Friday, July 3, 2020

BOOKS! (Well-Read Black Girl + The Perfect Nanny)

Here I am! I had a hard time reading consistently in May, and I was on a self-help (or "personal growth" as B&N would call it) kick all that month, so what I did manage to read was too personal for me to write about here. Then in June, I was able to get back into my reading groove but not my writing groove. (Was also focused on putting together my podcast's 2nd anniversary episode, by the way.) I managed to finish the second of today's selections on June 30th, but it just didn't feel necessary to push myself to churn out my monthly review that same day. Figured it could wait. So yes, I missed May and June, but I am back now. Hopefully July will be a more inspired and creatively-productive month, and I'm giving myself an early start with today's picks: a collection of essays by Black women writers, and a novel about a Parisian nanny-turned-murderer.

Well-Read Black Girl: Finding Our Stories, Discovering Ourselves by Glory Edim

I don't remember how I initially heard about the online book club/reading community known as Well-Read Black Girl, but I've been following them on Instagram for years. (In fact, thanks to them I discovered Black Girl in Paris, which is now one of my favorite books.) I also don't remember when I bought this anthology, or even why, besides the fact that I was already a fan and was looking forward to learning what readerly joys and discoveries I had in common with the writers featured in it. In essays and edited interviews, 22 Black women writers lift up their favorite authors as well as the books that first made them feel seen in literature, inspired them to write what needed to be written, or made them realize that becoming a writer was even possible in the first place.

All of the people featured are Black women, including some names I knewJesmyn Ward, Tayari Jones, Gabourey Sidibe, Nicole Dennis-Benn, N.K. Jemisin Carla Bruce-Eddings, Jacqueline Woodson—and other names that I learned for the first time through reading this book. And with very few exceptions, all of the works mentioned throughout were written by Black woman too. As such, Well-Read Black Girl not only offers a collection of relatable and affirming stories, but also demonstrates a literary legacy between Black women writers of the past—those who are considered "the greats"and the contemporary ones who are writing and reading today.

My personal favorite WRBG essay is "Amazing Grace" by Carla Bruce-Eddings, because I too grew up reading the Amazing Grace picture book series. (I've also fielded corny "Are you amazing?" and "Do people call you amazing?" jokes my whole life because Grace is my last name.) Additionally, Carla describes introversion and imposter syndrome so accurately that I suspect that she and I might be the same person. Another fave of mine is Rénee Watson's "Space to Move Around In", which honors Lucille Clifton's poetry and all the fat Black girls out there. And I was so charmed by Kaitlyn Greenidge's sense of specificity and humor in "Books for a Black Girl's Soul", where she recommends ten reads to help Black women find themselves.

I cracked this book open merely expecting to enjoy the stories it contains and learn about books and authors that I hadn't previously heard of; I wasn't seeking to be validated in any way. But I couldn't help but come away from Well-Read Black Girl feeling deeply inspired. It honestly reaffirmed for me that I am a writer too; my calling is true and sacred just like that of all the women named in this anthology. If you care about what Black women have to say, want to read more literature written by Black women, want to know people's bookworm/writer origin stories, or are looking for book recommendations (lots and lots of them, as in multiple lists of them), then read this book!

Favorite quotes:
"Her canon is a master class in the art of living. And it is only through tackling and striding naked and unafraid into the territory, the geography of life and its awful realness and concreteness, that we build an imagination that can find life on a page and withstand the assault of indifference or misinterpretation. Dream a World. Imagine a Life. Be Here Now. That is what Zora mirrored for me to see in myself" (Marita Golden, "Zora and Me", 56-57).

"Reading for me was a vehicle for self-exploration when real life wasn't safe" (Dhonielle Clayton, "The Need for Kisses", 89).

"I asked her how she prepares herself to go out into the world. She told me that it's not that she has to prepare herself for the world; it's that the world interrupts her" (Morgan Jerkins, "To Be a Citizen", 124).

The Perfect Nanny by Leila Slimani
(Translated by Sam Taylor)

I'm pretty sure I heard about this 2016 Prix Goncourt-winning novel thanks to a bookstagram account I follow called @blackgirlthatreads. The book's title and what I could surmise of the plot are usually not my cup of tea (thrillers and child-rearing, I'll pass). But once I found out that this novel not only examines the power dynamics between nannies and their employers, but it's also set in Paris, and is a translation of a French novel (originally Chanson douce, or Lullaby in the U.K.)? Oh, then I was all in! When I was a student in Paris I actually spotted nannies or "nounous" (mostly Black or Brown) caring for their employers' children (mostly white) on a regular basis, and this coupled with learning that Leila Slimani is a French person of Moroccan origin made me incredibly interested to see what she had to say about this topic. I was lucky enough to find a copy of The Perfect Nanny while randomly browsing at a book warehouse in Kentucky last holiday season (the same place where I found Rue McClanahan's memoir), and six months later I've finally read it.

The titular nanny is a 40-something woman named Louise who works for the Massé family: a lawyer named Myriam, a music producer named Paul, a nearly-uncontrollable young child named Mila, and a baby named Adam. The couple seek a nanny at Myriam's insistence after she foregoes the stay-at-home mom life to restart her law career, and Louise quickly becomes an integral part of the Massés life. Initially, Louise brings the peace, order, and joy that seemed to be missing in this household. She's excellent at her job and has an elegant air about her, but she's also myserious: she keeps most of her private life and thoughts to herself, while Paul and Myriam almost never inquire about the person she is outside of being their nanny (and their unpaid cleaning lady, if we're being honest). Small incidents, misunderstandings, and miscommunication build up overtime to cause the adults' working relationship to devolve into distrust and passive aggression. Within less than a year and a half of being hired, Louise kills Mila and Adam. (This is not a spoiler; the book opens with the discovery of the childrens' bodies and Louise's suicide attempt before going back to before Louise was hired.) What's Louise's story, why does her rapport with Myriam and Paul sour, and why does she murder the children whom she was devoted to caring for?

Prior to the tragic event, Louise briefly fantasizes about leaving Massés. But once she senses that they will likely fire her, she desperately wants to stay. It was never clear to me what is so special about the Massés that Louise becomes so obsessively attached to staying with them. Perhaps it isn't so much this particular family but rather the timing. The idea of growing old and alone is weighing on Louise more than ever after a lifetime of loss, the mountain of debt she inherited from a loved one has caught up to her, and during this period where she's desperate to feel needed but also wants to claim something of her own, the Massés just so happen to be the family she's involved with. Losing her place within their household would mean losing both her livelihood and the caregiver role that she's based her existence on. So even though the Massés are just another family, for Louise losing them would be the start of her losing everything.

I must admit that I assumed Louise was Brown and/or an immigrant until very late in the novel. There is mention of her being blonde and pale, and she's even referred to as "white" a couple times, but I guess I just didn't want to believe it. As I mentioned, I'm used to thinking of nannies (especially in Paris) as being mostly Black or Brown women serving white families, because my mind can never divorce that awful colonial precedent from it. And the ways Louise is disrespected and taken advantage of by others is so consistent with how Black, Brown, and foreign "help" are treated by white and/or wealthy people that I must have conflated Louise's profession and mistreatment with what her race might be, not fathoming that Louise would be white. Race is definitely brought up, though, as non-white nannies of varying backgrounds are mentioned along with the discrimination that's levied against them before they even get hired (if they can get hired). It's also implied that Myriam has some unaddressed self-hatred as a North African woman who doesn't speak Arabic with her children, is wary of "immigrant solidarity", and refuses to hire a North African nanny for fear that they will expect favors from her.

The Perfect Nanny is one of those books that leaves some questions unanswered on purpose, including the details of exactly why and how Louise kills Mila and Adam. At the same time, the novel doesn't let us off with the simple explanation that she "just snapped" or was simply crazy or evil. We are given the aftermath first, then shown the signs, and then left to contend with the intentional gaps in between. If you are interested in French feminist literature, intersections of race/gender/class within domestic roles, discussions of motherhood that aren't flowery and rose-colored, or murder investigations, then read this book!

Favorite quotes:
"We will, all of us, only be happy, she thinks, when we don't need one another anymore. When we can live a life of our own, a life that belongs to us, that has nothing to do with anyone else. When we are free" (38).

"She walked in the street as if it were a cinema set and she were not there, an invisible spectator to the movements of mankind... Solitude was like a drug that she wasn't sure she wanted to do without. Louise wandered through the streets in a daze, eyes so wide open that they hurt. In her solitude, she started to see other people. To really see them. The existence of others became palpable, vibrant, more real than ever" (98).

"She has only one desire: to create a world with them, to find her place and live there, to dig herself a niche, a burrow, a warm hiding place. Sometimes she feels ready to claim her portion of earth and then the urge wanes, she is overcome by sorrow, and she feels ashamed even to have believed in something" (189).

Thursday, April 23, 2020

BOOKS! (The Shadow King + Bone Black)

Apparently today is World Book Day, part two: the UK, Ireland, and various folks on the Internet celebrated it on March 5th this year, but the day promoted by UNESCO worldwide is April 23rd. So what better day to put out a new book review? Two reviews on here in one month, wow. Can't remember the last time I've been able to do that (and without even planning to do so)! Like my last review, this time I'm once again doing something a little different. First up is a novel I bought in order to write a guest review for a different website, and then I have a memoir that I bought from my local library. Both of today's selections were written by Black women.

The Shadow King by Maaza Mengiste

A little while ago, I was selected to write a guest review for an online reading community and book club for people of color called Livre Cafe! And of the available options that Domonique (LC's curator) was seeking reviews for at the time, I chose The Shadow King. It's an unflinching and informative novel about Ethiopian women who fight to resist Italian colonizers in 1935. The questions that Domonique sent me for the review didn't ask about quotes, so I'll include my favorite quotes from this novel below like I always do. But to read more of what this book is about and what I thought of it, check out my guest review on the Livre Cafe website and Instagram page.

Favorite quotes:
"Not many are born when they should be. How I hope this time is meant for you" (76).

"And why wouldn't some of us read, Carlo? Why not? You can find an Ethiope in the earliest books. We are older than this Roman culture you're so proud of. We existed before you, when you were all just peasants, not even a people" (331). 

"Her heart twists in her chest as she realizes that she is watching an old version of herself, that girl who was a keeper of things she should not have claimed as her own. He is doing as she once did, in the naïve belief that what is buried stays that way, that what is hidden will stay unseen, that what is yours will remain always in your possession. He is being foolish" (375-376).

Bone Black: Memories of Girlhood by bell hooks

Back in early February when we could still go out and sit in public places for extended periods of time, I went to my local library to edit an episode of Young, Gifted and Abroad. The library has a small room full of used books that people can buy for super cheap, and when I stopped by this room on my way out, the red and black cover of this bell hooks memoir caught my eye. So far in 2020 I've been committing to buying fewer books so I can focus on reading the ones I already have, and at the time I hadn't bought a single new book. Since I'd remained disciplined up to that point, and because I hadn't read anything by bell hooks before, I decided to fork over the requested 50¢ for Bone Black as a Black History Month present to myself.

In the memoir's foreword, hooks mentions being inspired by the way that Toni Morrison's The Bluest Eye examines various nuances of Black girlhood. hooks is also motivated by her own desire to add to the narrative by writing about her own girlhood, insisting that, "Not enough is known about the experience of black girls in our society" (xii). This memoir was published in 1996, and while much more literature and media are available on the subject now in 2020, there are still so many Black girl stories that need to be told and valued. In Bone Black, bell hooks takes the opportunity to tell hers in both first-person and third-person.

Growing up in the 1950s and '60s in a southern Kentucky town as one of seven kids, bell hooks is a book-loving, observant, and strong-willed child who is often misunderstood within her family. Because of this, she recounts frequent moments of profound sadness and loneliness as she searches for escape, for belonging, for answers. As with many stories that focus on childhood and adolescence, what Bone Black relays to readers is a gradual loss or comprise of innocence. And because it's bell hooks, added to that are her early encounters with racism, colorism, segregation, church hypocrisy, homophobia, classism, and gender-based discrimination and violence. In fact, much of the book focuses on gender dynamics and expectations that are impressed upon her via her own family or events that she witnesses in her local community.

Of course, it's not all pain and frustration. Even amidst parental dysfunction, young bell hooks loves her family. She loves the color black in every form it appears (skin tones, clothing, paintings, and so on). She gets along swimmingly with old people, and she lovingly remembers specific elders who influence her life and show her kindness. She finds refuge in reading books, and discovering poetry is particularly instrumental to her process of carving out her identity and purpose. And even with all the ills she examines, the appreciation that hooks has for the land, for the seemingly small things, and for southern rural lifeespecially under the influence of two of her grandparentsis undeniable. If you're interested in bell hooks' work, want to read a Black girlhood story, are interested in Black southern life, are a feminist, or just want a fairly quick read for yet another day of staying indoors, then read this book!

Favorite quotes:
"Friday is the day to drink. It is the day when working people begin to try and give themselves back the pleasure that the job has taken away. We do not like the beginning of these days when people begin to change, become something else so as to reassure themselves that the white folk have not taken away all their powers to create. We do not like the way they change because the tenderness, the smiles, the laughter are all fleeting, will fade. We watch the grown-ups begin in laughter and end in tears" (68).

"There is much to celebrate about being old. I want to be old as soon as possible for I see the way the old ones live—free. They are free to be different—unique—distinct from one another. None of them are alike... My grandfather tells me that all he ever wanted was for the world to leave him be, that it won't let you be when you are a young man" (88).

"She did not want the mother to know that it was precisely her marriage that made it seem like a trap, a door closing in a room without air. She could not tell her mother how she became a different person as soon as the husband left the house in the morning... everything that she was not when he was around. When he was around she became silent" (98).

"For the first time in my life I hear someone say that there is nothing wrong with feeling alone, that he, too, has been at the edge, has felt the fear of drowning, of being moved toward death without consciously contemplating suicide... he tells me that the young woman standing on the cliff, alone and afraid to live, is only suspended in a moment of hesitation, that she will overcome her fear and leap into life" (177).

Sunday, April 5, 2020

BOOKS! (Seeing Life Through a Different Lens)

I usually write about books in pairs because it helps me review more books in less time, but today's review is a little different. For the first time, I'm reviewing a book at its author's request! And the author is none other than Zaakirah Muhammad, one of my recent guests on Young, Gifted and Abroad. This isn't the first time that I've reviewed a book written by one of my podcast guests, but it is the first time that I've been directly asked to do so. After I interviewed Zaakirah in February, she found out that I write book reviews and asked me to review her memoir. I am not being paid to write this review, but I do want to acknowledge that Zaakirah graciously sent me a physical copy of her book on her own dime. All opinions expressed in this review will be genuine and honest as always. Let's get to it, shall we?

Seeing Life Through a Different Lens: A Survivor's Memoir on Overcoming Adversity with Resilience by Zaakirah N. Muhammad

Published in December 2019, this memoir traces Zaakirah's story from when her mom was pregnant with her to the present. From partway through her high school years and onward, all of the writing is Zaakirah's alone. But most of the book before that point also includes sections written by her mom Khai'dah, which I think is an excellent choice. In fact, this book has me wondering why more people don't co-write memoirs with their parents!

As an infant, Zaakirah had a form of cancer called retinoblastoma. The cancer was detected and treated early thanks to her mom's vigilance, but pretty soon afterward Zaakirah's parents had to learn how to raise and shape a life for a child with disabilities. (Zaakirah's right eye was surgically removed as a baby and she later developed partial hearing loss, so much of the book focuses on her experience growing up as a deaf-blind person.) Between Florida and Tennessee, Zaakirah spent many years of her life seeing multiple specialists, having various vision and hearing tests done, and getting fitted and re-fitted for a prosthetic eye. And though Zaakirah contributes what she remembers from those times, her mom's perspective is invaluable in helping the reader understand the decisions that were made and how much Zaakirah's parents endeavored to support and protect her. And so, instead of having to craft a narrative about her infancy and childhood by herself, she includes excerpts from "Sun Daughter", a blog that her mom Khai'dah wrote to encourage other parents and families affected by retinoblastoma.

When I interviewed Zaakirah for my podcast, she was very open about her experiences, so much of what I read in her memoir was familiar to me already. However, there was plenty that I didn't know. For instance, I didn't know that Zaakirah was born in the same month and year as me. I didn't know that she often became physically exhausted from trying to understand what people around her were saying on a daily basis (and that this is a common struggle for hearing-impaired people). I didn't know that Zaakirah loves music as much as she does. I knew she opted not to get a bachelor's degree, but I didn't know that she went to art school in D.C. to get a certification in photography instead (the first of a number of certifications she would earn in her adult life). I knew that she started traveling internationally fairly early in her young adulthood, and that she married her Gambian husband not long after being introduced by mutual friends online and then meeting him in person in The Gambia. What I didn't know was that "not long" was actually a matter of monthsa whirlwind, indeed! And obviously starting a business and being a freelancer aren't a cake walk for most people, but I didn't know how much Zaakirah struggled to find stability as a working photographer and media strategist. At multiple points in her life she's had to be precise about the kind of person she wants to be and the type of work she wants to do, and she's overcome numerous obstacles in order to do so.

While Seeing Life Through a Different Lens could use some extra lovin' by way of editing, my only major criticism is that this book could stand to be longer. There are a number of aspects that Zaakirah mentions but doesn't dwell on too long before moving on to something else, and I would've loved to learn more about some of those things. Like more of the particularities of being a Black Muslim girl who's continued with the faith in adulthood. Or more about her adult friendships and relationships. Or more about what the photography industry is like, what it's like being a blind photographer, and how her peers and clients interact with her. Obviously Zaakirah's still quite young, so much of her life is still unwritten (cue Natasha Bedingfield), and perhaps there are some details she wanted to leave out in the interest of privacy. But those are the things that I'm still curious about. If you want to learn more about people who live with disabilities, if you're a professional or aspiring artist of any sort, if you've ever been through hardship, if you want an example of what supportive parenting looks like, or if you just want to read about a Black woman living life the way she wants to live it, then read this book!

Favorite quotes:
"I allowed the camera to be my voice. By sharing my story, I allowed others to see life and humanity though my monocular vision. It is truly a blessing to be able to see the beauty that is surrounding us" (22). 

"That was my life lesson from my mom- to always do something outside of the norm because the right people will accept it. That advice from her only made me a stronger person, student, and later entrepreneur" (77).

 "Maybe you just started on that journey, maybe you're still on it, and there's a deep feeling of loneliness as you fight through your situation quietly in hopes that nobody knows just how real life has gotten for you. Trust and believe you are not alone" (108).

Wednesday, March 25, 2020

BOOKS! (The Wedding Party + My First Five Husbands)

I just finished the longest book I've read in a while yesterday (more about that on another day), and I have three other finished reads waiting for me to review them, so I feel like I'm on a roll right now! Today I'm writing about two of those reads that I've kept waiting, and both of them focus heavily on love. Coincidentally, I also bought each of them in Louisville during the 2019 holiday season. The first is a romance novel written by a Black woman (yes, for the first time ever on this blog I am reviewing a romance novel!). The second is the incredibly detailed autobiography of an actress who starred in one of my favorite TV shows ever.

The Wedding Party  by Jasmine Guillory

Perhaps it's just the magic of the promotional cycle, but last year Jasmine Guillory's name kept popping up in my usual Internet haunts, even though I hadn't previously known she existed and also had no interest in reading romance novels at that point. (Romance fell into the same bucket as YA in that they're both genres that little Danielle, always-reads-beyond-her-grade-level-and-is-too-sophisticated-of-a-reader-to-indulge-in-fluff Danielle, decided were beneath her. I'm yet mending my snobbish ways, I promise!) The Nod, a podcast I was regularly listening to, re-released/re-visited a previous episode featuring Guillory that I'd somehow missed the first time around. I sometimes lurk on Roxane Gay's Twitter account, and she too sang Guillory's praises last year, going so far as to re-post her glowing 5-star Goodreads review for The Wedding Date (Guillory's first novel in her series of the same name). So last Black Friday in Louisville when Ma and I were looking for baby shower gifts for my cousin at Target, and I wandered over to the books section to find The Wedding Party, I figured this was my time to try something new. Ma raised an eyebrow at me like, "You sure?" when she saw the book I'd chosen, because even she knows that romance isn't usually my thing. But this time it was, and I'm so glad that I took a chance on this book!

Not gonna lie, I specifically chose The Wedding Party (book #3 in the series) because both of the featured lovers are Black. At the time of this writing, all but one of Guillory's other books feature Black women in interracial relationships, which is more than fine. But if I was going to give her work a try, then for me it was important to read a romance story about two Black people. Plus, the "these two people hate each other but also can't resist each other" concept seemed to be the most interesting and entertaining out of the available options. Main characters Maddie Forest and Theo Stephens are extremely close friends of Alexa, the protagonist of The Wedding Date who's now preparing to marry her boo. They absolutely love Alexa, but they can't stand each other. Maddie, a stylist on the rise, thinks Theo is boring and pretentious. Theo, the communications director for the mayor of Berkeley, thinks Maddie is shallow and only cares about outward appearances. Helping with wedding planning has them seeing each other more frequently, and eventually they start having sex on a regular basis. And they make an agreement: this is just sex, it'll last only until Alexa's wedding, and Alexa must never know lest things get awkward or Alexa tries to pressure them into dating each other for real. As you might guess, Alexa's interference isn't needed, because Maddie and Theo start falling for each other despite themselves and the "rules" they created for their situationship.

On screen and in books, popular/mainstream romance stories tend to follow a similar formula or set of formulas. And so to an extent, The Wedding Party is somewhat predictable. Of course Maddie and Theo are in a committed relationship by the end of the novel; that's just how it goes, and that's what we expect. But April Wolfe, a former co-host of a film review podcast I enjoy called Who Shot Ya?, said something about storytelling that sticks with me to this day: It's not always about what happens, but how it happens. In other words, even if the ending of a story is common or predictable, what matters most is how we get there. And I think Guillory does a remarkable job of building onto each interaction that Maddie and Theo have, cultivating their attraction and involvement with each other gradually. I also appreciate how she uses the couple to demonstrate how misplaced and just plain way-off our assumptions about others can be, especially within the context of these two Black people who've become adept at hiding their childhood struggles. Aside from the exhilarating sex that Maddie and Theo have (Jasmine Guillory is also very good at writing sex scenes, in case you were wondering), their growing ability to be vulnerable with each other and give each other grace is the true marker of their progress.

If you enjoy "enemy turned lover" or "more alike than different" stories, dislike your best friend's other friends, have a secret talent, like eating pizza A LOT, appreciate the Bay Area, are a career-driven person, are in the mood for a laugh, or you just want to read a romance novel that features mostly Black characters and is also written by a Black woman, then read this book!

Favorite quotes:
"Don't think that I'm trying to be modest here—it sure as hell was my idea and it never would have happened without me—but I needed everyone here and more to make it happen" (37).

"She'd told him so much. About her struggles, about her goals for herself, about why she was the person she was. Had he ever listened to her? Or had he just been waiting for his turn to talk?" (281).

"I always thought I had to be perfect, I could never make a misstep, or everything would come crashing down, but I guess I was wrong about that? I could have been fucking up for years!" (303).

My First Five Husbands... And the Ones Who Got Away  by Rue McClanahan

'The Golden Girls' is one of my favorite shows of all time. Before I write anything else about this book, you have to know that about me. I. LOVE. THE GOLDEN GIRLS. Of the four main characters, I wouldn't say that Blanche (played by Rue McClanahan) is my favorite, but any true GG fan knows that she's an essential part of the cast. So the day after last Christmas when I was combing my way through the aisles of a Book Warehouse near Louisville, and I spotted an orange book cover with a name and face that looked familiar, I couldn't help but gasp! Gasp, clutch the book to my chest, and then carry it tightly in the crook of my arm until I'd finished making all of my selections. No one, and I mean no one, was taking this copy of Rue McClanahan's memoir from me.

In all honesty, I assumed that this book would be fluff. So many celebrities put out books, and often they're just... you know what I mean? And that didn't matter to me! I was in the mood for a fun read, I was delighted to have found out that Rue McClanahan wrote a memoir, and I love reading memoirs anyway, so I was willing to accept this book for whatever it turned out to be. Bring on the fluff, I was ready for it! But I was truly impressed by My First Five Husbands. Not only is it well-written—Rue sure knows how to tell a story, and she has so many of them—but Rue manages to weave her life story, her career trajectory, and her romantic history together seamlessly. And the title of the book is not bait. Over the span of her adult life, Rue McClanahan did indeed get married to five different men (and then married a sixth), was proposed to at least seven times, and had various boyfriends and casual flings in between (including Robert Guillaume!). Born as Eddi-Rue in Oklahoma in 1934, Rue had anxiety and a fear of abandonment that went unaddressed until she was grown. As an actor and dancer who could sing a little too, she pursued her career largely in New York and LA artist circles where sexual norms were more relaxed. And frankly, she enjoyed men's company and sex was fun for her (you better believe she rates each of the men she mentions having sex with in this book). All of this led to Rue making some impulsive and sometimes desperate decisions, and clinging to mostly terrible men. Only two of the five husbands she discusses aren't completely terrible, and it's implied that she finally got it right with her sixth and last husband.

Of course Rue makes sufficient mention of 'The Golden Girls' too, but she's understandably discreet about whatever drama might have happened behind the scenes. She also emphasizes that while she and her character Blanche have a few things in common, most people don't know Rue like they think they do. And I can only imagine the research and strength of memory that must have gone into this book, to be able to mention so many people by name the way she does, the whole way through! Like Anna Deavere Smith does in Letters to a Young Artist, Rue doesn't merely name-drop for the sake of name-dropping. Performers, especially working actors, meet all kinds of people as part of the job, and all the people that Rue met influenced her life and her decisions in some way. Furthermore, she's honest about her failures and setbacks, she's real about the struggle to have longevity as an actress (especially for moms), and she's serious about her art and the people she loves. You can tell from this memoir that she just... she's gone through so much, and she cares so much! She actually gives a crap! My First Five Husbands was published in 2007, and Rue passed away in 2010. And when I finished this book, my immediate first thought was, What a vibrant and vulnerable gift. What a gift Rue McClanahan was, and what a gift she's given us through her memoir.

Favorite quotes:
"Promise me that if you take one thing away from this little journey of mine, it will be to henceforth and forevermore always summon the wit to say, 'Let me think it over.' Repeat after me: Let me think it over. If only those words had come out of my mouth!" (35).

"Meanwhile, this Little Miss Nobody was clawing her way up a very roughly graveled mountain, with hundreds—no, thousands—of other Little Miss Nobodies right beside her. And some of them had good connections! Dear reader, it was monumentally difficult. And for any aspiring actress who may be reading this, best she should know what it can really be like. Murderous!... but for me it simply wasn't an alternative. This was do or die. I had the talent, I had the drive, and I knew it was only a matter of time and luck. Unless Life intended to play some monstrous joke on me, that is" (140-141).

"I struggled to assimilate the information he was giving me, grateful to know that a deeply concerned but comfortingly practical Morrow was waiting for me in the reception area. The person you need with you at an event like this is a producer, not a director. Someone who will take action instead of telling you how to feel" (330).

Friday, March 6, 2020

ドラマ (Dorama) Time! 22 - pt. 2

Here are the remaining three of the five dramas that I started in early 2019 and completed just this week (haha). You read part 1, now let's get to part 2!

3年A組 - 今から皆さんは、人質です-  (3-nen A-gumi: Ima kara Mina-san wa, Hitojichi Desu/Mr. Hiiragi's Classroom) - NTV/2019
  • Hiiragi Ibuki (Suda Masaki) is a high school art teacher and the homeroom teacher for the third-year (3-nen) students who are in Class A (A-gumi). The school's star swimmer, Reina, has recently committed suicide after being bullied and falsely accused of using performance-enhancing drugs.
  • One day, Hiiragi detonates a bomb inside the school that cuts off his classroom from other parts of the building; now no one can enter or leave. He holds his students hostage, telling them that he won't release them until they confess to who was behind making and spreading the fake video that prompted Reina to kill herself.
  • Over the 10 days that Hiiragi holds his students hostage, he frequently posts and broadcasts on a social media site called "Mind Voice" in order to get the police and the public's attention.
This show, to borrow from Brandon and Justin of the Medium Podcorn movie review podcast, is "cuckoo bananas". It's not a bad show, and it has a really important message about the powerful ills of social media and how people should use their words for good. Suda Masaki even flexes his acting chops in an extended monologue where he's pleading, begging, beseeching the viewers of his livestream to change their ways and recognize how their online comments can have deathly consequences. But I just couldn't get over the glaringly-unaddressed Stockholm syndrome aspect of it all. I mean, come on! Hiiragi threatens to blow the kids up if they don't do what he wants, multiple times! He beats the crap out of a couple of the male students! He stages deaths and makes his students think they're watching their classmates die! He traumatizes those kids, but they all bond during it and learn to become more thoughtful people as a result, so it's for their own good in the end? Nah. There's a point about halfway in the show where the students have the option to escape, but they decide not to, because now they believe in helping Hiiragi uncover the truth of what happened to Reina? Nah, I just can't get with it. I only picked this show because I was curious about how it would play out, and I was interested in seeing Suda Masaki play something more intriguing than the writer-turned-model boyfriend character that I last saw him as in 'Jimi ni Sugoi!' (2016).  If you want an entertaining high school-themed show that keeps you guessing about what's going to happen next and has a smattering of social commentary in it, then '3-nen A-gumi' should be fine. But if you start thinking about things a little too much, you'll ruin it for yourself.

大恋愛 - 僕を忘れる君と -  (Dai Renai: Boku wo Wasureru Kimi to/Great Love: Together with You Who Will Forget Me/Don't Forget Me) - TBS/2018
  • Kitazawa Nao (Toda Erika) is a doctor who runs a women's clinic with her mom, who is also a doctor. Nao is engaged to marry a fellow doctor (a neurologist named Yuichi), when she meets Mamiya Shinji, a former novelist who now works for a moving company.
  • While helping Nao move into her new apartment, Shinji discovers that she owns his only successful novel, which was published 20 years ago. He doesn't reveal that he's her favorite author until later, and eventually Nao dumps Yuichi to be in a relationship with Shinji instead.
  • It's discovered that Nao has early-onset Alzheimer's disease, and Shinji suggests ending the relationship because he believes Nao's ex and her mom can care for her better than he can. During their time apart, Shinji publishes a new novel that becomes a huge bestseller. He and Nao reunite, deciding to get married and face the progression of her alzheimer's together no matter how hard it gets.
Toda Erika ('REVERSE') sho' nuff knows she can act! My goodness! ...Okay, just had to get that out first. I can't remember exactly why I chose this show. I don't think it was Toda Erika, skilled though she may be. Maybe it was because it seemed similar to 'Boku no Ita Jikan' (2014) or 'Algernon ni Hanataba wo' (2015) in that the main character succumbs to a progressive and incurable disease over time? I don't know. What matters is that this show is brilliant! A number of the latter episodes end in such a way that any one of them would've made a viable final episode for the show. In fact, a lesser show would've ended when Nao and Shinji get married. But not so! 'Dai Renai' leads us through the entire life cycle of their relationship, from the moment they meet in Nao's apartment, to when they reunite and get married, to later on when.... well, you'll have to get to that part on your own. My point is that the way the show actually does end is a heartbreaking but conclusive and fitting finish to a story that was full and complete the whole way through. And how often does that happen, you know? This is a love story that feels genuine but isn't overly sappy, and unlike 'Boku no Ita Jikan', it won't leave you in a complete puddle on the floor. You still might cry though, so have some tissues on deck just in case.

アンナチュラル (Unnatural) - TBS/2018
  • Misumi Mikoto (Ishihara Satomi) is a forensic pathologist on a lab team called UDI that's hired to investigate when people seem to have died from unnatural causes. By conducting autopsies, running various scientific tests, and using their own investigative reasoning skills, Misumi and her colleagues often do the work that criminal investigators are unable or unwilling to do. 
  • One of Misumi's colleagues is an intern named Kube, a part-time journalist for a shady publishing house, who's secretly using his UDI intel as source material for articles. Another of Misumi's colleagues is Nakado, a rude and gruff autopsy doctor who's obsessed with finding the person who killed his girlfriend years ago. And of course, Misumi has a secret past of her own.
  • Will Kube's secret activities be found out? Will Nakado get the revenge he seeks? What about Misumi's past motivates her to do this job? And how many possible ways are there for people to die? You gotta watch to find out!
I can't remember why I picked this show either, but it probably boiled down to the fact that Ishihara Satomi ('Takane no Hana') is the lead. As I've mentioned on multiple occasions, she's one of my favorite Japanese actresses, and I'm likely to give any drama she's in a try. And sure, the 'CSI'/murder mystery element of 'Unnatural' is not new. The show 'Galileo' (2007) comes to mind, and though it was a massive hit when it aired in Japan, I wasn't wowed by it when I saw it. But 'Unnatural' kept my attention the whole way through! Maybe it's my Ishihara Satomi bias, maybe it's the fact that I don't watch these types of shows often that makes this one stand out, or maybe this show really is just that good! Whichever it is, I have no complaints. I will say that 'Unnatural' is probably not the best option for people who are uncomfortable seeing body stuff on screen (dead bodies, body parts, blood/other bodily fluids) or violent death scenes. UDI solves many cases, but the show's moreso about how the team works behind the scenes, so if that co-worker or friendship element is of interest to you, then give this show a try.

For my favorite of the bunch this time around, I'm gonna give it to 'Boukyaku no Sachiko', with 'Dai Renai' at a close second. 'Boukyaku' has it all: the heartbreak, the gradual recovery, the food porn, the literary element, the camaraderie, the comedy, the randomness, and most importantly Takahata Mitsuki thoroughly sells it as the titular character. If I were more of a hopeless romantic I probably would choose 'Dai Renai', but again, I stand by my sentiment that that show is brilliant in its own right. Now I'm off to find more J-dramas to watch. Hopefully it won't take me until 2021 to write about them... we'll see!

ドラマ (Dorama) Time! 22 - pt. 1

I'm finally back with a new J-drama review! Pretty soon after posting my last review back in January 2019, I actually started five dramas from 2018 and 2019 that I was really interested in. But it took me a while to watch them all, and I didn't finish the last of them until three days ago. So I guess much of me returning to this blog in 2020 entails picking things up where I left off, and taking the time to not leave things unfinished. For part 1 of this roundup, I'll be writing about the two shows that had shorter episodes than the other ones (about 30 minutes long compared to the typical 45). Over the past year I used a number of different sites to watch these shows, but to make it simple I'll just say that at this time Maplestage remains the most consistent place to watch Japanese shows with Japanese subtitles or no subtitles at all (you might need to know kanji to find the show you're looking for). And for English subtitles, try FastDrama or DramaCool.

フルーツ宅配便 (Fruits Takuhaibin/Fruits Delivery Service) - TV Tokyo/2019
  • Sakita Shinichi loses his job in Tokyo, moves back to his hometown, and gets hired to work for a company that dispatches female sex workers to local hotels at male clients' requests. The women who work for this company are given names of fruit as nicknames, hence the "fruit" in "Fruits Takuhaibin".
  • Though Sakita is the main character, each of the 12 episodes focuses on a different woman who works for Fruits Takuhaibin (similar format to 'Blanket Cats' from 2017). Episodes usually explore why these women are doing this work, and what pressures they face that could put their jobs in jeopardy. (They're not allowed to have actual intercourse with clients or have relationships with them outside of work, but some clients arrogantly assume they can make the women to do whatever they want for the right price.)
  • As "manager", Sakita's job is to book reservations for the women, and drive them to and from the clients' hotels safely. He doesn't tell his family or his friends about his job, but he considers being more upfront about it when he realizes thatminor spoiler alert!his best friend Emi is a sex worker for one of the more brutal and cut-throat sex businesses in town. 
The theme of sex work is what drew me to this show. I was most curious about whether the characters would be portrayed as shameful and dirty, or if they would be given more respect and compassion than that. Thankfully, it's the latter! Though the show has some intense or even bleak moments, it also frequently has a comedic and tender tone. Fruits Takuhaibin seems to be the only sex service in town that treats women more like people than commodities. The staff Sakita works with are kind and caring, the women can refuse to see clients whom they no longer feel comfortable with, and even Misuji (the no-nonsense owner of the company) is somewhat lenient in his approach when firing certain women for breaking the rules. I only have two gripes. First, while things get better for Sakita as he comes to terms with this industry and realizes that helping sex workers feel safe and supported is what he wants to do with is life, nothing really gets significantly better for any of the women. The consistent consolation for pretty much every woman featured in each respective episode is basically, "keep your head up and things will get better for you some day, somehow", which... feels a little hollow. Second, there's a gratuitously violent thing that happens to Emi in the final episode that didn't seem to serve any purpose besides shock value, and I think we could've done without that. But overall, I was pleased with this show.

忘却のサチコ (Boukyaku no Sachiko: A Meal Makes Her Forget) - TV Tokyo/2018
  • Ever since Sasaki Sachiko was dumped on her wedding day and her would-be groom Shungo disappeared, all she can think about is what went wrong and where Shungo might be. She can't even pronounce the word "kekkon" (marriage) without stuttering, that's how torn up she is.
  • Sachiko realizes that she briefly stops thinking about Shungo whenever she's eating delicious food. So in addition to digging even more deeply into her work as a literary magazine editor, she throws herself into trying all the delicious foods she can find, from Tokyo to Miyazaki. But of course, she can't help but look for signs of Shungo along the way.
  • Will Sachiko ever see Shungo again? Will she be able to get over him if she can't find him? Will food solve all of her problems in the meantime? Gotta watch the show and see!
I hadn't realized until after I started watching this show that it was based on a manga of the same name, which makes the show's physical comedy and style of humor make a lot more sense. I also hadn't realized at first that I'd seen the lead actress before: Takahata Mitsuki played the mean girl in 'Mondai no Aru Restaurant' (2015)! She played that role just fine, but I was so incredibly impressed by the cleverness and sense of timing she displays in 'Boukyaku no Sachiko'. Sachiko's kind of awkward and the show's a little wackyat one point she and another character break into a full-on musical number extolling the virtues of onigiri, and that's just in episode 2. But I couldn't help but become endeared to Sachiko and sympathize with what she's going through. She's intensely serious most of the time (her huge eyes don't blink that often and her lips are often pursed), she's great at her job and is well-respected by her colleagues and clients, and for everything she's got going for her she just can't get over yearning for explanations and a second chance in the face of a major personal disappointment... Hmm. Perhaps I liked Sachiko so much because she is basically me, haha! But that's neither here nor there. This show is shot well, it's funny, and you get to ogle at a variety of dishes and cuisines that are available in Japan. If you enjoyed a similar food-themed show called 'Samurai Gourmet' (2017), and if you remember Herbal Essence's orgasmic shampoo commercials from the 1990s and early 2000s, then you've got Sachiko's food scenes in a nutshell. It's all in good fun!

Make sure to check out part 2 of this J-drama review to read about the other three shows that I watched over the past year, and to find out which one is my favorite of them all!

Tuesday, February 11, 2020

100th BOOK REVIEW! (God Help the Child + Jazz)

Since this is my first blog post of 2020, let me take a moment to wish you all a Happy New Year and a Happy Black History month at the same time! Can't believe I haven't written on here since November, and now it's February. I took a hiatus from my podcast in mid-November, and I guess that unintentionally translated into me taking a break from this blog too, haha. I was just trying to enjoy my time, and enjoy reading instead of pushing myself to write about it. But now I'm back! And it feels good.

This is my 100th book review. 100th! I know, right? And practically as soon as I heard about Toni Morrison's passing on August 5th, 2019, I knew I wanted to use this personal milestone of mine to honor her. I hadn't realized until I cracked today's selections open that each one happened to be published during an important year of my life. God Help the Child, which I bought during my time as a bookstore employee, was published the same year that I graduated from college (2015). And Jazz, which I found at a local book sale at a mall last year, was published the same year that I was born (1992). Part of the reason why I didn't end up returning to my blog and writing this review until February is because I wanted to take my time reading these two books of Morrison's. Now that I've finished them, here goes:

God Help the Child by Toni Morrison

Lula Ann is born in the 1990s with extraordinarily dark skin, which her light-skinned parents react to with shock, shame, and disgust. Her skin color is so unacceptable to them that her father deserts the family, and her mother avoids touching her as much as possible while insisting that Lula Ann call her "Sweetness" instead of "Mother" or "Mama". It's no wonder that Lula Ann grows up feeling that there is something wrong with her, and that she has to follow a certain set of rules to not only earn her mother's approval, but also make it in a world that prioritizes whiteness. Now an adult, Lula Ann is estranged from Sweetness and is a successful cosmetics executive who goes by the name "Bride". She has learned to dress and carry herself in a way that frames her dark skin as a mesmerizing asset to her beauty, but to an extent this confidence is her way of overcompensating for insecurities that still linger.

Bride's relationships with men have all been unsuccessful until she meets Booker, the first man who makes her feel comfortable enough to discuss a traumatic event that she's kept secret for decades. He responds to her revelation with loving reassurance and encouragement, but later on, Booker suddenly walks out of her life. What follows is a series of painful setbacks for Bride. She falls into a post-breakup depression, she goes to visit a former elementary school teacher who beats her to a pulp, she's put on leave from her job, and her ill-advised quest to find Booker and make him answer for his disappearance results in her getting into a car accident. During these trials, she has no one to support her except her supposed best friend Brooklyn (a white woman with locs who fetishizes Black men and uses Bride's misfortune to swoop in and take Bride's job). Which is to say, Bride really has no support at all. While recovering from the car accident and living off the grid in the company of strangers, Bride's got nothing but time to reflect on what she's gone through and all the love that's been denied her by so many people throughout her life. Can Bride be happy again and finally be at peace with herself? Will she get the answers she seeks from Booker? I'll let y'all read the novel to find out.

Most of the novel is written from Bride's perspective, but Sweetness, Brooklyn, Bride's former teacher Sofia, Booker, and even a little white girl named Rain have their say about their own lives as well as their connections to Bride. Each of these characters has experienced abuse or neglect as children, or was heavily impacted by the mistreatment they witnessed other children endure. So the title God Help the Child applies to all of them in some way, because they know intimately the various ways that children can be harmed, rejected, and unprotected in this world. I didn't realize until the end that this novel is also a love story. I had an idea of where the book was going (especially with the issue of colorism that the book opens with and all the violence that Bride experiences), and that was not it. But the ending, as much as I hadn't anticipated it, is a happy and hopeful one. Overall, I enjoyed this novel for what it is. And as far as Toni Morrison books go, God Help the Child is relatively short and easy to get through. If you have any connection to child abuse and won't be too triggered reading about it, if you haven't had much luck in relationships, if you've struggled with not being accepted because of how you look, and if you've ever wondered what boss women might deal with behind the scenes, then read this book!

Favorite quotes:
"I don't think many people appreciate silence or realize that it is as close to music as you can get. Quiet makes some folks fidget or feel too lonely. After fifteen years of noise I was hungry for silence more than food" (69). 

"What have you learned that is true (and how do you know)?" (112).

"Had he lived, grown up to have flaws, human failings like deception, foolishness and ignorance, would he be so easy to adore or be even worthy of adoration? What kind of love is it that requires an angel and only an angel for its commitment?" (160).

Jazz by Toni Morrison 

Jazz... my, my, my. I found this book to be quite challenging, but I will do my best to explain what it's about. Harlem, 1926: Violet Trace (a hairdresser) is dealing with the fallout of her husband Joe's affair. This affair with a teenaged girl named Dorcas has ended with Joe (a 50-year-old salesman) stalking and killing Dorcas, and with Violet attempting to stab Dorcas's body at the funeral. To sum Violet and her husband's relationship up, it's a mess. And while Joe is crying for months and months over what he did and no one holds him accountable for murdering that girl, Violet is left to pick up the pieces. She receives the brunt of her neighbors' judgment for acting out at the funeral and being mentally ill, and she's the one who has to decide how to move forward within her marriage and household. Trying to understand more about the kind of person Dorcas was, Violet begins visiting her neighbor Alice, the aunt and mother figure whom Dorcas lived with.

Set in the 1920s but reaching as far back as before the Civil War, Jazz traces the various historical and familial events that led so many Black people north, and to Harlem specifically, during the Great Migration. Violet's mother and grandmother were born enslaved, and both Violet and Joe only know country life and agricultural labor until they leave Virginia to move to "the City" in 1906. Dorcas is originally from Illinois, until the East St. Louis massacre of 1917 leaves her orphaned and has her living in New York with her aunt Alice. I've read about the Great Migration in other literature written by Black authors before (August Wilson's Joe Turner's Come and Gone and The Piano Lesson come to mind, as do Paule Marshall's The Fisher King, James Baldwin's Go Tell It on the Mountain, and Yaa Gyasi's Homegoing). But in Jazz, Toni Morrison emphasizes the vastness and complications of this phenomenon in a way that I hadn't considered before. And out of all possible destinations at the time, many Black people were attracted to Harlem as a place where they could be "free" to live as they wanted, where they could be surrounded by other Black people who were also "free", where Black people could be the face of establishments that they themselves owned. Morrison's description of Harlem and its importance reminded me so much of Touré's The Portable Promised Land, which nearly sings Harlem's praises.

Back to Violet and Joe. Now that I'm reflecting on it, not much happens in the "present" of Jazz. Violet and Joe drift apart, Joe seeks comfort in the arms of Dorcas (whom he initially meets by chance), Joe and Dorcas have an affair, and after Joe shoots Dorcas everyone in their apartment building and neighborhood tries to make sense of what happened. The lived experiences of the main characters, and what has lead them to their current reality, is what's given the most attention. If you want to get a nuanced and intimate feel for what the Great Migration was about, why Harlem mattered and still matters so much, and how certain Black people lived day-to-day from the 1800s to 1926, with references to how Black music and Black life inform each other, then this is the book for you. If you're looking for a story about a sexy love triangle and the fiery vengeance of a woman scorned (which I wasn't), you might be a little disappointed. The ending did leave me scratching my head a bit, and I'm still not certain who the omniscient and unnamed narrator is supposed to be. But as a whole I learned so much from Jazz, and believe that I'm better off for having read it. You probably will be too.

Favorite quotes:
"Advice too: 'Don't let this whip you, Rose. You got us, Rose Dear. Think of the young ones, Rose. He ain't give you nothing you can't bear, Rose.' But had He? Maybe this one time He had. Had misjudged and misunderstood her particular backbone. This one time. This here particular spine" (99).

"But what they felt was better. Not beaten, not lost. Better. They laughed too, even Rose Dear shook her head and smiled, and suddenly the world was right side up. Violet learned then what she had forgotten until this moment: that laughter is serious. More complicated, more serious than tears" (113).

"...and don't bring me no whiteboy sass" (173).

"The way she said it. Not like the 'me' was some tough somebody, or somebody she had put together for show. But like, like somebody she favored and could count on. A secret somebody you didn't have to feel sorry for or have to fight for" (210).