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domenica 20 maggio 2012

Kamome Diner

Last week I saw a lovely film, a Japanese/Finnish co-production released in 2006: Kamome Diner. The film is based on the novel by Yoko Mure The Seagull Diner and tells the story of Sachie (Satomi Kobayashi) who starts a small restaurant in Helsinki where you can find simple Japanese dishes, especially rice balls (Onigiri).

Sachie soon finds a special friend: the sweet, mysterious Midori, who is in Helsinki like she could be anywhere else in the world. She moves to Sachie's place and helps running the business, which is deserted in the beginning but slowly starts to attract interesting customers: a Finnish anime fan, an older Japanese woman who is stranded in Helsinki after the airport loses her luggage, and many more people.

I liked the lighthearted atmosphere of the film and the strong sense of friendship and companionship it expresses. It's a funny film yet it deals with deep themes such as loneliness, unhappiness, the strength to change one's life, and (as I said) friendship.
I truly enjoyed every single second of it and among other things it made me curious about Onigiri, which I had never tried. My Japanese friend (who recommended the film) made a wonderful Japanese lunch for my family and me a few days after, so I could taste her delicious rice balls.

You can find a longer review here.

mercoledì 16 maggio 2012

The Member of the Wedding, by Carson McCullers

Carson McCullers, again. I finished this wonderful novel yesterday and liked it even more than The Heart is a Lonely Hunter.

The Member of the Wedding is McCullers's third novel, first published in 1946. It is set in a small town in the south of the United States in the 40's, and it examines a painful and crucial turning point in the life of a very young adolescent struggling to find her own identity, her place and aim in the world. It has a very clear plot, yet discussing it somehow means to violate it. That is why I will just hint at it and then leave you with some passages from the novel itself.

The narrative is divided in three parts, and in each part the main character is called a different version of her own name: in the beginning she is Frankie, the familiar pet name, a reminder of childhood still painfully stuck to her flickering identity. Then she is F. Jasmine, where the boundaries between reality and inner world are blurred. In the end, she is simply and plainly Frances, her own name, naked and cold as reality itself.

Frankie is scared. She feels alone and disconnected, wished to be anyone but her own self. She can't share the burden of her feelings with anyone. Her mother died when she was born, her father is a distant figure. She spends the hot summer days with her little cousin John Henry and with Berenice, a coloured woman who takes care of her and the house. Berenice is strong, warm, goodhearted, reliable, patient. A source of balance and healthy reasoning, and Frankie loves her, though she is often annoyed with her.
Frankie has never seen the snow and she fantasizes of cold, frozen landscapes as the sun burns and glares on the streets.
The first part of the novel focuses on Frankie's disquiet, until she finds an illuminating solution: she is not alone, she belongs to her brother Jarvis and his fiancée Janice, who are going to marry soon. J. and J., Ja and Ja. That is why she wraps her new self with the matching name Jasmine. Her brother and his bride are the missing link, the connection to life, the meaning and the answer. She is determined to run away with them after the wedding, never to come back. As Berenice points out, she's in love with the wedding itself, and here I have to stop because writing more would mean to spoil something beautiful.

Here are some quotes...

Very early in the morning she would sometimes go out into the yard and stand for a long time looking at the sunrise sky. And it was as though a question came into her heart, and the sky did not answer. Things she had never noticed much before began to hurt her: home lights watched from the evening sidewalks, an unknown voice from an alley. She would stare at the lights and listen to the voice, and something inside her stiffened and waited. But the lights would darken, the voice fall silent, and though she waited, that was all. She was afraid of these things that made her suddenly wonder who she was, and what she was going to be in the world, and why she was standing at that minute, seeing a light, or listening, or staring up into the sky: alone. She was afraid, and there was a queer tightness in her chest.

Or after the pale spring twilights, with the smell of dust and flowers sweet and bitter in the air, evenings of lighted windows and the long drawn calls at supper-time, when the chimney swifts had gathered and whirled above the town and flown off somewhere to their home together, leaving the sky empty and wide; after the long twilights of this season, when Frankie had walked around the sidewalks of the town, a jazz sadness quivered her nerves and her heart stiffened and almost stopped

"Have you ever seen any people that afterward you remembered more like a feeling than a picture?"

And just at that moment a horn began to play. Somewhere in the town, not far away, a horn began a blues tune. The tune was grieving and low. It was the sad horn of some coloured boy, but who he was she did not know. Frankie stood stiff, her head bent and her eyes closed, listening. There was something about the tune that brought back to her all of the spring: flowers, the eyes of strangers, rain.

She opened her eyes, and it was night. The lavender sky had at last grown dark and there was slanted starlight and twisted shade. Her heart had divided like two wings and she had never seen a night so beautiful.

And all of a sudden it seemed to F. Jasmine that she saw her father for the first time, and she did not see him as he was at that one minute, but pictures of the old days swirled in her mind and crossed each other. Remembrance, changing and fast, made F. Jasmine stop still and stand with her head cocked, watching him both in the actual room and from somewhere inside her.

It was the hour when the shapes in the kitchen darkened and voices bloomed.

sabato 12 maggio 2012

Some thoughts on motherhood and natural instincts

The latest cover picture of The Time Magazine shows a mother breastfeeding her 3-year-old child, and the attitude of the journalist who wrote the article is clearly "against" this, which is considered an "extreme". The photo and the article and especially the negative attitude made me ponder on many thoughts concerning motherhood, parenting, breastfeeding, and, in general, natural instincts.

I will start with a very personal memory, one of my first memories with my daughter. As I was sitting in the maternity ward with my new baby, feeling tired and happy beyond words, I was struck by the very physical and down-to-earth sensation of "being a mammal". I was sensing my animal nature very sharply and clearly, and this was strong and strange and beautiful. I was lying in a nest of blankets and pillows, like a wolf or a fox in a den, my very small daughter searched my skin with her tiny mouth, she knew by instinct where milk was, we were a mother and child like in the beginning of time, unchanged, millions of years old. I couldn't take a shower for a few days, my skin had its own particular smell that we tend to wash away every morning before going out of the house. And I loved to smell my daughter's fluffy hair. The nurses had washed her so she smelled of soap, and I was annoyed at that, I wanted "her" smell, the unmistakable and precious smell that all animal mothers would recognize among millions of others. A seal would never mistake her pup among the hundreds of alike-looking seal pups, and in those first wild days I felt my animal instinct, I was a mammal. And I was a human being, with my huge heritage of thought and civilization inscribed in my bones.

At home, I kept my baby physically close as much as I could. I let her sleep for hours on my breast, especially when she was very very tiny. I had this thought guiding me: in nature, pups are close to their mum. Our modern world is full of rules on how mums are supposed to raise their children, giving them habits and routines, letting them sleep in their cot from a very early age. I never cared about these things. I wanted to hold my baby as close as possible to me, I wanted to Feel her all the time: smell her, touch her, hear her. I was sad when I lost my milk, very early unfortunately. I'm underweight so maybe my body just couldn't afford to produce a lot of milk, after the struggle of the pregnancy in which it nursed a 4,230 kg baby (the biggest in the maternity ward, among the ones born around the same days). Anyway she had my milk for the first 2 and a half months of her life and I'm sure if I still had milk in my breast I would be wonderfully happy to give it to her. The Chinese writer Mo Yan said he got his mother's milk up to over 5 years, and that was very common in rural China, no-one thought it was strange. And why should it be strange? Nothing that is natural is strange. What I think is unnatural is the set of rules and regulations that have been tied around the very instinctual process of mothering and raising babies and children. Lots of contrasting ideas, all of which are supported by different scholars in the field, and all of which will drive young mums crazy. I remember at the hospital, according to the nurse who had the shift, I got a different lecture, different advises, different "you must do like this"'s. Then as soon as I went home I started to build my own, unique relationship with my little pup and I'm not saying it's the best, of course. Everyone can make mistakes but these mistakes will have smaller consequences if you follow your own feelings and instincts. I found precious advise along the way by other mums, especially some of my friends, and incomparable help from my mum and grandmother, and even great-grandmother, though I don't have any conscious memories of her. Having a baby made me feel with stunning clarity how I was a part of a particular stream of life, starting from my great-grandmother and down to my mum, and me, and my daughter. One of the first book I read after I knew I was pregnant was An Angel at my Table, by Janet Frame. It's her autobiography and I needed to read something like that, the story of a family, because I was experiencing with sharp intensity my own sense of belonging to another story: the story of my family, especially of the women in my family, which was continuing through me and my daughter who was still inside my belly.

So, what I think is that there's nothing wrong in breastfeeding up to the age of 5, or up to whenever there's milk in the breast. And there's equally nothing wrong in giving powder milk, with the same love and tenderness, if there are any problems breastfeeding. It's OK to sleep with your child until both parents and child are happy with it. What I think is very wrong is to force your unique and wonderful mother-child relationship into a set of pre made rules that will make the mother stressed and the child frustrated.

Precious support to my instinct I found (much later) in these books: Why Love Matters, and Women who Run with the Wolves. Clarissa Pinkola Estés, author of Women who Run with the Wolves, has just written her own beautiful answer to the Times article, and you can read it here.

So, these are just my personal feelings about motherhood. I have fears and doubts like everyone of course but, above all, an immense love for my daughter and that is what lights the way, every day.

martedì 8 maggio 2012

Second hand treasure hunt

I love second hand shops. You can find anything you might ever want, and each item has its own story, because nothing is new there. In Sweden there are many second hand shops, and I especially like the chain "Myrorna". We all like it in my little family, and to make you understand just how much we like it, I will tell you this: my daughter's first word was actually Myrorna! :D Recently, we have established a sort of routine, according to which we go to one particular Myrorna, get loads of gorgeous books, lovely cups, soft puppets ("friends", as my daughter calls them) and stop at a nearby Pizzeria on our way back.

Myrorna is also a charity association, which means that all the money you give will help people in need. Which is just one very good reason to indulge in second hand treasure hunts.

At Myrorna you can find things you'd probably never buy, like the oldest vacuum cleaners,

and old sewing machines,

but you especially find things you just grab and take home, like cute old Penguins,

and brand new Penguins,

and precious books you wouldn't dare hope to find....

and, of course, lovely "friends",

and gorgeous cups.

It's truly unbelievable what wonderful books you can find there, and of course it's much more exciting to accidentally find them there than to order them on the net. Last time, among other things, I found a big book one of my best friends had recommended once: Women who run with wolves, by Clarissa Pinkola Estés. I just couldn't believe it!! :)

On the way home after our big hunt, we stopped at the pizzeria. Soon after us, a father and his teenage son got in, unbelievably similar, it was like seeing the same face travelling through time. They sat by the window and talked, and it filled my heart with tenderness to see them, they were so beautiful. A pure, simple, warm image of love.

I will end this post with a beginning: the first lines of a book I found at Myrorna, The House on the Strand, by Daphne du Maurier. It describes the exact feeling I get when I come to Sweden after being in Italy: colours are sharper, more defined, while in Italy, for some reason, colours tend to blend and melt into each other, and they are softer and less exact.

“The first thing I noticed was the clarity of the air, and then the sharp green colour of the land. There was no softness anywhere. The distant hills did not blend into the sky but stood out like rocks, so close that I could almost touch them, their proximity giving me that shock of surprise and wonder which a child feels looking for the first time through a telescope. Nearer to me, too, each object had the same hard quality, the very grass turning to single blades, springing from a younger, harsher soil than the soil I knew.”

giovedì 3 maggio 2012

The Death of Bunny Munro, by Nick Cave

As far as I can remember, I have always adored Nick Cave as a songwriter and musician, and I've always considered him a deep, interesting person, one of those artists it would be lovely to have a chat with. I knew him less as writer, excluding, of course, the lyrics of his songs. Then, last week a chain of events triggered by a dream led to me an urge to listen to his music again,after some time, and to a general interest in his works. So I bought The Death of Bunny Munro. Before I start talking about this book, I want to share this wonderful little treasure I accidentally found yesterday: it's a lecture on the love song (and on writing) held by Nick Cave in Germany about 10 years ago.

The Death of Bunny Munro is many things: a very strong and sad novel, the grotesque account of the last days of a loathsome and desperate man, the moving portrait of a relationship between a father and his son. In the beginning it was hard to "forget" that the book was written by one of my favourite musicians, this made the reading experience somehow different from the usual. But after a while I was just absorbed by the story and by its restless and imaginative and impolite prose. At times I was moved, at times totally horrified, at times amused. Never, anyway, bored.

The novel recounts the last days of Bunny Munro, a loathsome man in his 40's who works as a door to door salesman of women's beauty products and who is totally, manically obsessed with sex. After his wife's suicide, he is left alone with his 9-year-old sensitive son, and his own mess of a life and his total inability to cope with feelings. After seeing the ghost of his wife in their flat, he can't stand being there anymore, so he takes the child (Bunny Junior) to a road trip through Brighton, following a list of customers. The trip goes increasingly out of control and.... well, I won't reveal more than the title suggests.

In an interview released in Sweden in 2009, when the book was translated into Swedish, Nick Cave pointed out that Bunny is a sexual maniac who isn't actually interested in sex, sex it's just his way to fill up a "gaping hole" he feels inside of him. And he has no sexual imagination. He also said he got the idea of the the character of Bunny Munro when he read the SCUM Manifesto by Valerie Solanas.

I liked many things about this book: the restless, original, lyrical prose, the glimpses of tenderness and love you meet along the way. I also like how the author can make the reader basically sympathize (with strong, momentarily exceptions) with a disgusting man like Bunny Munro: the fact is that he is weak and desperate (at least after the death of his wife) so he deserves compassion, however brutal and perverted he may be. The character of Bunny Junior is achingly tender, so silent and wise and full of thoughts. This is one, for instance, concerning his lost mum:

He feels, with a rush of iced wind across his heart, that even by just lying there he is losing her, little by little. He closes his eyes and attempts with reasonable success to ransack his memory and conjure up images of her. He hopes by doing this that he will prevent her from melting away completely. He wants, deep down, to remember her back into existence.

This is a memory of Bunny Munro (Libby is his dead wife):

He remembers Libby lying in bed in the maternity ward of the Royal Sussex County Hospital, the newborn infant in her arms. He remembers her looking down at the child and holding the bundle to her breast with a love that involved the whole of her heart. She looked up at Bunny with a question in her eyes. Bunny registered a single, cold bead of perspiration journey down the side of his face and soak into his collar. He knew, at that moment, that everything had changed. Nothing would be the same again. He couldn't think of anything to say to his wife except maybe goodbye as he stared down at the tiny being in her arms. There was just too much love. He felt that the infant had secretly flipped the switch on an ejector seat that had flung him, unnamed, into the outer limits of his marriage.

What I liked more in this book is the dark, desperate tenderness, the painful distance between the characters, and the unique prose that envelopes the events, rich and unquiet, lyrical and coarse.
And now, I like Nick Cave even more.

The night is a deep velvet blue and the moon an alabaster balloon and the planets and the stars are spilled across the heavens, in handfuls and heaps, like gold coins. The smell of brine lives deep within the breeze that blows up from across the ocean and speaks, in a secret way, to the crowd of women who walk down the main sodium-lit thoroughfare - it speaks of deep, feminine mysteries and unawakened and illimitable desires, of silver-haired mermaids and bearded, trident-waving mermen and the looped humps of sea monsters and bejewelled cities drowned beneath masses of unreadable water.

martedì 1 maggio 2012


There's a square in the heart of Stockholm called "Kungsträgården" (The King's Garden), which is full of the most beautiful cherry trees. At this time of the year they are all in bloom. A soft, luscious, pink glow radiates from them, so delicate and so extremely beautiful.