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 named 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), and 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, sexually grooms a 14-year-old relative of his when he's in his 70s, and 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, however, 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" 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).

Wednesday, March 30, 2022

ドラマ (Dorama) Time! 27 - pt. 2

You know what we're here to do. It's time for part 2 of my J-drama review! (Check out part 1 if you haven't already.)

いりびと-異邦人- (Iribito/Stranger/The Stranger) - WOWOW/2021
  • Naho is pregnant and comes from a wealthy family of art curators (the Ariyoshis), the most venerated of whom was her now-deceased grandfather. Her family even owns an art museum in Tokyo (Ariyoshi Museum), but she's been spending her pregnancy in Kyoto at her husband and mother's insistence due to the calmer pace of life there. Supposedly Kyoto is better for Naho's health.
  • While in Kyoto, Naho becomes entranced by the paintings of an unknown newbie who turns out to be Tatsuru, the young, mute, female apprentice of a highly-respected artist named Shozan. Shozan repeatedly blocks Naho's attempts to showcase Tatsuru's art in public, and Naho gradually discovers that Shozan is holding Tatsuru hostage and is jealous of his mentee's fresh and visionary talent. This makes Naho determined to free Tatsuru from Shozan and jumpstart Tatsuru's career.
  • Meanwhile in Tokyo, Naho's husband (Kazuki) and her mother (Katsuko) have a romantic history that briefly gets rekindled when Kazuki's gallery needs to be saved from bankruptcy; Katsuko agrees to let Kazuki handle the sale of a painting from Claude Monet's "Water Lilies" series—a masterpiece that Naho has treasured the most since childhood thanks to her grandfather's loving influence—on the condition that he sleep with her. Katsuko and Kazuki then attempt to sell more of the Ariyoshi collection when the family decides to shutter the museum behind Naho's back, only to learn that the most rare and valuable pieces are all in Naho's name. If they wanna cash in, they're gonna have to go through her.

I chose this drama because I enjoyed Takahata Mitsuki's previous performances in 'Mondai no Aru Restaurant' and 'Boukyaku no Sachiko', and I knew I could rely on WOWOW to deliver something dark and/or messy since it's a cable channel. Luckily for me, 'Iribito' is both dark and messy! I sensed that Naho's husband had something going on with her mom from the moment in episode 1 when Katsuko walks into his gallery and smiles at him in a "Hey babe" sort of way, and I sensed correctly! 

And if that weren't enough intrigue to kick this show off, there's an ominous feeling that surrounds Naho and Tatsuru's connection from the very beginning. When Naho is first mesmerized by Tatsuru's artwork at a Kyoto gallery, neither the gallery owner nor Shozan want her to have it. As if she would be crossing a line by buying it, offending Shozan by taking more interest in his mentee's work than his own, and therefore putting herself in danger by getting on Shozan's bad side. Granted, Naho probably should be scared! Shozan was involved in the death of Tatsuru's father whose success he envied—which Tatsuru witnessed and was so traumatized by that she became mute for the next 17 years—he "adopted" Tatsuru and took over her father's house, and he trained her to be an artist just to force her to paint pieces that he can sell as he loses hand function in old age. But Naho is as stubborn as she is curious, so she buys the artwork anyway. Thus commences a battle of wills between Naho and Shozan that she's unlikely to win; the Kyoto art community is small, and Shozan's influence is wide-reaching. But Naho doesn't back down, even going so far as to give the $1 billion worth of masterpieces that she inherited from her grandfather over to a different Kyoto gallery owner in exchange for holding Tatsuru's first solo exhibition there.

Now, apparently 'Iribito' is based on a novel of the same name by Harada Maha, so I don't know if the potential lesbian vibes between Naho and Tatsuru are from the original source material or made up for the show. Either way, those vibes are clear and evident... up until the show changes its mind. Naho does seem oddly fixated on Tatsuru, and that fixation is immediate even before she knows who Tatsuru is. There's a moment in episode 1 where they lock eyes in an art museum as complete strangers, and Tatsuru becomes lodged in Naho's mind for the remainder of 'Iribito' after that. Naho's husband later has a dream about Naho sharing an intimate embrace with Tatsuru which made me think of 'Killing Eve'; you think Eve and Villanelle are drawn to each other simply because they have murder in common (Eve investigating them, Villanelle committing them), but then you realize they're actually hot for each other too! So I thought to myself, That's where we're going with this? Alright, bring it on! But the show teases the lesbian idea only to reveal in the final episode that *SPOILER* Naho and Tatsuru are sisters who didn't know of each other's existence until now. (Or at least Naho didn't.) But even if the two women weren't related and Kazuki's suspicions were correct, the bigger issue is that he doesn't truly understand Naho's gift for discovering masterpieces and the genius artists who make them. It's a gift that, as an art curator, requires profound dedication on Naho's part. So when Naho refuses to leave Kyoto and even insists on giving birth there and remaining there permanently, he accuses her of having an affair with Tatsuru because what else could make her so stuck on being in Kyoto? It couldn't possibly be Naho's appreciation for the craft, right? He couldn't possibly be projecting onto her for something he himself did WITH NAHO'S MOM, right? Right?

Believe it or not, Naho and Tatsuru being sisters isn't the only sordid family secret that gets revealed in 'Iribito', but I figure I've already spoiled enough of a show that's only five episodes long so I'll just leave it at that. On a lighter note, it's such a powerful moment when Tatsuru finally stands up to her mentor/abuser, regains her voice (literally), and escapes from him once and for all! From then on she and Naho get to live in peace, raising Naho's baby in Kyoto together, building up Tatsuru's art career, and living at a famous female calligrapher's residence that's full of other women too. So yeah, 'Iribito' is kind of sombre and understated, but it's also a surprisingly wild ride. Come for the stunning shots of Kyoto and its traditional arts, stay for the drama between high society art folks.

Gunjou Ryouiki/Ultramarine Area/Indigo Area - NHK/2021
  • Kim Junhee is a Korean woman and the pianist of a popular Japanese band called Indigo AREA. The band started out as instrumental only, but then vocalist Haruki was added to help the band gain more mainstream success, and Junhee and Haruki are now a much-publicized couple. 
  • But then, Haruki suddenly announces in the middle of a live-streamed performance that he's going solo, and afterward he tells Junhee that he resents her talent and has been dating another woman behind her back. All of this becomes a huge scandal, attracting extremely relentless media attention that Junhee can't handle.
  • Overwhelmed, Junhee escapes Tokyo and hides out in a seaside town, where she stays at a boarding house befriending the elderly woman who owns it and a man named Ren (the only other boarder there, who also saved Junhee from accidental drowning when she arrived in town). She works at the local supermarket until her real identity is outed when customers record her defending her co-worker against the store manager's sexual harassment, and the altercation shows up all over social media. Junhee then returns to Tokyo to try to pick up the pieces with her bandmates, but winds up going back and forth to the seaside town when more scandals arise that make a successful Indigo AREA comeback seem impossible.
I mostly chose this show because the premise reminded me of 'Nagi no Oitoma'. A young woman is dumped/double-crossed by her boyfriend and has her career abruptly upturned, so she escapes to the countryside so she can heal in solitude, with the help of a few friendly new neighbors. 'Gunjou Ryouiki' sounds delightfully similar to that, right? Itaya Yuka ('FOLLOWERS') playing the band's manager also didn't hurt. And apparently I've seen lead actress Shim Eun Kyung in the Korean film 'Sunny', but I only saw it once when it was first released in 2011 and I didn't know who she was back then. Her Japanese is excellent by the way, at least from what I could tell and in terms of what the role of Junhee required. Assuming that's not someone else's voice dubbed over hers, she even does some singing in the final episode! Also, I somehow managed to watch two shows at the same time that each star relative newcomer Sumire in supporting roles; she played Tatsuru in 'Iribito', and in 'Gunjou Ryouiki' she plays the girl Haruki dumps Junhee for. Although, she's styled so precisely in both shows that I didn't realize she was the same actress until I noticed that both characters had the same set of  hazel (grey? green?) eyes. 
The show keeps hinting at Junhee's traumatic past, memories of which cause her to have severe anxiety during an important performance. It turns out that Junhee had a little sister who died in a car accident when they were both very young, and Junhee always blamed herself for not being there to prevent it. This is set up to be this big emotional reveal, but she and Ren discuss it when they're alone together by the sea a couple of times and then that's it. I'd sensed that there might be some residual tension or even a confrontation between Junhee and her mother, but in the last episode she calls her mom to invite her to watch what's ultimately Indigo AREA's final performance, and then that's it. So the buildup to and revelation of Junhee's traumatic past is actually quite anticlimactic.
I definitely thought 'Gunjou Ryouiki' would focus more on Junhee's personal breakthroughs than on the ensemble as a whole, and the last few episodes did seem to drag a bit. But overall I thought the show was solid. Most notably from the ensemble, Reiji the guitarist is revealed to be gay, which becomes an unexpectedly significant subplot and actually doesn't end tragically! His roommate is in love with him but Reiji basically uses him as a sex buddy and substitute for the drummer Takuma, whom Reiji actually has feelings for despite Takuma being straight, having feelings for Junhee, and not even knowing that Reiji is gay. Reiji's roommate gets tired of being used and outs him to the press, which nearly breaks Reiji and throws another wrench in Indigo AREA's comeback plans. Nonetheless, all of the bandmates accept and support Reiji, and after hiding out at the boarding house with Junhee for a while, he finds it within himself to return to music and even apologize to this roommate for using him. (I didn't agree with Reiji apologizing to the person who outed him, but I suppose it's important for that character to make amends in order to demonstrate that he's not the user he always feared he was.) Reiji's arc impressed me, and also, the actor who plays Reiji (Hosoda Yoshihiko) is an excellent crier! 

By the end of 'Gunjou Ryouiki', the other band members decide to continue on without Junhee. Not because Indigo AREA is unsalvageable as is, or because Junhee has an outwardly-arrogant-but-fundamentally-insecure-hence-going-solo diva moment like Haruki did. Rather, it's because Junhee realizes she's always been motivated to play piano for other people's benefit, so she wants to explore playing piano for herself for once. And because her bandmates support her decision as a friend, they decide to split amicably. Everyone is beginning new journeys, which reminded me of 'Nagi no Oitoma' again (where each member of its ensemble embarked on new paths as summer came to an end). Viewers are left with the theme that the boarding house obaachan puts forward in the beginning and that other characters repeat: Life doesn't necessarily have to be grand or complicated. Just be an honest person, do the things you really want to do, and make sure to eat and sleep well. Everyone has the right to live life as they please. Literally, 「楽しく生きたってバチなんて当たらないんだから」(Tanoshiku ikitatte bachi nante ataranainda kara; "Living in a fun way isn't a sin," or, "It's not like you'll be punished for enjoying your life").

All of the four shows I watched this time around were pretty chill; none blew my mind, but none greatly disappointed me either. So as far as favorites go, I guess I'll pick 'Iribito' for going in the most unpredictable directions. It's not an "in your face" type of show, but still I was on edge the whole time and never quite knew what to expect. Now, off to watch more J-dramas I go!

Friday, March 25, 2022

ドラマ (Dorama) Time! 27 - pt. 1

Look at me taking less than four months to write a new J-drama review after my last one! I guess it helped that I chose to only watch four shows this time around. This review is comprised of my selections from the autumn 2021 broadcast season in Japan, plus two shows on Netflix that I felt like watching just because. For part 1, I'm focusing on the Netflix shows:

全裸監督2 (Zenra Kantoku 2/The Naked Director Season 2) - Netflix/2021

  • The year is 1990, and after edging out his largest competitor in the 1980s porn video industry (see my review of season 1), Muranishi has even loftier goals than before. This includes rebranding Sapphire Pictures as Diamond Visual, getting access to satellite broadcasting rights, and massively expanding his roster of actresses and production staff so as to film and distribute new videos quickly and constantly. (Think of Berry Gordy's assembly line approach to talent development at Motown Records, except it's porn.)
  • However, Diamond Visual's frantic pace of production means Muranishi's not interested in creating pornographic masterpieces anymore, and his now-girlfriend Kuroki Kaoru, the former university student whose stardom sustained Sapphire/Diamond in its early years, has been relegated to spokesperson when all she really wants is to make a new video with Muranishi again. Meanwhile, Muranishi finds another muse in one of the newer, younger, more doe-eyed actresses, and Kaoru senses she's about to be replaced. All the neglect drives her to drink. A lot.
  • At the same time, the billionaire who owns the satellite channel Muranishi wants access to doesn't take Muranishi seriously and refuses to do business with him at first. Muranishi eventually gets his way, but the bubble economy in Japan bursts, resulting in massive debt that tanks Diamond Visual. (Getting scammed by two fake accountants also doesn't help.) Diamond Visual can't be salvaged, but as Muranishi crashes and burns, he risks also destroying his relationships with all of his friends/staff in the process. Oh yeah, and that same cop from last season (played by Lily Franky) is still collaborating with the yakuza to destroy Muranishi too.
This season was aight. They ruined the theme song (in my humble opinion) by adding a loud and unnecessary choir to it, but otherwise this season was aight. I watched it because I enjoyed season 1, and I watched season 1 because I was intrigued by the brazenness of an entire series being made about the Japanese porn industry in the first place. This time, I wanted to see what new directions the story would go in, and those directions were aight. While 'The Naked Director' has always about more than just porn (the yakuza, government policies on obscenity, and corrupt policing all feature heavily in both seasons), season 2 broadens the show's range of social commentary. For instance, in episode 1 Muranishi appears to be running for political office, claiming in a public speech that Japanese society should embrace sex and the distribution of porn because giving people that outlet to satisfy their lust actually reduces sex crimes. That's an interesting argument, but I'm also sure he's not considering sex crimes that may happen within the porn industry itself when he makes this argument. And what he's saying isn't meant to be taken seriously anyway, because in true Muranishi fashion, he's simply doing whatever he can to push the boundaries of what's socially or legally acceptable, thereby boosting his video sales. In short, his supposed political aspirations are only a publicity stunt.
The show also gives a brief nod to idol culture, with Diamond Visual making a series of thematic videos that supposedly recreate sexual encounters that women report having had with famous male pop stars. Even religion comes up too, when Muranishi tries to buy a religious organization's (cult's?) satellite broadcasting facility in an attempt to get ahead of the death of VHS that he correctly assumes will come one day. Ever ready with a sales pitch that makes porn sound like the most necessary thing in the world, he likens sex to religion in this way: both can be addictive, but they also help people prosper by giving them an escape and making them happy. The cult representative bluntly explains to Muranishi that, on the contrary, the less happy people feel, the more converts the cult gets, which means more revenue for the cult. But since Muranishi has made porn seem so profitable, and since the economy is on an upswing at that point and the cult's business isn't doing well anyway, the rep accepts Muranishi's offer.
Since 'The Naked Director' is loosely based on real events and real people, the 1992 economic bubble burst practically requires that this season be more somber than the previous one. But I wasn't prepared for how dark (like, DARK dark) Kaoru's storyline would become in particular. As I mentioned, Muranishi shelves Kaoru as an actress and she self-destructs in response to that, quitting Diamond Visual after Muranishi finally sets up a new video shoot for her but misleads her into thinking he'll be performing in the scene with her (he will not). She then moves in with a female friend, the longtime makeup artist-turned-assistant-director who leaves Diamond around the same time as her. After the bubble bursts and Muranishi basically runs everyone off of the Diamond compound, Kaoru returns and offers to start a new, non-porn-related business with him. (This is an olive branch; the idea she proposes isn't as important as simply being his collaborator/partner again.) But he rejects her, and that's the last straw. She returns home and attempts suicide by jumping over her apartment's balcony as a Billie Eilish song plays in the background (no joke). All is not lost, however! Kaoru eventually recovers, moves back in with her unwaveringly Catholic momI definitely did NOT see their reconciliation comingand studies art in Italy like she previously intended in season 1, so she does get a relatively happy ending. But she never receives the apology she deserves from Muranishi for how he mistreated her. Then again, maybe that would've been too out of character for him, no matter how wrecked he is by seeing her unconscious in the hospital.

There's also a love story between young gangster Toshi—who worked for Muranishi in season 1 but went a little overboard with his dirty work and got fired before ending up in jail and joining the yakuzaand Sayaka, the yakuza boss's favorite sex worker. I found that arc to be compelling but it does feel somewhat random in hindsight. Toshi rescues Sayaka from being the boss's plaything (pimped out to him by her mother of all people), but messing with the boss's girl is the biggest no-no, right? Especially when that boss is played by Kunimura Jun! You don't mess with that man! In all seriousness though, the show uses that conflict between Toshi and the boss to push Toshi toward finding refuge with some of his former Sapphire/Diamond friends, and eventually protecting them by severing any remaining influence that the yakuza has on them. So I guess that love story arc isn't so random after all. Anyway, the real reason I mention any of that is because I was so surprised and excited to see Nishiuchi Mariya playing Sayaka! The last production I saw her in was 'Totsuzen Desu ga, Ashita Kekkon Shimasu' in 2017, and I didn't recognize her in 'The Naked Director' at first. I just assumed she was an up-and-coming actress who happened to look very familiar for some reason I couldn't ascertain. But then I googled the cast list and saw that it was in fact Nishiuchi Mariya! Apparently she's been focused on modeling all this time and this her first J-drama appearance (her first new acting role, period) since 'Totsuzen Desu ga', so good for her! I say watch season 2 of 'The Naked Director' for curiosity's sake to find out how the story wraps up, or simply watch it to witness Nishiuchi Mariya's comeback.

金魚妻 (Kingyo Tsuma/Goldfish Wives/Fishbowl Wives) - Netflix/2022
  • Sakura (Shinohara Ryoko from 'Otona Joshi') runs a high-profile hair salon business with her abusive husband. In their ritzy apartment building where social hierarchy is reflected by floor number, they live at the very top. Sakura used to be a gifted hairdresser, but since getting injured, she mostly just does what her husband tells her to do. This includes handling the management and PR aspects of their business, playing up their "perfect couple" image for the press, and not saying anything about him sleeping with other women (one of whom is their neighbor). 
  • Sakura visits a goldfish shop and becomes acquainted with Haruto (the shop owner) when he accidentally sprays water on her. He's young, kind, and passionate about nursing sick or wounded creatures back to health. Haruto is actually connected to Sakura's past injury, but neither of them realize this at first. Later, when Sakura's husband attacks her one night, she flees to Haruto's place and they carry on an affair while Sakura helps him run the goldfish shop.
  • But Sakura and Haruto can't live in their own world forever. While her husband tracks her down and tries to manipulate her into coming home, Haruto's wealthy family pressures him to quit both Sakura and the goldfish shop so he can take over his father's corporation. Meanwhile, five housewives from Sakura's building start having or considering extramarital relationships of their own.
I planned to watch this show once I saw the trailer for it on YouTube and found out about its February release date. I recognized Shinohara Ryoko in the trailer, assumed the show would be like 'Hirugao' (a 2014 J-drama about cheating housewives and why they cheat, which was groundbreaking at the time), and when I began episode 1 the floor-number-as-social-status element immediately reminded me of 'Suna no Tou' from 2016. So even though I didn't recognize anyone other than Shinohara Ryoko at first, 'Fishbowl Wives' had more than enough to retain my interest. And I actually did recognize more actors as I watched more of the show. Yuriha, the neighbor who brazenly sleeps with Sakura's husband and smirks in her face about it (played by Hasegawa Kyoko) also appeared in 'Cecile no Mokuromi'. Haruto (Iwata Takanori) was also Ishihara Satomi's baby daddy in 'Dear Sister'. And the man whose wife is a former runner and current alcoholic (Inukai Atsuhiro) was the object of the heroine's unrequited love in 'Oh! My Boss!'. 

It might merely be a convention of this show and not a reflection of real life, but I had no idea that goldfish could be such a big deal (especially not the small kind that Haruto sells, when koi fish also exist and are more impressive-looking to me). In the States, unless you're some kind of aquatic nerd like Haruto, fish as pets are basically living, breathing decoration pieces. In my mind they've always been rather inconsequential. But so many characters in the show are interested in having goldfish in order to feel less lonely, or hold onto a remnant of their estranged family, or repair their childless marriages, and so on. (The child thing is actually why Sakura goes to Haruto's shop in the first place, because this mysterious fortune teller/feng shui expert in her apartment building suggests it... while at the same time encouraging Sakura and the other women in the building to cheat on their husbands? As if cheating is the key to their personal growth and spiritual well-being? Because women pursuing their true soulmate or "twin ray" is more important than staying loyal to their unfulfilling marriages? Well, I honestly can't say I disagree with that last part.) I was genuinely surprised by the show's ability to use goldfish not only as a metaphor for how stifled and vulnerable these wives feel, but also as a believable vehicle for multiple characters' wishes and healing journeys.
Cheating is not merely a tawdry or simple thing in 'Fishbowl Wives'; each instance of cheating is given its own context. And not all of the wives follow through on their impulse to cheat, either. The one exception is Saya (the aforementioned runner-turned-alcoholic, also "Bansou no Tsuma"/"The Chaperone Wife" from episode 4), who is almost seduced by Sakura's husband. That is, until she receives a call from her own husband that makes her realize that they both just want to slow down the pace of their life, spend more time together, and get their relationship back on track (no pun intended). The rest of the wives featured on this show, though? Oh, they're getting busy and they've each got their own reasons! Episode 2 ("Gaichuu no Tsuma"/"The Outsourcing Wife") frames cheating as "outsourcing" sex when a woman and her husband aren't sexually compatible. Or, in Yuka's case, when the wife wants a baby but the husband isn't interested in sex at all, and her chaotic trash bag of an ex-boyfriend is aggressively making her feel wanted again. Episode 3 ("Bentou no Tsuma") centers around a cuckolding fetish, which surprised the heck out of me! Noriko's husband pressures his co-worker and her to touch each other in front of him so he can get aroused, only for Noriko to leave him for the co-worker when she realizes that the co-worker cares about her comfort and appreciates her homemade bentou lunches more than her husband does. And as much as I hated Yuriha's stank attitude toward Sakura and how she flaunts her affair with Sakura's husband, I was deeply intrigued by what episode 7 ("Kaisou no Tsuma"/"The Renovation Wife") sets up between Yuriha and one of the carpenters working on her overbearing mother-in-law's house. Two people with perceived blemishes on their bodies—both Yuriha and the carpenter have large dark spots on their faces, and the carpenter has a gigantic owl tattoo on his back that his wife resents—finding intimacy and acceptance through each other. That's a beautiful story, and I wish I could've gotten more of it. Yuriha's story gets less runtime than each of the other featured wives, and it felt like something was missing.
Hisako ("Zutsuu Tsuma"/"The Headache Wife") from episodes 5 and 6 is probably the wife I felt for the most besides Sakura, since Hisako and I have constant migraines in common. Unlike the dull ache I deal with on the daily, however, Hisako's migraines are frighteningly sudden and debilitating, striking whenever she gets stressed out or feels guilty about something. Her arc also illustrates how even the most principled or uptight person needs sexual gratification and tenderness, and sometimes attaining those things involves wrongdoing that they supposedly despise. Which would be, in Hisako's case, spending afternoons getting railed by a man she met in a park. However... PLOT TWIST (it's too good not to spoil, I'm sorry)! Her paramour is really her own husband! He cheated on her and she kicked him out, but the ordeal was so traumatizing that she disassociated to the point of erasing all memory of him from her mind. So when they first run into each other again in that park, she doesn't recognize him and thinks she's meeting this man ("Baba") for the first time. He eventually comes clean, sincerely apologizing to her and asking to reconcile, but I can't help but wonder what their tryst means in terms of consent because he initiated their sexual relationship under false pretenses. (Hisako consented to doing the do with "Baba", not with her estranged husband.) However, she accepts his apology and also wants to give their relationship another try, claiming that he always felt physically familiar to her but she couldn't figure out why until he revealed the truth. So I guess it's okay? Maybe?
'Fishbowl Wives' gave me much to think about, but at the risk of sounding too simplistic, I thought the ending was so dumb! Once Haruto's family learns that Sakura is a battered woman who previously did a huge favor for them in the past, then they (especially the family lawyer, who's also Haruto's ex-girlfriend) stop treating her like scum and help her get a divorce. Haruto also rejects his dad's offer to take over the corporation once and for all. So there is literally nothing keeping these lovers apart. All obstacles have been removed. And what does Sakura do? She breaks up with Haruto because she wants to work with her now ex-husband on reviving their business, which has fallen into disrepair since she initially left. But I don't understand why she couldn't have done that and continued to be with her new man at the same time! It's not like she wanted to get back together with her ex-husband in a romantic way. Besides, she ends up cutting ties and opening her own salon two years later anyway; that's two years that she and Haruto could've been enjoying their relationship on non-adulterous terms! Ugh! So yeah, 'Fishbowl Wives' has a steamy premise and an anthology-esque approach to exploring women's adultery that I found smart and engaging, but the conclusion made the show just aight to me overall. As for our lead actress, Shinohara Ryoko's acting was brilliant as usual, and I don't know why she was giving me Jennifer Lopez vibes with how she played Sakura, but J.Lo definitely kept coming to mind. Maybe it was some of Shinohara's facial expressions when delivering certain dialogue? Or because the initial meekness of Sakura combined with her arduous attempts to escape her abusive husband reminded me of J.Lo's performance in the movie Enough? No clue, but even now I can't shake the thought.

Am I feeling just "aight" about my remaining J-drama selections as well? Gotta read part 2 of this review to find out!

Monday, February 28, 2022

BOOKS! (Sometimes I Trip On How Happy We Could Be + Black Love Matters)

I'm back! Took me a bit, but I'm finally writing my first book review of 2022, featuring the first book that I finished this year along with the first book that I both started AND finished this year. I tend to read fiction more than nonfiction, and I can't remember ever abiding by the theme of the month that my reviews are written in, but nonetheless, here I am focusing my February review on two nonfiction books about love! Both are essay collections, written and curated by Black women writers/podcasters, that were published within the past six months or so. First up is a memoir-in-essays examining dating, sex, body image, and pop culture from the author's early days growing up in 1980s Nashville to her current life as a forty-something writer in Brooklyn. And then, an anthology of essays about why Black representation matters in romance media and especially romance novels, edited by a librarian who was the 82nd guest on my podcast (Young, Gifted and Abroad).

Sometimes I Trip On How Happy We Could Be: Essays by Nichole Perkins
I was introduced to Nichole Perkins through her guest appearances on a charming yet honest race, current events, and pop culture podcast called Another Round (thanks and RIP as of 2017). However, it wasn't until I became an avid listener of a different podcast called Thirst Aid Kit (thanks and RIP as of 2020) that I gained a good grasp of her voice and her writing. On Thirst Aid Kit, Perkins and her friend/co-host Bim Adewunmi explored how desire ("thirst") functions within pop culture, and what made certain Hollywood men so thirst-worthy. My favorite segment was when, toward the end of each episode, Perkins and Adewunmi would compete by reading aloud the fanfiction-style "drabbles" they'd written, usually depicting imagined meet cutes or scenes of intimacy with the male subject ("thirst object") of the week. These drabbles were exquisitely written—sometimes adorably sweet, more often disarmingly hot—and knowing that Perkins already published a book of poetry and had a memoir on the way, I was excited to read more of her romance-related writing. Released in August 2021, Sometimes I Trip On How Happy We Could Be was the last book to arrive from my four-book Harriet's Bookshop order that I placed as a podcasting anniversary gift to myself last summer, and it's the third of the bunch that I can now say I've had the honor of reading in its entirety. (See also While We Were Dating and The Secret Lives of Church Ladies.) 
Though not in strictly chronological order, Sometimes I Trip features around 20 essays about Nichole Perkins's journey as a Black woman who spent her whole life from birth to undergrad in the South, and how she developed her sense of self as a culture critic and a deeply sexual person. She shares the facets of music, TV, and film that have profoundly influenced her understanding of desire and desirability, including Prince, whose 1987 song "If I Was Your Girlfriend" inspired the title of this memoir. (I'll go ahead and embarrass myself by volunteering that as girl who was born in the '90s and who respected Prince but wasn't in any way a committed fan, when I first saw the cover reveal for this book I initially assumed that the title referenced Beyoncé and Jay-Z's "'03 Bonnie & Clyde". Obviously Perkins, a Prince super-fan, learned me something in her essay dedicated to Prince, because of course she wrote one. It's titled "Prince's Girl". ) Additionally, she shares about her family, growing up in Black Nashville, HBCU campus life ("HBCUs Taught Me"), social media/dating app culture, her complicated relationship with academia from New Orleans to Los Angeles to Columbus, her faith journey (deconstruction?), and her experience with depression and low self-esteem in her fluctuating body. And of course, as I've alluded to, there's much talk about sex. Not only in terms of some of the guys she's been involved with and why, but also in terms of how she's flipped the concept of being "fast"—an insult/warning against sexual activity or inviting sexual attention that's often hurled at young Black girls before we even get the chance to understand our bodies as our own—into a catalyst for coming into her own power. Whether as the girlfriend, the other woman, the casual hook-up partner or somewhere in between, with time and experience Perkins has learned to replace the potential shame of loving sex so much with pride in her ability to make men weak overcome, obedient, and well... thirsty. And that sense of power is bolstered by knowing what pleases her. For example, skinny men are high on her list because, apparently, skinny men got that hammer. Also, it's possible for cunnilingus to last for nearly four hours straight. Also also, her first time having sex occurred exactly four months before the day I was born. You learn something new every day.
As I tend to do with poetry, story, or essay collections, I marked the essays I liked most so that I could discuss my favorites here, but there ended up being too many for me to pick concrete favorites. So I'll just touch on the ones that stick out the most in my memory as I write this. "The Night I Took Shrooms" (where Perkins tries magic mushrooms in the presence of the white dude she's seeing at the time, referred to as "The Hippie") was revelatory, to say the least. It's a trip that goes from orgasmic to terrifying to guilt-inducing to orgasmic again, and in the end she proves to herself that she can dabble in recreational drugs without losing control or becoming addicted like her abusive father had. I was astounded by the candidness of "Scandalous", where she recounts a lengthy affair she carried on with a married man during her "ho phase"—even unintentionally becoming some sort of friends (?) with his wife—and essentially argues that the other woman isn't necessarily a bad person, that she deserves empathy too. That essay was a difficult one for me to digest, because her assertions that she shouldn't be held responsible for men's actions (as in, the mistress shouldn't be the only one blamed for cheating) and that she couldn't care more about her lover's wife than he himself did (as a response to the guilt of hurting a fellow woman by sleeping that woman's husband) aren't invalid, but still... I don't know. I guess it's the lack of remorse that rubs me the wrong way? She refuses to feel ashamed about getting hers, which I understand. But as grown as I supposedly am, the messiness of the situation was a little too grown for me.
On a different note, I was very much touched by the way "The Women" highlights some of the influential female relatives in Perkins's childhood. These include her great-grandmother Muh'Deah who combed Perkins's hair and shared a fluffy bed with her whenever she spent the night, her aunt C who took her on many a Saturday lunch/bookstore/wisdom excursion as a breather from the parental chaos at home, and her older sister Izzie whom she's always strived to emulate and comfort. Furthermore, her discussion of sexism in the church, being mad at God, and why she's still a believer but doesn't attend church anymore ("A Woman Who Shouts") was realer than real. And her retelling of how the procedural drama 'Bones' helped her crawl out of a depressive episode ("Bones, Depression, and Me") definitely struck a chord with me. There are only two essays I don't wish to revisit, and only because they're nightmarish accounts of boundary violation and rape. One is "Don't Take Roses Away from Me" (which involves a sex partner who stealths her, then stalks her after she ends things), and the other is "Call It By Its Name" (which involves her being raped by a male friend while incapacitated at a party, not being able to call it rape until 10 years later, and still keeping that person in her life in the present). They're definitely worth reading, even if only to honor Perkins's courage in publicly divulging such ordeals; I just don't think I can handle reading them again, is all.

I like Sometimes I Trip. I was hoping to LOVE it, given how much I've enjoyed Perkins's podcast work and online presence. But it's very clear that Perkins believes in romance and wants to be in a long-lasting committed relationship, and thus she writes about men a lot in this book. Granted, I fully knew to expect this, but for some reason it still felt like... a lot. Her writing about men so much isn't because she can't see herself outside of them (quite the opposite), but because being married to a worthy man is something she still genuinely wants so that she can express all the love she has to give. And instead of just waiting around until she finds The One, she gets it in in the meantime and has tons of stories to tell about doing so. Those are things I sometimes found hard to relate to as someone who simply isn't trying to be bothered with men like that, at least not right now. (My "I'm not like the other girls" phase definitely included turning my nose up at those who devoted what I believed to be too much of their brain space to boys. Even now with the ubiquity of dating and relationship discussions on social media, I resist the impulse to dismiss or judge but sometimes find myself wondering, Don't y'all have anything else to talk about?) But that has more to do with my own positionality; it's not a fault of Perkins's writing at all. Although I do enjoy escaping into the sensual and emotional scenarios that romance writing offers, I'm realizing that I'm not much of a romantic in real life. I almost wish I were, though, so that I could appreciate this memoir even more. Still, it's a very solid "like" for me! If you're interested in the experiences of Southern Black women, sexual exploration, book/TV/movie/internet references, liking what you like even if it's considered taboo or basic, or memoirs that get really personal, then read this book!
Favorite quotes:
"In adulthood, the names for sexually adventurous women were worse, but I still wanted to explore the power I felt when men shook in my arms... I chose to lean in to the desires pulsing through me, and maybe that's what saved me" (15).
"No, this tingling sat at the top of my spine, waiting for me to notice it, and when I did... I thought I heard a deep voice, which sounded like it was smiling at me, say 'I'm here'... I started to worry, until I realized maybe God didn't want anything from me at all. Maybe He just wanted me to know He knew who I was... it seemed like that was the answer and it was enough: I think I needed to now God knew I existed. Church made me feel lonely, but that sprinkle of the Holy Ghost let me know God knew me" (21, 23). 

"I made sure to rub my damp crotch all over the arms of her furniture. I hoped that whenever she napped on her sofa, she dreamed of Black women with big butts parading naked through her home" (58).

"We went to high school together but didn't become close until adulthood brought us back home in ways neither one of us expected. We bonded over the special misery you're in but not allowed to complain about when your plans go to shit and you come back home... people think you have nothing to do. We were also both creative women who tried to be 'good girls' when we're really magic" (213-14).

Black Love Matters: Real Talk on Romance, Being Seen, and Happily Ever Afters edited by Jessica P. Pryde
I met Jessica P. Pryde—a librarian and co-host of Book Riot's When in Romance podcast, among other things—virtually last summer. I was looking for potential guests for Young, Gifted and Abroad and returned to an old Twitter thread I'd found where tons of writers, including Jessica, had chimed in about their study abroad experiences. In late July 2021 I interviewed her about her time in Arezzo, Italy and we had a lovely conversation about that and her journey as a romance enthusiast. When I first looked through her website to prepare for that interview, I'd skimmed through info about her upcoming essay anthology called Black Love Matters being slated for release in February 2022, so I knew that it was on the horizon. However, the enormity of how significant this book was didn't set in until after I'd spoken to Jessica and looked even more into her work than before. (Sadly, I got caught up in the moment of the interview and missed an opportunity to ask her about the book itself.) From there, I was already sold on Black Love Matters because Jessica had edited it, but I was doubly sold when I discovered that one of the essays was written by Jasmine Guillory (the author whose work first set me on a path toward embracing romance novels at the end of 2019). So I ordered my copy in late January when I happened to learn that Barnes & Noble was having a 25% off preorder sale that week. BLM is not only Jessica's first book, but according to her "Acknowledgments" section it's also the first nonfiction book that Berkley Romance has ever published.
I have to say, more of the essays in BLM focused on historical romances than I was anticipating. Historical romance (historical fiction overall) is generally not what I'm into, but I appreciated reading the praises that multiple essayists sang to Beverly Jenkins—who is stunningly thorough in "A Short History of African American Romance", and who is the "queen of the Black historical romance" according to fellow essay contributor Piper Huguley. And how could I not be moved by contributors' passionate and well-substantiated arguments for Black love throughout the centuries (yes, even during slavery times) deserving more attention, research, and care in romance novels set in the past? It's not "inaccurate" to acknowledge Black people loving each other and guarding their love fiercely in places and time periods where many don't believe them to have existed, or to have been capable of knowing love at all.
As for favorite essays, I've got a few. First off, I didn't realize until after reading Carole V. Bell's "I'm Rooting for Everybody Black: Black Solidarity, Black World-Building, and Black Love" that I was already following her on Twitter, and now I feel wonderful about that choice because Bell sure knows how to analyze the mess out of a book! She calls Black romance "the literature of hope and progress", and of the three books she focuses on I was very nearly sold on How to Catch a Queen (Alyssa Cole), thanks to Bell expertly parsing out how Black solidarity and social justice are integral to the main couple's HEA (Happily Ever After). And I actually was thoroughly sold on I Think I Might Love You (Christina C. Jones); the excerpts Bell includes from it are excellent in getting the novella's sense of humor across, so I'll definitely be reading that one. Also, I'm so delighted to have now been introduced to Sarah Hannah Gómez through "Romance Has Broken My Dichotomous Key"! Her analytical yet accessible and blunt yet compassionate writing style, her hilariousness, and our similarities in personality made me almost say aloud while reading, "Ooh. I like you." I kid you not, my notes in the margins of her essay included, and I quote: "Holy crap. Are you me?" (re: being resistant to reading romance and then changing her mind), and "Oh girl. You and I were the same child" (re: deciding in grade school that age-appropriate books were too immature, and casting those aside for adult books in order to seem more impressive to others). Gómez's essay is a true joy, offers phenomenal insight into academia/libraries/publishing, and is the one that I'm still thinking about most.

Another favorite is the essay Jessica wrote herself, "Interracial Romance and the Single Story". I respect the self-awareness with which she, a Black woman married to a white man, examines the predominance of Black romance characters being involved in interracial (especially Black woman/white man) relationships. She draws attention to a concerning trend where mainstream American media and their consumers would rather see "half a Black couple instead of a whole one." I've mentioned in previous reviews about how so far I've chosen to read romance novels that feature two Black people (or more than two, shout-out to Harbor) falling for each other. And being a person with no romantic experience who doesn't spend much time thinking about "Black Love" outside of the romances I read, I still haven't been able to articulate why this reading preference of mine persists. (Other than it possibly being a holdover from my attempts to limit white infiltration into my life via the media I consume as a trauma response to 45 being elected in 2016. That's another story for another day.) But since searching more earnestly for steamy reads that'll be up my alley, one thing I've noticed is that in American romance novels, most of the male love interests seem to be white men, and I can admit that this bothers me. Because it's like, why are white men the prize? Do they deserve love more than any other variation of man out there? 
I've seen glowing online recommendations for romances written by Black women and other women of color, but when I look up some of those authors' work and see a white man framed as The Guy in most or all of their books, it gives me pause. I don't take offense to interracial relationships at all, it's just that the prevalence makes me wonder, Why do you specifically desire white men so much, sis? What's with this fixation? Of all the dream men you could've conjured up to write about, why are so many of them white? Some of it's a consequence of the industry, as Jessica explains that having a prominent white character makes a story more likely to be produced or published in the mainstream, and more likely to be marketed well and thus sell well. But still. Obviously this is my own hang-up, and my intention isn't to cast judgment, especially not with me being relatively new to valuing the genre. My point in saying all this is simply that I appreciate Jessica's essay for making me feel like I'm not crazy for noticing what I've noticed. In her summation, it's not that portrayals of interracial romance are a negative thing; it's that they shouldn't eclipse Black romances just because they're a convenient way for publishers, production companies, and consumers to appear diverse without confronting their discomfort with Black lovers loving each other. And color me elated when Christina C. Jones further echoed my sentiments in her essay, "Black Indie Romance", which is the final full essay of the anthology. I love the way she breaks it down, "I asked for blue. Purple is fine. But it is not blue." (See my favorite quotes below for the full quote.) Jessica gets it, and so does Christina!
Last but not least, I can't say that "(Black) Love Is... (Black) Love Ain't" is one of my favorites in terms of enjoyment, but I also can't deny how thought-provoking it is in acknowledging the ways non-conventionally beautiful people get left out. The guts! The guts with which Da'Shaun Harrison refutes the notion that Black Love is revolutionary, because it's still largely reserved for people and characters who are deemed to be conventionally desirable according to white supremacist standards ("Black people who are thin, light-skinned, non-disabled, cisgender, heterosexual, Christian, and/or moneyed"). They go on to argue that the concept of Black Love as we call it, as shaped within the prevailing anti-Black world's definition of "love", is neither possible nor something we should want because it's a concept that continually harms and fails us. Which is a downer, sure, and not an argument I can say I fully agree with at this time. But as someone who falls under multiple categories of undesirability just like Harrison does, I think it's impressively bold to declare that Black people loving each other is necessary and worthwhile for community-buidling's sake, while still pointing out the flaws in believing that Black Love in and of itself will save all Black people from the ills of this world. I respect that boldness.

So, with all that being said. If you are looking for greater context on how Black romance writers and Black romantic characters fit within the history of romance as a genre, want book or author recommendations, want to know why romance novels should be taken seriously (and why some people in romance won't be begging you to take them seriously either way), are curious about how Black romance writers and enthusiasts got their start in a similar style to the Well-Read Black Girl anthology, or simply want to support a Black woman's first book, then read this essay collection!

Favorite quotes:
"I have done what people who look like me often do; I've found slivers of myself and constructed my own belonging in that mosaic, and I am better for it. But queer Black readers of romance should not have to piece themselves apart for the tiniest bit. They should be able to walk into a bookstore and be spoiled for choice. And the next time some tired student needs a release from her coursework, she should be able to find more options to build a queer Black girl TBR than she reasonably has time to read" (Nicole M. Jackson, 76-77).
"How can Black Love be the entity that creates room for Black subjects to love, with all its limitations, if the Black fat is excluded? If the Black queer is reduced only to sex and not their ability to be intimate in myriad ways? If the Black trans person can only ever be a fetish one takes part in and not a living being one gives love to? What is the utility of Black Love if disabled persons are requested, or demanded, to 'cure' or hide their disabilities?" (Da'Shaun Harrison, 214).
"...Black romance gets pushed out. And we're expected to accept it as representative of something it is not. I have not, am not, and will not argue against interracial relationships having their time in the sunthose relationships are just as important and valid as any other.

What I don't accept, though, is being inundated with purple when I asked for blue.
Purple is fine.
But purples is not blue" (Christina C. Jones, 226).

 "I can probably guess who I might be without you, but I don't care to ever find out if it's true" (Jessica P. Pryde, 239).