Friday, May 31, 2019

BOOKS! (Kinky Gazpacho + The Windfall)

I had every intention of writing two book reviews in May, but I guess that goal will just have to be shuffled to June. No worries. At least I've kept up with writing a review every month so far in 2019. Well, except for January, but you know... January is a transitional grace period, a practice month until the year starts for real in February. So as far as I'm concerned, I'm still on track. Anywho. Today, I've got a memoir that one of my podcast guests wrote (check out her feature in Young, Gifted and Abroad episode 34: "Kinky Gazpacho, Melting Pot"), and a novel that I found at Target along with Where'd You Go, Bernadette.

Kinky Gazpacho: Life, Love & Spain by Lori L. Tharps

Lori is an author, journalist, professor, and podcaster, and when I interviewed her for Young, Gifted and Abroad she told me stories about her life that I'm sure she's accustomed to telling. She grew up in Milwaukee and studied Spanish in school. In high school she did a summer-long foreign exchange in Casablanca, Morocco thinking that Spanish would be spoken there, and more importantly, that going to Africa would outdo her sister who'd done an exchange in France. She struggled to go with the flow at first but eventually had an amazing time there. She went to college and spent her junior year in Salamanca, Spain, where she unexpectedly found a boyfriend. Some years later her boyfriend moved to the States, they eventually got married and had three biracial/bicultural/bilingual kids, and now the family resides in Philly and Lori has continued her career as a multi-faceted storyteller. Case in point, her 2008 memoir Kinky Gazpacho. She mentioned this book and some of her other works during our interview, but she didn't try to sell me anything. I was simply intrigued by the book's title and enjoyed our conversation so much that I went online and ordered it. Kinky Gazpacho covers much of what we talked about, plus more details about her childhood, her ups and downs with love, and her evolving understanding of her own Blackness.

As detailed as this memoir is, it's also very succinct. Each chapter neatly contains a significant phase or event, the book's written in an honest and down-to-earth tone, and it's a relatively quick read if you want it to be. I felt like I got a decently thorough grasp of who Lori is as a person in just 207 pages. Granted, I probably had an advantage in that Lori's student years were so similar to mine. She grew up as a middle class Black girl in the Midwest (check). She became enamored with languages and latched onto Spanish when she was younger (for me it was French, plus Japanese later on). She was passionate about gaining cultural and linguistic fluency in all things Spanish, and dreamed that moving to Spain would transform her into her fullest and freest self, in the tradition of Josephine Baker (I can't lie, the expat or location-independent life is still my dream). She grew up being told that she "talked white" by other kids and tried but failed to develop a sisterhood of close Black friends in college (my sisterhood fizzled out post-graduation). And she finally got to be immersed in her target country once she got to college (check).

As Lori admits, time and more nuanced exposure to Spanish culture actually made her fall out of love with Spain. It will always be a part of her life, since her husband is Spanish, her in-laws are Spanish, and her kids are half Spanish. However, due to the anti-Black racism she's experienced there and the widely-held limited concept of who counts as "Spanish" and who doesn't, Lori no longer romanticizes the country like she used to. Sensing there was more beneath the surface, for a magazine story she spent a few weeks researching any possible evidence of Black people being part of Spain's history, and she made some amazing discoveries (namely that Black people were enslaved in Spain too, not just in overseas colonies, and a few churches have statues of Black saints and even a Black Jesus).  Learning this part of history that most Spanish people are unaware of helped her make peace with her disappointment; she could see herself there even when others did not. If you're interested in memoirs, love stories, coming-of-age stories about Black girls that aren't tragedy porn, learning another language, or what in the world "kinky gazpacho" means, then read this book!

Favorite quote:
"I realized that I'd always wanted to write and owed it to myself to pursue that dream. Like the Europeans in Spain who were there to pursue their love of a language. Not because it would advance their careers, but because they derived pleasure from rolling r's and lisping c's... I wanted to pursue writing not because it would look good on a résumé or make me rich and powerful. Writing made me happy. It was that simple. So I was determined to do whatever it took to make my happiness real. I wasn't afraid to sacrifice" (125-126).

The Windfall by Diksha Basu

As I mentioned when writing about Where'd You Go, Bernadette, I was in a book-buying mood at Target and was in the mood for something light and funny but also a little cerebral, and The Windfall was one of my selections that day. I'd actually never heard of this novel before. But I saw that it was a book about an Indian family in Delhi written by an Indian woman, that it had two references to Crazy Rich Asians on the back cover (including a quote of approval from CRA author Kevin Kwan), and that all the Target copies were signed by Diksha Basu herself. So I bought it. 


Starting in East Delhi in the 1990s, the novel opens with the Jha family preparing to move from the cramped apartment complex they've lived in for 30 years, to an area of town cultivated exclusively for the super-rich. Anil Jha (Mr. Jha) has recently earned 20 million USD from the sale of a website he developed, so he and his wife Bindu (Mrs. Jha) are moving on up... away from the eastside. Their son Rupak, who wants to be a filmmaker but is pursuing an MBA in America because he thinks it will please his parents, also reaps the benefits of his father's luck by making expensive purchases and not worrying about paying for school. Meanwhile, Mrs. Jha is weary of what it means to be "starting over" at her age. She confides in her supportive neighbor and friend Reema (Mrs. Ray), a relatively young 42-year-old widow whose new lease on life feels muted because she can't afford to escape her nosy and judgemental neighbors like the Jhas can. The novel follows the Jhas' transition out of middle class as they finally move into their new home and adjust to their new neighborhood.

I particularly enjoyed Reema as a character, because as a perceived transgressor who has opted not to devote the rest of her life to mourning her late husband, she questions the labels and expectations projected upon women more than anyone else does. Her hesitant but earnest determination to live for herself is incredibly endearing. Conversely, much of the book focuses on Mr. Jha's nouveau riche mentality and behavior, and I just didn't find him all that interesting. Once he and his wife relocate, Mr. Jha and his new neighbor Mr. Chopra become obsessed with one-upping each other, displaying their insecurities in the process. But during every passage I read with them in it, I was always wondering when the novel would switch focus back to the other characters. I also couldn't help but notice that Mr. Jha and Rupak idealize white women in an unnerving way. Rupak has a secret white girlfriend whom he loves more for what she represents than for who she is as a person. Meanwhile, unaware of Rupak's boo, Mr. Jha fantasizes about having a white American daughter-in-law to show off to his new neighbors like a trophy that screams, "I'm richer than you". I got the feeling that this is meant to comment on how some Indian people overvalue whiteness, but I would have liked the novel to dig deeper into this. Like if the women in their lives had thoroughly called them out on their Becky fixations, that would have been incredibly satisfying.

I can't say that The Windfall is a book that I'd be quick to re-read, but I am glad that it exists and I enjoyed the vast majority of it. If you're interested in Indian culture (in Delhi especially), middle class rags to riches stories, family drama, or what happens when you try to be someone you're not, then read this book!

Favorite quotes:
"I envy the people out there in a way. But I envy them in a strange way. It's not that I envy that they're in the water right now and I'm not. I have no desire to be. I envy the fact that they really want to be in the water and so they're in the water. Does that make sense?" (119).


"It was strangeit was like I knew exactly what had happened and I knew that it had to happen... I remember a calmness... I don't think you can share a home and a life with someone and not think about their death. But I had always assumed it would be somehow more violent. Not the death itself necessarily, but I assumed my reaction would be violent. I always imagined I'd throw up or scream or run out of the house shouting and lose my mind, but it was none of that. I don't know how to explain it." (182-183).

Tuesday, April 30, 2019

BOOKS! (Pao + Where'd You Go, Bernadette)

Today's the last day of April already! So here I am with another book review. I've been reading a lot and it was almost enough to post two reviews this month, but not quite (I like to write about books two at a time, and I only had three on deck that were finished by today). It's on for May, though! But for the next few hours it's still April, so let's focus on today's reads.

Pao by Kerry Young

I found a used copy of this book at my local 2nd & Charles while Christmas shopping (was there to get a copy of Michelle Obama's Becoming for my mom, but of course I couldn't resist browsing for myself). Pao was the only book that spoke to me that day, mostly because it's about Chinese Jamaicans, which is a population that I was vaguely aware of but actually knew very little about. It's a novel, written in the style of a memoir, narrated by a man named Pao who moves from Guangzhou to Kingston with his mother and older brother at the age of 14. Little did I know that this novel would also double as a political history of Jamaica (and to a lesser extent China), spanning from Pao's arrival in 1938 to the birth of his first grandchild around 1989.

Pao and his family are insanely lucky in that, after his father dies in the Chinese Civil War, they are summoned to Jamaica by Zhang, who was a close friend of Pao's father. Zhang also happens to be the "Uncle" of Chinatown, collecting a fee from local residents and businesses to protect the community and solve problems that arise, in addition to running a gambling spot. As a result, Pao and his family arrive in Jamaica with a ready-made compound to live in and wealth to inherit, as Zhang eventually chooses Pao to succeed him. Over time, Pao expands the family business to include boosting stolen/siphoned goods from British and American entities, keeping watch over the brothel that his first love Gloria manages, and running the wholesale and grocery business that his father-in-law bequeaths to him. (With money on his mind Pao marries Fay, the half-Black and half-Chinese daughter of a wealthy Chinese businessman, but keeps Gloria as his mistress for the next couple of decades.) As British, American, and other foreign forces encroach on Jamaica in new ways even after Jamaican independence, namely by monopolizing natural resources and the tourism industry, Pao also finds himself attempting to handle incidents that threaten to put his neighborhood in jeopardy.

From various angles, you could say Pao isn't necessarily a good person. He he takes care of peopleusually for a fee or an exchangeand he keeps (most of) his promises and bargains, but he's not selfless or altruistic by any means. And every problem that comes Pao's way, he's able to solve or make disappear through money, his business connections, the cred he has because of Zhang, or his own shrewdness and force of will. Almost too easily. So at some point I was wondering, where is his comeuppance? When does he get caught up, or make that one irrevocable mistake? Does he at least get some sort of retribution for treating Gloria, Fay, and his eldest daughter like dirt? I didn't fully mind if this novel was going to go the No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency or Baking Cakes in Kigali  route, where the designated fixer solves every problem the community presents to them and things get tied up in a neat little bow. But the way Pao is written, I had a feeling that Kerry Young had a different intention in mind for this main character; it was only a matter of when the other shoe would drop. And I was right. The shoe does drop for Pao in a painful way.

In addition to fleshing out his personal flaws, Young doesn't forget to point out how even though Pao is Jamaican and lives in what's considered a poor area, he doesn't share all of the plight of the average poor (especially Black) Jamaican person. Again, he arrived with a family, a home, a community, and a business to inherit, which is a lot more than some immigrants or even born-and-raised Jamaicans could say.  Sure white people looked down on him too, and Jamaica's economic problems hit his pockets to a certain extent, but he always had a solution or way out at hand. So to a certain extent, his and Zhang's frequent talk of "the masses" and "revolution" in Jamaica ring hollow. Pao's blindspot is a major reason why Gloria is my favorite character, because she's the only person who checks him on these issues.

Previously, I'd heard mention of Chinese Jamaicans and other communities of Asian immigrants in Caribbean and Latin countries like them (Japanese Brazilians, Indo-Trinidadians, etc.). But I didn't know much about how they ended up there or what their role in those societies has been. So on that note alone, Pao is very educational. I'd say it's an incredibly useful book if you don't know much about Jamaica's history at all, especially from the 1930s to 1980s, but aren't necessarily in the mood to read a full-on history book about it at the moment. If you enjoy fictional memoirs, are interested in Jamaica in any way, and are curious about Asian populations in the Caribbean, then read this book!

Favorite quotes:
"Except when I am with her and then it is like my feet are on the ground. Everything is sharp and focused and when I put my hand on the table like this, I can feel the wood under my fingers. And it feel like it matters. That it matters that I am sitting there with her. That it mean something. I feel happy just to watch her pour the tea and stir in the milk" (6-7). 

"'I thought he knew everything there was to know. I thought I was going to be cared for, protected, educated, groomed if you like. I thought he would make something of me... A grown man who came here and captured something young and innocent, something in its infancy, and he took what he wanted from it and when he was done he left us to fend for ourselves, John and me. Independent if you like.' [She] not just talking 'bout her and Meacham, she talking 'bout the British and Jamaica" (235-236).

"Maybe I could afford to take my foot off the gas, especially after I get a fright about how all of this could end, and manage to make it through OK. So I think it time for me to count my blessings and stop reaching after something that maybe was nothing more than a idea I had about myself. Maybe it time I just be who I am and settle for something that is real" (267).

Where'd You Go, Bernadette by Maria Semple

Focused on the sudden disappearance of a woman named Bernadette shortly before a scheduled family trip to Antarctica, this is one of those reads that was extremely popular among customers during my bookstore days, but that I had no interest in. It just seemed very... white. Very... self-entitled suburban mom. But that was years ago. When I went to the movies a couple months ago and saw a trailer for the film adaptation of Where'd You Go, Bernadette (out this summer), for some reason I was sold on the fact that Cate Blanchett is playing Bernadette. And then, during a rare trip to Target recently, I found the book on sale. I was in the mood for something light, and what greater deadline is there for finishing a book than its upcoming movie release date? So I bought it, and figured I'd make my way through it gradually. But when I actually started reading it, I couldn't stop.

I really didn't want to have sympathy for "Bern", as I referred to her in my notes written in the margins. Rich wife of one of the big names at Microsoft, has an unnecessarily large house for a family of three, exploits cheap Brown labor for someone to do everyday things that she could definitely do herself, is an elitist with no compassion for poor or homeless people, complains about everything having to do with Seattle (Canadians included), and is too good to talk to anyone who's not related to her. But then I got to know Bernadette. And to her credit, if I had no friends and was surrounded by dreadful PTA moms from my daughter's middle school who had nothing better to do than to plan inane activities and disparage me for not participating to their liking, I wouldn't talk to anyone either.  In fact, her disappearance is partly the result of a battle of pettiness with the head PTA mom that goes too far. Plus, Bern is explicitly described as agoraphobic on the back cover of this novel, and anxiety is definitely something I can relate to. Before moving to Seattle Bern was a successful architect, but after a handful of professional and personal disappointments she retreated to Seattle feeling like her glory days were over, like she could only mess things up instead of building works of art like she used to. And she could never predict what would happen when dealing with people, so most of them went out the window for her too.

But besides the sad things about Bern that reminded me of myself, I connected with this book because it's genuinely funny! I frequently chuckled while reading, and I learned a lot too! Traveling to Antarctica as a tourist? Now I have a picture in my mind of what that's like. And I appreciated being reminded how important Seattle is in the world of technology. I hear about the Bay Area all the time what with Silicon Valley and my friends who've lived in proximity to it, but I forget that the Seattle metro area is home to the main HQ of both Microsoft and Amazon, tech giants that are taking over the world have changed the world and affect local Seattle employment, housing, and transportation patterns. There's a bit in there about the architecture industry too, once we delve into Bern's past. So in addition to being a humorous story about a missing person, Where'd You Go Bernadette is impressively informative.

The only criticisms I have are that, firstly, I think Bern's husband gets off way too easy given his indiscretions and the cruel way he speaks to Bern during their last conversation pre-disappearance. He couldn't have at least been cussed out one good time? And secondly, I would've liked to know more about Bern's future. The novel ends on a hopeful note, but for all that Bern goes through I wanted to see more of how life turns around for her. If you like playing detective, enjoy eavesdropping on petty drama, are an artist going through a slow period, hate your hometown, could use a few laughs, or are interested in the decisions and sacrifices that moms make for themselves and their families, then read this book!

Favorite quotes:
"I would have thought God was forsaking me when he made me walk three blocks in the pouring rain. But it turns out there was something on that third block that God intended me to see" (67).

"I can pinpoint that as the single happiest moment of my life, because I realized then that Mom would always have my back. It made me feel like a giant. I raced back down the concrete ramp, faster than I ever had before, so fast I should have fallen, but I didn't fall, because Mom was in the world" (266-267).

"There was something unspeakably noble about their age, their scale, their lack of consciousness, their right to exist. Every single iceberg filled me with feelings of sadness and wonder" (315).

Friday, April 5, 2019

Scripture & Lyrics

"Don't forget to go when you leave!" 
-Phylicia Rashad (in Drake's music video for "In My Feelings")

"But one thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me" 
-Philippians 3:13-14 (NIV)

Sunday, March 31, 2019

BOOKS! (The Autograph Man + No-No Boy)

It's the end of the month, time to write a new review! I found the first of these two books at a local library's used book sale. I remembered enjoying White Teeth and wanted something funny to read, plus was intrigued by the Chinese-Jewish titular character and the author's insights on fame. The other was a recommendation from a college friend that I bought (possibly around the same time I bought The Martyred?), and then let sit for a while until the timing felt right. I'd yet to read any books about the internment of Japanese Americans and how life was for them after World War II ended, and figured the novel would be a solid start.

The Autograph Man by Zadie Smith

Combine unresolved grief with a quarter-life crisis, chronic selfishness, low self-esteem, and a love for old Hollywood movie stars and their artifacts, and you've got what's bugging Alex-Li. His father passed away suddenly when he was 12 years old, and 15 years later he still hasn't come to terms with it. During this particular time in Alex-Li's life, his best friend Adam (a young Black Jewish man who's at once the most devout and the most eccentric of their friend group) insists that Alex-Li do a traditional Jewish memorial service for his dad. They argue about it every year, but this time Adam's not letting it go.

Despite having a Jewish mom and having lived his whole life in a London suburb with a significant Jewish population, Alex-Li is not particularly religious. And yet, for years he's been obsessively writing notes for a supposed book wherein he categorizes things, people, and aspects of life as "Jewish" or "goyish". Alex-Li also spends much of his time obsessively categorizing celebrities, because he's an "autograph man" who collects and trades items signed or written by famous people. Fame is always on his mind, not only as someone who desperately wants to feel significant in his own life, but even more so as someone whose bread and butter relies on the monetary value that fame confers on his wares. And his wares suddenly become exponentially more valuable when a bout of intoxicated stupor leads him to New York City, where he meets Kitty Alexander (his favorite actress of all time) and somehow gets unique access to some of her most personal possessions.

I'm curious about something. We spend a lot of time with Alex-Li and his friends, including the aforementioned Adam, Adam's sister (and Alex-Li's on-and-off girlfriend) Esther, gentle and nervous Joseph against whom Alex-Li has a grudge for some paranoid reason, and Rubenfine, the smart aleck who became a rabbi because his dad wanted him to. Plus there's his handful of friends who are also autograph men. And what I'm about to say isn't an issue with a book, this is simply me thinking about Alex-Li as a person. I'm just... not sure why any of these people are still his friends, or why Esther stays with him? He's not a cruel person, but he is incredibly careless. Astonishingly oblivious at best. And he's remarkably self-absorbed in both his endeavors and his despair, regardless of whether his actions inconvenience or hurt others, or whether his life is truly as bereft as he imagines it to be. There are some things he does (or doesn't do) that would run off even the best of people. Do his friends stick around because they've known each other all their lives? Do they still feel sorry for him and cut him slack because his dad died? Because they know Alex-Li is a sensitive person? But then, what does Alex-Li do for them, as a friend? What does he contribute to any of his relationships, other than amusement and/or sex? I'm not saying that Alex-Li doesn't deserve friendship because he's sad and has destructive habits. What I am saying is that, the fact that he doesn't lose a single friend (or girlfriend) during the course of his mess is nothing short of a miracle.

To put it plainly, The Autograph Man is an existential novel that's also clever and disarmingly funny. This is a perfect choice for when you just want to carry a book around with you for a while, one that takes you on a slow ride and makes you laugh and think in equal measure. If you are a Zadie Smith fan, are depressed, are a movie buff, have ever had a bad friend or been one, need a few laughs, have a penchant for winding tangents, have any interest in or knowledge of Judaism, or wonder what it'd be like to finally meet your idol in real life, then read this book!

Favorite quotes:
"Groupies hate musicians. Moviegoers hate movie stars. Autograph Men hate celebrities. We love our gods. But we do not love our subjection" (288).

"There will never be that moment, don't you get it? When you've had all the different people you want, when you're done, when you settle for me. People don't settle for people. They resolve to be with them. It takes faith. You draw a circle in the sand and you agree to stand in it and believe in it. It's faith, you idiot" (291).

No-No Boy by John Okada

I'm thankful for the care and context that Ruth Ozeki and John Okada put into writing the foreword and preface (respectively) for this novel, so I could gain a nascent understanding of just how important it is. This story about a young man's return home after internment was published in 1957, and the general reaction was that it was too soon. World War II hadn't ended that long ago, and most Japanese Americans were trying to re-stabilize and get the rest of America's ire off their backs. Okada died before his novel was rediscovered and later re-issued 20 years later, when it finally started to make the impact it deserved to make.

Basically, after Japan bombed Pearl Harbor and the U.S. government forced thousands of people of Japanese ancestry from the West Coast into internment camps, the government also made all eligible men answer two written questions about their willingness to be drafted and to swear allegiance to the United States, forsaking all other allegiances (especially to Japan). Many answered "yes" to both questions and were able to supposedly prove their loyalty to Uncle Sam by fighting for the U.S. in WW2, while those who answered "no" to both (you guessed it, the "no-no boys") were put in prison. Ichiro, the main character of this novel, wasn't particularly pro-Japan, but was influenced by his fiercely pro-Japanese mother and also resented being plucked from his life and treated like a pariah by the U.S. government, so he answered "no". Two years later, we meet Ichiro as he returns to his hometown of Seattle and tries to pick up the pieces of his life.

Being interned is devastating enough, but being a no-no boy also earns him the scorn of most fellow Japanese people, so when Ichiro first returns home he has no idea where he belongs. His parents were able to take over a small grocery store that a different Japanese family owned, so he has somewhere to stay, but little else. He doesn't know what to do with himself (he was an engineering student prior to internment), and he is full of confusion and rage, most of which he turns on his parents or himself. It was hard for me to keep reading at times because the self-blame that he carries is so heartbreakingly heavy. This is the late '40s, before Civil Rights and counterculture movements, and conformity is still highly valued and expected. Ichiro and men like him can't help but buy into the belief that rather than righteous, their resistance was a grave mistake, and that everything they've lost or are suffering through as a result is their own fault. Nevermind the fact that many non-Japanese people still harbor scorn or suspicion toward Japanese people anyway, regardless of who served in the U.S. military and who didn't.

Over time, Ichiro manages to find friends in other young Japanese Americans: an aimless fellow no-no boy named Freddie, a veteran named Kenji, and a woman named Emi who owns a farm. But even they have their own post-war struggles. Freddie's recklessness starts to catch up with him, Kenji has a progressive leg injury, and Emi's a lonely widow-adjacent who unwaveringly believes in the redeeming power of assimilating to American (white) cultural norms. Each of them is an example to Ichiro of what his life could have been or could be going forward, and he floats between Seattle and Portland desperately seeking a new start.

I have to applaud how brilliantly Okada demonstrates the way generational differences shape Ichiro's story. Many Issei (first generation Japanese Americans) saw moving from Japan to the States as temporary: they'd settle in, work really hard while raising their families, earn and save a ton of money, and then eventually return to live comfortable lives in Japan. Many of them didn't speak English or see themselves as part of America, unlike their American-born Nisei (second generation) children who grew up feeling very much both Japanese and American. Ichiro's parents are one such Issei couple, which makes it nearly impossible for them to fully understand how hard it is for Ichiro to make sense of what's happened and live a so-called normal life again. But Ichiro's got it even worse because his mom refuses to believe that Japan lost the war. She believes that the empire will send a ship to bring all overseas Japanese back to Japan, that the ones who fought for the U.S. aren't "real" Japanese people, and that Ichiro is worthy to be her son solely because he resisted the draft. Even when she and Ichiro butt heads, Ichiro's younger brother distances himself from them, her relatives in Japan send letters begging for food and supplies, and her normally passive and compliant husband blows up at her, she's adamant that Japan was victorious and she'll get to go home soon.

In a way, Ichiro's self-flagellation testifies to how detrimentally effective internment and imprisonment were as humiliation tactics. He returns to Seattle burdened with shame and regret, desperate for redemption, for a second chance, for any form of approval that would signify that there's still a place for him to belong in American society. I don't think it's any coincidence that the two people who suffer the most abrupt and yet unforgettably violent deaths in No-No Boy are the two people who represent what Ichiro most loathes about himself, past "mistakes" and present predicament included. If you want to learn about Japanese American internment, are interested in racial politics, or have ever blamed yourself for something that wasn't truly your fault, then read this book!

Favorite quotes:
"But I did not remember or I could not remember because, when one is born in America and learning to love it more and more every day without thinking it, it is not an easy thing to discover suddenly that being American is a terribly incomplete thing if one's face is not white and one's parents are Japanese of the country Japan which attacked America" (49). 

"Maybe the answer is that there is no in. Maybe the whole damned country is pushing and shoving and screaming to get into someplace that doesn't exist, because they don't know that the outside could be the inside if only they would stop all this pushing and shoving and screaming, and they haven't got enough sense to realize that" (143).

Thursday, March 14, 2019

The Honey Bun Effect

[Ma on pitbulls, an evolution]

2016: I won't be having no pitbull in my house!

Also 2016: Well, Julia's not like other pitbulls, and I want her to feel welcome.

2017: I really feel like Julia was meant to be with us.

2018: I was watching this news story and it's a shame how many misconceptions people have about pitbulls.

2018 and 2019: He was a real nice-looking dog! (telling me about random pitbulls she sees online/in the news)

Thursday, February 28, 2019

BOOKS! (Open Your Hand)

Today is the last day of Black History Month, also known as February. While this book doesn't have a whole lot to do with Black history (though I am binge listening to the podcast "Black on Black Cinema" as I write this review!), I was really looking forward to writing about it before February ended. It may be the eleventh hour, but I'm still meeting that goal. This memoir is written by a former professor of mine whose writing class I took in my first semester of college. Said professor affirmed me and my writing abilities in so many ways during that time, so I was incredibly excited when she announced on LinkedIn that this book would be coming out in the fall of 2018. Due to other reading priorities I didn't end up finishing her book until the beginning of this month, and now here I am finally writing about it at the end of this month.

Open Your Hand: Teaching as a Jew, Teaching as an American by Ilana Blumberg

In Open Your Hand, Professor Blumberg not only shares relevant insight about her personal life, but also delineates her educational background and teaching philosophy. As such, the book spans from her own education in Jewish private schools and well-respected universities in the States, to her nearly 30 years of experience teaching across varying classrooms, institutions, and countries (she currently teaches at a university in Israel). She mainly draws from three notable phases in her career: teaching reading and writing to pre-school students at a New York City day school called Beit Rabban (1992-1994), teaching writing to political science/public policy freshmen in James Madison College at Michigan State University (Fall 2011), and volunteer teaching poetry to students at "Smith" Middle School, which I presume to have been in Detroit (2012, more on my presumption later).

I've known for years that Professor Blumberg is a dynamic professor who determinedly guides her students to read and write well, but reading this book truly cemented for me how undeniably fortunate I was to have her as an educator, even for a relatively brief period of time. It's made clear on numerous occasions that she views the methods and goals of teaching as an extension of her belief that we are obligated to help and care for others, especially children.This belief is informed by her own inclinations and professional acumen, as well as by her Jewish faith. In fact, the title Open Your Hand references a Hebrew verse that implores believers to help their fellows in need. I still can't decide whether I am more impressed by her genuine care for people or how profound and intuitive of a writer's mind she has. Especially when reading about her Beit Rabban and MSU days, there were a few passages where her approach to teaching students almost made me cry. She is a writer at heart, and she prioritizes humanity in the academic process. What a gift! 

Speaking of MSU, I gasped when I came across the first of the book's multiple "Michigan State University, East Lansing, Fall 2011" sections. That was my first semester in college, the same semester that I took Professor Blumberg's class! She wrote about us!? Maybe even mentioned me!? Silly, I know. But alas, the group of students she focuses on is actually a different freshman writing class, in my same college, which she must have taught during that same semester. And honestly, now I'm grateful that my class wasn't the one highlighted, because apparently this particular class caused her to have a personal crisis. A certain group discussion unveiled the callousness that many of her students harbored toward people who didn't have the same access to educational opportunities that they'd had; they displayed neither empathy for, nor sense of connection to (nor an accurate knowledge of) failing American schools and the students attending them. Professor Blumberg was understandably shocked by this discovery at a point where the students had seemed to be making so much progress, and she couldn't help but reconsider the efficacy of her work as an educator aiming to shape her students into aware, active, and empathetic citizens.

Now back to "Smith" Middle School in Detroit. Of the three learning institutions she writes most about, this is the only one whose name is anonymized and whose city is not specified. (Although, if you're familiar enough with the Metro Detroit area and its school systems, judging from the limited details that Professor Blumberg gives about "Smith" and the time it takes for her to travel to the school from Ann Arbor, it's fairly easy to deduce that it's in Detroit. It could just as well be in Pontiac, but it's probably too far north given the context.) But maybe the less-than-specific characterization of the school is exactly the point, besides the obvious liability precautions. After retelling the painful wake-up call that her MSU students gave her,  she then spends two chapters writing about one such school, and that school was "Smith". An underfunded school the likes of which exist throughout the States, and through which the poor, Black, Brown, and otherwise under-served are funneled year after year.

I must say that I also appreciate how, especially when discussing her volunteer activities at "Smith" and her family's relocation to Israel, Professor Blumberg is transparent about the privileges she's been afforded. She went to private Jewish schools her whole life until she attended universities which were also private. While teaching in Michigan, she and her husband owned a house in Ann Arbor. Similar to her own parents, she has the freedom and access to choose which state or country to live in, which learning institutions to teach at, which schools to send her children to. And sure, there are moments recounted in the "Smith" chapters where she obviously wasn't familiar with the culture of the school and its community, didn't always know what to do, was sometimes out of her depth (she was a visitor, after all, even if a regular one). But for me, what comes through consistently is that she endeavors to approach each classroom and student with respect, mindful of her own position but also seeking to do what she can to educate in a meaningful way.

Of course I'm biased because I think well of Professor Blumberg and parts of Open Your Hand recall some of my own experiences, but still I have no apprehension in saying that this is a thoughtful, worthwhile, and very readable combination of memoir, personal teaching philosophy, and educational theory. If you are an educator, are deciding what school to place a child in, care about public education, went to MSU (James Madison College especially) and/or are from Michigan, are an avid/aspiring writer or reader, are interested in Judaism across continents, or remember a teacher who significantly impacted your life, then read this book!

Favorite quotes:
"I could tell from the way this classroom anticipated children―from the way it hosted them, and respected them, and did not condescend to them―that it held the beginning of a life of learning" (24).

"Together, we encountered the fundamental drama of memoir: there was a time I knew less and now I know more, and I would like to dramatize how I came to know more and share the knowledge acquired, so that the reader too may benefit from it, minus the labor, and often the pain, of living my particular circumstances" (33).

"my teacher and mentor, the writer Mary Gordon, had said many times to us that the thing most young writers needed to learn was simply to slow down. Not to rush on or rush past moments that needed slower, more sensitive, and often loving attention. I have come to feel that this sort of slowness is love. Love for your subject, for the act of writing, for your reader. Slowing down." (47-48).

"sometimes the gift our teachers give us is the way they see us, or even simply that they see us. My eyes lift to see my teacher because my teacher is capable of seeing me" (168).

Monday, January 14, 2019

ドラマ (Dorama) Time! 21

Hallelujah! I'm finally writing a Japanese drama review about the two dramas that I watched during the second half of 2018. I actually thoroughly enjoyed these two summer shows; it just took me so long to finish them because I was either in a funk or setting them aside for other things. But I made it! I've already got a list of dramas from the Autumn 2018 broadcast season that I want to start, and I'm sure I'll have even more shows to look forward to once I find a comprehensive rundown of upcoming Winter 2019 dramas. But for now, Summer 2018 is where I'm at. Both of today's selections were watched with Japanese subtitles, on MapleStage and Love TV Show respectively. Let's get started!


高嶺の花 (Takane no Hana/Born to Be a Flower/An Unreachable Flower) - NTV/2018
  • Tsukishima Momo (Ishihara Satomi, 'Jimi ni Sugoi~Kouetsu Girl Kouno Etsuko') is the potential heir to a wealthy family that has been active in the traditional art of flower arranging (ikebana) for generations. She got dumped on her wedding day but is still not over her ex.
  • Momo gets in an accident after stalking her ex, and takes her mangled bicycle to the bike shop of a regular but intelligent dude named Kazama (a.k.a. Puu-san).
  • Momo is intrigued by Puu-san and his friends, and starts dating him, hiding her prestigious identity from all of them at first. Puu-san is most definitely the rebound guy, and he knows it, but he falls for her anyway. She falls for him too, eventually.
  • Momo's father prepares to choose the next head of the Tsukishima family and business, and it's between Momo and her little sister. Little sis is being manipulated by both her mother and her boyfriend who each want to take over Tsukishima for themselves. Who will prevail?
  • At the same time, Momo learns the truth about her breakup and might have a chance to get back together with her ex. Does she want that old thang back more than she loves Puu-san?
When I heard about this drama I didn't need much convincing. Ishihara Satomi? Ikebana? Intrigue? Rock n' Roll? Count me in! Momo is well-groomed while Puu-san is moreself-taught, but they're able to have these randomly deep, intellectual conversations about the meaning of art and artistry. And then at some point these conversations hilariously collapse into typical couple's tiffs about nothing. This happens quite a few times in different episodes, and I found that to be such a smart way of fleshing out the tone of their relationship. Scenes like these show how Puu-san, while not an artist, greatly understands art and can understand the duties and pressures Momo faces as the potential heir of a longstanding family of traditional artists. These scenes also show that he's not just the rebound; Momo cares for him and what he has to say. Their relationship is real, even if it's not a huge priority for her.

Momo does treat Puu-san unfairly on a number of occasions. But as part of the audience... I kind of get it? I think the show does an excellent job demonstrating a number of complicated dynamics, namely that of a victim of betrayal turning around and inflicting the same hurt on someone else, and the burden and sacrifice that are required for an artist to be successful. In order for Momo exercise her passion for flower arranging AND maintain her family legacy, everyone and everything else must come second to the art. I think part of the reason why their relationship works, despite Momo's selfishness and indecisiveness, is that Momo's not intentionally cruel and Puu-san is not completely naive. They may seem like an odd mismatch but when things are good between them, they are overwhelmingly lovely to watch.

I had two main issues with this show. I would've loved for Momo to see a therapist. She's obviously dealing with some sort of disorder, since she loses her sense of taste for a long time after getting dumped, and she even has a couple of panic attacks during other parts of the show. But I guess we're to understand that once she fully reckons with her identity and her place in life, then those mental issues just go away? Nah, fam. And there's also this random perpetually angry delinquent kid whom Puu-san mentors, who likes to draw and eventually travels around Japan on a bike that he stole from Puu-san. He only serves as the butt of some fat jokes and infrequent comic relief, and I honestly think his character is wholly unnecessary.

ダブル・ファンタジー (Daburu Fantajii/Double Fantasy) - WOWOW/2018
  • Natsu is a sucessful screenwriter whose husband used to direct TV productions but gave that up to do farmwork and housekeeping at their home in the 'burbs. Natsu no longer respects him as an artist nor is satisfied with him as a husband.
  • Natsu reconnects with a former fling, a much older and more established theatre director who pursued her when she was a newbie writer in the industry. They begin an affair and dude is immediately possessive of her.
  • Natsu leaves her husband and moves into her own place back in Tokyo. Meanwhile she also reconnects with a former classmate Ryosuke, who's now a journalist. He's married and has a child. Natsu begins an affair with him as well.
  • Theatre director dude goes cold on Natsu, her husband and mother tag team to try and guilt her into returning to her husband, her relationship with Ryosuke gets more complicated, and Natsu's writing is starting to suffer. How will she handle this?
Just like in 'Ghostwriter', Mizukawa Asami is once again playing a writer. Like 'Hirugao' and even more similarly to past WOWOW cable drama 'Kenja no Ai', this show only has 5 episodes and focuses heavily on women's sexuality. So in a way 'Double Fantasy' felt familiar to me. The show actually became even more interesting when I realized that Natsu never had a rebellious phase due to her domineering mother, and her sexual escapades and newfound independence are in part making up for lost time. She never had a chance to confront her past trauma and for a while exercises her freedom through the relationships with the men in her life. Not going to spoil how the show ends, but Natsu does come to a handful of personal conclusions. The phrase "I don't need no man" comes to mind...

Again, I found both of these dramas to be incredibly enjoyable woman-centered shows. My fave this time around has be 'Takane no Hana', though. It's so well written, Ishihara Satomi is captivating in it, I've never seen more flower arrangements in my life, it's not just a love story but also a relatively deep look at an artist's internal crisis, and the cinematography and sound design evoke summertime in Japan so well that it makes my heart hurt. But please, definitely watch 'Double Fantasy' as well!

(poster images from DramaWiki and AsianWiki, respectively)