Monday, November 30, 2020

BOOKS! (The Ensemble + Moving to Higher Ground)

To close out November I'm pairing two music-focused books together! First up is a novel about a string quartet that I heard about through watching a certain TV show last year. And then I've got a book about jazz, written by a member of a legendary family of jazz musicians from New Orleans.

The Ensemble by Aja Gabel

'The Terror: Infamy' aired on AMC last year, and that season focused on the incarceration of Japanese Americans during WW2, blending the horrors of racist wartime policies with an embittered ghost from traditional Japanese ghost folklore. While watching the show I would check to see what people were tweeting about it, and I happened to see Aja Gabel tweet out an article relating 'The Terror' to her family's own experience of being incarcerated in California and Utah. I decided to see what else Aja had written, and that's how I learned about her book, The Ensemble. I bought it much later on when I happened to see a copy of it in a B&N, and I read it sporadically this year before finishing it this month.

The titular ensemble is the Van Ness Quartet, consisting of four classical musicians who become partners in both music and life over the course of their nearly 20-year career, from 1992 to 2010. The quartet members first meet and join forces at a conservatory in San Francisco, and their home base switches between the Bay and New York City as their collective journey evolves. Jana is the leader and first violinist, hyper-focused on her career longevity to the extent of occasional meanness and ruthlessness, but always with what's best for the group in mind. Brit is the second violinist and the most sensitive member, valued as part of the group but often not taken seriously enough because she received an inheritance from her parents and is the most outwardly naive and love-starved of the four. Henry is the young protégé of the group, a viola player who seems to maneuver life and the music world with the most ease and faces consistent outside enticement to go solo. (Henry's basically the Beyoncé of the group.) And then there's Daniel, the precise but emotionally-detached cello player and the oldest group member, who often resents how much harder he's had to work to be a professional musician and maintain financial stability than his fellows have. Outside of their work together, Jana and Henry have the closest friendship, whereas Brit and Daniel have a non-committal romantic relationship. Parts 1 and 3 are written from Jana and Britt's perspectives, parts 2 and 4 are written from Henry and Daniel's perspectives, and the coda at the end revisits the group's very first rehearsal back when the quartet was first formed.

I don't know hat exactly I was expecting from The Ensemble, but upon finishing it, I felt like something was missing. I learned more about certain happenings in the characters' lives than I cared to know, and less or nothing at all about developments that I actually wanted to know more about. (Warning: spoilers.) Henry opts to leave the quartet so his wife Kimiko can finally pursue her career in earnest (and because tendonitis is threatening to shorten his career anyway), but then they start planning for a third child? And we never learn how Kimiko's career goes? Jana (a white woman) adopts a daughter from Ethiopia, in the early 2000s, and nothing is brought up about about the racial implications of that decision, or how Jana may or may not be taking adequate measures to help her daughter nurture her Black/African identity? The only difficulty mentioned is that Jana doesn't turn out to be as motherly as she hoped, and worries about becoming like her own aloof and self-absorbed mother?

Even though we follow each of the characters closely through nearly tow decades together, I felt somewhat distanced from the quartet's journey to renown and success, because each chapter presents them in a new phase to which they've somehow managed to ascend since the previous one, even despite the crisis moments readers have just witnessed. Things just keep working out for Van Ness somehow, and I feel like I connected to and learned more details about each member's interiority than the group's story as a whole. But I'm almost wondering if that was intentional? Gabel impresses open readers how essential unison and cohesion are amongst chamber music players, and she also explains how the bond and intimacy that ensemble members have is something that's rarely felt or understood from outside the group. So perhaps the readers are actually meant to feel like we're on the outside looking in? I'm not sure.

I played alto sax from 5th through 12th grade and we played lots of classical music, so I can appreciate it but am not an expert on it. It's not necessarily my thing. I say that to say that of all the classical music references Gabel included, I was pleasantly surprised to find myself rapt by two pieces in particular: Antonín Dvořák's "American" String Quartet in F Major, op. 96, no. 12 and Felix Mendelssohn's Octet in E-Flat Major, op. 20. I'd never heard of those pieces before, but I went out of my way to listen to them on YouTube because Gabel included them in this book, and I'm really glad that I did.

If you're a music enthusiast of any sort, are curious about how classical musicians live, want to digest multiple philosophical takes on what it means to make music, or simply enjoy reading about interpersonal drama amongst people who are required to have chosen to together for the long haul, then read this book!

Favorite quotes:

"For Henry, sense-making was perhaps the opposite of the point. He had fun in the chaos of four people; the chaos was what made it feel like art, like beauty... Choosing to stay in the quartet was not the obvious, logical decision. But for him, obvious and logical had nothing to do with real music-making" (85).

"Jana allowed herself to accept something most people spend their days running from. She stood in the knowledge that there were people who saw the parts of her that she did not want to see herself—the anxiety buffering the nastiness, the desperate quality to her ambition, the tarnished sheen of her past—and that one of those people was standing right in front of her, seeing her be seen" (206-07).

 "And now she was nearly forty, and it was about time she admitted that the life she was living was actually her life, not some precursor to her life, and that the reason she wasn't living another, perhaps better, life was that she'd met someone decent with whom she'd had something very important in common: a desire to be in love" (217-18).

"First was the music, which was servant to nothing. Second was everything else, servant to her music" (246).

 

Moving to Higher Ground: How Jazz Can Change Your Life by Wynton Marsalis with Geoffrey C. Ward

This was among a handful of books that I bought for cheap at a Book Warehouse in the Louisville area after Christmas last year. (See Confessions, the most recent book I finished from that bunch). I started it on the first day of fall this year and then made sure to finish it this month so that I could write pair it with The Ensemble. Moving to Higher Ground is written by Wynton Marsalis, a jazz and classical musician who wears many hats, including trumpeter and the current artistic director of Jazz at Lincon Center in New York City. He's from New Orleans (the birthplace of jazz), and his father and all three of his brothers are jazz musicians too, so it runs deep. Marsalis has been playing music basically all his life, and he uses this book as an opportunity to share the numerous lessons that he's learned from playing jazz, and also advocate for the enduring relevance of jazz as crucial to America's cultural identity. In his words, it's "America's greatest artistic contribution to the world". By default this also means advocating for Black people and their contributions to be properly acknowledged, credited and celebrated; you can't cherish jazz as the quintessential American art form without also acknowledging how central Black people (the folks who created jazz) are to making this country what it is or claims to be.

This book serves as a comprehensive introduction to beginners, and a helpful guide to people who want to brush up on what jazz is, its history and legacy, and why it's still important. Marsalis explains essential elements of jazz like swing and the blues, touches on musical theory and some of the more technical aspects of performing, and even highlights what makes the personalities and playing/singing styles of various musicians so special. style of playing or singing special. But overall I found this book to be largely philosophical, and intriguingly so. Marsalis likens jazz to a democracy, with members of a jazz band playing well together being analogous to a healthy, communicative society with a functioning democratic process. Marsalis' optimism and enthusiasm about what America is and/or can be reads more like wishful-thinking in 2020, but makes more sense when one considers that this book was originally published in 2008. (His mentality makes even more sense within the context of 2009, which is when the paperback edition I read was published, not long after Obama was first elected and inaugurated.) And honestly, if his objective is to link the work of jazz musicians to personal development and the American democratic process, then having the cynical-but-perhaps-realistic attitude of, say, "America is a young-ish country but it's also wretched and maybe even irremediable, and maybe nothing or no one can save it at this point" wouldn't bode well for his argument. So I get it.
 
Now. I have to say that I find it ironic how Marsalis lauds how egalitarian and democratic jazz is meant to be—anyone can find their place in it provided that they can actually play well or are willing to work to become a skilled and knowledgeable player, everyone has something to share, everyone on the bandstand is meant to communicate with and listen to each other through playing cohesively, etc.—only to take an elitist stance when it comes to rap/hip-hop. It's pretty clear that he disdains hip-hop, referring to it as a minstrel show and poo-pooing it as "hip-humping", and "booty-to-tinkle wiggling" music. But is hip-hop not an offspring or at least a god-child of jazz? Maybe twerking is too straightforward and unabashed for some people's tastes, but is it not also intimate? And is there not ample hip and booty movement involved in swing dancing (which Marsalis believes to be the true American national dance style)? Additionally, are there not ample jazz and blues tunes full of erotic themes and lyrics? Especially since Marsalis emphasizes that jazz artists have always composed and played music in response to the times, including widespread social issues, personal desires, and other phenomena that everyday people experience?
 
I'd heard or read mention about artists including Marsalis being purists, and how their earnest desire to preserve the integrity of "real" jazz—especially earnest for Marsalis, who grew up playing jazz but was completely unaware of many of the greatest artists and composers until his late teens/early 20s—can sometimes fall into snobbishness or even close-mindedness. But my goodness! Far be it from me to argue about music with professional music people with decades of wisdom and experience under their belt... but still. That way of thinking is truly unfortunate to me. How can someone harp on the historical and cultural legacy of jazz but not appreciate or respect the art forms that jazz helped create?  How can someone be a musician from a place like New Orleans and imply that rap/hip-hop has no merit categorically? How does someone base their entire life and livelihood around one form of Black music, but then completely disparage another related form of Black music? 
 
At this point I'm ranting and I know it, so I'll just say that if you've ever studied music, are a fan of jazz, or admire Wynton Marsalis specifically in anyway, then read this book. I found it to be insightful and informative, even if I did disagree with some of his points on hip-hop and on racial dynamics in America (especially as it concerns who jazz "belongs" to). Reading this book also reminded me a lot of Mo' Meta Blues, which is equal parts memoir and a demonstration of Questlove's phenomenal and multifaceted musical knowledge. Marsalis' book isn't as heavy on the lists or name/song dropping as Questlove's is, but it still has a similar feeling to me. Like if you're looking for specific recommendations of jazz artists, albums, and songs to listen to, then Moving to Higher Ground is a great resource for that too.

Favorite quotes:
"Because jazz musicians improvise under the pressure of time, what's inside comes out pure. It's like being pressed to answer a question before you have a chance to get your lie straight. The first thought is usually the truth" (8).

"Through jazz, we learn that people are never all one way. Each musician has strengths and weaknesses. We enjoy hearing musicians struggle with their parts... [Miles Davis] would release recordings with mistakes, and they still sound good. The imperfections give the music even more flavor and personality" (12).
 
"It takes all kinds of time to develop first-class technical skills, and to expose your true feelings in public can be very discomforting. But exposing your feelings and transforming a bandstand with them is a powerful thing, so powerful you'll sacrifice almost anything to experience it. Art—creativity of any kind in any field—needs food, and that food is your experience, whether you're on the bandstand or in the audience" (66).

"When you find a style of music you can relate to, it's like finding a friend" (71).

Saturday, October 31, 2020

BOOKS! (I'm Telling the Truth, But I'm Lying + Sour Heart)

Happy Halloween! The books I'm writing about today aren't scary (though they do deal with some of the daily horrors of being alive), so they're not exactly on-theme for October. But I am using today as my chance to write my "monthly" book review before this month is over, so there's that. I started reading both of the following books last year, and I discovered each one through listening to podcasts. They're also both written by children of immigrants to the U.S.

I'm Telling the Truth, but I'm Lying: Essays by Bassey Ikpi

Bassey Ikpi was previously a well-established poet/spoken word artist who even toured with Def Poetry Jam for a number of years in the early 2000s. But I didn't know who she was until I started listening to a daily podcast called The Black Guy Who Tips a few years ago. I've since fallen off listening to TBGWT regularly, but one thing that kept me coming back was their "This Too Much" reviews, where co-host Rod would review episodes of television with Ikpi as his regular guest. Their reviews of 'This is Us', 'Insecure' and 'Atlanta' remain some of the most brilliant, engaging, and ridiculously funny reviews I've ever heard. And since I'd become aware of Ikpi in this way, this was also how I heard about her memoir, which was published last year. I bought it, started reading it... and then as I do with many books, I kept setting it aside for other reads that felt more immediate at the time or that I thought I could finish more quickly. But I finally committed to finishing it last month, and here I am writing about the book today.

Born in Nigeria, Ikpi lived with relatives there until the age of four, when her parents came to collect her after getting situated in the States beforehand. As a young adult she did attend university, but forwent completing a degree in favor of moving to New York City. After years of severe anxiety, depression, mania, and unsuccessful coping mechanisms, she had a breakdown on tour that forced her to finally get professional help. This led to her being diagnosed with bipolar II disorder, which helped make sense of some of her past experiences. At the same time, it also set Ikpi off on an unyielding journey toward finding the right treatment, and caused her to agonize even more over the hope of becoming "normal". The meat of this memoir has to do with Bassey's memories—which she admits are fragmented and potentially unreliable, but still valid—and how her mental illness impacts her life and sense of self. She takes the time to walk readers through a few notable episodes, and I don't think I've ever read anything that makes me feel the author's mental and emotional distress as my own like Bassey does in this book. (Kevin Breel's Boy Meets Depression comes to mind, but I read it so long ago that I can't say for sure anymore.)

It was so fitting for this book to be subtitled "essays" and not "a memoir", because while it is Ikpi's life story written in chronological order, each essay could stand alone on its own. Furthermore, it's not a tell-all. She gives us just enough to understand her way of thinking, her mental illness, and the notable happenings in her life that she chooses to share. But everything else, everything we don't get to know, is either irrelevant to the story she's telling or it's quite simply not our business. What it's like living in Oklahoma (she grew up there, but most of her stories take place on the East Coast or Chicago)? Details on her involvement with Def Poetry Jam? Which one of her boyfriends/flings became her baby's father? Not relevant, or not our business. I also couldn't help but notice that each essay takes a different point of view (first person, second person, or third person), and in a couple instances the POV changes within the same essay. I suppose she used the voice or perspective that she felt best fit each essay when she wrote it.

I was also struck by the way Ikpi writes about being antagonized by her mom. From having a traumatic family history of her own, to immigrating from Nigeria to America, to working as a nurse, to trying to raise four successful children in a land other than her own, and so on... Ikpi's mom was dealing with a lot of stress and anger (and may have had mental health issues of her own), which she often took out on Ikpi emotionally and physically. What's perplexing is that even though Ikpi refers to her mom as a "bully" in the book, since the book's release I've seen her insist on Twitter that she wasn't abused, that her mom wasn't abusive to her. Far be it from me to argue with someone about their own personal experience, and Ikpi does mention in the book that she can't hold her mom's behavior against her because she empathizes with the hardships her mother endured. It's just interesting to me how certain information can lead many readers (including myself) to a certain conclusion about a family dynamic, even though the author wrote with a different intention in mind.

Bassey Ikpi's writing is poetic and also straightforward, making I'm Telling the Truth, But I'm Lying relatively "easy" to read. Obviously, however, the topics of mental illness, self-harm, and relationship issues can make reading this memoir anything but easy. As someone with a mental illness, I personally found it incredibly humbling to read an account of someone else's that's laid-bare in such a way that feels unfathomable to me. (Says the girl who used to post her therapy session notes on this blog, I know, I know. But it's just not the same.) If you've ever dealt with mental heath issues, are Nigerian or have Nigerians in your life, are interested in immigrant stories, are an artist of any kind, or simply care what Black women have to say, then read this book!

Favorite quotes: 

"When you carry fear and disaster in your mouth, you taste it constantly like it's the only thing your tongue has ever known" (54).

"Depression is a building falling on an ant. It is a hurricane in a thimble. It is not quiet. It is not vague. This is something else, This is something else" (185).

"Anxiety is its own creature... Anxiety tells me to make a list. Mistakes. Regrets. Lies. A litany of shortcomings, a coil tightened, ready to spring.

Even when the best things occur, when the sun is angled just enough to offer light or there is beauty somewhere shining in the distance, the voice says—This will not last. You do not deserve this peace. Remember that time... Remember how you break everything you touch" (185-86).

"'I wanted to die but my body wouldn't let me,' someone answers. It takes me a moment to recognize my own voice. I say it again, 'I wanted to die but my body wouldn't let me'" (217).


Sour Heart by Jenny Zhang

Back when a podcast called Another Round was still active, they put out an episode featuring a writer named Jenny Zhang. I excitedly listened to that episode because a former high school classmate of mine is also a writer named Jenny Zhang, and I quickly learned that the featured guest was a different person entirely. However, I was impressed enough by what I heard to make a mental note of this other Jenny Zhang. And I can't remember exactly when I bought her book Sour Heart, but I know I started reading it last year, and I finished it last week. (So basically, I'd always planned to write about I'm Telling the Truth, But I'm Lying and Sour Heart together. It just took me a year to get around to it because of my habitual book-hopping.)

Comprised of seven stories, Sour Heart presents the inner lives of six fictional Chinese-American girls who each grow up in the same communities in NYC (including and especially Queens) during the 1990s and early 2000s. They have all either moved from China to the U.S. with their parents, been sent for after their parents have immigrated and gotten settled first, or been temporarily sent back to live with family in China until their parents could afford to take care of them in the U.S. again. The first and last story in this book focus on Christina, an allergy-prone child whose mother affectionately calls her "sourheart" due to her preference for sour foods. Second comes Lucy, a girl hungry for affection and absurdly curious about bodies, whose house Christina's family lives in for a short time. Next there's Annie, whose contentious relationship with her volatile former-artist mother is calmed temporarily by her kind and peculiar uncle's extended visit from Shanghai. Then there's Jenny, who is eager for independence and scorns her little brother's clinginess, but then misses it after they grow distant. After that is Mande, a quiet girl who's overwhelmed by her parents' fears and who hopes that perfect English skills will make her a less obvious immigrant. And then there's Stacey, who's perplexed by her increasingly-deaf grandma's eccentricities and excessive love for her.

One of the aspects I appreciate the most about this book is its continuity, and Jenny Zhang's attention to detail in maintaining that continuity. Readers are introduced to each of the book's main families in the very first story without even realizing it (or at least, I didn't realize it), because at first there's no indication given that these other characters will become important later on. They just seem to be a handful of the myriad of people Christina's family encounters during their struggle to survive. At one point the families of all but one of the six main girls share the same cramped room in the Manhattan neighborhood of Washington Heights. And for some reason—probably because they were the poorest and took the longest to attain their own version of that elusive American dream—Christina and her parents are looked down on the most by everyone else. When Christina's family is mentioned by characters in the other stories, it's always with a tone of derision at worst and pity at best, as if they're the epitome of failure in America and what Chinese families should avoid becoming. In that sense, the seventh and final story is a relief, because it shows snapshots of Christina's life through her teens and twenties, and even has her family revisiting their old neighborhood in Brooklyn long after they've "made it" and moved on. 

Even though it took me a year to read Sour Heart, it was so unbelievably worthwhile! Given the coincidence with Jenny Zhang's name and even just from reading the first few pages of Christina's story, I had a feeling that I'd enjoy this book and be challenged by it. I just didn't know exactly how and to what extent. Each story contains so much humor and harshness and personality, and they each reminded me how observant children can truly be. If you're interested in Chinese-American life (especially in New York), Mao-era Chinese political history, women and girls' coming-of-age stories, and family drama, then read this book!

Favorite quotes:

"I did what I was told and pressed my right hand halfheartedly against my heart as we recited the Oath-to-Lick-America's-Balls-Even-Though-They're-Dirty-in-Order-to-Certify-That-America's-Wonderful-and-Tolerant-Even-Though-It's-Not" (180). 

"Maybe perfection did exist, maybe it was out there, but it only lasted as long as a sneeze" (220).

"if you never say a word, people will think you don't know anything, and when people think you don't know anything, they say everything in front of you and you end up containing everything. On the inside, I was vast. But on the outside, I was a known idiot. Nothing that came out of me had any resemblance to what I thought I had inside of me" (186-87). 

"Every once in a rarest while, my parents would just suddenly drop everything to seek adventure. For a day or a weekend or a weekend and a day, they would undo those gnarly coils of fear that were tightly wrapped around all the flexible points of their bodies, and finally let loose. I had no way to predict when it would happen, but every now and then, my parents would show me how to be free" (229).

"Wow, so his laziness got him a job."
"Exactly. The funny thing is, his unwillingness to work saved him a bunch of times" (278).

Friday, September 11, 2020

Poetry to Penpalooza

I spent much of last weekend feeling lonely and reading poetry; I can't remember which precipitated the other. 

On Saturday night I took a break to scroll through Twitter and saw that one of the writers I follow had retweeted info about something called Pen Pal Palooza. Another writer named Rachel Syme organized this pen pal exchange, where anyone in the world can sign up and be randomly matched with two pen pals at once. One pen pal gets your info so that they can write you first, and unless they message you directly then I guess you don't know who or where they are until you receive their letter in the mail. For the second pen pal, you get their info so you can write them first. And because I was already up late, feeling lonely, and the fierceness of my introversion had been compromised by fatigue, I took a chance and signed up for #penpalooza too. 

The next day, Sunday, I got an email notifying me that I'd been matched with a woman in London! I wrote her a letter and sent it on Tuesday. Cut to today, Friday, and I've just received my first letter from my other pen pal! On hedgehog stationery! From a California librarian who's only a year older than me, likes to bake, asked me for podcast recommendations, and enclosed a tea packet and a nature photo that she took herself. This is someone I was randomly matched with, but we have so much in common already! Also, how kind and thoughtful is it that she sent me actual stuff? The letter would've been plenty on its own!

I know I don't tend to write life/personal/online diary posts on this blog anymore, and that was a conscious decision. But I was really excited to receive mail from one of my new pen pals today, and so I wanted to post something about it here. This is my first time being pen pals with a stranger, and also my first time doing this as a so-called "adult".

(P.S. - Rachel is keeping Pen Pal Palooza open for the rest of the year. So if you're reading this and it's still 2020, then sign yourself up so you can start exchanging letters with new friends! Links above.)

Wednesday, September 2, 2020

ドラマ (Dorama) Time! 23 - pt. 2

Continuing from part 1, here are the last of the Japanese dramas that I've watched so far this year. Let's go!

グランメゾン東京  (Grand Maison Tokyo) - TBS/2019

  • Previously, Obana (Kimura Takuya, 'I'm Home') was the head chef in an elite French restaurant in Paris. An allergic reaction at a diplomatic dinner not only shut down the restaurant and upended the careers of all the Japanese chefs working under him, but it also got Obana blacklisted in the culinary industry in both France and Japan.
  • While still in Paris, Obana meets Rinko, a chef who's exceptionally skilled at identifying ingredients but lacks the natural talent or star quality that Obana has. They form a partnership and plan to open a high-end French restaurant in Tokyo, using Japanese ingredients to make French dishes. To redeem both of their careers, their goal is for this new restaurant (Grand Maison Tokyo) to earn three Michelin stars within its first year of operation.
  • They recruit a couple of Obana's former colleagues, including a host/sommelier named Kyouno, a recipe genius and single dad named Aizawa, and an exceptionally skilled young chef named Yuta
  • With Obana's scandalous reputation, competition from a restaurant led by one of Obana's former colleagues-turned-rivals, and two food writers (including Nakamura Anne, 'Love Rerun') who seek revenge against whoever it was that caused the allergic incident back in Paris, numerous obstacles stand in the way of Grand Maison Tokyo's success. Can the GMT team make it? Will this be Obana's second chance?

The struggle to get a high-end restaurant (that's associated with a blacklisted chef) off the ground in such a competitive food scene as Tokyo is enough conflict to carry the show, and it does so sufficiently. But I guess to make things even more interesting, smaller conflicts are thrown into the mix, but a few of them read as random and unnecessary. Aizawa's supposedly-French baby mama (who appears to be a Japanese actress with slightly angular facial features and a rusty red wig?) pops up from Paris demanding custody of their daughter Amelie because... Aizawa's too good at being a chef? And that whole episode was just a convoluted strategy to remove Amelie from the story because... she was in the way of the main story and the show didn't know what else to do with her character? And then Kyouno starts beefing with Obana AGAIN after seemingly reconciling their long-standing Paris beef, because he's suddenly in love with head chef Rinko and doesn't like that Obana spends so much time with her and lives in her garage? And who the heck were those scheming food writers really working for, anyway? Basically, a handful of the things this show tried to do didn't pay off or didn't make sense.

All in all, even with the interpersonal disputes and less-than-promising odds that threaten the restaurant's survival and eventual success, 'Grand Maison Tokyo' is a pretty low-stakes show. From Obana's reputation almost getting GMT shut down, to multiple traitors' attempts at sabotaging GMT from the inside, to Obana's mentor not liking GMT's food, to the slim chance of placing high in the world restaurant rankings, to the even slimmer chance of earning three Michelin stars, and so on. Everything gets solved either by someone's change of heart, an outside person's benevolence, the skill and steadfastness of GMT's staff, or by simply re-vamping menu items or creating new menus altogether. To be clear, I don't think the low stakes are to this show's detriment; I was just surprised to notice the change, seeing as how the first half of the show more strongly emphasizes the tension and near impossibility of what Obana and Rinko are trying to achieve. For some reason the foot is taken off the gas pedal in the second half. Still, if you're interested in the craft of cooking and want to see a team of underdogs win after a seemingly insurmountable failure from their past, 'Grand Maison Tokyo' is worth a try.

凪のお暇 (Nagi no Oitoma/Nagi's Long Vacation) - TBS/2019

  • At the age of 28, Nagi is getting by in life, but she's not particularly happy. She doesn't have any friends, her female co-workers are clique-y, and her relationship with her awful boyfriend/co-worker Shinji (Takahashi Issey) is kept a secret.
  • Nagi avoids expressing herself too clearly or having too strong of opinions, opting instead to follow along with what she thinks other people want her to do in any given situation. This strategy of following along also applies to her naturally curly hair, which she keeps a secret from everyone (including Shinji, she thinks) by straightening it all the time. 
  • One day, Nagi overhears Shinji telling people in their office that he's not interested in her at all. This triggers a panic attack which results in Nagi quitting her job, moving out of her apartment, ditching most of her possesions, and hiding out in a less urban area on the outskirts of Tokyo (Tachikawa) so she can hopefully change into someone different. Someone with more intentionality and control of her life. She soon finds community among her neighbors, makes a new friend with a woman she meets at the unemployment office (Ichikawa Mikako, 'Unnatural'), and becomes attracted to the DJ/playboy who lives next door.
  • But Shinji can't leave well enough alone. And as he seeks Nagi out in Tachikawa and tries to prey on her weaknesses again, Nagi must decide who she is, what she wants, and how she wants to be treated by others.

This show has a special place in my heart because, much like the titular character in 'Boukyaku no Sachiko', I see so much of myself in Nagi. (And wouldn't you know, in the process of writing this review I found out that Oshima Satomi was a writer for both shows! I also learned that this show is based on a manga, which surprisingly I hadn't picked up on! Usually I do.) Like Nagi, I also left a job in my twenties and entered a period of solitude to build myself back up again. I also have a physical aspect of myself that I've always been ashamed of and try to hide from people whenever possible. I also deal with anxiety. The show never explicitly calls it that, instead using the phrase 空気を読みすぎる (kuuki wo yomisugiru or "reading the room too much") to describe trying too hard to control situations and anticipate how people will react to the things you do and say. But those scenes of people drowning internally while trying to navigate difficult, scary, or out-of-control situations? That's anxiety, boo! Also, the show is set largely in a more rural area during the summertime, which immediately stoked memories of my own summer living in Japan. So yes, 'Nagi no Oitoma' already appealed to me greatly from the get-go.

It's also not lost on me that Takahashi Issey stars as the male lead, meaning that with this show and 'Tokyo Dokushin Danshi', I've been watching two Takashi Issey shows at the same time. That wasn't on purpose—I respect him as an actor but he's not someone whose work I seek out on a regular basis. He just so happened to star in two of the dramas that I wanted to watch most this time around. He plays a typical salaryman in both (finance/sales guy), and while his character in 'Tokyo Dokuhin Danshi' is much more likeable, Shinji has a lot more depth. Sure Shinji is the quintessential a-hole ex-boyfriend, but what we learn is that he degrades Nagi for the same family-induced anxiety, insecurity, and distress that he tries so hard to hide within himself. Does acknowledging this truth redeem him or excuse his behavior? Not in my book! But it's an element of his character that I wasn't expecting.

I know this is the bare minimum, but I also appreciate that Nagi's curly hair was done in a way that looks realistic, instead of being used as an excuse to make the actress Kuroki Haru's hair look "wild" or put an afro on her head just for laughs. I don't know what exactly went into styling Kuroki Haru's hair—whether it was a curly perm or repeated use of flexi rods and curling irons—but the stylist did a commendable job. I finished 'Nagi no Oitoma' last because I enjoyed it the most (in other words, this is my favorite out of all the J-dramas I've watched so far in 2020), I wanted it to last as long as possible. Now I see that watching the final episode in late August was actually perfect timing. Everyone in that episode is moving on, either literally or figuratively. Summer is coming to an end, Nagi is a changed person, and her extended break from life is coming to an end as well.

Thanks for reading both parts of this J-drama review! I've got my next selections locked in, but can I finish them and write about them before 2020 is over? You'll just have to wait and see!

ドラマ (Dorama) Time! 23 - pt. 1

I'm back again with another J-drama review! And it didn't take me over a year to finish my selections this time⁠—it only took me five months, which is progress, believe it or not! Since my last J-drama review I've watched four dramas from 2019 and one from 2020, mostly with English subs and on DramaCool. Part 1 of this review focuses on the three shortest shows, including a surprise standout from Netflix. Each of the following has fewer than the average 10-12 episodes, and/or has episodes that run shorter than the average 45-60 minutes.

東京二十三区女 (Tokyo Nijuusan-ku Onna/Tokyo 23-ku Onna/Women of Tokyo's 23 Wards) - WOWOW/2019

  • A magazine writer and a professor work together to explore six wards of Tokyo: Shibuya, Koto, Ikebukuro, Odaiba, Itabashi, and Shinagawa.
  • As they explore, they investigate the urban planning histories and accompanying ghost stories (or myths, legends, folklore, what have you) of each ward.
  • With one exception, each of the six episodes features the ghost of a woman who was wronged or broken down in life and is now seeking something from the living—be it closure or connection or even vengeance.
I believe it was the woman-centered premise and the horror story angle that made me watch this show. Watching each episode is like reading a scary short story that has a twist at the end, though the twists were never as frightening as I hoped. Occasionally predictable, creepy or unsettling at most, but not frightening. It would be easy to simply declare that this show is boring. However, I think 'Tokyo 23-ku Onna' does put a worthwhile spin on the theme of past actions having consequences in the present: even a megacity can be cursed. The show manages to cultivate a consistent mixture of dread and curiosity while playing with viewers' expectations of how each story will end, which still makes for an interesting collection of tales.

If you're interested in anthology series, ghost stories, folk tales, and/or the history of Tokyo, then I'd say 'Tokyo 23-ku Onna' is worth it for curiosity's sake. But it's certainly not a show that I have the need or desire to watch again.

東京独身男子 (Tokyo Dokushin Danshi/Tokyo Bachelors) - TV Asahi/2019
  • Taro (Takashi Issey, 'Quartet') is an analyst at a large bank. He's been single for a while, and when his ex-girlfriend Mai returns to Tokyo after living abroad, he realizes that he wants to rekindle the relationship. His two best friends Iwakura and Miyoshi witness his attempts.
  • Iwakura, the oldest of the bunch, is a successful lawyer. He enjoys being single but considers pursuing a relationship with Yuki, a junior lawyer at his firm who expresses interest in him.
  • Miyoshi (Saito Takumi, 'Hirugao'), the youngest of the bunch, is a divorced dentist and a proud bachelor. He's sworn off marriage and serious relationships, but he changes his mind after meeting Yuki at a bar. (Iwakura and Miyoshi compete with each other for Yuki's affection.) Miyoshi also has a younger sister named Kazuna (Naka Riisa, 'Fruits Takuhaibin') who's in love with Taro. But again, Taro is still stuck on his ex-girlfriend Mai.
  • Should these men remain bachelors for the long haul? Try to get married? Change careers? These are the big questions that this trio of best friends face together.
Something about the tone and story of this drama shifted, and I'm not sure if it was intentional or if something happened during the production process along the way. From the first episode it seems like the show will mainly focus on Taro's quest to either move on from his ex-girlfriend or somehow get her to choose him again, with his friends offering moral support and comedic relief. But then the show spends significant time fleshing out each of the men's love lives and work/life issues, not just Taro's. The storyline with Taro's ex ends halfway through the show, and the show becomes more about these three best friends navigating the turning points in their lives as 30-somethings and 40-somethings. In short, the romance and comedy aspects fade slightly to make way for something more serious and contemplative. Which I didn't dislike, but again, it's a noticeable shift. As the trio remark to each other, this time in their lives feels like their very last chance to make huge changes before things are presumably set in stone forever on the road to future retirement. (Of course, nothing is ever completely set in stone, but you get what I'm saying).

What makes this show really stand out is the genuine and affectionate friendship between Taro, Iwakura, and Miyoshi. They talk about everything, they help each other with their problems, they jokingly make fun of each other, they even get health-checkups together! If you want to watch something sleek and modern about professional people in Tokyo, centering male friendship in a way that's not overwhelmingly "bro"-like, then this show is for you.

FOLLOWERS - Netflix/2020
  • Natsume has been struggling to establish a career in entertainment. She wants be a "serious" actress, but has a hard time getting roles due to her age (early/mid twenties), refusal to act cutesy, and her agency which doesn't acknowledge or promote her talent.
  • Rimi Nara (Nakatani Miki, 'Ghostwriter'), is a famous and well-respected photographer with a decades-long career. Natsume works as a stand-in for one of Rimi's photo shoots, and Rimi recognizes in Natsume the same drive and internal fire that Rimi had when she was just getting started in the industry. Rimi snaps a photo of Natusme and posts it on Instagram, curious to see what Natsume will do with the swell of attention (or "followers", get it?) this will bring.
  • At the same time that Natsume tastes popularity for the first time and starts booking modeling gigs, she begins dating a former child star turned YouTuber/film-maker named Hiraku, who cautions her against succumbing to the lure of fame in exchange for her integrity as an actress.
  • Meanwhile, Rimi balances her illustrious career with her numerous attempts to have a baby on her own (she wants to be a mom, not necessarily to be in a relationship with a man).
I watched this show completely on a whim; it wasn't originally part of this roster of J-dramas that I was in the process of finishing. One of my favorite podcasts called Jinjja Cha said they would review it a few months ago, so I added 'Followers' to my running list of things to watch, but then forgot all about it. And then in July, I randomly remembered the show and decided to give it a try. I became so engrossed in it that I finished the show in 24 hours (split over two days, but you get what I mean). Part of what got me hooked is that I recognized similarities to director Mika Ninagawa's previous work (2012 film 'Helter Skelter') before even realizing that she's the director of 'Followers'. It's all in the set design, costumes, and lighting. Bright yet shadowy, ornate edging on gaudy/chaotic, sexy yet foreboding, lots of reds and purples and yellows and lighting in unusual colors. However, 'Followers' goes for a much more hopeful and millennial twenty-something feel than 'Helter Skelter', so there are pops of pastel as well. Sawajiri Erika (who played main character Ririko in 'Helter Skelter') even makes a cameo in the first episode, and one of the main characters of 'Followers' named Sayo has a career breakdown (accompanied by an emotional breakdown) that directly echoes that of Ririko in the 2012 film. So as woman-centered stories about people trying to make it or maintain longevity in the Japanese entertainment/fashion industry, the connections between 'Followers' and 'Helter Skelter' are incredibly clear! My spidey senses, so to speak, were tingling and I kept thinking, All of this feels very familiar, hmm... until I looked at the credits at the end of the first episode, googled Mika Ninagawa, and then it all made sense. That was a very pleasant surprise and made me appreciate the show all the more. 
 
Rimi seems so intrigued by Natsume and also, I assume, helps Natsume get taken under the wing of Rimi's similarly well-established friends. (Natsume gets a makeover, access to makeup and fashion events, and a new agent seemingly overnight.) Because of this, I thought that Rimi would take Natsume under her wing as well, and 'Followers' would focus on their mentor-mentee relationship. Not so. Although Rimi and Natsume are aware of each other, they only really interact at the very beginning and very end of the series, and the time in between focuses on their own respective career and relationship journeys.

Also, shoutout to Nakatani Miki and Itaya Yuka! I thought Nakatani Miki looked vaguely familiar, and then I looked up the cast and realized that she'd the played seasoned, somewhat rigid, manipulative literary queen taking advantage of fresh blood in 'Ghostwriter'. What a turnaround! She seems so much younger and more energetic as Rimi, and the contrast between these two characters only serves to underscore what a versatile actress she is. As for Itaya Yuka ('Cecile no Mokuromi'), she's an actress whom I'm always pleased to see. No matter what I've seen her in, I've never been disappointed with her performance. 

Got two more J-dramas to tell y'all about, so be sure to read part 2 of this review to find out which show is my favorite overall!

Monday, August 31, 2020

BOOKS! (Unashamed + Confessions)

It's the last day of August, and I'm just in time for my monthly review! Today's picks are a fat-positive memoir that I almost decided not to write about because it hit too close to home, and a Japanese thriller/mystery novel that I found at a Book Warehouse in Kentucky. Let's get to it!

Unashamed: Musings of a Fat, Black Muslim by Leah Vernon

I mentioned in my last review that I read certain books for very personal reasons and don't review them on the blog, and this memoir was going to be one of them. But then, I enjoyed it so much that I felt compelled to tell y'all about it! I can't remember how I heard about Leah Vernon; maybe it was from one of the body image/fat liberation books that I've read within the past year, or a fat-positive social media count I follow. Truly, I wish I remembered. In any case, once I looked up Leah Vernon, saw that she was from Detroit, and realized that she'd written a book about her life? As in, I'd get to read a book written by a Detroiter, learn about her experience with fatness and being a plus-sized hijabi model, and learn about Black Muslims in the area that I'm from? Oh, I was all in! 

Leah Vernon wears many hats, but she has always been a writer. Eventually, writing branched into fashion blogging. Fashion blogging branched into modeling. And all of these passions merged to a create a social media platform that has Leah writing, modeling, public speaking, and creating whatever content she wants. Unashamed recounts the parts of her life that led up to the vibrant, smiley, audacious representation of Leah that her followers connect with today. From growing up as a fat girl with her mom and four siblings in their Muslim community in Detroit, to her ill-fated marriage, to getting booked for modeling gigs that took her to London and Paris, it's all there.

I am so impressed by how vulnerable and candid Leah is with the stories she tells. Of course, one would automatically expect some degree of openness from a memoir, but Leah takes it to a level that I wasn't expecting. Even the way she writes about her mom's trauma and disastrous relationships with men stunned me. Like, Girl, does your mom know you're telling her business like this? You're telling your business and her business too? But whether writing about her mom or herself, Leah's revelations don't read as exploitative. Rather, they contextualize some of the hurt and mental illness that both women have in common, as well as the interpersonal patterns that Leah has tried to overcome. Her mom converted the family to Islam when Leah was a child, so even in the religious aspect Leah's mom's influence is undeniable. Speaking of Islam, Leah is also deeply contemplative about the ways her personal style, visibility, passion for expressing herself, and desire for fun and physical intimacy have clashed with what people tell her is expected of a so-called "good Muslim girl". To this day she remains true to her faith, but whereas she's decide to keep some aspects of the culture (like covering her head), others she refuses to entertain anymore (like not being sexual, or trying to hide her body shape in order to appear "modest").

Besides the honesty and humor that Leah displays, part of what endears me to this memoir is the multitude of similarities I see between Leah and myself. The at-best awkward and at-worst antagonistic relationship that her father had with her? Too many of their interactions took me right back to my younger years of visitation with my dad. Leah's admitted perfectionist and overachieving tendencies that she employed to make herself feel secure? I got those too! Like Leah, I too grew up as a fat girl in the early 2000s, hating and harming myself, with few relatable fat role models and a desperate desire to change myself. And of course, she and I both love to write! I am so glad that she chose to channel her writing prowess into creating this memoir, even if it's still relatively early in her career. I'm looking forward to the stories she'll have to tell in the future. If you are seeking fat-positive books by Black women, are from Detroit or appreciate Detroiters, are interested in plus-sized fashion and modeling, have ever had your heart broken, are interested in the perspectives of Muslim women, or simply enjoy reading memoirs because you're curious and nosy like me, then read this book!

Favorite quotes:

"All of my silent worries drifted away like smoke" (46).

"My eyes scanned over it, in search for the fuck you, you're very ugly, and never apply for anything remotely like this ever again in your life. Instead, they used phrases like 'our client loves you' and 'we're pleased' and 'are you available Tuesday?'" (195). 

"This ideology that you have to become this new person with these brand-new ideas and have a new, carved-out body to be who you were truly meant to be. To live your best damn life. To get that perfect dude. To land that perfect job. That drastically changing yourself is the key to life's locked successes. This very ideology is what continues to keep us mentally confined... I am the same person that I've always been. My weight may fluctuate and my face may change due to age, but I am not a new person. And no matter what we do externally, we will always remain the same at our core. I am not a new person, but I am an evolved person" (219-220).


Confessions by Kanae Minato
(Translated from Japanese by Stephen Snyder)

I can't believe I'm reviewing yet another thriller for the second month in a row (last month it was The Perfect Nanny by Leila Slimani), but here I am! Thrillers aren't usually my thing, but I was swayed by the fact that this is a Japanese novel. And then when I saw that it was about a teacher exacting revenge against her students ('3-nen A-gumi' vibes, anyone?), the darkness of that concept sealed the deal for me. For best results, the most "Ah-ha!" moments, and maximum "What the heck am I reading?" sensations, it's best to go into this book knowing as little as possible. Even so, I will give you the bare bones of what happens. 

Confessions opens with single mom and middle school science teacher Yuuko Moriguchi addressing her homeroom class on the last day of the school year before spring break. (Japanese school years end in March and new ones start in April.) She is leaving the teaching profession after the recent death of her four-year-old daughter Manami, who presumably drowned in the school's pool. However, Moriguchi reveals that her daughter was actually killed by two of the male students in this very homeroom class, initially referring to them as "A" and "B". A came up with the murderous plot and B was his accomplice, that's all I'll say. After identifying the two perpetrators without explicitly naming them (we do learn their names but for this review I'll still call them A and B), Moriguchi announces the revenge that she's already started enacting against the boys without them noticing, and then dismisses class. Her now-former students are in a tailspin regarding the information they've just received.

This 234-page novel only has six chapters, with each one offering a different character's account of what happened and why. Each chapter provides some explanations, while at the same time planting more confusion and distress. Chapter one ("The Saint") is Moriguchi's monologue to the class. Chapter two ("The Martyr") is a letter that a female student writes informing Moriguchi of the fallout at school over the months following Moriguchi's departure. Chapter three ("The Benevolent One") has B's older sister reading entries from their mother's diary. Chapter four ("The Seeker") contains B's version of events. Chapter five ("The Believer") contains A's version of events. And chapter six ("The Evangelist”) is another monologue from Moriguchi, this time lambasting A over the phone in a final display of the true extent of her revenge plan. 

That last page. That very last page! My goodness! It reminded me of Fuminori Nakamura's The Gun, where a consistent slow burn is followed by a violently explosive ending. (I'm using "explosive" as both a pun and a clue to how Confessions ends.) Except Confessions was anything but slow for me! Mysterious yet unabashed murder and revenge plots, the dark recesses of the human mind, and youth criminality in 2000s-era Japan? Are you kidding me? I was enthralled the entire time! This story was turned into a movie in 2010, which was absolutely fitting because it's so intensely dramatic. (I haven't seen that movie, but I have seen a 2017 J-drama called 'REVERSE', which is apparently based on a different book that Kanae Minato wrote.) Once we learn what Moriguchi has been up to since she left the school, the end of the novel has the gut-punching finality of a Greek tragedy. Because even though Moriguchi orchestrates the events that cause A to lose what he loves most, A's impulsivity and character flaws are what actually solidify his fate. If he hadn't been so arrogant and self-righteous, if he hadn't been so determined to cause mass murder in order to gain the attention he desperately seeks, if the very last decision he makes at the end of the novel had been the opposite one, then there might have been hope for him. But there's no redemption for A, and when he goes low, Moriguchi finds a way to go even lower in order to avenge her daughter. If you don't mind reading dark or disturbing subject matter and are in the mood to go on a bewildering ride, then read this book!

Favorite quotes: 

"I'm not really sure how you feel about this, but I've been thinking about what it takes to admit you can't do something when you really can't do it. I know you don't like kids to give up when they haven't tried—I know that's wrong—but I think you also have to be really brave to admit you can't do something when you really just can't" (86). 

"The world you live in is much bigger than that. If the place in which you find yourself is too painful, I say you should be free to seek another, less painful place of refuge. There is no shame in seeking a safe place. I want you to believe that somewhere in this wide world there is a place for you, a safe haven" (161).

"Are you a complete idiot? You use that word about everyone and everything in your love letter, but what do you think that makes you? What have you ever really created? What have you ever done for any of those people you looked down on? Any of your 'idiots'?" (225).

Friday, July 3, 2020

BOOKS! (Well-Read Black Girl + The Perfect Nanny)

Here I am! I had a hard time reading consistently in May, and I was on a self-help (or "personal growth" as B&N would call it) kick all that month, so what I did manage to read was too personal for me to write about here. Then in June, I was able to get back into my reading groove but not my writing groove. (Was also focused on putting together my podcast's 2nd anniversary episode, by the way.) I managed to finish the second of today's selections on June 30th, but it just didn't feel necessary to push myself to churn out my monthly review that same day. Figured it could wait. So yes, I missed May and June, but I am back now. Hopefully July will be a more inspired and creatively-productive month, and I'm giving myself an early start with today's picks: a collection of essays by Black women writers, and a novel about a Parisian nanny-turned-murderer.

Well-Read Black Girl: Finding Our Stories, Discovering Ourselves by Glory Edim

I don't remember how I initially heard about the online book club/reading community known as Well-Read Black Girl, but I've been following them on Instagram for years. (In fact, thanks to them I discovered Black Girl in Paris, which is now one of my favorite books.) I also don't remember when I bought this anthology, or even why, besides the fact that I was already a fan and was looking forward to learning what readerly joys and discoveries I had in common with the writers featured in it. In essays and edited interviews, 22 Black women writers lift up their favorite authors as well as the books that first made them feel seen in literature, inspired them to write what needed to be written, or made them realize that becoming a writer was even possible in the first place.

All of the people featured are Black women, including some names I knewJesmyn Ward, Tayari Jones, Gabourey Sidibe, Nicole Dennis-Benn, N.K. Jemisin, Carla Bruce-Eddings, Jacqueline Woodson—and other names that I learned for the first time through reading this book. And with very few exceptions, all of the works mentioned throughout were written by Black woman too. As such, Well-Read Black Girl not only offers a collection of relatable and affirming stories, but also demonstrates a literary legacy between Black women writers of the past—those who are considered "the greats"and the contemporary ones who are writing and reading today.

My personal favorite WRBG essay is "Amazing Grace" by Carla Bruce-Eddings, because I too grew up reading the Amazing Grace picture book series. (I've also fielded corny "Are you amazing?" and "Do people call you amazing?" jokes my whole life because Grace is my last name.) Additionally, Carla describes introversion and imposter syndrome so accurately that I suspect that she and I might be the same person. Another fave of mine is Rénee Watson's "Space to Move Around In", which honors Lucille Clifton's poetry and all the fat Black girls out there. And I was so charmed by Kaitlyn Greenidge's sense of specificity and humor in "Books for a Black Girl's Soul", where she recommends ten reads to help Black women find themselves.

I cracked this book open merely expecting to enjoy the stories it contains and learn about books and authors that I hadn't previously heard of; I wasn't seeking to be validated in any way. But I couldn't help but come away from Well-Read Black Girl feeling deeply inspired. It honestly reaffirmed for me that I am a writer too; my calling is true and sacred just like that of all the women named in this anthology. If you care about what Black women have to say, want to read more literature written by Black women, want to know people's bookworm/writer origin stories, or are looking for book recommendations (lots and lots of them, as in multiple lists of them), then read this book!

Favorite quotes:
"Her canon is a master class in the art of living. And it is only through tackling and striding naked and unafraid into the territory, the geography of life and its awful realness and concreteness, that we build an imagination that can find life on a page and withstand the assault of indifference or misinterpretation. Dream a World. Imagine a Life. Be Here Now. That is what Zora mirrored for me to see in myself" (Marita Golden, "Zora and Me", 56-57).

"Reading for me was a vehicle for self-exploration when real life wasn't safe" (Dhonielle Clayton, "The Need for Kisses", 89).

"I asked her how she prepares herself to go out into the world. She told me that it's not that she has to prepare herself for the world; it's that the world interrupts her" (Morgan Jerkins, "To Be a Citizen", 124).

The Perfect Nanny by Leila Slimani
(Translated from French by Sam Taylor)

I'm pretty sure I heard about this 2016 Prix Goncourt-winning novel thanks to a bookstagram account I follow called @blackgirlthatreads. The book's title and what I could surmise of the plot are usually not my cup of tea (thrillers and child-rearing, I'll pass). But once I found out that this novel not only examines the power dynamics between nannies and their employers, but it's also set in Paris, and is a translation of a French novel (originally Chanson douce, or Lullaby in the U.K.)? Oh, then I was all in! When I was a student in Paris I actually spotted nannies or "nounous" (mostly Black or Brown) caring for their employers' children (mostly white) on a regular basis, and this coupled with learning that Leila Slimani is a French person of Moroccan origin made me incredibly interested to see what she had to say about this topic. I was lucky enough to find a copy of The Perfect Nanny while randomly browsing at a book warehouse in Kentucky last holiday season (the same place where I found Rue McClanahan's memoir), and six months later I've finally read it.

The titular nanny is a 40-something woman named Louise who works for the Massé family: a lawyer named Myriam, a music producer named Paul, a nearly-uncontrollable young child named Mila, and a baby named Adam. The couple seek a nanny at Myriam's insistence after she foregoes the stay-at-home mom life to restart her law career, and Louise quickly becomes an integral part of the Massés life. Initially, Louise brings the peace, order, and joy that seemed to be missing in this household. She's excellent at her job and has an elegant air about her, but she's also myserious: she keeps most of her private life and thoughts to herself, while Paul and Myriam almost never inquire about the person she is outside of being their nanny (and their unpaid cleaning lady, if we're being honest). Small incidents, misunderstandings, and miscommunication build up overtime to cause the adults' working relationship to devolve into distrust and passive aggression. Within less than a year and a half of being hired, Louise kills Mila and Adam. (This is not a spoiler; the book opens with the discovery of the childrens' bodies and Louise's suicide attempt before going back to before Louise was hired.) What's Louise's story, why does her rapport with Myriam and Paul sour, and why does she murder the children whom she was devoted to caring for?

Prior to the tragic event, Louise briefly fantasizes about leaving the Massés. But once she senses that they will likely fire her, she desperately wants to stay. It was never clear to me what is so special about the Massés that Louise becomes so obsessively attached to staying with them. Perhaps it isn't so much this particular family but rather the timing. The idea of growing old and alone is weighing on Louise more than ever after a lifetime of loss, the mountain of debt she inherited from a loved one has caught up to her. And during this period where she's desperate to feel needed but also wants to claim something of her own, the Massés just so happen to be the family she's involved with. Losing her place within their household would mean losing both her livelihood and the caregiver role that she's based her existence on. So even though the Massés are just another family, for Louise losing them would be the start of her losing everything.

I must admit that I assumed Louise was Brown and/or an immigrant until very late in the novel. There is mention of her being blonde and pale, and she's even referred to as "white" a couple times, but I guess I just didn't want to believe it. As I mentioned, I'm used to thinking of nannies (especially in Paris) as being mostly Black or Brown women serving white families, because my mind can never divorce that awful colonial precedent from it. And the way Louise is disrespected and taken advantage of by others is so consistent with how Black, Brown, and foreign "help" are treated by white and/or wealthy people that I must have conflated Louise's profession and mistreatment with what her race might be, not fathoming that Louise would be white. Race is definitely brought up, though, as non-white nannies of varying backgrounds are mentioned along with the discrimination that's levied against them before they even get hired (if they can get hired). It's also implied that Myriam has some unaddressed self-hatred as a North African woman who doesn't speak Arabic with her children, is wary of "immigrant solidarity", and refuses to hire a North African nanny for fear that they will expect favors from her.

The Perfect Nanny is one of those books that leaves some questions unanswered on purpose, including the details of exactly why and how Louise kills Mila and Adam. At the same time, the novel doesn't let us off with the simple explanation that she "just snapped" or was simply crazy or evil. We are given the aftermath first, then shown the signs, and then left to contend with the intentional gaps in between. If you are interested in French feminist literature, intersections of race/gender/class within domestic roles, discussions of motherhood that aren't flowery and rose-colored, or murder investigations, then read this book!

Favorite quotes:
"We will, all of us, only be happy, she thinks, when we don't need one another anymore. When we can live a life of our own, a life that belongs to us, that has nothing to do with anyone else. When we are free" (38).

"She walked in the street as if it were a cinema set and she were not there, an invisible spectator to the movements of mankind... Solitude was like a drug that she wasn't sure she wanted to do without. Louise wandered through the streets in a daze, eyes so wide open that they hurt. In her solitude, she started to see other people. To really see them. The existence of others became palpable, vibrant, more real than ever" (98).

"She has only one desire: to create a world with them, to find her place and live there, to dig herself a niche, a burrow, a warm hiding place. Sometimes she feels ready to claim her portion of earth and then the urge wanes, she is overcome by sorrow, and she feels ashamed even to have believed in something" (189).