Sunday, July 31, 2022

BOOKS! (Nowhere Is a Place + Boys Come First)

July said she got places to be, and she ain't have time for us. So here I am already at the end of another month, writing a new book review. There's no rhyme or reason to me pairing the following novels together, other than they're the two books that I've most recently finished reading. Now that I think about it, both do involve 30-somethings catching their lovers cheating and driving across multiple states to escape the drama and the hurt, and both were also written by Black authors who are currently based in Brooklyn, but those commonalities didn't occur to me until just now. First up, a novel about generations of Black/Native women rooted in Georgia from 1836 through the mid 1990s, as told by a descendant who writes about them while road tripping to a family reunion with her estranged mother. And then, a novel about love woes, work woes, gentrification, and friendship between three gay Black men in Detroit (their hometown).
Nowhere Is a Place by Bernice L. McFadden
I love when I go to a bookstore or a sale and take something home with me just to say I didn't leave empty-handed, while not actually expecting much, only for that very same book to blow my mind (like If I Had Your Face did). Instances like those make me feel like I was meant to read that book at that exact point in time (like The Fisher King did). Such is the case with Nowhere Is a Place. In May I went to my local library to start editing episode 98 of my podcast, and popped into the spring book sale they were having before I got started. But it was the nth day of the sale, and the pickings were slim by then. Just as I was headed out the door, I spotted Nowhere Is a Place and recognized Bernice L. McFadden's name; I hadn't read any of her work yet, but I'd heard much acclaim about her debut novel Sugar. And without any context, the title spoke to me in an inspirational sort of way: Even if I feel like I'm nowhere, that's still somewhere, right? So I figured I'd make this my introduction to McFadden, and the lady at the sales table let me have it for free! She initially asked for $1, but then said it was free since it was one of the books that the library had discarded (as opposed to being donated by the public, I guess?). I'm still not sure if that's true or if she was merely in a generous mood, but either way, I took my free hardcover copy of Nowhere Is a Place home that day, expertly-laminated jacket and all!

In her late 30s, after getting kicked out by her abusive and cheating boyfriend, Sherry drives from Chicago to a seaside fishing village in Mexico, getting an abortion and making her yearly vacation spot her refuge for the next two years. While wallowing there in her grief, she finds love again with a younger man whom she first met in her early twenties. This new love gives her the courage to come out of hiding in 1995 when, loved up with her boo and newly pregnant, Sherry is informed about her extended family's upcoming reunion in Sandersville, Georgia. With this news, she drives alone to Nevada to personally invite her estranged mother Dumpling to go on a road trip to Sandersville with just her, separately from Sherry's two siblings. (Sherry and Dumpling are estranged because Dumpling randomly slapped Sherry, hard, when Sherry was six years old. And while Sherry has spent her whole life hoping for an apology or explanation, Dumpling doesn't seem to remember the slap.) On the road, Sherry express her desire to write a book about their family history, and based on Dumpling's recollections and her own artistic license, Sherry starts drafting a novel based mostly on the women who came before them, including:

Lou (originally Nayeli). She's born around 1830 and raised somewhere along the Atlantic Coast in her Yamasee tribe until 1836, when she's captured by a rival tribe and sold into slavery on the Vicey cotton plantation in Georgia. As a teenager, she meets Buena Vistaa Black man enslaved by the Viceys' relatives who falls in love with Lou at first sightthey get married, and they proceed to have four children. Vicey's daughter had previously taught Lou to read as a joke, and Lou not only secretly retains that information but gives her husband and children the gift of literacy as well. Suce is their fourth child, and their only daughter who isn't sold away.

Suce. Suce and Brother (originally Jeff) are the last of Lou's children left on the Vicey (then Lessing) plantation by 1865, when Brother leads Suce and the other remaining slaves in seizing control of the plantation and holding Lessing hostage. They achieve this while having no clue about the Emancipation Proclamation or the South's defeat in the Civil War because Lessing had suppressed that information. Williewho walks from Kentucky to Georgia after being released from slavery, and who's been seeing Suce in his dreams despite never meeting her beforeis the one who informs everyone about their freedom upon his arrival that same year. Willie and Suce later get married, and once the group forges Lessing's will in order to bequeath the plantation to themselves (securing their place in Sandersville for generations to come), Suce smothers Lessing to death. She goes on to have 15 children, and the 12 who survive include a daughter named Lillie.

Lillie. A young, loose, wild woman who suddenly marries an older man (a minister) named Corinthians in 1915, using life as a preacher's wife in Philadelphia as her ticket out of a country existence in Georgia. (And her ticket away from her older brother Vonnie, who's molested her and at least two of his other sisters.) Lillie has three children with Corinthians before he dies, and after selling the church she lets loose again, decking herself out in her favorite color (red), having a love child, and frequently neglecting her kids to go party and sleep with various men. Eventually, two of her sisters have to come from Georgia to check on the children, and one of the sisters stays in Philly until Lillie dies of a mysterious illness. Then, big sis moves all of Lillie's children back to the family land in Georgia. The third of Lillie's four children is a plump little girl named Clementine, who most people call Dumpling. Dumpling, of course, grows up to be Sherry's mom.

So in the present of 1995, Sherry in her late 30s is the great-granddaughter of someone who was enslaved until their teenage years (Suce). That's how close the history of slavery is to her. And considering that Dumpling and her siblings were partially raised by Suce, that means Sherry's really only one generation removed from it. While reading, I noticed that all the parts with Sherry and Dumpling (which I assumed comprised the main plot) are italicized, while all the past events Sherry recounts, which take up most of the novel, are not italicized. As if to signal that the core story of this novel is actually in the past, and even though Nowhere Is a Place opens with Sherry, she's more so our conduit to that past. As for Dumpling, I was going to summarize her like I did the other women above, but something happens to her as a preteen that precipitates her slapping six-year-old Sherry as an adult, and it's worthwhile for people to discover that sequence of events on their own; I don't want to spoil it. Instead, I'll point out that there's this theme throughout the novel of mothers harming their children for complicated reasons, and Dumpling isn't exempt from that unfortunate legacy (or generational curse, as one might call it today). It starts with the cruelties of slavery forcing Lou to kill one of her sons as an act of mercy, extends to Suce being unaware (and then in denial) of the molestation happening in her household for years, then morphs into Lillie's vengeful spirit using her eldest daughter Lovey (Dumpling's big sister) to torment Vonnie. That torment has a devastating impact on young Dumpling, which later causes her to slap her own daughter when she's triggered by the memory of what happened.

For brevity's sake, I'll just hone in on two additional motifs that stood out to me: spirits, and the color blue. For starters, Lou is the granddaughter of a Yamasee medicine man, the spiritual leader of their village. As an enslaved woman, she's haunted by the disgruntled spirit of the son she mercy-killed for the rest of her life, developing a cancer that swells her stomach and requires her to symbolically give birth to it on her death bed, with an "ocean" surging out from inside her as she dies. Suce regularly talks to spirits and/or herself, is similarly haunted by one of her dead children who resents dying so young, and is able to sense when something's wrong with any one of her 12 living children. And as previously alluded to, Lillie's spirit possesses her daughter Lovey's body in order to enact succubus-style revenge against her brother (Lovey's uncle). Apparently, the spirits in the Black Lessing family are rarely at rest. And the color of that restlessness is blue. Blue is the color of the eagle-shaped granite charm that Lou's grandfather gives her as a child and that gets passed down to her female descendants, and it's also the color of the water she expels upon her death. Blue is the color of the eyeshadow Lillie wears to offset her red outfits, and the color of the moonlight that her spirit is bathed in when Lovey encounters her. Blue is the color that Dumpling avoids for the rest of her life after being traumatized in her preteen years, to the point of never wearing the color again and refusing to dress her dolls or her children in it. And blue is the color of the beaded necklace that six-year-old Sherry is wearing when Dumpling slaps her. There's also something to be said about the recurrence of the number 12—the age Suce is when she meets Willie, the number of years Suce is cursed by another enslaved woman to not have children after marrying Willie, the number of Suce's children who survive into adulthood, the age that Lovey and Dumpling are when their respective innocence is compromised, etc.—but I figure I've expounded enough for one day.

When I started reading Nowhere Is a Place, I expected to read about a mother and daughter settling their decades-long beef (as described by the inner jacket), and granted, Sherry and Dumpling do have a breakthrough in the end. However, I didn't expect that I'd actually be reading a story about the multi-generational impacts of slavery. And that story spoke so much to this present moment in 2022—with legal attacks on women's bodily autonomy, and Black elders' warnings of us being "one vote away from the auction block" proving to be more than mere paranoia as many conservatives try to repeal rights and recreate bondage wherever possible—that I was stunned. As gruesome as the details of NIAP sometimes are, I'm grateful to have read it because it reminded me that I and other Black people of today (especially Black women) are not alone in our suffering. We are not the first to feel like hostages in the country of our birth, not the first to question why we're even here or wonder when things will get better without regressing. Although that reminder doesn't necessarily make me feel better about what's going on right now, it does make me appreciate the opportunity this work of fiction provides to acknowledge our ancestors' suffering, and to honor the joy that they snatched in the midst of it all. I finished NIAP wanting to cry for them, and I don't remember feeling this spiritually connected to a novel since Homegoing. NIAP is easily my second favorite read of the year (so far), after Seven Days in June. If you've ever experienced a Black family reunion, been interested in road trips, valued the importance of "knowing someone's heart", had tension with an older relative who doesn't remember your childhood the way you do, or wanted an example of Black people taking their reparations while neither waiting for over a century nor settling for white hand-me-downs, then read this book!

Favorite quotes:

"i was torn from my somewhere and brought to this nowhere place
i felt alone in this land that was nowhere from my everywhere.
[...] time flowed on like the river
like the river, time flowed on, but i held tight to the memories of my
someplace, refusing to believe that my everywhere had always been
here in this nowhere place." (Epigraph).

"They didn't want to light kerosene lamps for light or go to church every Sunday, 'cause, shit, even the Lord rested on that day, so who was watching and listening while they sweat like pigs in the summer and froze like the ground in the winter all the while singing his praises?" (226).

"Soon? What the hell could she connect that to? Nothing more than an answer to myriad questions [...] Soon didn't mean shit. But she kept the notes anyway, just in case one day it could" (272).
Boys Come First by Aaron Foley
I read and appreciated Aaron Foley's first book (How to Live in Detroit Without Being a Jackass) when it was published in 2015, and I've been following him on social media for a while. So when I heard that he was putting out his first novel called Boys Come First in May 2022, I knew I'd be reading that too! Boys Come First was the other book I ordered, in addition to Black Love Matters, when Barnes & Noble had their 25% off pre-order sale in late January this year. I was eager to see what Foley could do with fiction, and also eager to learn about the gay scene (especially the Black gay scene) in Detroit, according to a native Detroiter who's also a Black gay man himself.

The titular "Boys" of Boys Come First are a trio of friends in their 30s named Dominick, Troy, and Remy (DTR... D-e-T-R-o-i-t... get it?). The novel opens with Dominick, an advertising exec, driving from NYC back to his mom's house in Detroit after losing his job and catching his boyfriend of eight years cheating on the same day. He's able to secure a job at a local advertising firm to tide him over, but soon finds himself constrained by how cluelessly yet insistently white the firm is despite operating in a majority-Black city. Remy is a real estate agent and local celebrity ("Mr. Detroit") who has a roster of frequent bedfellows but desires a real relationship. As he alternates between two particular would-be boyfriends, he also has his ethics called into question after helping a pair of wealthy white developers shut down a charter school to build a ridiculously expensive apartment complex in its place. A sixth grade teacher at said school (also the main one questioning Remy's ethics and loyalty to Black Detroiters) is Troy, a half-Black and half-Bangladeshi man who proudly claims Black, and whose intention of becoming more involved with community activism inadvertently results in his being stuck in an abusive relationship with his hotep boyfriend. Troy develops a casual cocaine habit as he deals with the stress of said boyfriend, strategizing how to keep his school open, and his enduring estrangement from his rich and largely unaffectionate father. 
Dominick and Troy met as high schoolers at a summer program at Michigan State University (Go Green!), whereas Troy and Remy met through a frightening incident at a party as Oakland University students. (Of all universities! Just down a few streets from me!) With Troy as the common denominator, Dominick and Remy don't become friends until Troy introduces them following Dominick's hurried return to the city. Coincidentally, Dominick becomes the new common denominator when Troy and Remy have a falling out over their opposing livelihoods. And while all three want fulfilling, committed relationships (not just sex) and fear ending up alone, Dominick is especially concerned about getting married before turning 35.

Once I read the line "with a wrinkled chitterling dick and a hog maw butthole" on page 8 and recovered from laughing myself sore, I knew I was in for a wild ride. And Foley did not disappoint! His writing is clear and concise, the dialogue is tight, not one scene is wasted, and he balances earnest sincerity with just plain silliness in a way that made me trust the directions that he chose to take Boys Come First in. As a multi-layered slice of life story, I didn't know exactly where the novel was headed in the end. I was sure that Troy and Remy would make up after falling out, and I figured Troy would overcome his shame about being abused to finally tell Dom and Remy about it. But other than that, every chapter was full of surprises, which made me enjoy BCF even more. Also, Foley deserves all the credit in the world for not shying away from writing about gay dating and sex, in multiple contexts, and in explicit detail. It's not necessarily his job to demystify those topics for readers, but I'm just saying... you might learn a thing or twelve! And the learning comes from both the horny and the wholesome; Remy talks to his little (Gen Z? Gen Alpha?) cousin Paris about being gay after Paris opens up about his interest in boys, and the eight-year-old winds up bringing some wisdom of his own to those conversations.

I was born in Detroit (raised in the suburbs), spent much of my childhood attending both of my parents' respective Detroit churches when they were were still together, spent even more time in the city when my dad (a teacher in Detroit) moved to the west side after the divorce, got my hair done in Detroit until the age of 22, and have popped in and out of Detroit for countless activities for as long as I can remember. All of that to say, while I am not from Detroit (and am mindful not to fraudulently claim the city as my own), I do know some Detroit things. Hence, I recognized many of the aspects of Detroit life that Foley mentions in Boys Come First, like riding the Giant Slide at Belle Isle as a kid, or witnessing "New Detroit" white millennials dance to Motown hits at dives like the Marble Bar. (Foley is frequently gracious enough not to name certain names in BCF, but he's also brilliant at describing people, places, and phenomena in a way where those in the know can peep exactly who, where, or what he's talking about. And I just know he was talking about the Marble Bar in the opening paragraph of chapter 18. Ask me about the time in February 2020 when I went there, just around the corner from the Motown Museum, during Black History Month, and all of the DJs during this particular "Motown Music Night" were white, most of the patrons were white, and the only Black staff in the whole place were the bouncers at the front door.) 
I've gotta say though, reading this book was also bittersweet. Its breakdowns of gentrification and how Detroit will inevitably continue to change (often but not always to Black Detroiters' detriment, and not to the same degree for every Black Detroiter), were sobering. And as delightful as it was for me to relate to so many of the Detroit/Metro Detroit references, it was surprisingly painful for me to read them and reckon with the fact that they're still so close to home precisely because Idespite my feverish efforts to the contraryam somehow one of those people who still has yet to move away from their hometown (away from Michigan entirely). But that's me bringing my own personal baggage to the reading experience, obviously; that's not Foley's problem.

I was curious about why Remy is the only character whose chapters are written in first-person, and it seemed a little too convenient for Troy's growing substance addiction to disappear (or at least never be mentioned again) after he learns of a loved one's grave illness. But those curiosities aside, I think Boys Come First is a true joy! Just like how Bryan Washington's Lot felt like a book written by a Houstonian for Houstonians, BCF is a similar vibe but for Detroiters. Plus, what a small world! BCF received a lovely blurb from Deesha Philyaw (author of The Secret Lives of Church Ladies, which I still adore) on the back cover. And one of the "day-ones" who Foley names in his acknowledgements is actually the older brother of one of the few other Black girls I knew from my Japanese classes at MSU! (Said brother is a Wolverine, but I won't hold that against him.) If you are interested in and/or fond of the city of Detroit, care about Black Detroiters, enjoy copious music references, are entertained by messiness, have ever grown apart from a close friend, or simply want to read more LGBTQ literature written by Black people, then read this book!

Favorite quotes:
"That was the first time, on the Lord's Day, when someone who wasn't blood-related to Dominick had told him they loved him.
And now, as he tried futilely to fall asleep alone in his teenage bedroom, he wondered if anyone else ever would" (17).

"The tactics were simple: scare the new white people in any way possible. If they wanted to be in Detroit, they would have to accept it all" (134).

"'I'm still all here,' she said, pointing a red fingernail to the right side of her temple. 'Some folks don't even know they're here'" (230).

Wednesday, July 13, 2022

ドラマ (Dorama) Time! 28 - pt. 2

Gave you part 1, and now I'm giving you part 2 of this review, as promised! Here are the other two J-dramas, plus an honorable mention, that I watched in spring/early summer this year. I picked the following J-dramas because they seemed like weird and/or scandalous shows that had something thought-provoking to say. (Also, I just found out that they're both based on manga written by a woman named Sakai Eri.) I picked the honorable mention because it's an adaptation of one of my favorite novels.
ヒヤマケンタロウの妊娠 (Hiyama Kentarou no Ninshin/Hiyama Kentaro's Pregnancy/Hiyama Kentaro's First Pregnancy/He's Expecting) - Netflix/2022
  • 'Hiyama Kentaro no Ninshin' presents a world where some cisgender men can get pregnant. (No, the show doesn't explain how or why this is happening, only that men who can't or choose not to terminate their pregnancies all give birth via C-section.) Kentaro (Saitoh Takumi from 'Tokyo Dokushin Danshi'), who works at an advertising agency and has casual sex with various women, starts experiencing strange symptoms (sweating, exhaustion, vomiting, nipple swelling and lactation). Turns out he's been knocked up by Aki (Ueno Juri from 'Alice no Toge'), his longtime friend with benefits.
  • Aki doesn't want children because it'll likely derail her hard-won career as a writer and photographer; for Japanese women, becoming a mom often means leaving the workforce for good. She heavily supports Kentaro getting an abortion so they can both move on with their lives. And that's the plan, until Kentaro takes a huge risk by revealing his pregnancy during a pitch meeting at work for an important client. The novelty of him being a pregnant man appeals to the client, and they hire him as one of the spokesmodels for their rebrand campaign. In other words, Kentaro keeps his baby to secure the bag.
  • The downside of this career boost is that without Kentaro's knowledge, his bosses devise a three-year advertising plan to milk him and his baby for all they'll be worth (pun intentional on my part). Meanwhile, Kentaro weathers the challenges of pregnancy and family planning with Aki, while also building community with other men who are or have been pregnant. Surprisingly, this includes Kentaro's own father (played by Lily Franky from 'Kyouen NG' and 'The Naked Director'), a scammer who previously abandoned the family due to the stigma of giving birth to Kentaro back in the 1980s.
Meh: This is less a criticism of the show itself and more a criticism of the fact that even if being pregnant emasculates or feminizes them in the eyes of others, sexism would still work in pregnant men's favor. When Kentaro first starts acting unpredictably and looking disheveled at work, his boss demotes him to administrative duties and busy work that are usually reserved for women. (He basically receives the discriminatory cold shoulder that women often get in the work place whether pregnant or not, but especially once pregnancy starts affecting their work habits and availability.) The irony of Kentaro deciding to keep the baby is that it has nothing to do with genuine acceptance and support in the workplace, and everything to do with the salaryman's tendency to do whatever it takes to benefit his employer, even if it means exploiting himself. Kentaro's best case scenario, remaining in his bosses' good graces while also securing a modeling campaign, is only available to him because he's a man doing what's seen as a woman's job (being pregnant). If he were a regular degular woman, his employer would view his pregnancy as unremarkable and inconvenient, and he certainly wouldn't be getting a spokesmodel gig or celebrity status from it.
Better: However, to the show's credit, 'Hiyama Kentaro no Ninshin' does touch on this double standard. Most of the closest people in Kentaro's life are women, and his female co-workers remind him that, basically, he ain't special! He's only treated as special for doing something that thousands of women are already expected to do without complaining or questioning or inconveniencing the people around them, and there's a lot about carrying and raising children that Kentaro is ignorant of because he's a man who hasn't bothered to know about those things until now.
And to Kentaro's credit, him being close with women does contribute to his ability to adapt to pregnancy (once he decides to keep the baby), quickly catch on to the discrimination that women face, and be more mindful of his privilege. Sure, people believe he's less of a man because he's carrying a baby—some even insist that he's becoming a "mother", not a fatherbut he also acknowledges that his newly-acquired media following is due to people being more willing to listen to him than to women. Even though he often states obvious things that women have been discussing online already for ages (like how maternity clothes are too dowdy-looking, etc.).
Best: When I first heard about the show and began watching the first episode, I wondered if it might be a commentary on transgender people becoming parents, which would've been fascinating to learn about. But the show goes out of its way to emphasize that this phenomenon is about cisgender male pregnancies (男性妊夫/dansei ninpu, or 男性妊娠/dansei ninshin). With transness being left out, the show explores other gender-related topics, like what male pregnancy would mean for their female sex partners (their baby mamas, if you will). Would it be a lucky opportunity for a woman to have a baby without needing to interrupt her career by carrying it herself, like Aki sees it? Would it be romantic to have a man go through the turmoil of pregnancy, medical appointments, incessant unsolicited advice from others, and the pain of childbirth for her, like Aki's friend sees it? The wife of Kentaro's new preggo friend Miyaji must raise the son they already have (which she gave birth to) in addition to running their florist business and tending to her increasingly hormonal husband. So would having a pregnant husband/boyfriend/FWB actually be triple the burden, like it is for her?
I also appreciate how informative 'Hiyama Kentaro no Ninshin' is about Japan's abortion laws. (While 2021's 'FM999' did wow me with its creative approach to the lived experience of abortion, the legal aspect didn't come up.) For instance, both Kentaro and Aki must sign a consent form for him to get an abortion as initially planned, which reflects the real-life fact that Japanese women (especially the married ones) often aren't allowed to receive abortions without the other progenitor's (a man's) consent. Relatedly, Kentaro doesn't find out he's pregnant until he's 9 or 10 weeks along, and isn't able to schedule an abortion until after the 12-week mark. But by that point an abortion is treated as a stillbirth, and Kentaro would've been required by law not only to bury the fetus, but also report the abortion to a city office so he could receive permission to do the burial? My googling couldn't tell me how accurate that part is, but imagine the extra hassle and potential trauma of having to do that too!

シジュウカラ (Shijuu kara/Starting at 40/From 40 Onward/After 40) - TV Tokyo/2022
  • Shinobu (Yamaguchi Sayaka from 'Kyouen NG') quits her 20-year middling manga artist career in Tokyo to relocate with her husband and son to a big house in the suburbs. However, one of her comics from over a decade ago (about married women having affairs, something she fantasized about doing early in her marriage when her husband cheated on her) sees a sudden boom in popularity. This prompts the publisher to commission Shinobu to write a brand new series about female infidelity. So she turns one of the rooms of the house into her office, and hires a manga assistant to help her.
  • Said assistant is a baby-faced 22-year-old named Chiaki. While they're drinking at a bar to celebrate completing the first volume of the new series, on what also happens to be Shinobu's 40th birthday (which her husband had forgotten about), Chiaki propositions Shinobu but she plays it off. This exchange sets off at least a year of will-they-won't-they, and for most of that time she tries to keep things professional. With her encouragement, Chiaki makes his own comic about being sexually exploited in middle and high school by grown women who paid him for sex. Shinobu doesn't want to be like those women, and even though she briefly runs away with Chiaki, she changes her mind and opts to stay with her family. Shinobu's husband becomes suspicious and starts antagonizing her, but then he almost dies from a heart attack.
  • Five years later, Shinobu and Chiaki have lost contact. Chiaki's manga career has stalled since his debut comic was published, so he works as a chef. Whereas Shinobu's career has flourished, but she's bored and her comics have become uninspired. And her now-retired and dependent househusband is acting increasingly needy. So she has an affair with and tentatively accepts a marriage proposal from a magazine editor (also her ex-boyfriend from high school) who's commissioned her to for a new project. Separately, this same editor also commissions a new project from Chiaki in order to keep tabs on him. Both the editor and Chiaki's live-in girlfriend attempt to drive a permanent wedge between Chiaki and Shinobu when the pair start interacting again, but those attempts ultimately fail.
Meh:  Episode 12 (the final episode) is weird. I know I said weird is what I wanted, but I didn't like it. The editing for that episode is different (I can't describe in technical terms why it's different, but I could just tell). A few supporting characters have random voiceover monologues that no one asked for. Shinobu and Chiaki reunite in a romantic sense, but it still just feels so... unearned? Not just from an age standpoint but a lack-of-chemistry standpoint as well. While it's clear throughout the series why Chiaki is in love with Shinobu, I never understood why Shinobu would still be stuck on Chiaki once she isn't a miserable housewife anymore (once she doesn't need him for escape anymore). You're 45 now and still longing for this baby-looking young man because why? Because of his prolific talent? Because he saw and empathized with your unhappiness back when no one else did? There's a scene in episode 11 when Chiaki tells Shinobu that he's giving up and wants to forget both manga and her entirely, and she's the one still trying to convince him that her affection for him is genuine even though a relationship between them would never work. I watched that entire scene like, "Shinobu! Girl! Let the boy go live his own life! STANNUP!" Why a woman of her age and success would still be interested in Chiaki is beyond me, and I very much could've gone my whole life without ever seeing the sex scene at the end of episode 12.
Better: The scene where Shinobu sits down with Chiaki to help him understand that he was taken advantage of by those grown women of his past is so necessary. As she emphasizes, just because he got money out of it and his body reacted like bodies do when physically aroused, doesn't mean he enjoyed any of it or that entering into those arrangements at such a young age was his own fault. He was a child. He is not a bad person; he's a victim. (And his trifling mom knew about it the whole time but never said anything because she was spending that money too!) 
There's a black and white bird with grey wings that appears in Shinobu's earlier work and then reappears (sometimes in Shinobu's imagination, sometimes not) in other parts of the show. For some reason, it took me until after I'd finished the final episode to google the show's title in katakana form (シジュウカラ) and realize that shijuukara is the name of that specific bird! A bird that's also known as a Japanese tit. I was already aware of shijuu as an alternate reading of 四十 or 40 (usually yonjuu), which refers to Shinobu's age and makes the title 'Shijuukara' translate to "From 40 Onward". But I had no idea that 'Shijuukara' was actually a double entendre referencing the bird as well! That's so clever!
Best: That ending theme song by SpendyMily, "Koukai"? It GOES! The lead singer's tone and ability to emote with his voice reminds me so much of Mitsumura Tatsuya, lead singer of the now-disbanded NICO Touches the Walls (one of my favorite bands in high school and college).
Honorable Mention: Pachiko (Season 1) - Apple TV Plus/2022

Based on Min Jin Lee's 2017 novel of the same name, 'Pachinko' is an American production that traces the history of the Baeks, a Korean family contending with Japanese hegemony from 1915 Busan to 1989 Tokyo. (In the show, at least in season 1, 1989 is the present.) Much of the events center around the oldest and youngest members of the Baek family. There's Sunja (Youn Yuh-jung from the 2020 film Minari), a permanent resident in Japan who was born in Busan during Japan's colonization of Korea and who moved to Osaka as a pregnant newlywed in 1931. And there's her grandson Solomon, an NYC-based finance guy who takes a temporary assignment in Tokyo in hopes of elevating his career. Solomon was born and raised in Osaka but was sent by his father to continue his schooling in the US as a teenager, and in bubble era Tokyo he mistakenly assumes that his Korean-ness is irrelevant to his professional aspirations because anti-Korean sentiment in Japan is a thing of the past. The deal he's trying to close (convincing a Korean grandmother to sell her home to his firm's client so the client can build a luxury hotel on that land) forces him to confront his Korean identity in unanticipated ways. Concurrently, Sunja reflects on all the difficulty that she's survived and pushes herself to return to her birth country (accompanied by her son Mozasu, Solomon's father) for the first time since 1931. 

Sunja's storyline is extremely faithful to the book, with the exception of her return to Busan (the book version of Sunja never sets foot in Korea again). And although Solomon's character exists in the book as well, the TV version of him is where the 'Pachinko' creators seem to take the most liberties. In the book, there's a character named Noa (Solomon's father's older brother, so his uncle) who similarly struggles to embrace being Korean, to the point of cutting off contact with his family so he can pass as Japanese, and eventually dying by suicide. 'Pachinko' takes the tortured self-hatred of Book Noa and replaces it with the naiveté and arrogance of TV Solomon. TV Noa's misfortune is referenced in retrospect (though not in detail), and he does appear as a child, but it remains to be seen whether season 2 will portray the more tragic aspects of that character as written in the novel.
Because Pachinko is one my favorite novels, watching the TV adaptation has been a no-brainer for me ever since I first heard that it was in development. And then I heard that Youn Yuh-jung was playing Sunja, that Hallyu superstar Lee Min-ho (my K-drama crush in high school) was playing Sunja's yakuza baby daddy Hansu, and that Justin Chon (Seoul Searching, Gook, etc.) was one of the co-directors, and that's all I needed to know! Masterful wouldn't even scratch the surface of describing what a cinematic and historical gift 'Pachinko' is. You wanna talk about art that sets the proverbial captives free? This show is it! Especially episode 4, where Sunja and Solomon each witness different forms of Korean resistance and embrace getting rained on (literally) as they return to their true selves. And Lee Min-ho's solo episode (episode 7) about how Hansu survived the 1923 Great Kanto Earthquake AND the ensuing Kanto Massacre that targeted Korean people? That was a big-budget history lesson that broke my heart. Those events aren't mentioned in the novel, so I know the 'Pachinko' team did their research for that one! Have I not said enough? Watch 'Pachinko' if you know what's good for you!

Having reviewed all the Japanese and Japanese-ish dramas that I've watched recently, I gotta pick a favorite, right? Excluding the honorable mentions, 'Kikazaru Koi ni wa Riyuu ga Atte' is my favorite this time around. Sure, 'Koi Nante, Honki de Yatte Dou Suru no?'' has a very similar premise and a similarly lengthy title, commits more to its romantic angle, and has a more cohesive plot (especially if we're comparing final episodes). But 'Kikazaru Koi' has Yokohama Ryuusei as the male lead, stealing every scene he's in even when he has no dialogue, and for that, 'Kikazaru Koi' is the winner in my book! And if we're including the honorable mentions, then 'Pachinko' far and away surpasses all of the other five shows. Yes, I'm biased because it's based on a book I already love, but so be it! Now off I go to watch more J-dramas!

Tuesday, July 12, 2022

ドラマ (Dorama) Time! 28 - pt. 1

I'm finally ready to review the J-dramas that I watched during the rest of spring and the beginnings of summer! Would've been ready sooner but I kept finding additional shows to watch, and I just finished the last of them today so here we are! This edition of Dorama Time features four J-dramas, plus two honorable mentions (shows that are partially in Japanese and set in Japan, but aren't Japanese productions). Since I've got so many shows to write about, I'm going to try streamlining my thoughts using a Meh/Better/Best approach (an idea I've just come up with, you'll see what I mean). For part 1 of this review, I'm focusing on the first and last J-dramas that I finished on this roster: two love stories that are both about career women who design and/or promote home goods, falling in love with chefs who have troubled pasts and a fear of commitment. The reason why I chose these shows eludes me now, but since I wasn't initially familiar with most of the actors in either show, I can only assume that I chose them for escapism purposes.
着飾る恋には理由があって (Kikazaru Koi ni wa Riyuu ga Atte/Why I Dress Up for Love/There's a Reason for the Love I'm Wearing) - TBS/2021
  • With her hands and eyes perpetually glued to her phone, Kurumi is insanely busy managing her own following as an Instagram influencer, doing PR and social media for the home decor company she works at, AND being a de facto personal assistant/stylist/wrangler for her boss (Hayama) whom she's secretly been in love with for seven years. In fact, she's so busy that she forgets to renew her apartment lease, which causes her to rent a room in the spacious house that her divorced, middle-aged chef friend (Kouko) owns.
  • Three people are already renting the other extra rooms in Kouko's house: a reclusive visual artist named Ayaka (played by Nakamura Anne from 'Grand Maison Tokyo'), a psychiatrist named Haruto, and Haruto's cousin Shun, a young chef specializing in Spanish cuisine who was once a wunderkind in Spain and tried to run his own restaurant in Tokyo but flopped. Still bruised from the failure and disappointment, Shun has made nonchalant his middle name. Except for the food truck he runs to make a living, he maintains little to no attachments to anyone or anything; his minimalist room is nearly devoid of furniture, he only has a few sets of clothing, and he's lost track of his smartphone that he no longer uses. Shun often dismisses Kurumi's social media-obsessed lifestyle as superficial, which leads to numerous petty arguments between them. 
  • But then late one night, Kurumi and Shun brush a little too closely when retrieving items from the fridge at the same time, and they share a kiss. And as the housemates go on more group outings, Kurumi and Shun's growing attraction for each other becomes undeniable. Can they become something real, enough for Kurumi to forget about her crush on Hayama? When Hayama moves into the sharehouse temporarily and Shun peeps his interest in Kurumi, will that be enough to make Shun step up, stop pretending he doesn't care about anything, and get both his love life and career back on track?
Meh: Kurumi's career crisis in episodes 9 and 10where she gets bashed online for unknowingly promoting a plagiarized bag design on Instagram, her job as social media manager is jeopardized, and the hate comments have her spiraling to the point of wanting to quit her job and move to Hokkaido with Shun when he gets a new opportunity theredidn't seem like that big of a deal to me. I understand that this crisis serves as further character development for both Kurumi and Shun, especially when Shun tries to talk his girlfriend down from such a drastic decision. (Now that he's emerging from his self-imposed social isolation and working in a restaurant again, he warns Kurumi from experience that running away only leads to regret, and he doesn't want her to make the same mistakes he did.) But couldn't Kurumi have resolved her work crisis by simply deleting that IG post, never directly addressing the plagiarism issue, and waiting it out until netizens' fickle attentions inevitably shifted to something else? Isn't that what tons of companies and public figures do when they have a PR scandal?

Also... is 'Kikazaru Koi' about Kurumi and Shun's love story? Is it about Kurumi realizing her dream of becoming a product buyer of stylish, handcrafted, and eco-friendly home goods? Is it about Shun overcoming his past failures and learning to care about things again? Is it about the housemates' collective friendship? One could argue it's about all of those things, but at various points it seemed like the show couldn't make up its mind, and none of those plotlines got enough airtime for me to feel them out the way I would've liked. The love story is what drew me in, but once I got into a groove with that, the show would shift focus, come back to the romance, then shift focus again, gradually getting less romantic as the show went on. 'Kikazaru Koi' ends with a solid, standard 10-episode run, but I genuinely believe the story would've benefited from two additional episodes. Episode 10 speeds through too much trying to tie up the remaining loose ends.
Better: How refreshing it was to see Nakamura Anne stepping outside of her usual sporty, long-haired, super-feminine, put-together model image to play Ayaka, a character who has short hair, an androgynous style, a gruff personality, and a situationship with her co-worker (pregnancy scare included)! 
The all-consuming nature of social media is not a new topic, but whereas 'FOLLOWERS' examined how social media (or SNS as it's referred to in Japan) can make or break careers, 'Kikazaru Koi' uses Kurumi to demonstrate what it's like when social media IS the career. Whether its for her job's IG or her personal IG, Kurumi's got multiple alarms set to remind her when to post content throughout the day, and she can't even take a bath without her phone nearby. I felt stressed just watching her, and while I don't envy that life, Kurumi's character definitely deepened my respect for social media managers.
When Kurumi first stepped foot into her Kouko's house and the camera panned out to show the entire place, I literally gasped. The interior design is so simple, sparse even, a style I would normally think is boring. But something about Kouko's house blew me away, and it might be the most beautiful house set I've ever seen in my 13 years of watching J-dramas. So much open space and natural light! Neutral walls with warm-toned wood floors, ceilings, and doorframes! A sunken dining area! And who can forget the breathtaking outdoorsy scenes from when the group goes on a trip to Yamanashi? The camping (glamping) domes at Shakushiyama Gateway Camp, with Mt. Fuji looming like a sleeping giant in the background! The onsen that sits right on a riverbank! My goodness!

Best: Yokohama Ryuusei is absolutely perfect as sensitive and smirky-but-not-mean-spirited Shun! I love that Shun confessing his feelings for Kurumi doesn't take long, and that it's also not forced to be an overblown moment; the moment reflects his laid-back yet sincere personality. At the end of episode 3, he and Kurumi are eating alone at a campfire in Yamanashi, and he's feeding her while refusing to let go of her hand. (He claims it's to help her "detox" from always reaching for her phone, but we know what's what.) And suddenly he admits, "I've been having dreams about you," to which Kurumi responds by joking, "Maybe it's because you like me or something." And Shun pretends to pause and consider it before cheekily replying, "Yeah, I guess you're right. I probably do like you." Would you believe that I replayed that scene a dozen times? Because that's what I did! There's a different scene at the end of episode 6 where Shun tries to act all broody and detached to avoid getting hurt, even telling Kurumi that he'll be fine if she chooses Hayama instead of him. But Kurumi wastes no time interrupting him (literally putting her hand over his mouth and pinching his lips shut) to say, "Shut up! I chose you, remember? I'm choosing YOU." Shun tears up hearing this, and then they snuggle together under a blanket on Kouko's balcony while the sun sets, and it's super soft and intimate! I replayed that scene multiple times too!
One of my favorite hallmarks of 'Kikazaru Koi' are the touching post-credits scenes of each episode which display how much attention Shun pays to Kurumi without her noticing, and how he actually puts a lot of thought into his interactions with her beforehand (even though outwardly he seems to be messing with her all the time). In general, Shun prefers to show Kurumi his affection through things like sarcasm. Or feeding her the exquisite food he makes at the sharehouse and in his food truck. Or attempting to break into a park at night so Kurumi can see the fully-bloomed sakura trees that she missed due to her busy work day, and then setting up an indoor viewing at the sharehouse instead, using a sakura-themed art piece that Ayaka had just made. Or, as previously mentioned, holding Kurumi's hand so she won't be distracted while they spend alone time together by a campfire. Real "acts of service" type stuff, and I dig it. It takes Shun the entire series to learn how to not only show but also tell how he feels, but when he gets it right, he really gets it right. 

Last but not least, that ending theme song by Hoshino Gen, "Fushigi"? Splendid. Nothing else to be said.

恋なんて、本気でやってどうするの?(Koi Nante, Honki de Yatte Dou Suru no?/Who Needs True Love?/What Do You Really Do About Love?/How Do You Love For Real?) - Fuji TV/KTV/2022
  • 27-year-old Jun is so dedicated to her work as a tableware designer that her two best friends jokingly call her by her job title (buchou or "Chief") as a nickname. She's a virgin who believes relationships are a waste of time because nothing is guaranteed and everyone ends up alone in the end. Deep down, she's also terrified of becoming just like her mom, a love-obsessed woman who repeatedly abandoned herself (and Jun as a child) running behind countless men before eventually getting dumped.
  • Around the same period that Jun's crush/co-worker/former high school classmate marries one of her subordinates (i.e. not her), she and her two best friends become regulars at a new French bistro called Salut. Salut is extremely popular with women because of its handsome waiter and sous chef named Shuma. After closing time he'll basically sleep with any woman who asks, and even offers to let brokenhearted Jun use him as dating practice, but he avoids serious relationships. Jun accepts Shuma's offer but of course ends up falling in love with him anyway, and after confessing her feelings and being sufficiently d*ckmatized by Shuma, they enjoy the beginnings of their new, no-longer-pretend love.
  • That is, until Shuma's gambling and alcohol-addicted mother leaves her rehab facility to live with him and begins sabotaging his relationship with Jun. Both Jun and Shuma's careers are threatened, with Jun being demoted due to lackluster sales of the latest plate collection she's designed, while Shuma's dad who owns Salut plans to shutter the restaurant. Jun and her friends collaborate with Shuma and the head chef to help save Salut, but our lead couple eventually breaks up because of Shuma's mom. Meanwhile, a different high school friend of Jun's (Otsu) offers her a loveless but stable and drama-free marriage. In the midst of all this chaos, can Jun and Shun be convinced that true love is worth taking a chance on each other again?
Meh: Less of a "meh", more like a "hmm". At the end of the final episode, Otsu's at a bar drinking Jun's rejection away, and he happens to strike up a conversation with Misaki, the nail salon owner who often lets Jun and her two besties come by to chat about their relationship troubles because they're all Misaki's friends too. As the pair converse at the bar, Misaki reveals to Otsu that for all the relationship advice she regularly gives her friends, she's actually asexual. (Which is a category that I was tempted to put Jun into at the beginning of the show given how uninterested she is in romance and how confused she is by other women's obsession with dating and sex, but I digress.) And on top of that, Misaki divulges that her only experience with romance is her years-long crush on... Jun! So basically Otsu and Misaki, unbeknownst to each other, are at a bar drinking over their unrequited love for the same woman. Which is such an intriguing and unexpected plot twist that it's almost a shame that it was dropped in at the last minute. If Misaki's character was written to be a queer asexual woman from the beginning, then I would've loved for that perspective to be expressed more in her earlier conversations with Jun and the girls.
Better: I didn't mention it in the summary above, but Jun's two best friends Kyoko and Arisa go on their own complicated relationship journeys as well. At the beginning of 'Koi Nante, Honki de', housewife Kyoko is unhappily married to her inattentive gamer dude husband, and by the end she leaves him for Kaname (Salut's head chef). Their connection is innocent at first, with Kaname making a consolation meal for Kyoko when she hangs out at Salut after hours because she's sad about her husband forgetting their anniversary. Kaname initially doesn't like to be seen and rarely comes out of the kitchen when customers are present, but he makes exceptions for Kyoko, discretely gives her little treats whenever she dines at the bistro, and gradually starts teaching her how to cook French food as they spend more time together.
As for Arisa, the beginning of the series has her dating a married man. But when she catches him cheating on her with someone else—is it still "cheating" if he was already cheating with her in the first place?—to blow off some steam she starts dating Katsumi, a nerdy-looking employee at the convenience store she frequents. Katsumi proves to be more charming and thoughtful than Arisa would've given him credit for, and they become boyfriend and girlfriend even despite Arisa trying to hide how much she likes him, and despite Arisa's incomplete efforts to end things with her married ex. More on that in a second.
I was glad to see the name of the real-life restaurant that makes all of Salut's food (bistro-confl. in Setagaya, Tokyo) stand out enough in the show's credits for me to easily find them online. And the ending theme song "Watashi" is also quite nice. Dramatic, emotional, yet still catchy. Apparently Matsumura Hokuto, who plays Shuma, is also in the boy band SixTONES ("stones"), which sings the song.
Best: That makeout scene between Jun and Shuma at the end of episode 4, whew! Without words, only using his body, Shuma communicates how much he WANTS Jun in that moment, ya hear?  
And we support a man who's sure about the person he loves! Katsumi's so sure about Arisa that when he learns she cheated on him (broke up with her married ex but slept with him one last time for closure's sake), he thanks her for their time together and lets her go not because he resents her, but because he acknowledges that their relationship wasn't serious. It meant slightly more to him than it did to her, and while mutual feelings did grow over time, he knows that at first Arisa was only dating him to kill time. But then, Katsumi's still so sure about Arisa that when he finds out she's working at a hostess bar to earn the 3 million yen in damages that her married ex's wife demands (approximately $22,000 USD when I'm writing this), he decides that he's not giving up on Arisa after all. Katsumi's so sure about Arisa that he takes out all of his money from the bank to help settle her debt, accompanies Arisa to the married couple's house to deliver said money, and HE apologizes to the wife on Arisa's behalf so the wife will leave Arisa alone! Who does that? A man like Katsumi does, that's who! 

Honorable Mention: 義理/恥 (Giri/Haji; Duty/Shame) - BBC/Netflix/2019

Kenzo is a detective and his younger brother Yuuto works for one of Tokyo's multiple prominent yakuza organizations. After an incident, Yuuto is presumed dead until he resurfaces in London and assassinates the nephew of his boss's rival. This sets off a war between rival yakuza groups in Tokyo, and Kenzo is sent to London to retrieve Yuuto so that the latter's punishment can hopefully restore order. Posing as an exchange student taking a criminology course, Kenzo unexpectedly finds his mission both bolstered and complicated by Kelly (the Scottish woman who teaches the course and is also a detective searching for Yuuto), Rodney (a gay, half-Japanese sex worker and drug addict who knows London's club scene), and Kenzo's own daughter Taki (who steals her mom's credit card and runs away to join her dad).

This is a fantastic watch if you don't like neo-noir or crime thrillers (or you don't think you like neo-noir or crime thrillers) but are interested in Japanese stuff. A bilingual production shot between Japan and the UK is no easy feat, but the team behind 'Giri/Haji' pulls it off with stunning precision. William Sharpe's performance as Rodney was my absolute favorite aspect of the entire show. His brazenness, his sarcastic humor, his inner demons, his one liners? Perfection. That moment in episode 1 when he's at a bar, the bartender informs him, "Your boyfriend's here," and Rodney replies flatly, "I don't have one of those," with disgust and feigned confusion as if he doesn't know what species of creature a boyfriend is but he's certain he wants no parts of it? Oh, from then on I was all in! Regardless of the other plot developments to follow in the series, wherever Rodney's character was going, I was willing to follow.

Last year I was a guest on a podcast about multilingual people called Speaking Tongues, and after recording that interview the host Elle Charisse recommended 'Giri/Haji' to me, but I didn't get around to it until late last month. And as I told Elle, I'm still unsure about the filter that makes everything (especially the Japan scenes) look like it takes place in some bygone decade. I don't know if it's because 'Giri/Haji' is a BBC production, or because a lot of Western people's frame of reference for Japan is the 1980s, or if it's a purely stylistic choice, but it threw me off. Besides that, overall I'm very glad that I finally watched this series! So imagine how disappointed I was to discover that there'll be no season 2; the show ends on multiple cliffhangers and creator Joe Barton had plans for a second season, but then the BBC cancelled the show altogether in 2020. 

Part 2 of this J-drama review coming soon!

Tuesday, June 28, 2022

BOOKS! (Love in the Time of Cholera)

August 2018 to June 2022. It took me nearly four years to finish this book (after re-starting it from the beginning last summer), which is why I'm writing about it on its own. May and June have been bananas as I wrapped up my podcast for the year (100 episodes! 4 years! go me!), but now I can finally write a new book review. I was in Indiana for my cousin's high school graduation festivities when I finished this book, so instead of my pibble Julia, I used my cousin's goldendoodle Cooper as the book model this time.
I initially started Love in the Time of Cholera when I went to the Bay Area to visit my friend Irene in August 2018, remembering how she'd told me beforehand that some book club within her campus neighborhood at Stanford would be discussing it. (I ended up flying back home before I could attend the book club meeting.) I can't remember exactly when this novel came into my possession; presumably I bought a copy in 2015 when I worked at a bookstore and then let it sit for a while. But I do remember that I bought it because it's considered a literary "classic", and because I'd greatly enjoyed One Hundred Years of Solitude (Nobel Prize-winning Colombian author Gabriel García Márquez's hit from 1967). So I was expecting to enjoy Love in the Time of Cholera (his hit from 1985) to at least a similar extent, and I gotta say... I don't understand the hype. I don't regret taking the time to finish it, and I'm glad to know how the novel ends for myself. But as the grand love story it's been made out to be, I wasn't really feeling it. More on that in a bit.
Love in the Time of Cholera by Gabriel García Márquez

The core love story of LITTOC doesn't actually take up all of its nearly 350 page count, but I was too stubborn to try skipping around. Here's my attempt at breaking it down as succinctly as possible. 
Picture it: a port city on the Caribbean coast of Colombia, in the late 1800s, just before the turn of the century. As teenagers, Fermina Daza (rich girl) and Florentino Ariza (poor boy who's the love child of a rich man) catch each other's eye when Florentino drops by her house to deliver a telegram to her father one day. They carry on a secret courtship via love letters, and even get engaged. Fermina's dad finds out and sends Fermina away to live with relatives, but her and Florentino's clandestine correspondence continues. Fermina eventually returns to the city, but when they finally get the chance to meet alone, she abruptly dismisses their relationship as silly and short-lived before erasing Florentino from her life. They're in their 20s at this point, and over the next 51 years they move on with their lives—well, Fermina moves on while Florentino pines for her—with Fermina marrying and starting a family with Dr. Juvenal Urbino, the most eligible young bachelor in the city. They spend an extended honeymoon in Europe, and until they return Florentino mistakenly assumes he'll never see Fermina again. He has sex with over 622 women as the decades roll on, using two dozen notebooks to keep record of them all. (He does this at first to unsuccessfully try to forget about Fermina, and then continues simply because he enjoys having sex. Gotta find something to do while waiting on your first love's husband to die, I suppose.)
No matter who he sleeps with or how infatuated he gets with this woman or that woman, Florentino remains convinced that Fermina is the only woman who truly has his heart. He also turns himself into someone who'd be worthy of the worldly high-society woman Fermina has become, gradually taking over his father's river navigation company and remodeling the house that he grew up in with his mother. Fermina and Florentino cross paths multiple times once they're in the same social echelon, but Florentino doesn't get the chance to re-declare his love for her until Urbino's funeral at Fermina's home, when they're in their 70s. Fermina responds by immediately kicking him out. Florentino then tries sending her impassioned love letters like he used to, but Fermina doesn't become receptive to him until he chills out and instead approaches her like an old friend, writing her his reflections on growing old. Florentino then starts making friendly visits to Fermina's house, even becoming acquainted with her adult children, and he later invites her on a two-week cruise on the Magdalena River via one of his company's ships. They finally have their first kiss and consummate their relationship during said cruise, and then Florentino has the ship cleared of all other passengers and cargo so they can enjoy the return trip all to themselves without any of Fermina's associates spotting her with him. However, the hitch is that he made the captain falsely report a case of cholera (which has become endemic) on the ship, which requires quarantine. Instead of allowing authorities to quarantine the ship just as they're about to reach their home city, Florentino and Fermina decide to turn right back around and sail up and down the Magdalena River together forever. 
That's it. That's the love story. As referenced by the novel's title, cholera and civil war function as two co-occurring diseases in Colombia during this time, with love being a third kind of disease that consumes Florentino, letting nothing else hold as much importance in his life or attentions. If LITTOC were to focus on the events I've described above (plus the details about Urbino and Fermina's relationship that I haven't included), it would probably be half as long as it is. However, to be fair, I got the sense that García Márquez was also deeply invested in making readers grasp the times and feel immersed in 1880s-1930s Colombia. Which means there's an abundance of digressions, anecdotes, stories within a story within a story, side characters, and descriptive passages that might seem superfluous. I know I found myself getting annoyed at certain points, wondering, for example, Ugh! What the heck do sinophobia and Colombians refusing to believe that a Chinese man won the local poetry contest have to do with Fermina and Florentino getting back together??? But then it occurred to me that García Márquez's approach to storytelling (on paper) is similar to mine (especially verbally). I never intend to be long-winded, but I do want people to get all the details; I want to fill people in so thoroughly that I won't have to repeat myself later, and people will feel like they were there when the events occurred and like they personally know everyone involved. It's been years since I've read One Hundred Years of Solitude so I can't remember if I caught onto this stylistic aspect back then, but once I realized it while reading LITTOC, I had less room to be annoyed. And it was actually pretty cool to follow the transition from the 19th to the 20th century through peripheral mentions of new technologies being introduced to the city (telegrams, mule-drawn trolleys, hot air balloons, electric streetlights, "moving pictures", household telephones, automobiles, typewriters, skyscrapers, and so on).
I still had room to be annoyed by other things, though! Even as I acknowledge that I'm examining 1980s material that's set in the late 1800s and early 1900s with my 2022 eyes. This review was initially going to be much longer due to me detailing the parts of LITTOC that I took the most issue with. But then I backspaced most of it when I considered, Why am I going to spend extra time writing about a book that has underwhelmed me? So instead, I'll just briefly say that there are multiple incidents of rape being written about in an unserious manner (including one in which young Florentino is a victim). Furthermore, I increasingly found it difficult to be on adult Florentino's side knowing that he impregnates one of his maids and bribes her to say a different man did it, that he sexually grooms a 14-year-old relative of his when he's in his 70s, and that overall TWO women/girls die as a result of their involvement with him. He is occasionally remorseful, but that remorse passes because as sensitive or romantic a lover as he believes himself to be, Florentino is not a giver. His compassion has limits, and he's still primarily out for himself (and his desperate goal of reuniting with Fermina). But does García Márquez still reward Florentino's singular focus by giving this character what he desperately wants? Indeed, he does! What are readers to make of the supposed hero of this story, given all of this information? I'm supposed to care about this man who never got over his ex, knowing what I know? When Fermina doesn't even LOVE him, love him like that? To be clear, Florentino being lovesick and screwing around for five decades isn't the problem; it's mostly in good fun, with both him and his partners understanding it's strictly casual, and I guess it helps him to believe that staying sexually practiced will make him all the more prepared for Fermina. The problem is that the women and girls who are harmed by him don't seem to matter.
Love might be impervious to the passing of time but Fermina, Florentino, and Urbino's bodies certainly aren't. Frequent mention is made of how their bodies, their understandings of themselves, and their approaches to relationships inevitably change as they grow older. At the beginning, the novel even introduces us to them not as hot-blooded young lovers in a fierce love triangle, but as senior citizens surrounded by death. Maybe it's because I've had nearly four years to think about this book (off and on), and because I was nearing 26 when I started it compared to nearing 30 now, but I understand Love in the Time of Cholera more as a tale of aging, nostalgia, and learning when to hold out hope versus when to move on from things. As a love story, it's just kinda aight. Definitely not something I foresee myself returning to, but if you're a super fan of Gabriel García Márquez's work or really have a thing for Colombian literature, then read this book.
Favorite quotes:
"Fermina Daza did not look at him, she did not interrupt her embroidering, but her decision opened the door a crack, wide enough for the entire world to pass through" (60).
"In this way he learned that she did not want to marry him, but did feel joined to his life because of her immense gratitude to him for having corrupted her. She often said to him: 
'I adore you because you made me a whore.'
[...] He had taught her that nothing one does in bed is immoral if it helps to perpetuate love" (151).
"Without intending to, without even knowing it, he demonstrated with his life that his father had been right when he repeated until his dying day that there was no one with more common sense, no stonecutter more obstinate, no manager more lucid or dangerous, than a poet" (168).
"It is better to arrive in time than to be invited" (254).
"With her Florentino Ariza learned what he had already experienced many times without realizing it: that one can be in love with several people at the same time, feel the same sorrow with each, and not betray any of them... 'My heart has more rooms than a whorehouse'" (270).

Saturday, April 30, 2022

BOOKS! (Confessions of a Young Adult's Life)

A second book review in April! Hoped I would do it, and here I am doing it! As this month draws to a close, I decided to focus on only one book this time, reviewing it upon personal request from the author. That book is Confessions of a Young Adult's Life by Bri Michelle. Bri is a librarian whom I first got connected with in February thanks to a wonderful woman named Tura, a previous guest on my podcast (Young, Gifted and Abroad) and a librarian friend of Bri's. Bri was seeking guests for her new book-focused podcast called Stories With Bri (the episode I guested on should be released in June), and she asked me to read and review her self-published memoir when I mentioned that I write book reviews during our email correspondence. This is now the second time that an author has directly requested such a thing from me, and just like last time I want to make clear that while Bri did send me a copy of her book on her own dime, I am not being compensated for this review. I'm simply writing it because I feel like doing so (and because she asked). As always, I will keep things as genuine and fair as I can.
Confessions of a Young Adult's Life: A Memoir by Bri Michelle
This memoir is exactly what its title says it is, an array of confessions and memories that have colored Bri's life thus far (or at least up to 2020, when she published it). Over 13 chapters grouped into three parts, events range from her growing up in her minister grandmother's East St. Louis home with extended family, to her nomadic childhood and feelings of abandonment after her parents' divorce—they left Bri and her sister primarily in their grandmother's care, and at one point Bri recalls living in the same church her grandma preached in—to struggling with body image, mental illness, sexual assault, and perfectionism in her student years and beyond, to becoming attached to her undergraduate apartment and finding a new community of friends (plus a few situationships) in college, to eventually earning a master's degree and achieving her dream of working in library sciences on the East Coast. I was fascinated to learn that although she's passionate about her work now, becoming a librarian was not Bri's initial dream growing up. She actually wanted to be a dancer and choreographer, and then dreamt of being a corporate lawyer. But due to family pressure and changing her mind, she had to learn to choose new dreams time and time again, which led to where she is now.
Bri mentions toward the end of chapter 10 that this book is an homage to a blog of the same name. Which made a lot of things suddenly click for me, since the conversational writing style often gave me "blog post" vibes. Like a friendly auntie or a humorous homegirl sitting you down to tell you her business so you can understand where she's coming from, and so you'll absorb the lessons without having to learn them the hard way like she did. I found the wildest, most vulnerable, and most entertaining chapter to be chapter 9 ("Situationships"), where Bri details her involvement with two different no-good boyfriends who both nearly broke her spirit in college. (I'm almost embarrassed to say this chapter amused me the most, because I'd like to believe I'm not a person who loves mess, but it is what it is.) One boyfriend wouldn't commit, then made her his girlfriend, and then ghosted her on Valentine's Day and refused to apologize. The other was her rebound, a "prison bae" in and out of jail who put her entire college career at risk when he stole from her international student roommate and then disappeared. Unsurprisingly, that boyfriend also refused to apologize. These are quite harrowing and humiliating experiences in her life, but she relays them with such humor and self-awareness that I couldn't help but chuckle repeatedly while digesting them. This chapter is genuinely entertaining, and the messiness makes it so!
I drafted most of this review (especially this paragraph), before Bri interviewed me in March, and now that I've spoken to her I know she's not as prudish or rigid as certain passages in COAYAL might've led me to assume. But while in the midst of reading the memoir, I remember wishing that she would show herself more grace regarding her past with watching porn, reading sexually explicit literature, masturbating from a young age, and later adding casual sex to the mix (chapter 8, "Addiction"). She refers to them as "sexual immorality" and "perversion", and the internalized shame about engaging in such activities overshadowed her enjoyment of them at the time, to the point where it caused her to live in secrecy, isolation, and defensiveness until she found a way to stop. It's not for me to argue with her about whether those activities she indulged in secretly for 17 years were truly "addictions" or not—Bri knows what she's been through, and she deserves to feel proud of her recovery from those behaviors if they've had a negative impact on her life. And obviously age-appropriateness is a concern in terms of when she got exposed to those behaviors in the first place. But from the outside looking in (and as a fellow Christian who was raised amidst purity culture like Bri was), in terms of sexual exploration I personally don't think she was doing anything wrong, and I think "self-pleasure" can actually work wonders for a person's body image and sense of self. Her book isn't about me or what I think, though, is it? I'm aware that this is Bri's memoir, and she has a right to her beliefs; I just wish there was more room to appreciate pleasure for pleasure's sake in it. 
One thing Bri and I definitely do agree on however: churches need sex education! I know sex ed in faith-based contexts seems dubious or even dangerous, and it's unlikely that most religious spaces would institute sex ed without leaning heavily on abstinence, homophobia, misinformation, etc. But people are seeking out sexual info everywhere else, and if the church is where certain people are going to spend most of their time anyway, then in an ideal world they would be able to get comprehensive sex ed there too. 
Speaking of church. Even though the back cover describes this book as "a story of how faith can mend a shattered soul", and the preface mentions that Bri's goal is "to equip believers with tools to fight the enemy's devices and open the door for non-believers to give God a try," for some reason I still went into it assuming COAYAL wouldn't be that much of a religious read. And until the last three chapters (comprising "Redemption", part three of the book), it really isn't. Bri touches on her faith here and there, even sharing lists of affirmations and Bible verses that she either put together herself or received from her pastors, but for the most part the book is squarely about her as a person. But then you cross into chapter 11 ("God, Me, and Prayer") and the book shifts gears, which makes more sense once Bri reveals at the end of chapter 12 ("Self-Worth") that in addition to everything else she is, she's also a licensed minister. It's presented as a fun little gotcha of sorts, to demonstrate that a regular, imperfect person who's suffered through traumas and made certain mistakes in their past can still be deeply involved in the body of Christ. So I wasn't bothered by any of it, but the tone switch from candid memoir to sermon was slightly jarring until I got used to it, and I can imagine how a reader who's not in the mood to be preached to might be turned off.
From cover to cover, I appreciate how Bri made me feel like I was reading a tell-all without actually telling all; it's a short book (under 100 pages) and she sets clear boundaries around divulging certain details about her life that are either too sensitive or simply not other people's business, and I totally respect that. Perhaps some extra meat would've been nice (I would've loved to know more about her story). Perhaps an extra once-over would've been nice (check out the multiple revision dates Bri lists at the end of the book, thinking she was finished but then hilariously captioning the last two with "I lied, lol" and "Ooops!"). But this memoir is more than solid as it is. If you enjoy taking in people's life stories, care about Black librarians, were raised by your grandmother, or simply want to support a self-published author who's repping for Black girls from the Midwest, then read Confessions of a Young Adult's Life !
Favorite quotes:
"Edward was the best dope dealer I ever met. What was his product? Selling dreams. That man knew how to create a fiend. He was my pusher, my kryptonite; he wrapped me into him and made me feel like he was all I needed... He was a prophet of false hope" (36-37).
"You are not crazy! You deserve to live free in your mind" (46).
"What made me beautiful were my achievements. I ascribed people's accolades about my achievements as self-worth. I am valuable because I am educated, smart, and focused... I disgusted myself physically, but who cares, I'm the smart one... No one talks about when the music stops and all the goals on the list are finally checked off. We don't discuss when you rapidly accomplish everything on your short-term list and have no idea what's next. When the list was done and the running had ceased, I had nothing else to attribute my self worth to. It was now just me... I no longer felt better than someone else" (59-60).

"Having success was great, but I often felt like a complete failure when I didn't have all the answers. I begin to feel unimportant and unlikeable. I attributed my likeability by others based on how knowledgeable I was. If I knew the answer than people would like me, or most importantly, love me because I was useful to them. One reason being is that I thought I was incapable of being loved outside of me knowing everything. But then, I finally woke up. I realized that I didn't have to know everything and I had to be okay with not knowing... I must be humble in knowing that thought I am unique, I'm not better than my neighbor" (61).

Sunday, April 10, 2022

BOOKS! (Lot + Seven Days in June)

I've found it! I've found my favorite book of 2022 (so far)! Obviously it's still relatively early, but if my current favorite is any indication of what's to come for me reading-wise this year, then I'm excited! I would've written this review in March before the month ended, but I needed more time to digest my new fave on my own. It's been two weeks since I finished it, and I still think about it every day. Now I'm ready to write, so for my April review, I'm examining the two books that my mom gave me for my birthday in December which I read in their entirety last month. First, a collection of stories about a young gay Afro-Latino man coming of age as Houston gentrifies around him. And then, a romance novel (my newly-crowned fave of 2022) about two Black, thirty-something, wounded authors who get an unexpected second chance to renew a fling they had in high school.
Lot: Stories by Bryan Washington
As a December baby whose mom is still gracious enough to ask me for wish lists, I put my birthday and Christmas wants on the same list every year, and I leave it up to Ma to decide what to give me and when. I was so amused and impressed by the humor, casual style of writing, and attention to detail that Bryan Washington demonstrated in his novel Memorial (one of my 2020 presents), that I just knew I had to go back and read his first book too. Ma granted my wish, and that's how I ended up receiving Lot when I did. Both Memorial and Lot are set in Houston, Texas, where Bryan Washington is from. I also couldn't help but notice that, just like in Memorial, the dialogue in Lot is not denoted by any quotation marks whatsoever.
Lot contains 13 stories, each set in a different area of Houston, and beginning with the first one ("Lockwood") every other story is about Nicolás, a.k.a Nic—who remains an unnamed narrator until the last three pages of the book—and his dysfunctional family. Said family is a mixed one (his mom's Black from Louisiana, his dad's Latino) living above the restaurant they run in the East End, and Nic is the youngest child after his drug-dealing brother and frequently-absent sister. Like multiple other male characters in Lot, Nic is gay and begins exploring his sexuality from a young age, and the homophobia within both of his cultures makes it so that only his sister acknowledges his gayness without vitriol or denial. Nic's dad, an abusive cheater, eventually abandons the family, leaving his mom to hold down their restaurant with her sons' assistance. Eventually Nic is the only one left to help her, and after rising living costs force his weary mom to close the business and sell their property to a predatory realtor before returning to Louisiana, Nic remains in the family home all by himself. In fact, he's one of the few holdouts; many of the neighbors he grew up around have also been priced out by this point. Which begs the question that's posed to Nic by numerous people: why doesn't he just leave, and what's keeping him in Houston when there's nothing left for him there? He doesn't have an answer, at least not one he's willing to articulate. Until he realizes at the end of Lot that he's the last remnant of his family's presence in Houston, and once he leaves, their presence will be fully erased. Sometimes it's hard to leave even when you really want to, and Nic doesn't even want to leave that badly. So he stays.
Besides Nic's ongoing personal and family sagas, the other stories in Lot focus on other characters who each inhabit their own pocket of the city. It feels strange to say that I have "favorites" from this book, because every story deals with loss caused by significant life changespersonal loss due to tragedy, community loss due to gentrification, loss due to growing up and the inevitable passage of time, etc.which isn't enjoyable to think about. But there are three stories that I find to be the most memorable; I'll put it that way. First is "Alief", a darkly comedic tale where an affair between a married Jamaican immigrant named Aja and her white American neighbor named James results in James being murdered by Aja's husband Paul when other neighbors in the apartment complex inform Paul about the affair, presumably for entertainment's sake. (Because it's clearly not out of a sense of justice or believing that Paul needed to know the truth.) "Alief" also stood out to me from its title alone because I recognized it as the neighborhood that rapper Tobe Nwigwe is from. 

Then there's "Shepherd", where a Jamaican and Black American family welcome their erudite 30-something cousin Gloria, a sex worker and bibliophile who left Jamaica after the recent death of her baby and needs a place to recover. Gloria and Chris, the closeted teenage son of the family, connect over their respective brokenness, but (trigger warning: molestation/child sexual abuse) in an illicit and unacceptable way. And I have to say, I'm still scratching my head over that incident. To Washington's credit, he does warn readers early on in the story (through Chris's narration, looking back on it as a grown man) that the incident will be happening, referring to it in a paragraph about the unpredictability of people and how you usually can't detect the "wildness" within them until it's too late. But the mention of molestation almost seems hypothetical, like a sick joke... until you get to the end of "Shepherd" and realize it's definitely not. So on the one hand, I knew to expect it, but I just didn't understand why it occurred. For most of the story we are made to feel empathetic for Gloria, or at least that's how I felt. Life has dealt her a harsh hand, her brilliance has been overlooked by people her whole life, she knows what it's like to need care and escape... and then she does what she does to Chris. It seems like that's her twisted way of comforting her young cousin, but it still feels so abrupt and out of place to me. Like what is that moment supposed to mean? I still don't know.

The other story that still stands out to me is "Waugh", a reversal of fortune between two sex workers named Rod and Poke. Rod has formed a crew with five other male sex workers, taking them off the street and providing stable living conditions so long as they abide by his apartment rules, and he has a soft spot for Poke, his friend as well as the youngest and most recent addition to the bunch. But when the crew kicks Rod out of his own home for breaking one of his own rules (contracting HIV), Poke, who's found love with one of his wealthy clients, is in a position to help Rod for a change. Unfortunately, that doesn't go the way Poke hopes it will. As devastating as "Waugh" is on multiple levels, I appreciate its focus on sex work and homelessness, and on the idea that even if you have the sincere desire and the means to do so, sometimes you can swoop in to try and save somebody and they'll refuse to accept it due to their own sense of pride and dignity. Sometimes it's too late for the help you offer to truly solve anything.
All in all, I don't love Lot but I do greatly respect it. On a personal level I connected much more with Memorial, and I'm sure Lot would have resonated with me much more if I had any significant familiarity with Houston and its cultural geography. It definitely feels like a book that was written by a Houstonian for fellow Houstonians. Nonetheless, if you like story collections, want to read about Black/Brown/immigrant/queer communities, are curious about Houston and the gentrification thereof, are a sucker for family drama and neighborhood gossip, or simply want to read more of Bryan Washington's work, then read this book! 

Favorite quotes:
"I'd never in my life seen an actual whore (according to Nikki), a night worker (my father), or a calf in the wilderness (who else), so I looked her in the eyes for the thing that made it so; but all I saw was just some lady" (46).
"Eventually, I  finally asked her what she got out of reading these books by old dead men, what the words on the page had to do with her. The kind of question an idiot asks. But she took it seriously, she pursed her lips. 
It's just another way to talk to the dead, she said.
It's another way to make a way, she said" (54). 
"Actually, she said, no. You don't have to tell me. You tell yourself why it is that you're staying, said Ma. When you figure it out, you keep it to yourself... But it's a reason you'll have to live with, she says. Even if it's nothing. And that is something you'll have to live with, too" (215). 

Seven Days in June by Tia Williams

I'm finally realizing that bookstagram and the marketing sorcery of the publishing industry are working on me like they're supposed to. Can you imagine that? I am not, in fact, as impervious a consumer as I believed myself to be! But in this instance, I'm not even mad! Seven Days in June was released in June 2021 and seemed to be everywhere throughout last year; whatever my usual book-related haunts on the internet were, there SDIJ was too. From what I could tell, it met all of my current romance novel criteria: two Black leads, multiple sex scenes, and a hook that makes the story impossible for me to pass up. Writers falling for each other? Another exquisitely-written story about artists finding both love and their creative spark, that could potentially blow me away just like If I Don't Have You did? Sign me up! However, since I didn't grow up with hardcovers basically being $30, and something in the cheapo part of me feels wrong paying that much for just one book... I foisted the cost onto my mom by putting it on my wish list. I was fully prepared to wait a year and get the much cheaper paperback version myself, but thanks to her I didn't have to. Thanks, Ma! 

So that means I've had this gem in my possession since December, right? And now I feel ridiculous for waiting until March to read it! By the time I finally did crack it open, I didn't bother re-reading the synopsis on the inner jacket to refresh my memory, I just dove right in. I'd remembered Jessica P. Pryde (YGA #82 and Black Love Matters) telling me months ago that Seven Days in June dealt with "very hard" topics, and I was expecting the novel to be dark. (Perhaps it actually is, and my threshold for heavy themes is just high enough that none of it feels "hard" to me. More on that later.) So color me surprised to begin reading and find myself smiling from page to page, because the book was so funny! Genuinely funny, and not trying too hard to be so! I'd also remembered that the plot involved a couple falling in love, not seeing each other for over a decade, and then falling in love again, but I hadn't realized that the story wouldn't go in strictly linear order. The book opens in 2019, introducing us to Eva Mercy (real name Genevieve Mercier) and Shane Hall during the rekindling phase of their relationship 15 years after they last saw each other at 17 years old. They unexpectedly share the stage at a Brooklyn-based panel event for Black authors, and the novel shifts between past and present to fill in the gaps of their complicated history. 
Although Eva is firmly settled with her 12-year-old daughter Audre in Brooklyn and the popularity of her books has faded from mainstream appeal to niche fandom, while Shane's star continues to rise even as he avoids public appearances and takes short-term private school English teaching positions to fund his purposely-transient lifestyle, the pair actually has a lot in common. Both are now 32 years old. Both never knew their fathers. Both have illnesses that make them feel abnormal (chronic migraines for her, alcoholism for him). Both are authors who unexpectedly achieved massive success in their late teens/early twenties and are now at a crossroads in their careers. (Should Eva let producers whitewash the movie adaptation of her Black vampire erotica series so she can have continued financial stability? Is it worth it for her to meet the deadline for her next book in said erotica series that she's tired of writing, or should she focus on her dream book about her imperfect and indomitable Creole foremothers? Shane wrote all four of his bestsellers while he was drunk; can he even write anymore now that he's sober?) Both also used to self-harm in their youth. Speaking of which, Eva and Shane first met as 12th graders in Washington, D.C., where they interacted with each other for all of a week in June 2004. Shane was selling drugs at the time, and a fight at school led him and Eva to hide out for days in a mansion that one of his clients gave him access to. They spent that week doing drugs, sleeping, cuddling, having sex, committing petty crimes, and bonding over shared secrets until Eva's mom eventually showed up and Shane—who'd promised never to abandon Eva—was nowhere to be found. Or at least, that's how Eva remembers things.
Despite never seeing each other after their teenage tryst, it's clear that these lovers wrote their breakthrough books about each other. "Sebastian", the hot, bronze-eyed Black vampire who's the male love interest in all 14 books of Eva's Cursed series, is based on Shane. "Eight", the depressed young Black girl from the hood who's the main character in all four of Shane's novels, is based on Eva. They were each other's inspirationsmuses, if you willand they used their books to communicate with each other through years of separation whether they realized it or not. In June 2019, when Eva's bougie, lovingly-nosy mother hen of a book editor (Cece) ropes her into being a panelist at the aforementioned book event in Brooklyn, Shane shows up and tries to be low-key until Cece forces him to come on stage. After the initial shock from that encounter wears off, Eva tries to rush Shane out of New York (and out of her life forever), and Shane is likely to leave soon anyway. But when Audre gets in trouble at her fancy private school and the only way to maintain her enrollment is for Eva to convince THE famous Shane Hall to teach English there during the next school year, Shane suddenly has a reason to stay in New York. More importantly, he and Eva have an excuse to reconnect over the week that follows (even as Eva's reluctant to hope that their relationship will last this time). So the title Seven Days in June refers to their intense, messy, undeniable interactions as both teens in 2004 and as slightly more mature adults in 2019. Points of view alternate by chapter (or even within the same chapter) between Eva, Shane, Audre, Cece, Eva's mother Lizette, and even Shane's young mentee Ty, but the vast majority of the book is written from Eva and Shane's perspectives, and overall Eva gets more attention than Shane.

I've just now finished summarizing this novel, so I guess I don't have room to gush over all the ways that it melted my heart and injected hope and laughter into my spirit. (Is that gross? Maybe I'll regret writing something so mushy later, but it's true for me in this moment.) I will say that SDIJ has too many excellent one-liners to count, and they took me down every single time. Eva and Shane's first time getting it on post-reunion is technically in public, in an unlocked room of an art installation/nap station for adults, which I thought was super inventive on Tia Williams's part. And I was pretty much set on adoring SDIJ forever once I learned that Eva has had incurable chronic migraines since childhood, just like me! Perhaps it's weird to be excited about seeing myself represented in that way, but excitement is what I genuinely felt because I never expected to have something so specific in common with a romance novel heroine. Although, as I mentioned in my examination of the character Hisako in 'Fishbowl Wives', my migraines are mild and very livable, only occasionally worsening due to certain triggers like alcohol, crying too hard, going too long without eating, PMS, wearing my headscarf or sleep cap on too tight at night, and so on. In contrast, Eva has "violent" migraine attacks (just like Hisako) that are only temporarily lessened by pain relief injections and weed gummies. She frequently calls hers an invisible disability—because no one can detect it just by looking at her, and because she refuses to tell anyone about it—and she envies "normal" people whose lives aren't ruled by pain.
Taking all of that into consideration, I guess in many ways Seven Days in June could be considered heavy or triggering. However, because I related personally to some of the darkest of Eva and Shane's respective issues, I didn't feel burdened by any of it. I just felt like I was along for an awesome, sarcastic, swoon-worthy ride. And I appreciate that their relationship isn't resolved in just that week of them getting to know each other again; they break up after Shane unintentionally flakes on Eva and Audre, Eva spends the summer researching her family in Louisiana and re-initiating contact with Shane, Shane goes to group therapy and starts coaching youth basketball while house-sitting for Eva in Brooklyn, and in the end Cece finds a way to corral them back together in Atlanta. I'd assumed that they both would rediscover their writing mojo along the way, but that only proves true for Eva. Shane, on the other hand, focuses on upholding his sobriety, mourning the loss of a loved one, and scaling back to be an actual mentor to his mentees rather than trying to be their savior. If you are interested in second chance love stories, have had a difficult childhood and/or neglectful parents, want something that pokes fun at the Black arts scene (especially the literary scene) in NYC without being mean-spirited, prefer steamy sex scenes, have familial roots (and secrets) in the South, or want to know whether Eva or Shane is "the turtle", then read this book! 

Favorite quotes:
"Hell yes, I'm mad. 'Cause I care. It took fortunes made and lost, one tarot-card reader, and too much AA for me to be evolved enough to say those words. I care about things... Look, I'm admitting that I care about awards. What do you care about?" (42).
"The world was too loud for little-boy Shane. What he didn't know was that he was training himself to be a deeply empathetic writer—understanding nuanced emotion, spying humanity in unexpected places, seeing past the obvious. He was taking notes for his future self, who would write it all down. Every fucking thing he saw" (116).
"But she'd never wanted kids. Books were her kids. They cuddled up with her at night, kept her warm, quieted her thoughts when her marriage seemed thin, her life choices felt pointless, or her job seemed stagnant... She was happy not to feel anything super deeply. The top level of life was enough for her. The beginning of the night, when there was the buzzing possibility of intrigue and drama... Long ago, she'd learned that life could be bitterly disappointing if allowed. There were blows and stumbles, but your job was to stay interested in the world" (196).
"I wanna be everything. Wanna be the reason you light up. I wanna make you laugh, make you moan, make you safe. I want to be the thought that lulls you to sleep. The memory that gets you off. I wanna be where all your paths end. I wanna do everything you do to me" (241). 

"I thought I couldn't be a successful person if I had demons. But what fully realized person doesn't? Women are expected to absorb traumas both subtle and loud and move on. Shoulder the weight of the world. But when the world fucks with us, the worst thing we can do is bury it. Embracing it makes us strong enough to fuck the world right back" (305).