Saturday, May 13, 2017

BOOKS! (The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love + Bound Feet and Western Dress)

Today's review features two used books! The first I got from a local library book sale (was intrigued by the fact that it won a Pulitzer). The other one I found in my local Little Free Library (was simply curious).

The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love by Oscar Hijuelos

This would be a fantastic novel to pair with the animated film Chico & Rita on, say, a university syllabus for course about pre-Castro Cuban music and migration to the United States. Coincidentally I caught the film on TV not too long before spotting this novel, which was fitting since they are both stories focused on Cuban musicians set during the same era. Originally from Las Piñas (in a province once known as Oriente), the Castillo brothers develop as artists in Havana before joining a wave of Cuban musicians who have been immigrating to New York since the 1920s.They arrive in 1945 and are young men living it up, but not without their troubles.

Younger brother Nestor (trumpet, vocals) has carried melancholy and anxiety with him since childhood, always feeling like something is missing especially after his first love dumped him back in Cuba. Older brother Cesar (band leader, vocals) is a restless macho man with daddy issues who let his pride ruin his marriage back in Cuba, and in NYC is only concerned with playing music and having a good time (copious amounts of sex, food, and alcohol). They lead an orchestra called The Mambo Kings, whose modest renown eventually scores them an appearance on 'I Love Lucy' and a nationwide tour. But Cesar loses the will to play music after Nestor's untimely death, and he doesn't take the inevitable loss of youth and virility well either. So after living in New York for three decades and watching the high life and his brother slip through his fingers with seemingly nothing to show for it, Cesar holes up in a hotel room to die, drinking alcohol, playing his old records, and reflecting on the past. The novel is mostly Cesar's memory of the past, as we revisit his life as a musician. You have ample (and I mean, ample) reasons to dislike the guy, but since he's all you've got to take you through the story, you want to sympathize with him despite yourself.

Mambo Kings is looong and I certainly wouldn't be in a rush to read it again soon, but it is incredibly thorough. If you're interested in Cuban culture, New York and its club scene after WW2, jazz and Latin music styles of the time, or simply enjoy reading emotive prose about love, passion (lots of sex scenes!), and loss, then read this book.

Favorite quotes:
"What did he seek to accomplish? To write a song communicating such pure love and desire that María, far away, would magically reinstate him into the center of her heart. He though that she would 'hear' these melodies in her dreams and that something would possess her... and he would hear a knocking at the door [and] find María of his soul standing there, this woman who had somehow become the lost key to his happiness" (46). 

"The guys who had it rough were the black musicians, who were treated in some places like lepers. No violence against them, just a bad silence when they'd go walking into a store, a disenchantment when they'd walk into a  lodge for the hungers' special breakfast, plates slapped down on the table, drinks poured quickly, eyes averted... Spirits were dampened, especially when the weather was bad, because in their travels through the heartland of America these fellows sometimes felt an Arctic coldness of spirit that made New York seem like Miami Beach" (180-81).

Bound Feet and Western Dress by Pang-Mei Natasha Chang 

While giving attention to Chang's experiences growing up and fitting in (or not) as a Chinese-American girl in New England, this biography mostly focuses on her grandfather's sister Yu-i, whom Chang first read about in a book while studying Chinese history at Harvard. (Yu-i and her legendary poet first husband, Hsü Chih-mo, were often known as the first couple in China to get a modern divorce.) Inspired to learn more, Chang spent the next five years interviewing her great-aunt and writing this book. Born in 1900, Yu-i was married at 15 to the then-young scholar who saw her as little more than a filial obligation and country bumpkin. She ended up moving around from China to England, Paris, Berlin, back to China, and then to Hong Kong before emigrating to New York City in the 1970s.

The book's title refers to a conversation between Yu-i and Chih-mo in which he demanded a divorce because they weren't suited for each other ("bound feet and Western dress do not go together"). It also refers to how Yu-i's personal inclinations often went against tradition, as she refused to have her feet bound as a child, repeatedly endeavored to become educated even though girls' education wasn't prioritized, lived as a single mom in Europe, and eventually became a teacher, bank vice president, property owner, and businesswoman back in China all by 1928. And yet, as remarkable as Yu-i was, she neither reveled in her own accomplishments nor lambasted her ex-husband in this book. She learned to support herself because she had to, and as he mother of her ex's children she acted as daughter-in-law to his family even after he remarried and later died.

Aside from learning about Yu-i, I learned a lot more than I'd expected to about Chinese traditional values, especially in regard to women's duties as daughters, wives, and daughters-in-law. It's very similar to the information you might get from The Joy Luck Club, for example, but it includes more detailed explanations of customs, spiritual beliefs, Chinese family structures, and where these tenets come from.

Favorite quotes:
"Rice was the food of the country, to be respected in all its phases: the ripe grain in the husk, the paddy, glutinous rice, rice in the straw, hulled rice and cooked rice. To honor the farmers who planted, tilled, harvested and husked the rice, one was not supposed to leave even one kernel at the bottom of one's ricebowl" (177).  

"No matter how Western or progressive his thoughts, I believed Hsü Chi-mo to be Chinese, for the Western love that he sought did not save him in the end" (199).

Saturday, April 22, 2017

BOOKS! (Life Is Short but Wide + The Magic Strings of Frankie Presto)

Today I've got a library book sale find, and a book that I bought over a year ago back when I worked at a bookstore. I bought the first book out of pure curiosity. The second book I bought mostly for the hype, as its author is kind of a local celebrity here, and the store I worked at hosted a signing event that attracted an almost obscene amount of people.

Life is Short but Wide by J. California Cooper

The premise on the back cover is purposely vague, so at first I didn't have a strong inclination to buy this book. But I knew that it was written by a black woman, that it was about black people in a small Oklahoma town (and I know nothing about Oklahoma), and that it was cheap. So I bought it. The first half is about a fictional town called Wideland and the black/brown community that comprises part of it. The Strong family are the focus, buying their own land and house, and going through the regular ups and downs of life along with their neighbors. The second half is largely about Myine (pronounced "mine") , the only granddaughter of the family who also ends up being the last Strong.

At first her story is a Black American country version of Cinderella. A tale in which Myine gets sold by her dad's mistress for $100 to be ordered around and molested by white people for five years, only to be brought back to her home as her stepmom's servant. This subplot has a good ending, but I'll leave you to find out what happens. As an adult, Myine falls in love with her longtime friend and neighbor Herman, but it takes a while. Life Is Short but Wide is supposed to be a sweet tale of old love in a small town, a rare treat to counter our obsession with youth and youth-related things (beauty, wild adventures, young love, etc). But it inadvertently reads as a cautionary tale, or it did for me at least. Spend most of your adult life scorning how lonely you are, when you see the person you love (and who you know loves you) nearly every day? But you're too scared to say anything, so you wait until your 70s or 80s to finally open up and start the relationship? Naw. No ma'am.

It really is a wonderful story though. A "Y-shaped" story of how Myine and Herman are brought together, and  a reminder of how tumultuous the 20th century was. Multiple characters observe or even lament that time is flying by, with too many things happening and the world changing too fast. Most of the action takes place between the 1920s and 1990s, less than a century, only two or three generations. And yet within that time frame are almost too many advancements, tragedies, wars, movements, trends, achievements, and controversies to count. My grandpa often tells me, "Just keep living," and this novel is an embodiment of that.

Favorite quotes:
"But if you are counting ages, you ain't paying enough attention to the story no way" (3). 

"They lived, they loved, and her being crippled did not bother them. Their faith in their God, and the adventure of their life, made them ready when love had come. Their love, and passions, made them indestructible, so far, in the life they had chosen to live. Together" (263).

The Magic Strings of Frankie Presto by Mitch Albom

The are two things you need to remember when reading Mitch Albom novels: 1) Everyone and everything is connected, and 2) Albom stays doing too much. I read two of his books when I was younger and don't remember anything about them, but reading this one reminded me, Ohhh, yep, Mitch Albom definitely wrote this.This time we get to see Albom flex his music head muscle along with his storytelling muscle. The titular character, Francicsco de Asis Pascual Presto, or Francisco Rubio, or Frankie Presto, is a fictional musician who was born Villarreal, Spain during the Spanish Civil War. Having learned classical guitar in his hometown, he gets shipped to England as a preteen and a chance meeting with Django Reinhardt takes him to the US, where he's immersed in jazz, soul, and country music styles in Detroit and the South. Accumulating more musical skills and acquaintances along the way, playing in various bands eventually leads him to rock n' roll stardom in the 1960s. But fame is fickle, and pivotal tragedies and personal flaws lead him to a quiet and solitary life, almost abandoning music for good. He dies in front of an audience back in Villarreal, a spectacular moment witnessed by many but understand by none. And throughout this journey he has the same guitar, each of whose six strings turns blue whenever his playing ends up saving a life. Hence, Magic Strings.

The story alternates between the end of his life (famous artists and industry people gathering at his funeral to recall him as they knew him), and the beginning of his life (as narrated by music personified, who fills in all the parts of Frankie's story that no one, sometimes not even Frankie, knows). So you get Frankie's story told backward and forward, and eventually both trajectories meet to give you a whole picture of his life. I'd expected not to like it because I'd only purchased it based on hype that went stale a year and a half ago. But I actually thoroughly enjoyed it!

My only criticism is that Music's characterization is awkward in parts. It's supposed to be one of many talents that are out there working, often imperceptibly, in human lives. And while I believe in the power of music, Music the narrator has too much power (all seeing, all knowing, intervening when it sees fit) and too much space to pontificate for it to just be one of many. Maybe Albom really, really wanted Music to be God, but using "God" probably would have led to the novel being miscategorized and not selling as much, so he made God "Music" instead. Most of the time it worked, but not consistently enough for me not to feel like something was off. Other than that, as homage to musical genres and prophets, as a glance at the various paths that a musician's life can take, Magic Strings is certainly a worthwhile read. Even what it means to be a musician, what music as an art form is and how musicians employ it, such notions vary in innumerable ways. If you like legends, love stories, pop culture or modern music history, then read this book.

Favorite quotes:
"Did you ever notice how music sounds different played outdoors?...That's because I was born in the open air, in the breaks of ocean waves and the whistling of sandstorms, the hoots of owls and the cackles of tui birds. I travel in echoes. I ride the breeze. I was forged in nature, rugged and raw. Only man shapes my edges to make me beautiful. Which you have done. Granted. But along the way, you have made assumptions, like the more silent the enviornment, the purer I am. Nonsense" (15-16).

"Could you imagine a bird imprisoning another bird? A horse jailing another horse? As a free from of expression, I will never understand it. I can only say that some of my saddest sounds have been heard in such places. A song inside a cage is never a song. It is a plea" (114).

Friday, April 21, 2017

Memories, Movement

(Or, "Unnecessary Things That I Remember While Driving, Walking, or Trying to Fall Asleep")

That one time in college when I was at self-checkout at the grocery store with my hair wrapped in a scarf, and a white teenybopper tried to pay me to run her items with mine so she wouldn't have to wait in line.

That one time I went to the pediatrician, but randomly a different doctor was there this time, and she warned me to take my adrenal medication regularly, otherwise I might not be able to have children later on.

That one time in elementary school when I was a huge Destiny's Child fan, and I asked the roller rink DJ to play "Apple Pie a la Mode" and he said he'd see what he could do. Stayed until the rink closed that day, and he never played the song.

Sunday, April 16, 2017

ドラマ (Dorama) Time! 17

As usual, the spring broadcast season is starting in Japan, meanwhile I'm stateside and just now finishing my selections for winter. I watched the first show with English subtitles on KissAsian (here), the second with and without subs on DramaCool (here), and the third without subs on DramaCool (here).

突然ですが、明日結婚します (Totsuzen desu ga, ashita kekkon shimasu/It's Sudden, But Tomorrow We're Getting Married/Everyones Getting Married) - Fuji TV/2017

The only reason I gave this show a try was because it seemed like a manga-based romantic drama that would hold my attention, something like 'Shitsuren Chocolatier'. I was vaguely aware that the leads are both musicians/actors (Flumpool guitarist and lead vocalist Yamamura Ryuta, model/singer Nishiuchi Mariya), but I don't know them well enough to call myself a fan. The gist is that a popular TV announcer named Ryu (Yamamura), who refuses to get married, ends up in a relationship with a bank employee named Asuka (Nishiuchi), who dreams of getting married and becoming a housewife. The thing is, they get along extremely well and have excellent chemistry except for when the topic of marriage comes up. But even then, as stubborn as they are about their preferences, they respect each other's opinions. If only Asuka's rich finance colleague and Ryu's former lover weren't each trying to keep them apart. Between the main couple, obviously one side "wins" out in the end, and I'm sure you can guess which one. But the progression toward that change of heart isn't heavy handed. The show has only 9 episodes instead of 10, and the last episode is not very good (I've yet to see a good rushed ending!), but overall the show is a fun look at the motivations people have for getting into relationships. Watching Nakamura Anne ('From 5 to 9') play the "I don't need a man" best friend and Takaoka Saki ('Chijin no Ai') get her mature-but-conniving seductress thing on are also huge pluses.

Quartet (カルテット/Karutetto) - TBS/2017

The show's premise, the fact that Shiina Ringo wrote the theme song, and the fact that Mitsushima Hikari ('Woman') stars in it sold me on this show. Four musicians who did the grown-up thing and relegated their musical talent to mere hobbies meet coincidentally at a Tokyo karaoke spot (use karaoke  for practice rooms, who woulda thunk?), and decide to form a string quartet. This quartet, called Quartet Donuts Hole, is based at the second violinist's family cottage in Karuizawa. They each have less-than-stellar pasts, but lead violinist Maki is the most mysterious, speaking the softest and saying the least about herself. She becomes the anchor of the quartet and the four-way friendship, but little does she know that cellist Suzume (Mitsushima Hikari) has been paid by Maki's mother-in-law to investigate Maki's involvment in the disappearance of her husband. The humor is dry, the adult awkwardness is so satisfying, and the secrets revealed about each member emphasize their humanity rather than casting them as bad people. They've each endured their share of disappointment, but they also have a rare opportunity to re-engage in their musical passions with a new group of friends, long after what's often called the youthful "prime" of one's life. 'Quartet' is a slow burn, but it was my favorite of the season!

奪い愛、冬 (Ubai Ai, Fuyu/Stolen Love, Winter) - TV Asahi/2017

 'Totsuzen desu ga' gave this show a shout-out (and it turns out that 'Ubai Ai, Fuyu' reciprocated), and since I'm still waiting on info about all the spring 2017 dramas to come out I decided to watch it. I actually just finished it a few hours ago. What's great about this show is that it's only 7 episodes, and not a minute is wasted. What I also really like about this show is that it has not one, not two, but four good n' crazy heifers (GCH). And not all of them are women, either! When talking about 2016's adultery-focused drama 'Seiseisuru hodo, Aishiteru', I expressed my profound appreciation for the scorned wife character in that show, the determined and violently spiteful woman who cuts through the mushiness and will stop at nothing to hold onto what's hers. 'Ubai Ai, Fuyu' is basically a lower-budget, more interesting version of 'Seiseisuru hodo' except the adulterous couple isn't as naive, and the GCHs move the story along more than the main leads do. Graphic designers Hikari (Kurashina Kana, 'FIRST CLASS 2') and Shin (Otani Ryouhei, 'Nigehaji') were madly in love until Shin abruptly dumped her and left her heart in shambles. Eventually Hikari  found new love with Kouta, her current fiance and fellow designer. But when work reunites Hikari and her now-married ex for the first time in years, chaos ensues. There's Hikari and Kouta's co-worker Shuko, who thrives on mess and tries to break the couple up for the fun of it. Kouta's elitist mom hates Hikari and uses her nice-nasty ways to humiliate Hikari at every chance. Kouta (Miura Shouhei, 'Suki na Hito ga Iru Koto') becomes so insecure and jealous about Shin's re-entry into Hikari's life that he has a breakdown and becomes mentally and emotionally abusive. But Shin's wife Ran (Mizuno Miki, '37.5°C no Namida' and 'I'M HOME') takes the cake! I don't want to reveal too much because you have to witness Ran's madness yourself, but she's determined to ruin Hikari. Ruin her. In every sense of he word. If you love intense draaaamaaa, then this show is for you.

All of these shows were great in their own way, but like I said, 'Quartet' was my favorite! Now, onward to spring! 

Sunday, April 9, 2017

BOOKS! (Joe Turner's Come and Gone + Pachinko)

Lately I've been reading so much but not writing! Sometimes it takes me a while to get started on reviews because while reading I think about all the things I could say about a book. Usually I respect what I read enough to let it marinate rather than rushing to write about it. But I never want to give it all away, and there's no point in spending hours agonizing over something that's supposed be fun! So without further delay, here are a book that I found at a bargain book warehouse and another that I found at Costco.

Joe Turner's Come and Gone by August Wilson

This is the fourth of August Wilson's Century Cycle plays that I've read, and the last one that I have in my possession (need to find the other ones!). This is undoubtedly my favorite. Set in the 1910s, it's late enough for the Great Migration to begin, but still early enough for people who were born into slavery to remember not being free. Seth and Bertha Holly run a boardinghouse in Pittsburgh that Black people of various backgrounds pass through. Once such person is Herald Loomis, formerly a deacon and sharecropper, and one of countless free men captured by Joe Turner and forced to work in a prison chain gang for seven years, beginning  in 1901. Arriving in Pittsburgh with his young daughter, he's been searching for his wife for the past three years. Born free, he was made a slave, long after emancipation, by a white man who had the connections to get away with it. Loomis is the most crucial character in this play, opening wounds and asking questions that are echoed in many Black people's experiences. Questions of movement and loss, new beginnings, agency, crossed paths, missed opportunities, identity dismantled and reframed. We can't be that worthless if they won't leave us alone...but why us? Why won't they leave us alone? Loomis believes that reuniting with his wife will set things back to the way they were and make it right. But only he can claim the belonging and happiness, the freedom, that he seeks. 

I've noticed in Wilson's plays that there's always a character who's more connected to the spirit world (be it God or the ancestors) than the others. These are unlikely prophets who have obvious disabilities or setbacks. In Fences, it's Uncle Gabriel, chasing hellhounds away and guarding the gates of Heaven, who had suffered a traumatic brain injury in WW2. In The Piano Lesson it's Wining Boy, the down-on-his-luck uncle who speaks to the spirits of his lynched ancestors. In Seven Guitars, it's Hedley, whose development was impaired when his father kicked him in the head as a child. His manifestos about the kingdom of God and the holiness of Black people are dripping with righteousness and madness. And in Joe Turner, it's Bynum ("bind 'em", Bynum, get it?), the longtime boardinghouse resident who uses voodoo to solve people's problems and bind them together. If you recognize Jordan Peele's film Get Out as a modern day slavery movie and understand that Black people's bodies have yet to stop being snatched since 1865, read this play.

Favorite quotes:
"That's why I don't trust nobody but the good Lord above, and I don't love nobody but my mama" (63).

"Then one day my daddy gave me a song. That song had a weight to it that was hard to handle. That song was hard to carry. I fought against it. Didn't want to accept that song. I tried to find my daddy to give him back the song. But I found out it wasn't his song. It was my song. It had come from way deep inside me... And that song helped me on the road. Made it smooth to where my footsteps didn't bite back at me" (71).

Pachinko by Min Jin Lee

I happened upon a Japan Times headline about this book, vaguely skimmed through the article and forgot all about it. Until I found the book during a rare trip to Costco! I've read and studied much about Korean people's experiences under Japan's 35-year colonization of Korea, and have read some about Korean people's experience in Japan post-WWII, but I've thought very little about the lives of Korean people who moved to Japan during the colonial period and remained there. Pachinko is a mix of immigrant story, family history, and historical fiction that focuses on this very specific population from 1910-1989. Sunja is born and raised in Yeongdo, Korea, running a boardinghouse alongside her mother. As a pregnant teenager, she marries one of the tenants, a young minister named Isak, who decides to take care of her after her wealthy lover (and the father of her child) Hansu reveals that he already has a wife and family. In 1933 Isak and Sunja move to Osaka, where they share a house with his brother and sister-in-law and eventually have two children, Noa and Mozasu. Everyone works themselves to the bone to keep the family afloat, not being able to trust anyone despite living in a community of fellow poor Koreans. They are second-class subjects in the Japanese empire, and every major development of the time affects the family directly. And despite thinking that she's cut all ties with him, Sunja can't escape Noa's father, Hansu, who's become  the most powerful yakuza in the Kansai region and has a hand in Sunja's family's survival in ways that don't remain secret for long.

The duality between colonized people's resentment and admiration toward their oppressors is fascinating in this novel. At the time, Japan was branded as the homeland for imperial subjects, a sort of promised land. In typical imperialist fashion, Koreans were told that if they did everything right and shed their undesirable Korean nature to be just like Japanese people, they could one day be accepted as equals and help reform their own people. But of course, no amount of assimilation or code-switching is enough. Numerous Korean characters in this novel contend with immensely wretched self-hatred due directly to Japanese imperial ideology, and later due to to policies and social attitudes that derive from said ideology. In this way, the book's namesake, a popular arcade game called "pachinko", is a metaphor for life: a gamble that seems or often is rigged, but which you keep playing in hopes that you'll eventually win something better. Something worthwhile. It also refers to the gambling industry that many Koreans get involved in after the war, including both Noa and Mozasu, transporting their family from the Korean ghetto in Osaka to the wealthy and cultured circles of Yokohama. If you enjoy reading family dramas and colonial history written from the perspective of the colonized, read this book!

Favorite quotes:
"For every patriot fighting for a free Korea, or for any unlucky Korean bastard fighting on behalf of Japan, there were ten thousand compatriots on the ground and elsewhere who were just trying to eat. In the end, your belly was your emperor" (178).

"But all those able-bodied middle-class people who are scared of their shadows, well, they pay the mediocre tax in regular quarterly installments with compounding interest. When you play it safe, that's what happens, my friend. So if I were you, I wouldn't throw any games. I'd use every fucking advantage... It's a heavier tax than you'd think... There's nothing fucking worse than knowing that you're just like everybody else. What a messed-up, lousy experience. And in this great country... everyone wants to be like everyone else" (448-49).

Friday, April 7, 2017

Things People Give Me #29-31 (Office Edition)

I haven't done one of these in over six months, so I'm sure I've received plenty of things in the meantime that I neglected to appreciate fully. But recently I've received a few gifts from co-workers in particular, so I wanted to take time to acknowledge them. The names mentioned are not real ones, though the do refer to very real, and kind, people.

First up, two of my co-workers went to the Pacific Northwest on a business trip a couple weeks ago, and one of them bought this keychain just for me. It certainly doesn't hurt when a city's major colors also happen to be your first and second favorite colors ever! Thanks, Anita!

Back in December, my boss's boss had everyone participate in Secret Santa by giving compliments instead of gifts. Each of us had to write something nice about every member of the team, and then send them to my boss's boss. Everyone then received their own list, compiled by her, of all the nice things that were written about them. That was December. Last week a package of mouse pads arrived at the office, each customized with each person's list of compliments from the Secret Santa activity.  To be honest, I'd thought the activity was corny and unnecessary from the beginning, but it was representative of the team's character which I've gotten used to by now (excessive compliments to compensate for non-excessive duckets). Plus, my boss's boss likes to put a lot of though and care into her presents, so I corny or not, I couldn't not appreciate it. Thanks, Renn!

Speaking of last week, a new employee joined the team, filling the in-office team roster for the first time in many months. Lovely woman, talkative, young but especially young at heart. I'm not sure if she's still trying to ingratiate herself with us or if she's just this type of person, but at the end of her first week she gave everyone a card and a piece of Brazilian candy to express her gratitude for the warm welcome. Thanks, Drew!

Sunday, March 12, 2017

BOOKS! (The Vegetarian)

I read this book in two days. I finished it last week but it continues to trouble me. I haven't felt this compelled to sit with the implications of a book, carry all its meanings with me and turn them over in my mind, since The Round House. Devastated and yet mesmerized. Spellbound. That's where I am right now with this novel.

The Vegetarian by Han Kang

This is a novel, much like Herman Koch's The Dinner, that starts readers off in one place and leaves you somewhere else that seems disparate and extreme. You really have no idea what you're reading and why you're reading it until the end. The gist is that a woman named Yeong-hye, an ordinary housewife in Seoul, has a dream about acts of violence and human cruelty that disturbs her so intensely that she decides to quit eating meat the very next day. No one in her circle takes this well, and as a result her marriage and her family falls apart. But Yeong-hye's vegetarianism (technically veganism) is a symptom for something much more profound.

Her seemingly innocuous lifestyle choice has an unexpectedly disastrous domino effect. Yeong-hye's family tries to force her to eat meat again, which pushes her to the brink and leads her to attempt suicide. After recovering in a hospital, her husband divorces her but then her sister's husband's empathy toward Yeong-hye forces him to confront his long-standing attraction to her. He is then emboldened to create the video art piece that's been haunting his imagination, making Yeong-hye his muse. But after her sister In-hye catches them together, the brother-in-law skips town, the rest of the family severs ties, and Yeong-hye is institutionalized again, leaving only In-hye to take care of her.

The Vegetarian contains three parts, all of which concern Yeong-hye but none of which consult her: the first from her husband's perspective, the second from her brother-in-law's, and the last from her sister's. We only hear directly from Yeong-hye in her husband's section, where she occasionally recollects her dreams or wearily confronts her condition. Everything else we learn about Yeong-hye is essentially hearsay. And of course, each person views her differently based on their relationship with her. Her husband (Mr. Cheong, we never learn his first name), who views his wife as merely a caretaker and accessory, cares more about his reputation and how he's inconvenienced than for Yeong-hye's wellbeing. Her brother-in-law thinks he means well but his benevolence toward her is only a vehicle for his own sexual, emotional and artistic fulfillment. Her sister thinks that she's always been protecting Yeong-hye but keeps her sister conveniently distanced from her day-to-day life, as both her forgiveness and endurance have limits.

What we don't learn until later is that Yeong-hye's behavior is a response to the mistreatment that she's endured throughout her life, some of which is specific to her own experiences, some of which is common to many women who also happen to be daughters, wives, and little sisters. The bloody, animalistic nightmares cause her to reject all aspects of consumption and preying upon others that seem to be innately human; she's a hurt person who's had enough, and is desperate to avoid causing harm to any creatures. Eventually this transforms into her trying to un-become human, believing that if she denies herself enough things (eating meat, wearing clothes, talking, eating or drinking anything at all) she can transcend her human nature and eventually become a tree. Though she wastes away and treatment ceases to be effective, in her mind the death she's heading toward is not failure, but freedom. Yeong-hye has been victimized her whole life, but In-hye doesn't notice the toll it has taken on her sister until eventually Yeong-hye draws so far inside herself that no one can reach her.

Though Yeong-hye's gradual physical and psychological breakdown is the conduit for this story, her husband, her sister, and her sister's husband all feel something within themselves that's liable to break out or take control of them. Consequently, the themes of the three sections apply not just to Yeong-hye, but all of them. Part one deals with internal rage and the potential for violence, bubbling just under the service. Part one deals with the acting out and circumstances of breaking with convention, of indulging in unrestrained passion. And part three deals with the necessity to reckon with (perhaps even submit to) one's despair and pain, which brings a distorted sense of peace. Yeong-hye goes from a repressed beast, to a blooming flower, to a withering tree, and none of the people close to her are left untouched.

Favorite quotes:
"Can only trust my breasts now. I like my breasts, nothing can be killed by them. Hand, foot, tongue, gaze, all weapons from which nothing is safe. But not my breasts. With my round breasts, I'm okay. Still okay. So why do they keep shrinking? Not even round anymore. Why? Why am I changing like this? Why are my edges all sharpeningwhat am I going to gouge?" (41).

"Never before had he set eyes on such a body, a body that said so much and yet was no more than itself" (95).

Saturday, March 11, 2017

"You were one of my favorites" - GET OUT

Having previously decided that I would absolutely NOT go see this film (didn't want to go out of my way to feel more ill-at-ease then I generally do already), I read the Wikipedia summary so I could know what I was missing out on. Figured I'd catch it whenever it became available on cable. But then, within a week after the film opened, two of my favorite podcasts released episodes discussing about the film (see here and here). And after listening to both of those episodes over again, last week I had a last-minute change of heart and went to two different cinemas to find a showing that wasn't sold out. Jordan Peele has said on numerous occasions that this movie is meant to be enjoyed as part of a theatre audience, and now I totally get it.

Seen Friday, March 3rd: Get Out

Chris, a black man, goes with his white girlfriend Rose to meet her parents for the first time. Rose's parents and their friends practically trip over themselves to exhibit that they're "the good ones" so to speak: totally cultured, trustworthy, and definitely not racist. Little does Chris know, he's being set up for something more sinister and true to American life than he could've ever imagined.

"Just because you're invited, doesn't mean you're welcome."

What I really like about this film: That scene where Chris is at Rose's parents' annual party, and as he goes upstairs, all the guests immediately silence their chatter and stare at the ceiling, tracing his movement with their eyes. Gave me chills! Chris was almost never not under surveillance.

And Georgina! Betty Gabriel smashed that role to pieces with such control that you almost forget to be disappointed that she's one of only two black female characters who appear in the film! In that "No... No. Nononononono" scene she manages to play desperately composed and heartbreakingly unhinged at the exact same time, and I'm still trying to figure it out.

Listen, I went in knowing how it was going to end. None of the twists surprised me. And as a self-acknowledged cheapskate, I don't go to the movies often. But this one's seriously got me considering going to see it a second time just so I can see what other clues, hints, and references I missed!

What I don't like about this film: Absolutely nothing. I mentioned the black woman issue because I noticed it after viewing Get Out and thinking about it a bit. But to be honest, I'd listened to, read, and watched so much about Peele's process and what he was aiming to accomplish with this film that it doesn't bother me as much as it probably should.

Would I recommend it?: Is water wet? As with Zootopia (I'm serious! This is not a joke here!), Get Out needs to be required viewing for any sort of cultural literacy or "how to consider others and be a decent human being" training.

Friday, March 10, 2017

BOOKS! (The Joy Luck Club + The Shack)

Acquiring these two books reminded me how much my consumer decisions as a reader are influenced by people I've never met. I broke my "don't buy any books during the first half of 2017" rule for the first read, which I bought after listening to a podcast review of its 1990s movie adaptation. And the second one I bought after seeing headlines floating around that (white) people were mad that Octavia Spencer was cast to play God in its recently-released movie adaptation. I like to think that I'm picky and an independent thinker, but when it comes to books I don't need that much convincing, apparently.

 The Joy Luck Club by Amy Tan

Multiple generations of Chinese and Chinese-American women are connected in this novel about womanhood, Chinese identity, sacrifice and fellowship. At the center are eight of them: four friends who found each other in the San Francisco Chinese immigrant community in the late 1940s, and their four daughters.

An-mei was reunited with her estranged mother at a young age, and witnessed her struggle as a low-ranking concubine in a rich man's house. An-Mei's daughter, Rose, is an artist who habitually avoids making decisions, and whose marriage to her dermatologist husband is failing. Lindo was arranged to be married at the age of two, and as an adolescent she cleverly escaped the marriage without dishonoring her family. Lindo's daughter, Waverly, was a chess champion as a child, and as a single mom she's finding love again with a fellow tax attorney. Ying-ying was married to a family friend at age 16, and after that marriage ended she moved to Shanghai where she met her second husband, a white American man. Ying-ying's daughter, Lena, is a restaurant designer married to an insufferably stingy architect. Last but not least, Suyuan lost her first husband and children while fleeing Japanese forces. She started the tradition of gathering over dim sum, mah jong, and gossip (the titular Joy Luck Club) in China and continued it in the Bay. Though her copywriter daughter, Jing-mei or "June", has been a disappointment by certain Chinese standards, the other mothers give her the invaluable task of reuniting with her long-lost older sisters in China after Suyuan's passing.

I was already inclined to like this book after hearing such a comprehensive review of the film, and I love to read literature that focues on immigrant experiences. What endears me to The Joy Luck Club most is each woman's remarkable sense of self-preservation. Through familial expectations, commonplace disappointments and unspeakable tragedies, each woman possesses a certain determination to maintain or reclaim their sense of self, and recounting their personal histories is an integral part of this.

Favorite quotes:

"Even if I had expected it, even if I had known what I was going to do with my life, it still would have knocked the wind out of me. When something that violent hits you, you can't help but lose your balance and fall. And after you pick yourself up, you realize you can't trust anybody to save you―not your husband, not your mother, not God. So what can you do to stop yourself from titling and falling over again" (120-121).
"I will gather my past and look. I will see a thing that has already happened. The pain that cut my spirit loose, I will hold that pain in my hand until it becomes hard and shiny, more clear... I will use this sharp pain to penetrate my daughter's tough skin and cut her tiger spirit loose. She will fight me, because this is the nature of two tigers. But I will win and give her my spirit, because this is the way a mother loves her daughter" (252). 

The Shack by Wm. Paul Young

Four years after his youngest daughter is abducted by a serial murderer, Mack finds a note in his mailbox inviting him to the dilapidated shack where the last trace of his daughter was found. The note is mysteriously signed, "Papa". Despite his fears and suspicions, Mack goes to the shack in the dead of winter and falls asleep there. He awakes to find the shack restored and the area around it bright, warm, and verdant. He's welcomed by God, presenting as a Black woman ("Elousia"/ "Papa"); Jesus, presenting as a Middle Eastern Jewish man; and the Holy Spirit, presenting as an Asian woman ("Sarayu"). He spends a weekend with them, digging deep into in all of his past hurts, grievances against God, and misconceptions about the Christian faith and the Trinity.

I wasn't expecting to be impressed by this book, but it really challenged me, and challenges me still. At face value, The Shack could be a comforting resource to anyone who has suffered loss or harm at the hands of others. But it's also a necessarily uncomfortable opportunity for believers to reckon with the deity they claim to worship and the faith they claim to profess. A lot of hit dogs will be hollering, that's all I have to say. The novel contains some fluttery wording that's obviously trying to tap into readers' emotions, which is somewhat annoying. And Young's attempts at Ebonics or mammy-isms or whatever the heck Papa was supposed to be speaking were at best clunky, at worst horrendously contrived. HOWEVER. The Shack's writing is clear and gets the point across. And even with all the philosophical and theological content, it has more than a few lighthearted moments. Though the humor or significants of some moments is enhanced by prior knowledge of the Bible and common church sayings, I'd like to hope that it doesn't leave lapsed or non-believing people feeling too out of the loop. Judging by the 20 million copies sold, perhaps it hasn't. I never intended to watch the film and I still don't, but I am glad that I gave this book a try because it's given me much to reconsider.

Favorite quotes:
"I am neither male nor female, even though both genders are derived from my nature. If I choose to appear to you as a man or a woman, it's because I love you. For me to appear to you as a woman and suggest that you call me 'Papa' is simply to mix metaphors, to help you keep from falling so easily back into your religious conditioning" (95).

"Remember, Mackenzie, I don't wonder what you will do or what choices you will make. I already know... And let's say that I know it will take you forty-seven situations and events before you will actually hear me―that is, before you will hear clearly enough to agree with me and change. So when you don't hear me the first time, I'm not frustrated or disappointed, I'm thrilled. Only forty-six more times to go! And that first time will be a building block to construct a bridge of healing that one day―that today―you will walk across" (189).

Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Losing Gracefully.

I went to a bowling alley with a friend yesterday. We bowled two games. We are both mediocre players, so we kept pace with each other's low scores at first. Then she got ahead of me, sure to win. To our mutual bewilderment, I got a spare on my 9th turn and two strikes on my 10th turn, beating her by 10 points in the end.

That was the first game.

The second game, despite my best efforts I went on a supreme losing streak. I bowled eight times (4 turns) and I got absolutely nothing. I lost that game by over 30 points.

I bowled my best ever game and my worst ever game back-to-back.

Sometimes the proverbial "L's" come swiftly after a major high, and you just have to take them gracefully.

Sunday, February 26, 2017

BOOKS! (The Martyred + The Book Borrower)

Historical fiction doesn't typically float my boat, but I recently finished two considerably mournful novels that fall into the category in their own way. First is a war novel that I found at a bargain bookstore. Second is a gift from the neighborhood Little Free Library.

The Martyred  by Richard E. Kim

This is another classic that I'd been oblivious to until now. Apparently this book was a bestselling hit when it was originally published in 1964, and its author is known as the trailblazer in Korean-American literature... and unfortunately for me, I'd never heard of either. 

The Martyred is set in Pyongyang in the early phases of the Korean War, at a time when the city has changed hands and is under South Korean control. Captain Lee, a professor who became an intelligence officer after joining the army, narrates the story. His commanding officer, Colonel Chang, orders Lee to investigate the recent abduction of 14 Christian ministers from Pyongyang: 12 of them were executed, and of the two survivors only one, Mr. Shin, is mentally sound enough to give a statement. But while Lee is in search of the truth, what Chang seeks is fodder for anti-Communist propaganda that will boost  morale and tarnish the North Korean cause. Through gaining Mr. Shin's confidence, Lee eventually learns that Mr. Shin has been lying about what really happened to the 12 "martyrs", supposedly guarding he truth for the good of Pyongyang's vulnerable civilians including the Christian community. Lee's best friend Park also has a stake in what happened, since his father was one of the 12. Though his father had previously disowned him for being an atheist, Park remains curious despite himself to know about his father's final moments.

The novel considers a number of deeply complex issues, and doesn't intend to solve any of them. You have the church co-opted by the state, as Colonel Chang ingratiates himself with local Christian leaders solely for their social capital (Christianity was an almost trendy phenomena among answer-starved Koreans at the time). And then you have the value of truth, whatever that happens to be. Are there occasions when people would be better off not knowing the truth about something, even if they demand it? When have people suffered enough, and who decides this? When faced with their human frailty, often people become desperate to have something to believe in, to have some assurance that there's meaning to their suffering. At the same time, others may conclude that there's no such meaning to be found. The Martyred offers no simple answers, but acknowledges that in times of peril, the appeal of belief systems can both sprout anew and wither away. In this way it's somewhat reminiscent of Floating Clouds (Ukigumo) by Fumiko Hayashi, which I would also recommend.

Favorite quotes: 
"Do you know I wished my father hadn't been a martyr? I wanted him to have failed at the last moment. I hoped he had been defeated, yes, crushed, so he would know what it was like to be weak in spirit. What it was like to doubtto doubt his god, his faith, everythingto taste the horrible injustice and suffering of this life... I can't weep for him. I could have if he had failed. I could have wept for him if he had experienced at least a moment of human weakness. That's why I sometimes weep for Christ" (97).
"Or, would you rather tell them this war is just like any other bloody war in the stinking history of idiotic mankind, that it is nothing but the sickening result of a blind struggle for power among the beastly states, among the rotten politicians and so on, that thousands of people have died and more will die in this stupid war, for nothing, for absolutely nothing, because they are just innocent victims, helpless pawns in the arena of cold-blooded, calculating international power politics? Well, now?" (107).

The Book Borrower by Alice Mattison

The ratings for this book aren't great. Look at Goodreads or any major online retailer that sell books, and you'll see that it averages 3 stars at most. But I quite enjoyed it! It's  about two decades of friendship between two women who meet at a park (presumably somewhere on the East Coast) in 1975. Deborah, the more social and laid-back of the two, was given a book titled Trolley Girl by her streetcar hobbyist husband but instead passes it off to Ruben, the more serious and strait-laced of the two. The borrowed book is a semi-biographical account of the involvement of a young Jewish anarchist woman in a 1920 labor strike that turned deadly.

The Book Borrower is nearly 280 pages long but only has five chapters. Each one ends with an event that would understandably end the pair's friendship or drastically alter their perceptions of each other (for example, Ruben gets Deborah fired twice). And yet time goes on, their respective families grow, and their friendship persists. We're not privy to how they patch things up in between each potential rupture, as each chapter picks up months or even years from where the previous one had left off. But somehow this adds to the intimacy of their friendship; their bond is something that even they can't fully comprehend or articulate. Perhaps it isn't so surprising, then, that when Trolley Girl's author enters Ruben's life and causes her to re-visit the book, Ruben can't help but question whether what she knew of Deborah was only a shadow of who her best friend really was.

From the first page, the novel repeatedly switches between Ruben and Deborah in the present and the text of Trolley Girl as Ruben reads it. So you have this book-within-a-book thing going on at first which isn't explained and isn't smoothly transitioned (Mattison probably chose not to make it easy for the reader), so I suspect that a lot of people were thrown off by the confusion. But if you can stick it out and enjoy reading about the more substantive aspects of female friendship, you might like The Book Borrower more than you'd expect.

Favorite quotes:
"Public transportation is a big womb. We are carried. We do not drive ourselves. The engineer takes care of us. That's why stories and songs about trolleys and trains are cute. But if something goes wrong on public transportation, it's much worse than anyplace else. Why is crime on subways so scary? Because trains are our mother. Somebody holds up the train, he's killing our mother. Think about it" (104).
"People had said to her, Now Deborah will always be with you: meaning, apparently, that Ruben could pretend to talk to Deborah and pretend to hear her answers. But when she did that, she had at her disposal only her memory of what Deborah had said in the past. If Deborah were alive, she would not say exactly what Ruben imagined she might say. She never had" (230).

Thursday, February 2, 2017

ドラマ (Dorama) Time! 16

The winter broadcast season has been underway in Japan for about two weeks now and I'm still scoping out my choices. While I'm still ruminating on what to watch this winter, for now let me briefly share what I watched in the fall. As usual, you can catch all of these dramas at DramaCool, but to my knowledge only the first and second ones are completely subbed at this point. In the order that I finished them: 

砂の塔~知りすぎた隣人 (Suna no Tou~Shirisugita Rinjin/Tower of Sand~The Neighbor Who Knew Too Much) - TBS/2016

Aki is a housewife whose blended family (her husband, their elementary-aged daughter, and her husband's teenage son from a prior marriage) at first thinks they are lucky to have snagged an apartment in a new 50-floor high-rise tower. But elitism is the rule amongst the other housewives in this building, and the hierarchy is based on which floor you live on. (The higher the level between floors 26-50, the higher social status you're afforded; floors 1-25 aren't even worth mentioning.) Aki just barely makes it into the elite moms club by moving to floor 26 and has a hard time fitting in. Her only "friend" is an elusive flower arrangment artist/teacher, also a member of the moms' group, who's used her creations to sneak surveillance cameras into all the other housewives' apartments. All the while, a serial kidnapping case has the whole neighborhood on edge, as an unknown pied piper casts judgment on local moms by sneaking their kids out from under their noses.

I'd originally been attracted to the moms-as-mean-girls aspect, as it reminded me of the backstabbing ensemble of housewives in 'Namae wo Nakushita Megami' (2011), which I thoroughly enjoyed. That show was more about the secret lives of each woman in the main cast, whereas 'Suna no Tou' focuses more on Aki and her family being out of their depth. Although, there are a number of key secrets that are eventually unearthed! The catty moms in Aki's building and the serial kidnappings are linked, but perhaps not in the way that you'll think they are.

逃げるは恥だが役に立つ (Nigeru wa Haji da ga Yaku ni Tatsu/Running Away Is Shameful But Useful/We married as a job!) - TBS/2016

Often abbreviated as "Nigehaji", this manga-based drama was THE primetime hit of the fall broadcast season. I'd tried to sit through the first episode but got bored, so I passed on this show originally. But then I kept seeing Japanese news headlines about it online and saw how huge its ratings were (it ended up averaging 14.5% of the viewership during its timeslot, with the final episode alone earning nearly 21%). Part of the show's popularity is due to its lead actors: Aragaki Yui has been leading dramas for years, and Hoshino Gen's career has been on a new wave since his uplifting hit single, "SUN" was released in 2015. Another part of the popularity is Hoshino Gen's latest hit song, "" (Koi/"Love"), which inspired a massive dance craze as the theme song for 'Nigehaji'. The cast is shown performing the choreography at the end of every episode, so you have at least 11 chances to practice along!

In short, the hype made me give the show another chance. Aragaki Yui plays Mikuri, a 20-something who's having trouble finding a full time job despite an advanced psychology degree and years of job-searching. Hoshino Gen plays Hiramasa, an awkward employee at a tech company who keeps to himself. Thanks to Mikuri's parents, she ends up working as Hiramasa's housekeeper, and in time they decide to make a special arrangement. Mikuri becomes Hiramasa's live-in housekeeper, and in exchange Hiramasa lets her live with him and puts her on his insurance. They basically enter into a common-law marriage on paper in which Mikuri gets paid for doing what housewives throughout Japan have to do for free, but she and Hiramasa maintain an employee-employer relationship. But as Mikuri endeavors to ease her loneliness and Hiramasa's shyness, the nature of their relationship shifts. It's not the most eventful drama, but it does take an introspective look at both conventional and non-conventional relationships. Plus it's lighthearted and utilizes pop culture parodies to make it more humorous. Other pluses include Hiramasa's nosy co-workers, Mikuri's aunt, and an out gay couple (not fully revealed until the end).

地味にスゴイ!~校閲ガール・河野悦子 (Jimi ni Sugoi~Kouetsu Girl Kouno Etsuko/Simply Great! Proofreader Kouno Etsuko) - NTV/2016

I suppose when it comes to dramas, I'll follow Ishihara Satomi wherever she goes. What can I say? I'm a fan! In this one she plays the titular Etsuko, an aspiring fashion writer who scores a job working for the company that publishes her favorite fashion magazine, Lassy. Only instead of being hired as a fashion writer, she's hired to work in the basement with a team of proofreaders who thoroughly (and manually) scan and edit all of the company's publications. It's the opposite of what she wants but it seems to be kismet. For starters, the first syllables of her last and first name match the name of the department (kouetsu). Not only that, but she's excellent at proofreading! She not only checks for grammar and spelling errors, but she goes on excursions outside the office to verify place names and plot points. Sometimes she even seeks the authors out directly to suggest changes. Don't let the cute outfits and over-the-top personality fool you! Kouno Etsuko is no airhead; she's actually quite thorough!

This workplace drama is also not extremely eventful but it is fun to watch. The show acknowledges each and everyone one of Etsuko's outfits between scenes, and she seems to charm every character who encounters her and her ideas. This especially includes Yukito (Suda Masaki), a best-selling novelist and an emerging model at Lassy (he initially hides his identity from the public in both respects). He's also Etsuko's boyfriend, but their relationship evolves slowly due to busy schedules and misunderstandings about each other's intentions. Also charmed is Etsuko's former schoolmate Morio (Honda Tsubasa from 'Koinaka') who has Etsuko's dream job but hasn't found her stride yet. If you like fashion, dramas set in the publishing industry, and/or Ishihara Satomi, then 'Jimi ni Sugoi' has just enough going on for you to keep watching. There's also an adorable gay couple in this show as well.

'Nigehaji' is too obvious of a choice, 'Jimi ni Sugoi' has something missing, and coming off of the high intensity of 'Suna no Tou', I was entertained but still slightly underwhelmed by both. So this season's favorite is 'Suna no Tou' for me. They're definitely all worth watching, though!

Wednesday, January 25, 2017

BOOKS! (Mo' Meta Blues + God Is Not Mad At You)

Rather than buying any new books during the first half of this year, I'm attempting to power through as many of my to-be-read books as possible so I can stop putting them off and feeling stressed about all the reads I have piling up. So let's cut to the chase!

Mo' Meta Blues: The World According to Questlove by Ahmir "Questlove" Thompson

This is one of the last books I bought when I worked at a bookstore after graduating from college. I'm not knowledgeable enough of The Roots' discography to call myself a proper fan, but I've always had  great respect for this hip-hop band and its highly-recognizable drummer, ?uestlove (Questlove). He's branched out to producing, music directing, DJ-ing and then some, but drumming is where it started for this artist from Philly.

 Obviously this is Questlove's memoir, but he is insistent that it not be a typical one, and that his voice not be the only one featured. Mainly you have him telling most of story with Rich Nichols (the Roots' longtime manager) adding his commentary in dialogue or footnotes. Intermittently and to a lesser extent, you then have cowriter Ben Greenman and editor Ben Greenberg exchanging emails about the strategies and process for the book as it's coming together. And then throughout the book you have all the people whom Questlove acknowledges and quotes along the way. His story is about phenomena much greater than him, including hip-hop, musical genres, artistic movements/communities, "the industry", The Roots' career trajectory, and what shapes an artist's character. So for him, making Mo Meta' Blues solely about himself would have been predictable and inaccurate.

Each chapter begins with a question which Questlove attempts to answer, and each chapter is also peppered with stellar music recommendations ranging from popular to obscure. I wrote down every song and album down as I read, and now have eight and half wide-ruled pages full of listening homework for the next few months. Early on he gives us a beautifully brilliant summary of music (especially black music) history from African drums to do-woop, and then most of the book offers an extended tour through the '70s/'80s/'90s music that formulated Questlove's world at those times. As a professional working musician he also interrogates the influences of art and commerce on each other, and shifts between storytelling and intellectual inquiry quite frequently. I approached this book looking to learn from one of the modern masters, and that I did. Take advantage of this opportunity to do the same, whether you're a music nerd or not into music at all!

Favorite quotes:
"In general, I don't like to blame the creators. They are making work that appeals to them and the people in the room with them. They are making something that is, at some level, genuine... The younger me may have sat up all night with bandmates raging against Puffy or DMX or whoever, but the fact is that they were never the problem. The problem was that someone in the corporate chain of command felt that there was a need to play those songs fourteen times a day and to eliminate alternatives" (152-153).

"They go back to the beginning of recorded music, where the first break was made between performer and performed. They go back to the thin that's at the root of both Dilla and the Roots and every other inspired composition in any and every genre: it's the music in your head. That's the seed at the beginning of every artwork. How do you take what you hear and translate it to something that can be heard?" (230).

God Is Not Mad At You by Joyce Meyer

Perhaps it's a sign of maturity or progress that I didn't find this book as interesting as I did when I originally attempted to read it four or five years ago? Perhaps I am not so needy now as I was as a college freshman or sophomore? I'd originally bought this book on the NOOK that my aunt gave me as a high school graduation present, but it turns out that my ability to focus wanes considerably when using e-readers! So I made a dent in the book but didn't get far. Two years ago I erased my library and stopped using the device, and wasn't concerned about reading this book anymore. But then a few months ago I happened upon the hardcover among the bargain items in the foyer of a Barnes & Noble, and I figured it was a sign that I should give it another try. Plus it was cheap, so why not? This time around, rather than seeking reassurance or answers I merely read it to see what Joyce Meyer had to say on the topic. And to be able to say that I'd FINALLY finished it.

She basically makes the case for God as ultimately loving and benevolent, and encourages people not to load themselves with unnecessary burdens (guilt for things that aren't your fault, absurdly high or stringent expectations, baggage from the past, etc). It's pretty standard self-help fare except for the last eight chapters where she delves more deeply into Scripture. In the final chapter she briefly discusses spiritual maturity when comparing the "milk" (all the positive stuff that people love to latch onto) to the "meat" (the personal sacrifices we have to make to actually grow and do things in line with our calling) of the Christian faith-walk. I would've liked to read more on that, but I guess that's in another book for another day. I wouldn't necessarily tell people not to read this book, but I probably wouldn't read it again. If you find yourself in a particularly low place at the moment, reading God Is Not Mad At You probably wouldn't hurt, but once is more than enough.

Favorite quotes:
"Never apologize for being the person you are. That would be like an apple tree apologizing for not being a banana tree. If you're an apple tree, then produce apples; if you're a banana tree, then produce bananas! It takes all kinds of fruit to make a fruit salad... When each of us becomes the best we can at being ourselves, then God's purpose can be fulfilled" (134).

"God will never love you any more than He does at this moment in time, because His love is perfect at all times and is not based on anything that we do or don't do... Can you stand to be that blessed for no reason at all except that God is good?" (163).

Tuesday, January 17, 2017


When you're in first grade and you realize that your parents hate each other, maybe it's shocking. But when you're 24 and your parents till hate each other, it's actually hilarious.

Ma has a smidgen of ill will for only one person on earth, and she's HAD IT with that person today. Been cracking me up all morning!

Saturday, January 14, 2017

"I Learned to Tell the Sh*t from the Alfalfa" - Fences

I meant to write this two weeks ago, couldn't tell you why it's taken me so long. I've heard a lot of people say that this film is boring, too slow, has too much dialogue. But I suspect that at the root of their disappointment is their own missed opportunity to sufficiently prepare themselves. If you go into Fences with the mindset that you're about to witness a play on screen rather than a "movie" made solely as a titilating piece of entertainment, then you're already set up to have more reasonable expectations. I have another theory as to why viewers felt restless during the film, but I'll get to that in a second.

Seen Friday, December 30th, 2016: Fences

Go see the play, read the play, read my review of the play, or just look it up. Please take advantage of the myriad of resources that are already at your disposal to tell you what this film and its source material are about. 

What I really like about this film: Set design and props! In the play, all action visible to the audience takes place in the Maxsons' backyard where the titular fence is being built, whereas the film takes us not only to the back yard, but inside the house and around all sides of it, as well as to the Maxson's neighborhood, Troy's workplace, and a handful of other places. Rebecca Brown and the set department basically had to tell stories through many locations and objects that are basically figments of imagination in the play, and for some reason I can't get over the home that they crafted inside the Maxson house. The 1950s-era photos, furniture, foodstuffs, and various trinkets in that Pittsburgh house took me back to my elders' abodes: Jessie's house and Roger's basement in Louisville, Bertha's (now Gladys') hallway and living room in Henderson, Odessa's home in Rochester. The Maxson house was clearly lived-in, and it almost felt like home by proxy.

Of course nearly everyone's been raving about Viola Davis and Denzel Washington's performances, but that's kind of a given. Really, there are no poor acting performances in this film. But Mykelti Williamson is the one who truly blew me away. Perhaps best know for playing Bubba Blue in Forrest Gump, Williamson showed up as Troy's mentally handicapped veteran brother Gabriel and he. showed. out!  I don't know if it's an indicator of my ignorance or how seldomly represented they usually are in major films, but for someone reason I'm always deeply affected when an actor plays a disabled character with the heart and dignity they deserve. And Williamson as Gabriel is simply magnificent.

What I don't like about this film: Now back to what I was saying about restlessness. In addition to not sufficiently preparing themselves, I think the second major explanation for people being underwhelmed by this film has to do with attention span. But I wouldn't say this is completely their fault! I listened to a podcast episode recently in which an actor/comedian argued that Hollywood habitually substitutes plot for character development, and I think that's obviously affected the way many of us view film. We as average moviegoers are used to having dialogue broken up by action. When we sit down to watch a film, and everything about a scene or scenes is designed for us to focus on the character in front of us and what they're saying, with no convenient distraction for our eyes or ears, it will likely make us fidgety. We're not accustomed to being expected to listen to what characters say for more than a couple minutes at a time. Any longer than that and we wonder what to do with ourselves, zone out, lose track of what's going on. Perhaps that's what happened with a lot of audience members in this instance. Having read the play I was actively listening for lines that I remembered or being reminded of lines that I'd forgotten. But if I'd been attracted to Fences by, say, the lead actors rather than the source material, I can imagine how confused and dissatisfied I might be.

Would I recommend it?: Without a doubt. Fences is certainly a feast for literature and theatre buffs or students, but I'd like to hope that everyone can glean something from the bare bones of the story, which are a middle-aged black man in a precarious situation, and the family he drags along with him.

Tuesday, January 10, 2017


As far as I know, no one asks to be born. You didn't ask to be here, I didn't ask to be here. Someone, or a pair of someones, maybe even a group of someones, and let us not forget the Ultimate Someone, decided we should exist and what do you know... here we all are, existing.

Whether they mean to or not, biological parents create a human being, give it something it didn't ask for (life), and effectively say, "Here, now do something with it." Is that cruel? Generous? Selfish? Benevolent?

No clue.

Saturday, January 7, 2017

BOOKS! (Seven Guitars + The Wangs vs. the World)

Here we have the last book I finished in 2016, and the first book I finished in 2017. The former is a play that I found at a bargain bookstore, and the latter is a new novel that came highly recommended by  writers and other publishing/media industry friends of the Another Round podcast.

Seven Guitars by August Wilson

Five friends gather after the funeral of their fellow, a guitarist and singer named Floyd "Schoolboy" Barton, and through them the audience observes the last week of Floyd's life. Though often chummy and jovial when they interact with each other, nearly all members of this friend group are desperate to finally obtain something that won't be taken away from them. After a three-month stint in jail, Floyd is determined to scrap together the money to get himself to Chicago, where a potential record deal and the chance to no longer be poor await him. Vera, his on-again-off-again girlfriend, wants a love that's true and won't have her worrying about not being enough for her partner. Hedley, Vera's neighbor, wants to be a "big man", someone respected and important. Certain that black people are royal and righteous, he wants the inheritance that he believes he's owed (that by extension all black people are owed), which was supposedly passed from his father but has been held up by the interfering power of white people. Canewell, Floyd's friend and harmonica player, has unrequited love for Vera and wants to be respected as a musician, being properly paid for his talent and credited for his tactical ideas. Louise, Vera and Hedley's landlord, wants to stop being inconvenienced by other people's troubles, including those of her niece Ruby, who wants to be treated with care rather than as an object of rivalry or sex.

Only Hedley (and presumably Ruby) gets what he desperately desires, but at an unfathomable cost that none of his friends know about. Seven Guitars utilizes the rooster as an ominous metaphor for the black men, which sailed right over my head until after I read up on the play upon finishing it. It keeps people alert and they rely on it to maintain the daily pace and function of their lives, but people don't appreciate its true value, and instead mercilessly execute it for being a perceived nuisance. I've heard of lions, tigers, and panthers used to exemplify the virtues of black people (especially black men), but roosters are a new one that I'm still mulling over even as I write. This play is set in between the ghosts and autonomy-through-access dreams of The Piano Lesson (the 1930s), and the woes of black manhood and womanhood in Fences (the 1950s). As a tale of friendship and almost-stardom, Seven Guitars echoes the themes of both works.

Favorite quotes:
"'If you have to say hello before you can say goodbye I ain't never got to worry about nobody saying goodbye to me no more.' I ain't never going through one of them goodbyes again... What I'm trying to tell you is, don't let no man use you up and then talk about he gotta go. Shoot him first" (31-32). 

"Somebody have to be the father of the man to lead the black man out of bondage. Marcus Garvey have a father. Maybe if I could not be like Marcus Garvey then I could be the father of someone who would not bow down to the white man" (68).

The Wangs vs. the World by Jade Chang

When Charles Wang established a long-running makeup empire after trading exile in Taiwan for a shot at luck in the States, he probably never imagined having to drive his family and all their possessions across the country before returning to China for the first time in decades. But after taking a risk that costs him everything at the top of the 2008 recession, that's exactly where he finds himself. Ever determined to create the next opportunity where there is none, Charles departs from his Beverly Hills home with plans to reunite his family on the East Coast, and then go to China to reclaim his ancestral lands and potentially build another fortune there. Along for the ride are his spoiled fashion-blogging daughter Grace, his goodhearted college-aged son Andrew, and his childhood friend turned second wife, Barbra. Waiting for them is his oldest daughter, Sina, a successful modern artist taking refuge in the Catskills after a controversy nearly ended her career.

Charles Wang's is a Death of a Salesman-esque commitment to a pipe dream, a dogged faith in one last sure bet that will make everything alright. Unlike Willy Lohman, however, once in Beijing Charles is able to find triumphant gratitude in the fact that he took all his chances in life and that, at one extended point in time, he'd made it. Sadly I didn't enjoy this novel as much as I'd expected to given the enthusiastic reviews I heard;  it wanders to too many unnecessary places and its loose ends are slightly unfulfilling. Nonetheless it's still a fun read to pass the time, a breather with succinct summations of Chinese 20th century history, the 2008 financial crisis, the art world, and first and second generation experiences of Chinese-American immigrants. The Wangs vs. The World may not have blown me away, but it's still a delight of a debut novel. Support Asian women writers and give this book a try!

Favorite quotes:
"Makeup was American, and Charles understood makeup. It was artifice, and it was honesty. it was science and it was psychology and it was fashion; but more than that, it was about feeling wealthy. Not moneywealth. The endless possibility of it and the cozy sureness of it... Artifice, thought Charles, was the real honesty. Confessing your desire to change, being willing to strive, those were things that made sense. The fakers were the ones who denied those true impulses" (6).

"Four score and seven years ago our forefathers said good fucking luck" (256).
"For Nash's students, there were many Chinas. There was the China that was against the world, the China that was the Communist government. The China that existed briefly in Taiwan. There was the China that covered things up and the China that was gradually making things free... his homeland is at once the place it would have been to him from the inside and the place it must be to him from the outside" (298).

Wednesday, January 4, 2017

Restroom Tea.

Oh, the juicy tidbits that just happen to take up residence in your ears when you're sitting silently in a restroom stall, and the person in the stall next to you doesn't know (doesn't care?) that anyone else is in the room to hear them...

The quintessentially sweet, soft-bodied, gentle-voiced, middle-aged white Midwestern mom. The simultaneous supervisor's pet and most vocal utterer of valid concerns, occassionally necessary doubts, petty complaints. The person with the most stellar on-time record on the team.  Is. Over. This. Ish. And. Has. Been. Orchestrating. Her. Escape. This. Whole. Time. And, calling out the peanuts nature of compensation around here. AND, predicting the demise of said dubiously sustainable team to boot!

I never would have imagined that someone else on this team would have flimsier patience for their occupation than I do. Everyone seems so chummy and satisfied all the time. So... settled. She seemed the most contentedly settled out of all of us! But it turns out that my colleague has a dark side, and I'm impressed. And she's in an even better position than me because apparently she's got options lined up already. Yes, plural! Options!

Sometimes God speaks to you through other people and you just have to chuckle, make note of it, and get in formation. Fourth day of the year, and here comes confirmation through an inadvertently eavesdropped phone conversation. Duly noted, Lord. Duly noted.