Oracle Night – Obsession With A Blue Notebook

My childhood obsession never included dolls or jewels or anything with glitz. Whenever I was in a store, I always made a beeline towards the paper supply counter. I was obsessed with notebooks. Especially those good-looking ones with hard covers, which open to solid white sheets of papers. Well, actually, those notebooks didn’t exist in stores from my childhood. Notebooks belonged to my childhood were made from recycled papers. The paper was yellowish and coarse. Occasionally an old block letter would sneak in, superiorly laughing at the zigzag fibers, the only other remnants of an old newspaper from its previous reincarnation. Before you start thinking I might have grown up in a hippie colony where environmental crazed hippies made notebooks from recycled paper. I should clarify. I grow up in the 70’s China. Recycle was not trendy, but a necessity. The higher quality notebooks had red or blue plastic covers, on which printed famous quotes from Chairman Mao, in gold color.

With that obsession in mind, you might understand now why I was attracted to Paul Auster’s new novel, Oracle Night. I’ve heard Terry Gross interviewing him on NPR and knew the book started with a magical blue notebook. Later I saw it in the bookstore and on amazon. I thought it had the most beautifully designed book jacket’a blue cloth-bound notebook. I was delighted on Saturday when I found an audio book version of it in the library, and Paul Auster himself read it.

I’m on tape 3 right now. There are six tapes total. It surprised me how much I enjoyed it so far. Auster is a writer with superior techniques. In Oracle Night, there are basically three sets of stories going on. Auster’s story is about a writer Sydney, who has just recovered from a serious illness and has just started writing again, in Sydney’s new story, the main character is an editor, who is editing another story. They are like Russian dolls, being placed one inside of another. Unlike Russian dolls, however, one isn’t smaller than its predecessors. They are somehow all inter- related in some mysterious way. He has the ability to keep me engaged in this complicated web of stories and not confusing the three sets of characters in anyway.

I remember my earlier experience with him, and remember his stories being strange but readable. I also remember my not liking it at the end because they were always melancholy and made me uncomfortable. His story has a similar affect on me as those stories written by the Chinese female writer Zhang Ailing. They made me feel all twisted up inside somehow, suffocating.

So right now, I’m enjoying the story but in the back of my mind, I’m dreading to finish it, afraid I won’t like it as much as I am now.

As for the notebook:

The Portuguese notebooks were especially attractive to me, and with their hard covers, quadrille lines, and stitched-in signatures of sturdy, unblottable paper, I knew I was going to buy one the moment I picked it up and held it in my hands. There was nothing fancy or ostentatious about it. It was a practical piece of equipment — solid, homely, service-able, not at all the kind of blank book you’d think of offering someone as a gift. But I liked the fact that it was cloth-bound, and I also liked the shape: nine and a quarter by seven and a quarter inches, which made it slightly shorter and wider than most notebooks. I can’t explain why it should have been so, but I found those dimensions deeply satisfying, and when I held the notebook in my hands for the first time, I felt something akin to physical pleasure, a rush of sudden, incomprehensible well-being. There were just four notebooks left on the pile, and each one came in a different color: black, red, brown, and blue. I chose the blue, which happened to be the one lying on top.

That, is my dream notebook.

Watching Fahrenheit 9/11–Why Republicans Republican?

This is THE movie of this weekend. I knew I¡¯d see it but I didn¡¯t expect too much of it, because I believed this movie would be ¡°preaching to the choir¡±. The hard core Republicans would never come out and see the movie, and even if they did out of curiosity, they would dismiss it as crazy liberal bias. So what good would it do? As for people on the left like me, I knew the Bush Administration is no good. Tell me something I don¡¯t know.

I was so shocked when I arrived at West Portal¡¯s CineArt theatre and found a quarter mile long lined-up to get in the theatre for the 2pm show AND all tickets were sold out until tomorrow!! Wow! It is just a documentary?!

¡°But this is San Francisco.¡± I thought to myself, and West Portal is known to be the emerging Artist colony in SF. The liberal of the liberals, of course they¡¯d be Michael Moore supporters. I almost wanted to give it up. It was after all a really sunny and warm Saturday. We didn¡¯t have to spent it in the darkness of a theater and be informed again of how depressing the current political situation is, did we? However, at Matthew¡¯s persistence, we headed toward Downtown Metroen. I thought it might be sold out there as well. But I overestimate the tourists’ appetite for political documentary. We managed to get tickets for 5pm show.

Now looking back, I¡¯m thankful for Matthew¡¯s persistence.

It is a really good movie and I¡¯m very impressed with Michael Moore as a director. As I was sitting there and crying with Lila Lipscomb as she read her son¡¯s last letter home, I thought ¡°It would be so so very depressing if after this movie, GWB still get re-elected this fall. Which kind of country is this? Which kind of world am I living in?¡±

I¡¯m not being pessimistic for no reason.
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Arnold in Office

This week in the magazine, Connie Bruck writes about how Arnold Schwarzenegger cast himself as the governor of California. Here Bruck talks with The New Yorker’s Amy Davidson about Schwarzenegger’s ambitions, Maria Shriver’s role, and the politician as action hero.

Arnold in Office, via The New Yorker, posted 2004-06-21

The Lovely Bones

Book Description (via

When we first meet 14-year-old Susie Salmon, she is already in heaven. This was before milk carton photos and public service announcements, she tells us; back in 1973, when Susie mysteriously disappeared, people still believed these things didn’t happen.

In the sweet, untroubled voice of a precocious teenage girl, Susie relates the awful events of her death, and her own adjustment to the strange new place she finds herself. (It looks a lot like her school playground, with the good kind of swingset.)

With love, longing, and a growing understanding, Susie watches her family as they cope with their grief–her father embarks on a search for the killer, her sister undertakes a feat of amazing daring, her little brother builds a fort in her honor–and begin the difficult process of healing.

In the hands of a brilliant new novelist, and through the eyes of her winning young heroine, this story of seemingly unbearable tragedy is transformed into a suspenseful, touching, even funny novel about family, memory, love, heaven, and living.

Even though someone has complained the book being sentimental, I enjoyed it tremendously. “Devil is in the details.” I kept on thinking of this line as I listened to the story unfold in front of me as I drove back and forth between home and work. She describes every casual object and gesture in the most loving details. From the door knob of a child’s room, to the orange cones on a street marking the forbidden zone; from a child’s vivid consciousness flowing from keystone charm to her mom’s “dinner is ready, your brother draw a bear” calling, to the killer’s cold calculating meditation before approaching a new victim; she noticed them all and she recorded them beautifully.

The characters are all in flesh and bones, they were individuals bathed in their own personality and pet peeves. In addition, this book has the most reasonable mother character in a child-losing tragedy. Maybe because the author is also a woman, unlike John Irving (A Widow for One Year) and Robert Hellenga (The Fall of A Sparrow), she knows intuitively how a mother would go through a different kind of pain than the father.

Two moments that stood up in my momery:
1. When Lindsey was escaping from Mr. Harvey’s house: “So young, so gloriously young and agile, she stood up!” The word “Glorious” filled my heart with delight. It was also the moment as I drove past the cloudy City and entered the sunlight broken through clouds. I was so dreading something bad would happen, but instead it was Sunny, Glorious! Oh, so beautiful!
2. When Ruth willed Susie to enter her body and to be back on earth again, “I knew I was given a gift and it wouldn’t last forever, so I had to make every minute count. What should I do? I know I don’t want to ask Ray to chase after Mr. Harvey.” This sentence alone amazed me. Later in the interview, Alice Sebold said she didn’t want to make this book about revenge and retribution. I applaud her for that. It took guts to do. Because it would have been such an easy way out. What followed was just incredible and beautiful and so full of life and love. Sentimental? Maybe. But I love it.

The character that I liked the most was actually Ruth, the weird painter poet, who eventually “graduated from a real closet to a closet-sized studio” in New York City. She walked around the City documenting her sight of past murder victims. It sounded morbid and violent, but just like the rest book, the loving details made them real and soft. “Central Park. Bushes. Little girl, five or six, cotton dress, laces. Fancy.”

In the interview Sebold said she lived in New York City for ten years in her 20’s and went from job to job and often took multiple jobs to support her assorted but often even more miserable boy friends. Tried to be become a writer. Later she realized “Living in New York has made me a better New Yorker rather than a better writer!”

Despite what happened to her when she was 18 in a tunnel, her laughter was still so clear and whole-heartedly. She wanted to celebrate life and hope and love and being human. She did it in this debut novel of hers. She said the police told her later that in the same tunnel there was another girl who was raped, murdered and dismembered. She said that girl must have turned into “Susie” in her book.

The Lovely Bones is a lovely book.

Fresh Air Friday , December 20, 2002 Terry Gross Interviewing Novelist Alice Sebold


It all started when my sister bought my mom a Phalaenopsis for her birthday in the winter of 2002. Mom has always been an accomplished gardener but she has always claimed that she could only grow the hardy kind of plants. The “fussy” image of orchid intimidated her, let alone the usually high price tag comes with it. But this particular Phalaenopsis changed everything. Its lovely bloom lasted for almost 8 months without making a fuzz. It seemed easier to take care of than some of her African violet. Encouraged by this initiation, mom went on and bought a couple of “Dancing Dolls” (Oncidium) that she had been eyeing, and up till then she had refused that temptation. After the original Phalaenopsis stopped blooming, mom repotted it and waited and waited. Earlier this year, it rebloomed with three (instead of the original one) flower stems! It was the only confirmation that mom needed. She was now, an official orchid grower.

Then, suddenly everyone around me started collecting orchid. Even the weekly fresh cut-flowers displayed in our office lobby have been changed to a large basket of elegant orchid. They were sold everywhere, from 3 for $10 bargains at Saturday’s farmer’s market, to $20 at Trader Joe’s, to $40+ at high end yuppie grocery stores.

We exchange tips with each other:
“Place it next to a sunny window, but keep the curtain down at all time to avoid direct sunlight.”
“After the flowers are gone, put it outside so the plant gets the variation of temperature from day to night. Otherwise, it won’t bloom again.”
“Don’t water it too much. Rotten root is much harder to fix than dry ones.”

I wonder if the movie Adaptation had anything to do with this sudden obsession with orchid.

I got my first orchid at $14.99 from, among all places, Costco! 🙂 It has been two months, and it is still blooming. The weekend immediately following my purchase happened to be the hottest weekend in the City and the temperature climbed to 90F. The orchid lost three buds during that heat wave, and worried me sick. I thought it would be the end of my orchid experiment. But i got lucky. The orchid recovered and started developing a new flower stem!!! I’m keeping my fingers crossed. It is still a tiny development so far…

I water all of my plants on Saturday morning. In ZM¡¯s words, it is my ¡°flower time.¡± The orchids are the most time-demanding plants. I have four of them. Each of them remained in the state when I bought them from the shop. Two of them were blooming and continue to bloom; two of them weren¡¯t and they still aren¡¯t.

Based on my mom¡¯s advice, I put the orchid pot in a larger container pot (no holes), water it once, and make sure the water covered all surface of its ¡°soil.¡± Since their ¡°soil¡± is made of largely soft wood, which doesn¡¯t retain much water. Excessive water almost comes out immediately from the bottom of the pot. I let it drain, then took the excessive water from the container pot and reapply them onto the top of the orchid pot. Repeat for a couple of more times. The idea was to really soak every single piece of ¡°soil.¡± It is tedious work. I only have two container pots, so the orchids took their turns to get watered. When waiting for the water to drain, I often thought maybe this is how a boy would feel if he had a high-maintenance girlfriend. One has to be so careful and couldn¡¯t help wondering continuously if she is happy, if he has done something wrong or missed some hint of displeasure.

A friend once told me his strategy with orchids. He would buy a blooming one, and enjoy its loveliness. Once the flower wilted, he took it right back to the nursery and let the professionals nurture it back to bloom. Then he would buy another blooming orchid. ¡°There is no point to keep them since they will for sure die on me.¡± I guess it goes with yuppies¡¯ preference of licensing expensive vehicles.

Maybe I¡¯m not that much different. I keep the flower as long as it looks healthy. Once the first hint of trouble emerged, I also took it straight back to my personal nursery ¨C Mom¡¯s! 🙂

Mom and I bought my second batch in SF’s farmer’s market. 3 for $10! What a bargain. The catch was none of them were in bloom. I took two and mom took one home. The two i had never seemed very happy. But the one mom took with her has grown THREE flower stems!! I start to suspect that mom is emitting a special EM wave that orchids love!

My last purchase was also from farmer’s market. For $5 the seller stood by his truck, and showed me three pots of mini-orchid in the exact color i explained i liked – velvety red-wine. I didn’t get to hold it till i’ve paid. As i held it in my arms walking to my car, a little breeze sent a lovely fragrance to my nostrils. I looked down to this tiny plant with its humble origin, incredulously, Wow! It is fragrant! After it has settled in my apartment, I realized that its fragrance actually changes depends on the weather and time of the day. On a sunny and morning, its fragrance is the most potent. If I left the french doors open, the breeze tends to fill the entire apartment with this orchid’s lovely scent.

The official names of these orchid:
The costco one: a rather typical Phalaenopsis.
The fragrant farmer’s market one is a Miltonia, and it actually comes with a very detailed label: a cross between Miltonia Woodlands “Epony” and Miltonia Pearl Ono “Red”.

Came across this conversation as I was browsing orchid newsgroup.
“I heard Orchid is very fussy and hard to take care of…”
“Actually, orchid is mostly consistent and fool-hearted. It is usually the people who raise orchid that are fussy.”

I like that.

Good orchid sites I found so far:
1. Orchid Central, good information on which orchid likes outdoor sun, outdoor shade, and indoors. Lots of really good photos of her(i’m guessing it is a she) orchid. Best of all, she lives close to Pacific Coast, so she should have similar climate like ours.
2. Orchid Lady, simple care instructions, categorized in terms of Water, Light, Temperature, etc.
3. First Rays Orchid, good explaination to help identify orchid, with illustrations, too!

A Musician On the Steps of SF Library

Roaming the streets of San Francisco with Gui on a sunny Friday, I feel lucky and young. As if we have returned to our high school days in Beijing.

Our day started with something really amazing.

We both took public transportation and arranged to meet up in San Francisco Main Library, Chinese section. She was there first, and when I walked up along Larkin, I saw her sitting on the steps in front of the library.

I sat down next to her, “Decided to enjoying the sun?”
“Well, the library won‘t open till 12. Besides,” She looked to my left and whispered, ”I’m enjoying a personal concert.“
Only then did I notice the music coming from our left. I looked over. A young guy in his late twenties was also sitting next to us holding a Guitar, and he was playing a Spanish Classical Guitar piece. His music was mesmerizing. He was wearing a short sleeve orange colored shirt. A long and complicated tattoo on his right forearm was visible. His rapidly dancing fingers looked almost like growing out of those mystical looking tattoos instead of from his hand. If that was true then it might have explained why he could be so good.
“He was playing non-stop for the past half an hour ever since I arrived.” Gui whispered to me, ”Isn‘t he amazing?!“
I nodded and looked at the Davis Symphony hall across from the plaza. Before I was able to formulate some kind of speculation on his musical origin, a couple of young punks sat down next to the Guitar player and they chatted with him.
I couldn’t help eavesdropping.

Guitar Player: “­I‘ve been playing punk rock all my life, men! Just started getting into this Spanish shit last year! Holy shit! Men! I can’t go back after that!”
Young Punk A: “Yeah! I hear ya, Men! This is the real shit!”
Guitar Player: “Totally!”
Young Punk B: “..­.”
Guitar Player: “I stay in the shelter at night and play Guitar all day. Pretty cool! I’m just here (pointing at the library behind him) to check out some old recording shit.”

The library opened then, we walked in. Gui got an art book and I got some audio books. As we walked onto the sunny but windy street again, we were still marveled at what we heard earlier on the steps of the library.

“He plays so well and he lives in the shelter! Imagine that!” Gui exclaimed incredulously.
I glared at her with a sneer, “Told you! There is no justice in this world.”

There is no justice that he lives in the shelter,
or there is no justice that he plays so well?
There is no justice that he is happy even though he lives in the shelter?
Or there is no justice that he is content with his life while we are not?

Could we be content to live like him if we were as gifted?

Bach, Commoner, and Paintings

I’ve been busy reading some wonderful Chinese writers’ blogs lately. One of them has the pen name “organpiano”, who specializes in classical music. Here is one of her numerous comments on Bach. Her writing style is very flowery, I’m trying to match it in my translation but I’m sure it doesn’t do the original justice. 🙁

在我疲惫或浮躁的时候,巴赫常常及时降临。他一生反复吟咏对上帝的虔诚。在他的音乐面前,“高雅”之类的形容显得无力而做作。 以世俗的耳朵,我听到的是一个普通人的向往,又朴素又执着,又庄重又快乐。奇怪,“向往”一词容易让人焦急,巴赫却使我立刻静下来。他坐在洒满月光的教堂里,坚定地等待清晨,心无尘滓。谁也不怀疑,他会等来阳光。在《d 小调古钢琴与弦乐协奏曲》(BWV1052 ) 中,无论主题变幻出巴罗克建筑的飞升感还是安详如梦,拨弦古钢琴 一直在下方奏着不倦的数字低音。我专注于古钢琴清澈见底的声音, 觉得它是一弯从雪山奔向云天尽头的浅浅溪流,沿途滴到我心中一小匙水。它怀着无休的热情聆听寂寞的回声,已经鸣响几百年了。我观察它的神色,从中看到了自己的渴望。我们立刻有了血脉之缘。

Whenever I’m exhausted or flustered, Bach often arrived right in time. He spent his entire life singing praises of devotion to God. In front of his music, adjective such as “elegant” appears to be hapless and pretentious. As a commoner, I heard another commoner’s desire, simple and persistent, dignified and happy. Strange, the word “desire” usually makes one anxious, but Bach always quiets me down. He sits in a church bathed in moonlight, quietly waiting for dawn. No one doubts him, the sunlight would receive him as he has firmly believed. In Harpsichord Concerto in D minor BWV1052, no matter how the melody winding through the elevation of Baroque architecture or peaceful dreams, the harpsichord steadily producing figured bass tirelessly in the background. I focus on that crystal clear sound of harpsichord, which was like a shallow creek rushing down the snowy peak towards the horizon, and it left a spoonful of water in my heart along its way. Carrying the endless passion, listening for the lonely echoes, this crystal sound had existed throughout the centuries. I observed its expression, and saw my own desire in it. Suddenly, we are connected.
–organpiano, My Classical(in Chinese)

Her emphasizes on Bach’s commoner point of view fascinated me. Once I found myself in the National Museum of Art of Catalunya. An exhibit of earlier Christian wall painting was on display. Religious paintings didn’t interest me at all, but it was near the end of my stay, and I’d run out of touristy places to go. It turned out to be a pleasant surprise. They were Catalan mural paintings and cave paintings from eleventh-thirteenth centuries. Jesus there looked a lot more humane and humble than His glorious Italian Renaissance counterparts. The coloring was lively and the figures looked chubby and expressive. They didn’t look divine or indifferent. They cry, they laugh, they anger, and they frown.

It was not touristy season, and I was almost the only visitor. In that empty gallery, surrounded by the echoing of my footstep, I felt for the first time in my life (probably the last, too) touched by Jesus on the wall. They were beautiful and alive.

I wonder if that is how “organpiano” feels toward Bach?

Another Marvelous 10@10 from KFOG

Here is another clever snippet from this morning¡¯s KFOG 10@10 radio documentary/music program.

Amidst some background music, we started hearing Reagan talking. It was the most unbelievable smooth political spin I¡¯ve ever heard. I had not idea how he pulled it off right in front my ¡°ears¡±. He started by saying he didn¡¯t sell weapon to trade American hostages with Iran. Then he proceed to say but all evidence indicated that weapon was traded for hostage, and finally he sounded so very righteous and disgusted by saying it was against his principle and American¡¯s principle. He proceeded to condemn it a shame that had happened. Throughout the speech he never admitted his wrong doing, for all I know, he could be condemning some other government¡¯s guilt. A masterpiece, indeed! It should be a mandatory study material for all politicians in their public speech class.

Immediately following this speech, the music started playing. It was no other than …

Tell me lies, tell me sweet little lies
(Tell me lies, tell me, tell me lies)
Oh, no, no you can’t disguise
(You can’t disguise, no you can’t disguise)
Tell me lies, tell me sweet little lies

…Yes! Fleetwood Mac¡¯s Little Lies.!

What a wonderful program! I suspected the DJ had a thing for the 80¡¯s. Everytime the 10@10 settled on the Reagan era, I was sure to be treated to a lovely time of historical documentary presented with style and wit.

Thanks! 🙂