“Hug Me”: A Love Story for All

In a hilarious interview, the late Maurice Sendak describes his work as a children's book author: "I don't write for children. I write." Perhaps this philosophy explains why some picture books maintain a certain appeal for those of us who have outgrown kid-lit. This appeal is not just nostalgia, as I learned when I was charmed by Simona Ciraolo's Hug Me, published last year. 

In playful colored-pencil illustrations, Hug Me tells the story of Felipe, a small cactus who wants nothing more than a hug. Unfortunately, his cacti relations strongly discourage hugs, which don't mix well with their prickly dispositions. When an attempt at a hug turns disastrous, Felipe begins a search for love, friendship and the elusive embrace. The immediate aesthetic elements of this book win over adult readers: a smiling succulent, an art style that would work well on boutique stationery. But the central difficulties that Felipe faces -- not fitting in with one's tribe, resorting to loneliness -- are ones that many of us can relate to regardless of our age. 

Though love wins in the end of Hug Me, the world this book portrays is rather hostile. Felipe runs away from his insensitive family after accidentally "injuring" an anthropomorphic (and terrifying) balloon. This has apparently alarmed some readers, who believe that children's books shouldn't portray such a depressing world. But worse things have happened in adorable children's classics -- Beatrix Potter's Squirrel Nutkin loses his tail after being nearly skinned alive by a tyrannical owl, and then there's that Maurice Sendak book in which goblins snatch a baby from her bed. Hug Me has an honest and optimistic message: while love may not be all around us, there is love in the world, and it's worth seeking.

Uncertain Ground: Haruki Murakami's “After the Quake”

Right now, the big news (albeit old news) is that a huge earthquake will strike the Pacific Northwest. It's just a matter of when -- we are currently living in the indefinite period of time before the quake. Coincidentally, I also just finished reading Haruki Murakami's After the Quake, a slender collection of short stories set after the devastating 1995 Kobe earthquake, which displaced over 300,000 people. One of the questions that this book asks is the same one that fuels my own anxieties: how do we live well in a world where very few things are certain? 

In After the Quake, the earthquake functions as the stories' backdrop rather than their epicenter. What affects and unites the characters are personal, metaphysical upheavals: rifts in their ties to others that leave them feeling disconnected, rootless and empty. The first story, "UFO in Kushiro," begins when a woman who is fixated on the television coverage of the earthquake abruptly abandons her husband Komura. In her farewell letter, she writes: "living with you is like living with a chunk of air." Komura faces the emotional aftershocks of his wife's sudden departure when he travels to another city to deliver a mysterious package for a friend. In "Thailand," a disenchanted doctor on vacation secretly wishes that her ex-husband, now in Kobe, has died in the earthquake. Her faith in rationality and justice is incompatible with the wrongs the world has inflicted upon her. But our entire foundation is unstable, as her tour guide observes: 

"Strange and mysterious things, though, aren't they--earthquakes? We take it for granted that the earth beneath our feet is solid and stationary. We even talk about people being 'down to earth' or having their feet firmly planted on the ground. But suddenly one day we see that isn't true." 

The most surreal story in the collection is the penultimate "Super-Frog Saves Tokyo," which begins when a lonely bank officer named Katagiri returns home to discover a six-foot-tall, anthropomorphic frog in his kitchen. While making tea and quoting Nietzsche, Frog requests Katagiri's help in saving Tokyo from destruction. A giant worm lives underground, Frog explains, and Worm's pent-up hatred will cause another earthquake if it is not stopped. In "Super-Frog," our disbelief is stretched, suspended and snapped back into place until the boundary between dream and reality is difficult to ascertain. For instance, after Frog and Katagiri discuss corruption within the bank where Katagiri works, we (like Katagiri) have almost adjusted to the "new normal" of human-amphibian conversations when this happens: 

"With a big smile on his face, Frog stood up. Then, flattening himself like a dried squid, he slipped out through the gap at the side of the closed door, leaving Katagiri all alone. The two teacups on the kitchen table were the only indication that Frog had ever been in Katagiri's apartment."

The ensuing events are comical, affecting, and disturbing. Katagiri finds meaning and purpose in his encounter with Frog, who insists upon his realness ("I am not a product of your imagination"), only to realize that the entire encounter may have been a dream. Through dreams, premonitions, and stories within stories, Murakami examines the role of the imagination in the search for identity and meaning. In one story, a dream is prescribed as the cure for a stony heart; in another, a nightmare expresses a painter's fear of being trapped. On his deathbed, one character tells another: "This life is nothing but a short, painful dream." The imagination terrifies, delights, heals, and fills the voids in the characters' lives, offering a counterpoint to reality that seems equally significant.

Fittingly, the final story "Honey Pie" opens with one imagination comforting another. Junpei, a hesitant, introverted writer, tells bedtime stories to his friend Sayoko's daughter, who has nightmares about a monster called the Earthquake Man. We soon learn that Sayoko has separated from Junpei's best friend, giving Junpei his long-awaited second chance to declare his decade-long love for Sayoko. In "Honey Pie," a broken relationship and years of biding time offer a possibility of rewriting one's role in the world. The last paragraph of the story (and the book) is stunning. 

Though each story is self-contained and the last two are my favorite, I'd recommend reading them in order. The stories and their characters reveal prismatic reflections of one another; recurring motifs like bears, boxes, shadows and stones contribute to the stories' quiet cohesion. I also feel that as the stories progress, it is increasingly easier to occupy the same headspace as the characters. Komura's surge of emotion at the end of the first story takes us by surprise. In the final story, we follow Junpei's emotional compass as it points in an ever-clearer direction, despite the catastrophic uncertainty of the times. 

 Have you read After the Quake or anything by Murakami? Please share your thoughts and recommendations! 

For the Love of the Written Word

One of my goals this month is to learn calligraphy. Funnily enough, the era of instant communication has helped revive an art from a much slower one - I discovered calligraphy and lettering in all its modern forms via social media, and it immediately appealed to the handwriting obsession I've harbored since childhood. 

My first attempt at using a dip pen was akin to that moment in Disney's Sleeping Beauty when the fairies sew a dress and bake a cake sans magic. That is, despite my lofty aspirations, I had no clue what I was doing and made a total mess. We typically think of handwriting as a means to an end; thinking of it as an art requires a shift in pace and mindset. If you're a beginner like me, it pays to be slow and methodical about the learning process and start with the ABCs on repeat.

Though the art may not be easy, I love the fact that it's accessible: anyone can learn it, with patience and a small investment in supplies (I ordered mine here). I've been relying on a few resources: Molly Jacques' Skillshare course on modern calligraphyMolly Suber Thorpe's book Modern Calligraphy, and this online guide for calligraphy beginners. While I'm currently practicing calligraphy over hand lettering, which is more about designing letters rather than penmanship, some lettering resources I'd recommend are Mary Kay McDevitt's Skillshare course on hand lettering and the website Seanwes. (Smashing Magazine has a good explanation of the differences between lettering, typography and calligraphy.) In my internet searches I found this ingenious project called Lettering Versus Calligraphy, in which two artists put their crafts side by side. I'm amazed by how much creativity and expression can be achieved within the structure of the alphabet. There is no lack of inspiring calligraphers and letterers to follow online. (Remember the actor who played Kevin G. in Mean Girls? I recently discovered that he is a professional chalkboard letterer!)

Although I still have a lot to learn, I'll be posting snippets of my progress here and on Instagram. And to those of you with calligraphy experience, I'd love to see your work and hear your tips!


From my bookmarks folder to you: some recent favorite reads around the web. Have a good weekend, and to all my stateside friends, have a safe and happy fourth! 

- This mini-documentary on the Aibo, Sony's discontinued robotic dog, begs the question: can you love a machine like you love a living being? 
- On Taylor Swift's perfectly passive-aggressive lyrics
- Now's the time for summer reading lists galore: TED recommendations, an infographic on what to read by where you're vacationing, and a few more picks on Amaris's blog.
- Be a better altruist
- New research suggests that there are at least four types of introversion, and you may have all four in varying strengths. (I scored highest on "thinking" introvert, and apparently so would Luna Lovegood...)
Seven myths of Silicon Valley, busted.
- Why should we read literature that offends us?
- Christoph Niemann turns everyday objects into clever mixed media art
- It's easy to feel cynical when you click 'View All Comments'. However, on rare occasions, I get as much from the comments section as from the article itself. 

What have you been reading lately?


Although my digital footprint suggests that I vanished two months ago, I am in fact alive and well! I have been busy focusing on my career (i.e. averting existential crisis), and as a result, I will be starting a new job soon. After a period of feeling a bit stuck and indecisive, I'm excited to begin the next half of the year with a clearer sense of direction. I hope to do the same thing here in this space. 

It is increasingly important for me to feel that I am pursuing work, play, etc. that I believe in wholeheartedly. In recent months, I'd been feeling halfhearted about social media, like I was adding to the noise without much sense of substance or purpose. So while concentrating on other priorities, I decided to take some virtual time off. I've tried to write a pithy account of "internet noise and what we should do about it," but the result sounds too sanctimonious. Though we do it often, and sometimes rightly, I'm very wary of deeming one person's contributions less "valuable" than another's. (After all, I've spent a good deal of time studying dead languages...) Suffice it to say that it pays to be intentional about how you spend your time and energy. Make sure you find worth and joy in what you do; tune into cognitive dissonance and reduce it whenever possible. During my virtual hiatus, I hopped off all the bandwagons and identified some aspects of blogging that I didn't miss at all, while also realizing I was itching to get back to this space, share my thoughts and connect with others. 

Over the next few weeks, you may notice some reorienting of this blog's content and format, with the goal of developing greater focus. Thank you so much for your kind messages during my blogging hiatus, and for sticking around despite the silence!