to illustrate how Sofia’s youngest daughter, La Loca, suffered from a seizure that sent her to her grave and back to life. Though she’s severely antisocial, her coming back from the dead has given her a status similar to a town magnus. And one that her family is extremely protective of.

So yes, that was the first chapter. One that was great for taking in Castillo’s direction, and her use of magical realism with Mexican flavor. But then Castillo moved into deepening the character of the middle child, Caridad.  Things got slightly rocky with the sudden thrust of a combined use of Mexican myths and folklore, religion, psychic powers, and a spontaneous laundry list of traditional remedies (that’s never used or considered again within the novel) for ailments such as gastrointestinal blockages.  It all came careening through all at once, kind of leveling away the focus. Later, once all of these wonderful elements were woven into the stories of the characters, everything seemed manageable to the reading experience. However, rushed so soon into the book kind of begged for a peek at the novel’s direction. Therefore, it took me a moment to get into the momentum of the book, and the actual charm of it all featured in the individual stories of Sofi’s four daughters.

Everything from the folklore to the traditional medicines colored So Far From God once you adjust to it, but what really made this book worthwhile is the stories of Sofi’s four daughters who carried those elements.

The eldest, Esperanza, is the hyper-responsible one with a career in journalism that eventually sends her to Saudi Arabia. Next in line comes Caridad. She’s the daughter known as the beauty of the quartet, and the one who gathers the most attention from men. She's also the one who eventually comes to question her sexuality, after surviving the assault of a "demon." Novel wise, she’s the daughter who received the majority of “screen time" and character development. The third daughter is Fe, who was probably my favorite. She’s the daughter who works as a banker. She’s also the one who suffers from a mental breakdown after her fiance abandons their engagement. Eventually, slowly, she learns to come back to love, although it arrives a little too late. Not to spoil anything, but I have to admit that her story was the one that moved me the most; and probably because it had a tinge of practicality and plausibility behind it. Meaning, it wasn't as fluffed with fables and folklore to color her motivation–unlike Cardid and La Loca. And while fables and folklore are perfectly fine, the truth is that Fe’s story seemed so real that I actually cried at its conclusion. Finally, there’s La Loca. She’s the hardest sister to understand, as Castillo loads her with symbolisms related to the other three as well as Sofi. Tack that on top of her enigmatic presence, and I'll have to leave her journey to your own thoughts.

The only other issue I had with So Far From God lie in how the operation of some scenes seemed muddled by lit prose and analogies. Now, I'm all good for the two, but in the case of scenes driven by action and movement, I'd rather not be hit with an abrupt punch of either to have the author’s point given across. So there were instances where I found myself re-read a scene and wishing for better structured and less poetry.

In closing, So Far From God has tons to offer readers.  Just as it's heartbreaking at times, it's inspirational also.  The same can be said for the level of humor Castillo applies as she explores a variety of themes relating women, relationships and their need to test society's expectations of them.  And those themes are even slimmer and specific as they relate to Chicana woman.  Nevertheless, at the end of it all, it's the stories of the women featured in the book that is worth every bit of your concentration.  I walked away from the book knowing that each of Sofia's daughters would remain unforgettable.

Friday, September 26, 2014

Who I Am? by Megan Cyrulewski?

Megan Cyrulewski is an ordinary person who has faced extraordinary challenges and now wants to inspire people and show them that hope gives them the power to survive anything. Who Am I? is about her journey into post-partum depression, anxiety disorder, panic attacks, visits to the psych ward, divorce, domestic violence, law school, and her courageous struggle to survive with her sanity intact—and how a beautiful little girl emerged from all this chaos.

Excerpt from Chapter One of Who Am I?

Chapter One:  Ahhh…Young Love

Envy. There is a reason why it’s one of the seven deadly sins. It can kill you. It almost killed me.

The summer of 2004, I was 26 and just got out of a long-term relationship. Good man, he just wasn’t the right man for me.

I had just found out that my old college roommate had recently gotten engaged. The two of us were always “competing” during college: who was skinnier, who can pick up the most guys at the bar. Stupid girl stuff. Other friends of mine were either married or having babies. I think the last straw was finding out my high school sweetheart had gotten engaged. Somewhere in fantasyland, I always thought it was possible we might get back together. Needless to say, I was definitely envious.

That summer, my roommate, Jessica, bought a house. At the time we were sharing an apartment, but she asked if I wanted to move into her house. Jessica and I had known each other since high school and she was the best roommate, and one of the best friends, I have ever had. Without hesitation, I agreed. A month after moving in, we had a house warming party. That’s when I met Tyler*.

I knew Tyler slightly because he was engaged to one of Jessica’s friends, Natalie. Tyler and Natalie and been together for about three years. They had even come to a couple of parties Jessica and I had thrown at our apartment.  I had never really talked to him, though. Tyler and Natalie had broken up around the same time I had broken up with my-long term man.

Jessica didn't want to invite Tyler because she didn't want any tension between him and Natalie. A few days before the party, though, we found out Natalie was going to be out of town. Coincidentally, Tyler stopped by that same night to give something of Natalie’s to Jessica. That was the first time I had really looked at him and I liked what I saw: good-looking, goofy smile, and deep-blue eyes. The attraction was instantaneous. So, I decided to invite him to the house-warming party. Why the hell not? Natalie wasn't going to be there. After getting the eyes of death from Jessica, she reluctantly told him the day and time.

The night of the party, Tyler knocked on the door. When I opened it, I gave him a hug and told him I was glad he was there because at least I had someone to flirt with. I didn't really pay attention to him too much during the party.  But after everyone had left, he and I ended up talking until five in the morning.

A couple of nights later, we went on our first date. We went to dinner and then back to his house to watch a movie. We were very open with each other. I told him about my anxiety disorder, he told me about his drug addiction and how he had been clean for years. Five months later, I moved in with him, four months after that we got engaged and a year later, we were married. Needless to say, the relationship was on overdrive from the beginning.

The relationship wasn't perfect, but whose is? Tyler didn't like his current job and was looking for a new one.  Tyler was trying to quit smoking because he knew I didn't like it. Tyler was a recovering addict and going to NA meetings. It’s a stressful time. That became my mantra. Tyler got angry. “It’s a stressful time.” Tyler screamed at me. “It’s a stressful time.”

I was an independent woman in my mid-twenties, in a stable job making $55,000 and climbing up the corporate ladder. I understood stress. I was also in complete denial. This was the beginnings of what I would later understand was a domestic violence relationship and a relationship with someone who has Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD). There were the signs of these disorders, of course, but I didn't recognize them at the time.

My paternal family is 100% Polish. In my grandmother’s generation, girls were expected to get married and have babies. A lot of babies. My grandmother was one of six children. After I graduated from high school, on Christmas Eve, my grandmother would pray that the next year I would get married and start a family. I always smiled and told her maybe. I loved my grandmother very much. She was the only grandparent I had ever known.

After Tyler and I got engaged, we went to my grandmother’s house to tell her the news she had been waiting for. When we told her, she stood up, pushed me aside, hugged Tyler and said, “God bless you.” The memory still makes me smile. Three months later, she had a stroke. In February 2006, seven months before the wedding, my grandmother passed away. Devastation doesn't even coming close to how I felt. I called in to work, stayed in bed and cried for two days.

The night of the funeral, my dad's company catered dinner at my parent’s house for our family. On the way to their house, I noticed that the car was low on gas. I stopped at a gas station and asked Tyler if he could pump the gas. Tyler was on the phone and told me to pump the gas myself. We were only two miles from my parents’ house. I was still upset and crying from the funeral. I asked him again to please just pump the gas. He didn't even bother to answer me. I got out of the car and pumped the gas myself. When I got back into the car, I told Tyler that I was upset and a little angry. What happened next was my first glimpse into the emotional abusive side of domestic violence.

“You are such a spoiled little bitch who expects the world to be handed to you,” Tyler screamed at me. “Turn the fucking car around.”

Not saying a word, I turned the car around and headed back home to drop off Tyler, who kept spewing vile words.

“You and your family think you're so much better than me. Did daddy pump your gas for you all the time? Well guess what? You actually have to do things yourself now. It’s time for you to grow up and live in the real world.”

Tears streamed from my eyes. I still had not said a word.

“Your grandmother probably killed herself because she didn't want to deal with you anymore. She probably got tired of your spoiled behavior and decided death was better than you. I’m glad I’m going home because I don't want to watch your fucking family cry all night.”

When we got back home, I parked in the driveway and finally let loose.

“How dare you!” I screamed at the top of my lungs. “I just lost my grandmother! Get out of my car! Get out!”

Tyler started laughing. “Look at you. You're a joke. You should get some help for those anger issues of yours. Don't bother coming back, bitch. Your shit will be on the curb.”

I left and went to my parents’ house. When my dad asked about Tyler, I said we got into an argument and he’s at home. My dad, who is the family peacemaker and almost never says anything negative said under his breath, “What a night for him to pick a fight.”

About an hour into dinner, Tyler called me. He said he wanted to come over and apologize. At this point, I was so emotionally drained I really didn't care. When he arrived, he waltzed right into the house like nothing had ever happened. He pulled me aside and told me that he blew up because he was under so much stress from taking care of me the last couple of days. Looking back at the moment, I wonder how he even had the audacity to blame my grandmother’s death for his behavior. At the time, I was just glad he wasn't mad anymore.

The next couple of months were calm. No arguments and Tyler and I were having fun planning the wedding. Obviously, the argument the night of my grandmother’s funeral was a result of stress. We got through it and according to Tyler, it wouldn't happen again.

Early June 2006, I was in bed reading and waiting for Tyler to come home from a Narcotics Anonymous (NA) meeting. When he got home, he came upstairs and walked toward the bed. He stopped and asked if I smelled anything.

“No,” I said, a little confused.

“It smells like cat piss.” (We had a cat that sometimes urinated outside the litter box.)

Tyler looked around the room and picked up a bed pillow off the floor. He smelled it.

“She pissed on this pillow.”

I laughed. “It’s sad when the pillow is right next to me and I can't smell the pee.”

Tyler didn’t laugh. “Clean it up.”

“I'll put it in the wash tomorrow. Just throw it in the basement.”

Tyler picked up the pillow. “Bitch. You waited until I came home because you knew I would fucking clean it.” He ripped the book I was reading right out of my hands and threw it across the room. “Get off your fat lazy ass, get some paper towels  and clean it!”

I started to shake. The monster had emerged again.  I couldn't say anything. Tyler picked up the pillow and shoved it in my face.

“Smell it!” He screamed. “Can you smell it now, bitch? Now your face smells like cat piss. You’re disgusting. Who would want you anyway?”

Tyler threw the pillow back on the floor and stormed downstairs. I just sat in bed, paralyzed from fear. I couldn't think. I couldn't speak. I couldn't even cry.

I don't know how much time had passed before Tyler came back. Without saying a word, he picked up two water bottles I had sitting on the nightstand beside me, unscrewed the tops, and poured water on me. He laughed and went back downstairs.

I took off my pajamas, turned out the light and rolled to the dry side of the bed. Before long, I heard Tyler come up the stairs again. I began to shake. He ripped the covers off of me.

“You would sleep in a wet bed. I should have poured cat piss on you and let you sleep in that,” he laughed. “Get out of my fucking bed and sleep outside.”

I got out of bed and put on dry pajamas. I took off my engagement ring, threw it on the bed and left. I went to Jessica’s house and asked if I could spend the night. I didn't talk about what happened. I just told her that the engagement was off and I just needed to sleep. Jessica never asked any questions and I love her for that.

Before long, my phone rang and it was Tyler. He asked me to come back home. I was hesitant, but he convinced me to come back home and talk. I left Jessica a note and went back home.

When I got home, Tyler was sitting on the couch. “I’m going to get a six-pack of beer, drink it and kill myself.”

Shocked, I sat down next to him. “Do you want me to call someone? Should I call your sponsor? I don’t know what to do.”

Tyler kept repeating. “I’m going to kill myself.” He was crying, but there weren't any tears.

I hugged him. “We'll get through this. We’ll get help. Please don't kill yourself. I love you too much.”

“Thank you,” Tyler smiled. And just like that, he got up, told me he loved me, and went to bed.

Looking back, I now realize that this was Tyler’s way of manipulation. Tyler knew he let his anger get out of control, to the point that I walked away. To get me back, he subtly blamed me for what happened by alluding that he was going to commit suicide. At the time, I felt guilty for not cleaning the damn pillow. If I had cleaned that pillow, this never would have happened. I promised myself to be more careful in the future.

The next morning, my engagement ring was on my nightstand.**






Megan Cyrulewski has been writing short stories ever since she was ten-years-old.  Eventually she settled into a career in the non-profit sector and then went back to school to get her law degree.  While she was in school, she documented her divorce and child custody battle in her memoir, Who Am I? How My Daughter Taught Me to Let Go and Live Again, which was released on August 2, 2014.  Megan lives in Michigan with her 3-year-old daughter who loves to dance, run, read, and snuggle time with Mommy.  Megan also enjoys her volunteer work with Troy Youth Assistance as the Fundraising Chair on the Board of Directors.

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

A Reunion with Robb

I've decided that I'm going to cheat here.  See, for me to lay down exactly what this series is about (the series is almost 50 books deep) would cause me to burst into tears in an attempt to pull off a summary in one, clip paragraph.  With that said, I've got a link HERE that summarizes the story so far–from the author's own website.  If you're curious, click there.  Other than that, here's my last thoughts on this particularly entry in J. D. Robb's In Death series.

So it’s been exactly two years since J. D. Robb’s Delusion in Death (book 35 in her Eve Dallas series) was released, and two years since I got 20 pages in and decided to put it down. That’s where I stopped reading the series, having decided that after the disappointment of book 33, New York to Dallas, that I had my fill of Eve’s resurging past drama.  Nonetheless, I won't spoil anything.  Truly, it is a great and addictive series if all else fails. Recently, I've been thinking about the series–despite my previous complaints at its lack of character momentum and resolution–before I followed the urge to pull myself back into its world. It all just kept calling me back.

So what have I missed in two years? Well, Delusion in Death takes place in the year 2060. It opens inside of a crowded bar called On the Rocks (Robb was always, always kind of corny with names) in Manhattan’s Lower West Side. The bar is crowded during happy-hour, with business professionals searching for unwinding conversations and equally effective drinks. Everything seems sunny and cheerful until the headaches start. Like an invisible wave, those headaches quickly entice a blind rage that sweeps the brains of the bar’s patrons.  Suddenly, On the Rocks becomes a bloodbath where the once docile and tipsy patrons start a full-out assault against what appears to be their worst nightmares. The murderous frenzy leaves eighty dead. Only a few survive to tell their story.

Naturally, homicide lieutenant Eve Dallas reports to the scene, stepping her way over the bodies as she gathers evidence. Furthermore, considering her husband Roarke owns the bar, Eve has her hands full keeping his stake in the matter at bay. Nonetheless, through witness accounts and a set of interviews, Eve eventually uncovers the connection between an aerial hallucinogenic that swept the bar, and a buried apocalyptic cult called Red Horse. The question then becomes who is responsible for reviving the cult’s method of mass murder? Will he or she strike again? And how can Eve and her team stop the murderer and put the formula behind the airborne hallucinogen where no one else can ever have access to it?

So after a two-year hiatus from the series, I have to say that I did enjoy stepping back into Eve Dallas’s world. All the joshing between Eve and Roarke and Eve and her partner Peabody were present still.  I'm grateful for that, because the dialogue between characters are probably this series' strongest element. So I did miss the characters, and it felt great to be back alongside the cast during one of their investigations. Nonetheless, like usually, there are a number of other cast members who make up Eve’s team (and support) that continue to show and crowd up the pages. Having started the series in 2008, I'm very familiar with the cast, but after my little two-year break, I actually started to grow weary of some of them. There are just too many with minor purposes and even lesser development. Trueheart is still Trueheart, the green-around-the-ears cop. Baxter is still Baxter, Trueheart's mentor. Morris is still Morris, the cool medical examiner. (And you probably have absolutely no idea who these characters are!)  Like the series itself, character development often appears stagnant.  Now that's notwithstanding how each book/investigation covers approximately a weekend’s worth of time–give or take.  But regardless, a shake up in the cast is long past due.

As for the actual detection and police procedural portion, nothing much as change. On occasion does Robb write some solid action mixed with some even better avenues of investigation. And I mention that in regard to some of the other books in the series. Delusion, however, was mostly tepid in this area. Almost all opportunities to showcase Eve’s detection skills were unimaginative. To me, someone else is doing all the cooler stuff off-stage before handing Eve the information necessary to build her case.  To my chagrin, this is very contrary to her “digging up the dirt“ and "getting dirty" herself. In turn, this leaves Eve capable of only doing two things: processing interviews and staring at her murder board until an idea strikes. The former she pulls off excellently; it’s always a joy to watch Eve interview witnesses and suspects. The latter she more or less dispatches another cast member to act on her idea. I suppose she can do that as the lieutenant, and even in the very end she played a more active role in the story's conclusion. 

Nevertheless, it would be nice to see Eve untangling a little more than the files on her PPC (Personal Portable Computer). Even so, the series isn't so bad if you like Eve–which I do.  Not only do I find her charming, but she's also one of those characters that ask for your loyalty just as she displays it to her cast of supporters.  You learn to trust her as a reader.  She's the good guy. This is why I'm kind of glad I'm enthused about the series again. For me to detail what I love and what I dislike about the series would take an eternity, so from this point on, I’m just going to enjoy the ride and complain and marvel my way through to its end.

Super side note: thank goodness Robb chilled out on the comma splices this time around.   And what about those rumors that the series is now ghostwritten?  Anyone have a clue?

Friday, September 19, 2014

Towel, the Girl Who Loves Sweets

I found this sketch while cleaning out a couple of sketchbooks, drawing tablets and portfolios.  There, tucked underneath a couple of bags from Hobby Lobby, lay this drawing.  I don't recall when I started it, or why I stopped.  I just looked at it and was suddenly inspired to create something sweet, using my favorite blond character, Towel (that's her nickname)!  The thing is that I fought the impulse to make changes to the sketch.  Instead, I wanted to act right away with the coloring process.  Didn't want to think too much.  Just wanted to grab the sketch and move.

As always, inking comes next.  My favorite Precise V5 pen did the grunt work.  Followed by a simple yellow Sharpie (yes, Sharpie) to outline her hair.  Last, I used a sand-colored Copic marker to outline and give a little shadow/shading.  I chose the skin-toned markers according to–you guessed it–skin tone.  And though she's blond, it doesn't mean she's a tanned blond.  Nevertheless, I always try to shadow lightly, throwing the whole concept of coloring "by light source" out the window.  I also used a flesh-colored Copic marker to guide her upper lip so I wouldn't lose the shape before I added a darker color.

Here, I water colored her hair a simple canary yellow.  And because her eyes are brown, I gathered my usual three-tones to give her eyes a gradient-like effect. Always more color!

X-acto knife ready, I carved away the negative space to get her ready for the felt, ice cream backdrop I decided to use.  I didn't glue her on right away because I knew that it would be a mess to do so first and then start using chalk pastels.  I also knew it would be a mess to add the chalk pastels and then use the x-acto knife to carve her off the negative space.  So for a while, I had me a cute paper doll tapped to my drawing board.

I normally use a dark toned pastel to match a character's hair, but here I used a matching yellow instead.  I coated her lips with a dark pink Prismacolor pencil.  These are my favorite pencils because of their soft, creamy tips.  As for the chalk pastel, used for her skin toned, I chose a shade of brown that I more or less liked when I first laid it down.  I managed to even it out by blending in a lighter flesh color, running a dry paper towel over the two to even her out.  Of course, I used a thin-tipped eraser to clean the edges.

Three Prismacolor pencils used to add layers and effect to her hair.  A very light canary yellow, golden rod yellow, and an almost sienna brown were used.  Once the streaks of pencil are in, I use another dry paper town to blend it all in with the chalk pastel.  Then I use a gummy eraser to add highlights in long streaks.  I retook the Precise V5 pencil to fill in her pupil and mark some effect lines on the edges of her iris.  Lastly, I glued her to the felt, seemingly as if she came out of a pocket of space.

The digital scan.  But first, I added the usual whiteout shimmer to her lips and eyes.  I also added the cutie 3D stickers in support of the theme (sweets and ice cream).  The cherries work as earrings; the watermelon (hopefully) as a ring.  As for the drawing, I did the usual reviving of color the second I scanned it.  That seems necessary when a drawing moves into digital format.  I also cleaned up around her arm.  When I found the original sketch there were marks I had to work over that I knew during the process were going to need retouching.  I have yet to retouch her left eyebrow by slimming it down and back some.  And while her arm is a little shapeless, I decided to leave it as it is.  As I mentioned earlier, I didn't want to get into making adjustments to the sketching part; instead I jumped right in. 

Hopefully I didn't miss anything.  Yeah well, I know I did somewhere.  Anyway, thanks everyone for allowing me to share this!

Another on the way!

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Recom Request: Learning Japanese Characters

One day I decided I wanted to read Japanese manga in its native language.  Why not, considering I was obsessed with the drawings.  So I set out to teach myself when I was fourteen.  But first let me get this part absolutely straight: I am not fluent in Japanese after all these years. Even after taking two college courses on the language (years after I began my self-teaching journey of course), I am nowhere near voluble. Really, I would grade myself a three out of ten on a comprehension scale. I may be able to slide through the language as it relates to speaking conversationally, though. Nonetheless, fluent I hardly am; much to my disappointment. And most of that has to do with a lack of daily practice as well as an extreme lack of exposure to native speakers (I stress “extreme lack“). 

Still, I wanted to make a post sharing the book that got me started when I was fourteen, scanning my way through the international section of the public library. I found the book useful for a young beginner like myself. Even now–being moderately familiar with the language–I refer to it because of its refreshing simplicity. It does offer plenty but, like many language-learning tools, it gets its criticism also. Even so, I can say that I learned to read two out of the three forms of Japanese writing systems; I managed hiragana and katakana through the author’s visual mnemonics.  Hiragana and Katakana has always stuck with me without fail, much to my advantage later in college. However, learning the complicated strokes and compounds of kanji, featured later in the book, took some advanced tools. Nevertheless, that’s not to say that I didn't pick up a few from the book that assisted me down the road.  I mean, I can differentiate the kanji character for "sun" (=ni) and "month" (月=gatsu) clearly enough (the problem is when kanji characters fuse to make one jukugo). So at the end of the day, the book, Michael Rowley’s Kanji Pictographix, is a great start for those who decide to pick up and familiarize themselves with Japanese characters.

So I just wanted to share a little regarding this book and a few fundamentals of learning hiragana and katakana first. Then later, in another post, I'll show some other Japanese learning tools for beginners (like myself).

So what’s the difference between written Japanese hiragana and katakana. According to Rowley, hiragana is used to write words not normally written within the complexity of kanji, or as I see it, a means of deconstructing kanji characters into a simpler form. Therefore, it’s no wonder why hiragana (as well as katakana) is taught first to Japanese children. Nonetheless, the other function of hiragana is that it’s used for verb endings and speech. Example: applying the hiragana character for ka (at the end of a sentence or statement indicates that the person speaking is asking a question.

Now katakana characters are written differently than hiragana, but spoken with the same phonetics. The main different is that katakana is used to write names and words that aren't traditionally Japanese. An example would be "coffee." As a typical English (though not necessarily in its origin) word, it would be written in katakana (
 コーヒー)  in contrast to hiragana. And is further romanized as “Kōhī,” or pronounced “ko-hee”.

In case I’ve complicated this, I've included a few scans from Michael Rowley’s book to show you a few examples and to further my recommendation of this book for those just starting Japanese.

        Hiragana            Katakana          Hiragana     Katakana

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

What Oprah Knows For Sure

My personal journal nor this blog has yet to be a place where I can unload about the saddening event that took place on September 6th. It’s all so fresh that I haven't the words to put both my thoughts and the circumstances together. Conversely, to find the purpose in it (that‘s God‘s thing). Or cope with the truth that it was unavoidable. Personal guilt is somewhere stained in the equation also, though divinely speaking it‘s considered too toxic to muddle over. Nonetheless, the grief involved is real, just as the insurmountable faith I have that all is happening for a higher good. 

Understandably, much of what I just wrote may be vague and opaque to some, so one day I'll be able to share it properly.

The fact is that after a slow week filled with roaming thoughts and bouts of sorrow, I turned to Oprah Winfrey's recently released What I Know for Sure for comfort. I didn't pick it up to cope per se, as that’s something that takes time and time alone. No substitutes. Nonetheless, I picked the book up to re-energize my spirit as I coped. To not go too deep into the darkness, and to understand that I still have a responsibility to myself (and the one that’s gone but not gone), to keep showing up to Life.

What I Know for Sure is a collection of Oprah’s revelations regarding Life and living within it. It shares the mistakes she’s made, the lessons she’s learned, and the Truths she’s kept. All the essays were previously published in O, The Oprah Magazine.  I just wanted to share a few of my favorite quotes. Or as Oprah calls them, “aha moments."

"You can either waltz boldly onto the stage of life and live the way you know your spirit is nudging you to, or you can sit quietly by the wall, receding into the shadows of fear and self-doubt."

This is what I mean by showing up to Life.  You may not waltz boldly into it, but dammit, you got to at least be there and out of the shadows.  Maybe sticking out a foot is all you need to get started.  And definitely don't be afraid to try even when you don't have any answers or securities.  Matter-of-fact, forget those things.  Have faith that they'll come to you as you dance.  Because they will.

"Like me, you might have experienced things that caused you to deem yourself unworthy.  I know for sure that healing the wounds of the past is one of the biggest and most worthwhile challenges of life.  It's important to know when and how you were programmed, so you can change the program.  And doing so is your responsibility, no one else's.  There is one irrefutable law of the universe: We are each responsible for our own life."

While I understand that I still have childhood (and so forth) imprints and issues that require a level of therapeutic and spiritual healing (as you can see, I'm working on the spiritual part), the older I get the more I understand that I can't blame my past for my current being. It really just gets exhausting after so long, thinking about the things my mother and father did or did not do that I feel would've made things easy for me now. Or relate those incidents to how I would be in a better place currently. They are tired and useless thoughts, and they won't necessarily go away. However, what they have done is encourage me to take control–as much as possible–of my life.

Recently, my mom and I were leaving the mall. I brought up a broccoli, rice and cheese casserole recipe I found online, and how I made the dish twice in the past two months and enjoyed it both times. I further mentioned how I try to make large dishes early in the week, so that I can have something to eat off of throughout each day. This keeps me from spending money eating out after I leave work in the afternoon, as I find it comforting to know that ready-made food is in the house and ready to be devoured.  Her reply was the equivalent of how smart of an idea that is. Then she added how my sister frequently complains that she never has anything to eat, and how it's our mom's fault because she didn't teach us how to cook. I can attest that while that is more or less truth, I recall that I got cooking pointers a lot less often than my sister. But that's my point; I looked at my situation and took responsibility for it. If I wanted to eat and save money from dining out, I had to find a way to do so.  Blaming someone else for otherwise never even crossed my mind.

"One of my greatest lessons has been to fully understand that what looks like a dark patch in the quest for success is the universe pointing you in a new direction.  Anything can be a miracle, a blessing, an opportunity if you choose to see it that way.  Had I not been demoted from my six o'clock anchor post in Baltimore back in 1977, the talk show gig would never have happened when it did."

I don't lie when I say that the message behind this quote is one that I'm still working on. I believe I'm a lot closer to its realization than the lost and frustrated person I once was. Nonetheless, it's still something I'm working with. The truth is that I grasp the occasional moments of clarity where I feel the universe at work. Sometimes they're obvious moments, sometimes they're so subtle that I don't comprehend what happens until after the fact. Even so, between all of those moments are the moments where I feel like I'm just floating and alone in uncertainty. However, what I've learned is whenever I feel like the universe has abandoned me, I take myself back to gratitude. You absolutely cannot miss your miracles and blessings when you sit back and recall what's there to be thankful for. As well as how gratitude always brings you more to be grateful for.

"Talking with thousands of people over the years has shown me that there's one desire we all share: We want to feel valued.  Whether you're a mother in Topeka or a businesswoman in Philadelphia, each of us, at our core, longs to be loved, needed, understood, affirmed–to have intimate connections that leave us feeling more alive and human."

True enough, right?  No further discussion necessary other than I believe in this, and like thousands, long for the same.

"... The job that you admit makes you miserable demands so much of your time.  But what happens when you work hard at something unfulfilling?  It drains your spirit.  It robs you of your life force.  You end up depleted, depressed, and angry."

"I've learned that the more stressful and chaotic things are on the outside, the calmer you need to get on the inside.  It's the only way you can connect with where your spirit is leading you."

All of this I've known since I started my first paying job at 18. It was fast food. It was slinging fried chicken. For three years I screamed for release–for change. I knew that if I wanted money, I had to be there to earn a check. So I worked, and always harder than I should (I attributed that to my upbringing). When it comes to how jobs ("just over broke") make me feel disconnected and sometimes sick to my stomach, nothing has changed from then and now. Sure, I've learned to handle my inner self a little better. Sometimes putting myself damn near catatonic during the middle of a shift. It's a way for me to slip out of the place and into my head and where I will to be. Often I sing out loud, which usually comes out as noise used to depressurize the anxiety that builds in my chest. Still, it's partly no different than a tiger trapped in a cage, enclosed from his nature and natural instinct to be free at doing what he wills. Nonetheless, my point is that I relate and identify with Oprah's words here. I should, considering I've lived and fought my way through them long enough. Nevertheless, to me, the fact that I can write all of this down–in this moment–is a means of me listening to my inner calmness and not the chaos.  Therefore, I am guided slowly... from my cage.

"Move in the direction of your goal with all the force and verve you can muster–and then let go, releasing your plan to the Power that's bigger than yourself and allowing your dream to unfold as its own masterpiece.  Dream big–very big.  Work hard–very hard.  And after you've done all you can, fully surrender to the Power."

I think I'll leave this post on this quote–though there are plenty more to share.  Nevertheless, it's that "surrender" that took me from where I was two years ago to this point.  And the thought of it was motivated by this inspirational video I came across during that period.  I won't speak to much on it.  You'll just have to watch it for yourself and let it lift your spirit just as it did mine.

Monday, September 8, 2014

(2) Octavia Butler Shorts

The remaining two stories in Octavia Butler’s short-story collection, Bloodchild, are “Amnesty” and “The Book of Martha." These two stories were published as recently as 2003, and are just near novella size. Wait, what’s the word count used to define a novella?

In any regard, “Amnesty” is a story that reflects closely to its title’s definition. Amnesty is a means of official pardon, usually surrounding some kind of political affront of some sort; and that’s what takes place in the story as an alien species invades Earth before peacefully asking humans to co-exist with them as a source of "food." Not “food” in the carnivorous sense, but something much more abstruse and cerebral. You see, these aliens are called Communities, and they are made up of thousands of small aliens clustered together in a shape that resembles a large floating bush. Eerie, much! I think I was sick most of the time thinking about these aliens, considering I have a slight case of trypophobia. Nonetheless, that’s just another layer to Butler’s tale. The thing is that the Community came to Earth on a one-way trip, and while they have the means of taking over the planet, they try to co-exist peacefully. As a human woman who has survived both an abduction and harsh military interrogation, Noah Cannon’s job in “Amnesty” is to orient a handful of men and women looking to work alongside The Community for payment. Once more, distress sat in throughout reading this story. The good kind of distress I should say. To me “Amnesty” boils down to the snatching of human discretion. Put man over a barrel and let it be–so to speak. The aliens land, they offer mankind a choice. Should mankind decide not to respond nicely, it wouldn't matter one bit because the aliens will have their way regardless. Nonetheless, like most governing systems across the globe, citizens have no choice but to work with what is given to them.

“The Book of Martha” appeared to be one of those contemplative-grabbing, philosophical stories written by Butler outside of sci-fi. Really, it’s about a woman who finds herself standing before God. Summoned, actually. It seems God needs a human to construct a Utopia for mankind. What would work best? How would it work? And how would God’s chosen, Martha, conceive such a place? When you find out Martha’s idea, I wonder if you’ll agree with her. Or is a Utopia for mankind even possible? I enjoyed this story, but it wasn't one of my favorites.  That's mainly because I couldn't wrap my head around the importance of Martha and God's conversation.  Not that I didn't get it, I just wasn't sure there was an answer.  And the answer given wasn't all that convincing to me.  I should also add the slippery-slope fallacy encouraged by Martha's ideas and God's rebuttal of them. Really, I think it deserves a second read.  Or I should just stick to Neale Donald Walsh's take on a conversation with God.

The recently released collection of short stories by Butler are featured in the book Unexpected Stories. There are only two here, both noted as her early works according to Walter Mosley’s foreword and Butler’s once agent, Merrilee Heifetz (noted in the afterword). And early they seem; one story I completely abandoned and another I managed to sweep through nicely, seeing that it was like a prototype story to Butler’s grandness Patternist series. So yeah, let’s start with the story I abandoned first...

“A Necessary Being” is exclusively alien in its totality. Yep. That’s the way I’ll put it. An alien world. An alien cast. An alien story. Humanoid, if you will, in both their language and behavior. One of the main exceptions is that their skin changes color in accordance with their emotions. Nonetheless, from what I gathered (before I jumped the ship) Tahneh is an alien woman with a status similar to a Native American princess or priestess of some flavor (work with me here as I peel this story apart from my own imagery). She’s given this role because she comes from a race of aliens called Hao. Hao are kidnapped and held by another, similar alien species that uses Hao to govern over their race. Since her father’s passing, Tahneh has been alone, ruling and governing over her community of kidnappers. The story opens up with another Hao crossing through her territory. And she must decide whether to kidnap him and put him in a position such as hers, which subsequently provides her companionship. Or her other choice: let the young Hao pass freely and on into freedom. And that’s pretty much where I kind of bailed on the story. The truth is that I kept envisioning the creatures in the Avatar movie. Couple that with a general lack of interest, and I just decided to move on. I plan to come back to the story at a later date, seeing that Butler kind of started cutting her teeth on this story.

Nevertheless, I did finish and enjoyed the second story, "Childfinder."  Butler wrote and sold this one to her mentor, Harlan Ellison, back in the 70s. In “Childfinder” a telepathic (interchangeable with the term “psionic”) woman uses her gifts to locate, mentor, and mold telepathic and gifted children. These children are the future, and must be groomed in preparation for the possibilities it has in store for them. (You could say an alien invasion is one.) Nonetheless, this lone woman isn't the only one involved, as another, larger organization reaches out to do the same.  The different is the larger organization has a couple of “tougher” methods to get special children to cooperate. The story reminded me of the old 70s and early 90s version of The Tomorrow People (we won't speak on the 2013 remake). The Tomorrow People were about kids with special abilities, who were often dubbed as "the next stage in human evolution." They could teleport. They were telepathic. Some could even see the future. Meanwhile, the government and other smaller organizations were dead centered on capturing these kids for a host of not-so-comfortable levels of research.  In the meantime, the Tomorrow People thwarted alien wars and even an evil, resurrected Egyptian pharaoh. I also found “Childfinder” to be a preview of the eventual novels Butler would write in her Patternist series–particularly the second book in that series, Mind of my Mind. Though it was short and not totally expansive in its telling, I would say that I enjoyed “Childfinder” much more than the previous story. Butler makes it perfectly clear and evident that the future would be grim and mankind must arm its children's psionic evolution for the things to come if they want to stand a chance.

And that’s all there is. If you haven't read Bloodchild or Unexpected Stories, I urge you to do so now. Butler fan or not, these two books are the perfect introduction to her as well as the perfect expansions on her catalog of stories.  In either case, you shouldn't miss them!


Sunday, September 7, 2014

(1) Octavia Butler Shorts

So scratch everything I said about re-trying Mercedes Lackey’s high fantasy novel, By the Sword, for the sake of getting out of this dilly-dally summer reading slump. That didn't work out. I got about 20 pages into that book and was still impossibly disinterested seventeen years later. Part of that disinterest comes–in fact–from my recent mention of balancing exposition in fantasy novels. Nonetheless, sure, I’ll try By the Sword again some time in the future. Until then, I decided to try the short story method of getting myself back into the groove of reading regularly and with a pace. And seeing that I can only seem to read short stories via the Kindle, I dug through the available books and found my digital copy of Octavia Butler’s short-story collection, Bloodchild. I suppose saving it for a rainy day worked; I quickly hammered through this award-winning collection of stories with easy and deep, familiar curiosity.

It’s been a minute since I visited one of Octavia Butler’s worlds. The last book I read by her was the final book in her Patternist series (which I highly, highly recommend). Nevertheless, I never forgot how many of her conceptualizations made me feel claustrophobic, terror and uncertainty.  She writes sci-fi–or speculative fiction–after all.  So all of those feelings her writing gives me probably isn't that much of a surprise, considering her genre of choice.  Still, altogether she is different. And maybe her advantage is that she’s a woman of color who features the same leads in her stories.  Leads that look, in part, like myself.  I also love how Butler often rearranges or reconstructs the sort of energy and presence of mankind in her post-apocalyptic stories.  Usually her stories are of mankind damn near pushed to extinction.  Subsequently, mankind has to evolve and rely on taxing alien beings to keep themselves extant.  And there is always, always a price. To me her writing is a blend of terrorizing and complicated choices that reflects American society (or the future thereof) to some degree.

While the majority of Bloodchild consists of short stories, each of those stories comes with an insightful afterword by Butler herself. In the afterwords she explains what she meant to achieve in each respective story as well as the thought behind their conception. A little over halfway through the book, we also get two essays written by Butler.  Following that are two novella length stories published within the last decade and before her death in 2006. Combined, all of this material was previously published in various magazines and literary publications throughout her 30+ year career. And if that wasn't enough, as recently as June of 2014, two of her early short stories were published in another collection titled, Unexpected Stories.

So what are the stories featured in Bloodchild? I'd better tell you a little about them and hope that you'll pick the collection up also.

The title story, “Bloodchild” is about how mankind is taken from Earth and onto another planet where an alien species–that resemble large centipedes as far as I can tell–develop relationships with human men before using them to nurture their offspring (eggs in this case). While that may sound not so disturbing, the truth is that this nurturing process comes in the form of impregnating human men. And with that said... I thought this was the perfect story to glide back into Butler’s work with *cue chuckle*. After over a year and half of having not read her, I immediately got that familiar claustrophobic feel back! “Bloodchild” brought me back to the entanglements present in Butler’s first book in her Xenogenesis series, Dawn. The only difference (besides length) is that "Bloodchild" seems slightly more distressing.  Not because this is Butler's sort of “pregnant man” speculative fiction story, but because of the imagery used to tell it.  Maybe it's because I have a problem with bugs and parasites.  I think that may be the better explanation.  Either way it was an outstanding read.

“The Evening, The Morning and The Night” tells the story of a nameless young woman who reminds me a lot of Lauren Olamina from Butler’s Parable of the Sower. I say this because they both seem to be philosophical in their thinking; filled with thought-provoking questions, and deeply interested in mankind's available resources.  Well, maybe Lauren had all those things going much more than said nameless young woman.  So maybe their similarities are within their narrative tone. In any regard, the nameless woman is born with a fictional disease called Duryea-Gode. The symptoms of this disease cause sufferers to go insane, enough so that they attempt to claw their way out of their own flesh. Those afflicted are treated through a number of humane and inhumane experimental treatments.  These treatments has taken place throughout decades as scientists research for a cure. And while that research is being conducted, those afflicted are seen as threats to society because of the late, and threatening, symptoms of the disease.  Therefore, society turns their backs on them in fear. However, there’s an institution (or facility) where the unnamed narrator visits with her boyfriend.  His mother is afflicted with Duryea-Gode, and she's in the "insane" stages of the disease. The facility the two visits kind of made me think of Waverly Hills Sanitarium, a place where tuberculosis sufferers were isolated during the early 20th century. Nevertheless, it turns out that the director of the facility manages the maniacal behavior of her patients through a pheromone she was born with. This pheromone calms or pacifies the patients. During the visit, our unnamed narrator discovers she also secretes this pheromone. Now what will she choose to do with that knowledge of herself?

The next short story, “Near of Kin” isn't speculative or sci-fi. However, it is thought-provoking as a modern story that follows a conversation between a young woman and her uncle. The two come together to sort through the young woman’s mother’s estate. The young woman's relationship with her mother was not good, as her mother was mostly withdrawn from her daughter. As the two sort through the dead woman’s estate, they also sort through to the bottom of her estrangement from the family. You may or may not see the truth before it’s announced. Me, I managed to catch what took place a good few pages before it was proclaimed between the two. I'll leave it at that. I ended this story feeling just as uncertain as the characters within it. “Near of Kin” left with that “where do we go from here?” kind of atmosphere.

“Speech Sounds” is probably one of my favorites. Once more, Butler uses disease to paint the complexity behind her story. This disease isn’t named, but what it does is take away speech and language as the basic means of communication.  The protagonist of “Speech Sounds” is a woman named Valerie Rye.  While a large percentage of the world is afflicted with the speech-less disease, Rye hides how she still retains her ability to speak. To share this truth puts her in danger with the world. During a routine bus ride, Rye witnesses a mute argument taking place between two men. Before it gets explosive, she jumps off the bus. This is where she meets a man who was once an LAPD police officer. Through a tumbling ASL exchange, Rye discovers his name is Obsidian. In this near dystopian world, Obsidian hasn't given up on law and order.  He uses tear gas to halt the bus fight. Afterwards, Rye and Obsidian slowly attach themselves to one another. Unable to speak, they ride around the city in Obsidian’s truck until they find themselves in another deadly conflict involving children. Silently, the two proceed to put a stop to this crime. One doesn’t make it out alive. It took me a moment to realize that “Speech Sounds” is absent of dialogue. It wasn't until much later when the speech-killing disease was revealed that I noticed. And like that one episode of Buffy called Hush, Butler pulled the lack of dialogue out cleverly. And like always, while the story is always wonderful, it once again shows the sort of lack of trust Butler has in the relationships between people.  Meaning how there always has to be something incomplete, threatening, or just on the cusp of misanthropic.

The last story before we move into Butler’s essay portion is a story called "Crossover." And you know what? This was my favorite of all the stories. It isn't sci-fi, but it hit home with me like none of the others.  “Crossover” is about a woman working a factory job. There’s no future here. No way out. Just a lump sum of absolutely nothing to look forward to. And not only is she crippled physically, but also mentally. She has a complex, formed by low self-esteem and other mental propaganda.  She even suffers from hallucinations. Her trips to the liquor store doesn't help her headaches.  But she keeps going.  This all clicked with me. I understood her story. However, I can see why some may see "Crossover" as their least favorite in this collection; I have to repeat that it’s my favorite.  I got how this unnamed woman, who works this horrible job, walks around with a headache, drinks liquor, and hallucinates about ghost, is not the woman Butler wanted to become in the early stages of her writing career. And latterly, how writing saved her. I got it. I understood it. I’ve lived some of it. And in my heart, I, too, am still living a life where I am afraid of becoming such a character. When I tell people that keeping a blog and having the ability to write and share my thoughts are saving me, they usually chuckle. Not a lot of people get it. But I was glad to see that one of my favorite writers did.

This is what Butler had to say in the afterword regarding "Crossover." I highlighted it and read it repeatedly:

“I didn't wind up hallucinating or turning to alcohol as the character in “Crossover” does, but I keep noticing the company oddities [coworkers] everywhere I worked, and they went right on scaring me back to the typewriter whenever I strayed.”

The last two stores in Bloodchild will continue into the next post where I also talk a little about the two stories in the Unexpected Stories collection.


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