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 listened 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 at Target, and I wandered over to the books section to find The Wedding Party there, 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 love 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 a 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 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).

Friday, November 22, 2019

(From August 15th)

(a would-be Facebook status that I decided to keep to myself in my "notes" app, and just now felt the impulse to post it here.)

Today I had my first therapy session in a long time. It took me 3 1/2 years to try again after an unfortunate therapy experience and certain life disappointments had me convinced that it wouldn't be worth it, it didn't matter anyway, no one can be trusted, etc. And today's session went well. I am hopeful.

Only sharing this to say that, whatever it is you're wanting to try, or to try again, it's okay if it takes you a little while to do it. You deserve to do right by yourself, and you'll know when it's time.

Thursday, November 21, 2019

BOOKS! (Chemistry + The Portable Promised Land)

Thanksgiving is one week from today, so obviously I missed my chance to write a review in October. However, given the kind of month that October was for me, I'm willing to give myself a little grace. We had relatives from out of town staying with us for a weekend. I was in pain and had limited mobility for nearly the entire month due to a sprained ankle. My friend's mom passed away. I was wrapping up things for my podcast (putting out the 50th episode and finishing all podcast-related activities for the rest of the year; I'm on hiatus from now until sometime in January 2020). But now I'm finally at a point where I can sit down and write. So here I am! Today's selections are a novel that I bought on a whim at B&N, and a story collection that I found at a book festival.

Chemistry by Weike Wang

I came across this novel during a random stroll of a Barnes & Noble fiction section some months ago, and I was so proud of myself for buying it without Googling it or looking up any reviews. Had never heard of the book before. Just a straightforward thought process of Hmm, this sounds interesting. I'm gonna buy it. And also, This story reminds me of someone I know. I wonder what she'll think after I tell her about it. (That "someone" is my friend Irene; if you remember me mentioning her in the past, then you know. If you don't, then just roll with me here.)

The narrator of the story (who remains unnamed) is a woman in Boston who's pursuing a PhD in chemistry. She is the daughter of Chinese immigrants who made their home in Michigan. In Boston, she lives with her white, redheaded boyfriend Eric (also a chemistry PhD student) and their dog. Being accepted into a science PhD program is an accomplishment in itself, as women scientists are still less likely to be given respect or taken seriously as automatically as men are. But the narrator isn't immune to the pressures and challenges that many grad students face: she's earning peanuts, her research isn't producing results like she'd hoped, she doesn't have as many papers published as her lab mate, and she's questioning more and more why she chose to pursue a PhD in the first place. After a moment of emotional distress that involves many broken beakers, the narrator is put on leave so that she can address her mental health.

So the narrator begins seeing a therapist. Even more than exploring her motivations behind pursuing a career in science, the narrator spends a significant amount of time and effort working through her unaddressed childhood trauma. The stress of adjusting to life in America made her parents' relationship fraught with intense fighting, and she tried to live up to their impossible expectations for her as best she could. Still, now she doesn't know what to do with her life, and the anger she was never able to express when she was younger (especially toward her hypercritical and sometimes unpredictable mom) is just now coming to the surface. And if all that wasn't enough, her relationship with Eric is strained because she can't give him a definite response to his recent marriage proposal, plus he's eyeing university jobs that might have him moving far away. Will she return to her PhD program? Will she be able to confront her parents? Will her and Eric's relationship make it?

I was surprised by how much I chuckled while reading Chemistry. Even the science facts that are thrown in are fun! An Oprah Magazine quote on the front cover refers to this book's humor as "deadpan", and I think that's a perfect description. Blunt, concise, and frequently unassuming—quite often the narrator's way of expressing her thoughts is funny without trying to be. In addition to the humor, something I noticed right away is that except when talking about her parents, the narrator never calls the living beings around her "my" or "mine". Her best friend is simply "the best friend", her dog is simply "the dog", her boyfriend is simply "Eric". I don't know if this was a purposeful decision on Wang's part to demonstrate how emotionally detached the narrator has been conditioned to be, or if it's just a writing style that Wang felt suited her, but I thought it was so interesting! If you have friends in grad school, are interested in what grad student life is like, care about women in science, have endured a personal crisis in your 20's or 30's, have a difficult relationship with your parents (especially your mom), or are interested in immigrant/first-gen narratives, then read this book!

Favorite quotes:
"When I say this to the shrink, she says, Stand in front of a mirror. Your reflection is a way to deal with episodes of anger.
But I'm not angry.
Oh yes, you are" (46).

"I did. I did say I would follow him to space and that offer still stands. But I did not say Ohio" (102).

"Once the psychologists behind the equation reached that conclusion, they stopped and put forth a caveat: No one should lead a life of low expectations. Emotions such as disappointment are also important to experience" (145).

The Portable Promised Land: Stories by Touré

This is the third of three books (the others being Letters to a Young Artist and The Gun), that I found at the Detroit Bookfest this summer. The Portable Promised Land is actually the first book I bought that day, and somehow I wound up finishing it last and writing about it last. To be honest, I decided to buy it mainly because I saw that there was a story in it called "A Hot Time at the Church of Kentucky Fried Souls" (I've shortened the title of the story here for brevity's sake). While most Kentuckians I know don't actually enjoy KFC that much, I was charmed by such a clear and strange reference to my mom's home state. The fact that this collection of stories looks older than it actually is also appealed to me. The front and back covers are designed to look both vibrant and somewhat aged, so even though I'd given it a good once-over, I assumed the book had been published in the 1970s or something. Joke's on me! This novel was actually published in 2002.

Many of these stories are set in a place called Soul City, Touré's vision of Harlem which is both futuristic and retro at the same time. One of my favorite stories set in Soul City is, as I mentioned, "A Hot Time at the Church of Kentucky Fried Souls", where a pastor known for spreading his "love" around to various women in the congregation learns the hard way that neither cutting corners nor manipulating women are worth it in the end. Another favorite is "The Sad, Sweet Story of Sugar Lips Shinehot, the Man with the Portable Promised Land" which is where the title of the book comes from. I won't divulge what all happens in it, but basically the story frames the "promised land", or the very essence of true freedom for Black people, as the ability to no longer see or hear white people. You feel free no matter where you go (portable promised land), because as far as you're concerned, there are no white people to make you feel like you don't belong or like you have to adjust to make them comfortable.

It's clear that Touré understands Black people on an intimate and analytical level; nearly every story references the uniqueness of Black culture, with particular emphasis on the language we use and how we move and adorn our bodies. A couple chapters are literally just celebratory lists of various facets of the Black (especially Black American) experience. And while there's no way that Touré's perspective can be all-encompassing, I would be surprised if any Black person were to read this book and not find at least one thing that is strikingly familiar to them. With that said, there are a few stories in The Portable Promised Land that seem to focus on white people; it's either explicitly mentioned that the characters are white, or it's unclear because Touré doesn't seem to include obvious signifiers of Blackness like he does in other stories. I'm still pondering what he aimed to do by making those choices. In fact, in my opinion the book could have ended at "Once an Oreo, Always an Oreo: The Black Widow Finale", because most of the remaining stories that follow don't seem to have a very strong thematic connection to the previous ones. I also didn't care for the snark of "Attack of the Love Dogma", which felt a lot like condescension. (Like, alright, I get it! You want Black men to be able to date white women without being supposedly "attacked" for abandoning the race or being a self-hating coon. But would you put this much energy into arguing for Black women's right to date outside of their race as well? It doesn't seem so.)

Besides those aspects, I thoroughly enjoyed this collection. Touré has a ridiculous sense of humor, and I was impressed by the variety of  perspectives (characters vary in age, time period, and socioeconomic status) and themes that he explored in each story. Reading this reminded me so much of Friday Black, one of my favorite reads of 2018, which is a darker but similarly sarcastic and Afrofuturistic collection of stories with twist endings à la 'The Twilight Zone' or 'Black Mirror'. In comparison, The Portable Promised Land has a lot more jokes, and reads more like someone's sitting you down to tell you a story face-to-face. If you're interested in Harlem, visions of Black people in the future, the intricacies of how Black people live and move and have our being, or what the heck a "chronic crashee" is, then read this book!

Favorite quotes:
"Every time I sit up in the window at home and watch him strut out the door, from the way he do Blackmanwalkin I jus know he Somebody. So, I know I am, too. Watchin him I'm a young-ass, know-I'm-somebody Somebody... there's no rush to get there cuz wherever you is you already is somewhere jus cuz you there" (61-62).

"If you want to mirror reality, get a camera. If you want to make someone understand reality, then you have to lie a little. You have to distort things, to exaggerate in a way that reveals the way you see things. Do you understand? ...You must give your paintings your way of seeing. Don't tell it as it is. Tell it as it is for you and you alone" (108).

"Everyone needs some sort of family. Even if you never use that safety net, as long as you know someone's there you can go out and walk the highest tightrope" (173).

Monday, September 30, 2019

BOOKS! (The Gun + Queenie)

It's the last day of September, which means it's time to write this month's book review! Today I've got a Detroit Bookfest find (in additon to Letters to a Young Artist), and an audiobook-turned-physical-purchase. Both novels are about twenty-somethings in crisis.

The Gun by Fuminori Nakamura
(translated by Allison Markin Powell)

I bought this book when I saw it at the Detroit Bookfest because I hadn't read a Japanese novel in a while and was intrigued by the logo design with Nakamura's name on the front cover. Plus, the husband and wife couple selling it only charged $10 for it, compared to the original $25.95.  I had never heard of Nakamura or his work before, and apparently The Gun was his award-winning debut novel when it was published in Japan in 2002. But its English translation wasn't published until 2015, years after his subsequent books had already been translated.

Before randomly finding a gun while on a night walk, Nishikawa is a college student who's pretty consistently apathetic about life and doesn't expend too much energy contemplating the morality of anything, including his own actions. Walking along a river one night, he stumbles upon the body of a man who is freshly dead from a gunshot wound to the head, and when Nishikawa leaves the scene he takes the gun with him. The gun swiftly becomes his secret prized possession, which he also starts to feel possessed by. (Although, waxing poetic about the gun's influence is largely a convenient substitute that Nishikawa uses to avoid confronting his conscience.)

Nishikawa gradually becomes bolder and more intentional, going from polishing the gun in the privacy of his apartment to carrying it on his person while in public. From not caring about school and barely tolerating the presence of his classmates, to becoming more engaged socially and juggling two new girlfriends at once. And before long, just polishing the gun and carrying it around aren't enough; in order for the gun to be true to its purpose, Nishikawa wants to try shooting it. Who will be his target? Animals on the street? People he dislikes? When will enough be enough for Nishikawa, now armed with a weapon that no one knows about?

This novel is definitely a slow burn... but those last three pages? Those last three pages?! Such a shocking and intense ending, which I believe fully makes the preceding slowness worth it. And by slow, I don't mean boring. Besides reading Nishikawa's thoughts and feelings about the gun and witnessing those thoughts and feelings evolve, we also learn about his unfortunate family background, which greatly influences his detachment from others and his choice of target practice later on. And as the police start investigating the circumstances behind that dead body by the river and the "missing" gun, Nishikawa's impulsiveness almost does him in. So there's actually a lot going on in this novel, even though it doesn't seem like it at first. If you enjoy reading about quarter-life crises, how obsession evolves, and how people can become murderers, or you just want to read something from a Japanese author you may not have heard of before, then read this book!

Favorite quotes:
"there were times when, inexplicably, I felt as though the gun hated me... I had the feeling that perhaps I had discovered the sadness that one felt when, out of jealousy or despite your love for someone, the object of your desire turns their back on you. At times, I yearned for the gun to find favor with me, regardless of what might happen" (159-160).

"Losing the gun would turn me into an empty shell of myself, and the prospect of carrying around that lifeless husk for the remaining years of my life seemed like endless torture... humans lived to achieve what they chose to do, and I believed that. Putting one's soul to the flame, in order to experience such fullness, was essential for humans, and I had no reason to think that I was an exception" (162).

Queenie by Candice-Carty Williams
(narrated by Shvorne Marks)

I rarely read the same book twice. Because I read so much, I usually haven't had the time or interest to re-read them unless it was for class, or some years had passed and I was suddenly hit with a pang of nostalgia. A Lesson Before Dying, La vie devant soi, and Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry are the only repeats that come to mind, though there may be a few others. All of this to say that, I read Queenie twice, and that is significant for me as a reader.

I originally experienced this novel as an audiobook, thanks to an acquaintance who gifted me a free trial of Audible back in August. Set in London in 2018, Queenie was already on my "books to buy" list, and it seemed like it'd be a promising choice in audio form. And maybe it was because I found the title character so relatable (a Black woman who is the same age as me, has hit an unexpected low point, doesn't know where her life is headed, and deals with depression and anxiety). Maybe it was because actress Shvorne Marks was just that good at making the story and all its characters come to life aurally. I don't know. But after listening through the book over a number of days, I got to the final chapter and decided I would buy and read the hard cover, finish that, and then finish the audiobook. (I was charmed enough to want to write about Queenie, but I can't properly write about a book if I can't read it physically and make notes in it as I go along, so to the bookstore I went.) So as a whole, it took me significantly longer to finish this novel than if I'd listened to it only, but I didn't mind.

Young writer Queenie Jenkins's troubles start when she and her boyfriend Tom "take a break", with the flimsy agreement to check back in with each other later floating between them. Tom wasn't much of an ally and failed to defend Queenie from his family's racism on multiple equations (Queenie is Black and comes from a Jamaican family; Tom is white). However, Tom was also the first man to show Queenie what genuine love and care are like, so she spends the next year hanging onto the day when Tom might finally say he wants her back. In the meantime, she has a miscarriage, has self-destructive trysts with casual partners, starts messing up at work, has nightmares and sleep paralysis stoked by her childhood trauma, one of her longest friendships falls apart, and she starts having panic attacks. Suffice it to say that our Queenie is going through it. A final work-related blow ultimately has her retreating to her Jamaican grandparents' house when it all becomes too much. Amidst therapy sessions, abiding by her grandparents' rules and particularities, and interacting with her estranged mother, Queenie gradually tries to put her life back together again.

This wasn't a novel that I absolutely loved; like on a Goodreads scale of 1 to 5 starts, I gave it a solid 4 ("really liked it"). But I was willing to go over this story twice in such quick succession because I saw so much of myself in Queenie. I'm sure that was part of Candice Carty-Williams's aim in writing it. At times it's dark, sometimes it gets awkward, a lot of the time it's disarmingly funny, and all of the time it is vulnerable and honest. If you are a Black women, love and care about Black women, have ever passed by a Black woman on the street, or don't know any Black women at all, then read this book!  If you have ever dealt with mental health issues, have a difficult relationship with your parents, have immigrant elders, don't like hugs or intimacy, or are confused about this thing called life, then read this book!

Favorite quotes:
"I smiled at the ground, fiddling with the corner of my book. He was the first man I'd met who seemed not to want to immediately push any weirdness out of me" (31).

"Maybe if all ah we had learned to talk about our troubles, we wouldn't carry so much on our shoulders all the way to the grave... Maybe we haffi learn from this new generation, Veronica" (240).

"I am proud of you every day. Even on the days that you think are bad" (273).