Sunday, February 28, 2021

BOOKS! (Luster + Memorial)

Black History Month is coming to a close, and it seemed to pass more quickly and with less exuberance than in recent years, but hey. We're here. And I'm ending this month by reviewing two debut novels, about twenty-somethings in personal and relationship crises, that were written by Black authors! Both of these novels were released during the second half of 2020, and they were both given to me by my mom as birthday/Christmas presents. I'd included them on my wish list because authors and bookstagrammers that I follow were raving about them throughout the year.

Luster by Raven Leilani

Edie is functional but struggling, and has been that way for a long time. She was raised by traumatized parents—her mom dealt with addiction for years, her dad was a war veteran with PTSD—both of whom attempted to find stability in a strict Caribbean religious community. And Edie has experienced trauma of her own: from growing up out of place in a mostly-white area in the 1990s/early 2000s, to body image issues exacerbated by comments from churchwomen, to discovering her mom's dead body and being neglected by her dad afterward. Now as an adult in New York City with no living parents, she's barely making ends meet with the lackluster position she has at a publishing house, she's living in a run-down building that she'll soon be priced out of despite how unlivable it is, she has no friends (except maybe her roommate?), she's tried staving off loneliness/boredom/horniness through not-so-secret liaisons with numerous co-workers and various men who don't care about her, and the only dream she can summon the will to entertain (being a professional working artist) seems relegated to the realm of fantasy. She can't get the art director at the publishing house to take her work seriously enough to let her join his department, and her commitment to practicing her craft has waned. Eventually Edie finds herself fired for her indiscretions at work, and without a home when her roommate moves out and she can't pay the full rent by herself. "Depressed" and "going through it" are understatements for all that Edie's dealing with.
 
That's where Eric Walker comes in, 23 years her senior. Eric is the white, relatively wealthy archivist with an open marriage whom Edie meets through a dating app while she's still working at the publishing house. They establish a rapport that Edie views as an emotional investment, and as much as she hates feeling ignored, her limited access to Eric's time and affection make her want him all the more. She and Eric have a (consensual?) sexually violent moment after she lets herself into Eric's house in New Jersey and unwittingly crashes his anniversary party, and Edie seems aroused by the pain/punishment, but it's unclear whether this is genuinely her kink or if she might also be using it as a form of self-harm. Following this incident, it's actually Eric's medical examiner wife Rebecca who moves Edie into their family home (without Eric's knowledge at first) when Edie has nowhere to go and is spread too thin by odd jobs. Edie stays with the Walkers for two months, and a tacit agreement develops during that time: Edie must look after their almost-13-year-old adopted Black daughter named Akila and basically teach her how to be Black, in exchange for staying in their guest room and earning some cash here and there. 
 
Now. I'd assumed that having sex with Eric was also on the table, because I don't know how one would expect the husband and the mistress not to copulate while allowing them to live under the same roof. But when Eric gets over being upset that Edie's in his house and the pair eventually re-initiate sexual relations, they hide it from Rebecca, and when Rebecca eventually finds them out, she's disappointed in them. (Especially in Edie, whom I guess Rebecca has come to think of as a friend in some way.) Which I truly did not understand. But I digress. Edie and Akila gradually bond over video games, and Edie's guidance proves to be desperately needed to fill the gaps in the kid's Black girlhood: Akila's parents haven't bothered to learn to do her hair, or surround her with other Black people, or advise her on how to deal with police and why such precautions are necessary. And everyone in the house just goes along with this living arrangement without directly addressing it; even Akila somehow knows that Edie is "the girlfriend"! Presumably, this absurd reluctance to discuss anything real is a function of the Walkers' whiteness that Raven Leilani wants to demonstrate. Most of the important things are implied or unacknowledged, confrontation is sparser than it should be, and Edie is largely left to deduce the dynamics of the household and what is expected of her.
 
In all honesty, I had a hard time dismissing the impulse to judge Edie for allowing herself to be, effectively, these white people's servant. I struggled to not see her that way. Cleaning their home, instructing their adopted daughter in the ways of Blackness in addition to driving her to taekwondo practice, sexually satisfying the (white) man of the house... I wanted more for Edie than that. And I had to question myself: Am I offended or even angry that Edie is so stuck on this average white man, whose only distinguishing features are his nerdiness and above-average resources, and who isn't as emotionally invested in her as she is in him? If so, why am I offended or angry? And is she not also satisfying herself in some ways? Furthermore, she's got no one, she's been suffering emotionally and financially for years, and she has a history of making unwise/bizarre decisions and forming unhealthy attachments with people (let her tell it, she never "means" for things to happen the way they do, they just happen). So on exactly what grounds am I expecting her to do anything different from what she's doing right now?

I was so focused on the more scandalous elements of the book (admittedly that's what drew me to it in the first place), until I realized that what's even more meaningful here is Edie's path back to her artistry. After she starts seeing Eric, she digs out her art supplies for the first time in two years and tries to paint a portrait of him. While living with the Walkers, she passes the time by taking pictures of various items around the house and then holing herself in her room to commit those same images to paint. At some point Rebecca discovers Edie's paintings and starts taking Edie to work with her so Edie can paint cadavers (improving her mastery of anatomy) while Rebecca performs autopsies. The book even ends with Edie doing what? Painting. That's what this story is inching us toward, not whatever dramatic fallout I was expecting for the messy and awkward open marriage/cohabitation scenario that Edie's entered. Because that scenario ends pretty much as one would expect it to. After Edie has encountered more loss along with more inspiration, the novel closes with her living on her own again and creating a new painting before unpacking her new place. She's prepared to start anew and finally embrace herself as an artist, even. Because with or without the validation she craves from others, painting is something she just can't not do.

If you are an artist and feel like you've lapsed or that your work isn't "good", are a fan of disco music, like peeking into messy relationships, have ever struggled to make ends meet in a big city, care about the trauma that Black women and girls face, or are intrigued by somewhat peculiar sex scenes, then read this book! 

Favorite quotes:

"Eric's enthusiasm is infectious. After the first two rides, I am enjoying myself, and not just because dying means I won't have to pay my student loans" (9-10).

"During this time, I couldn't tell if I liked being alone, or if I only endured it because I knew I had no choice... This was the contradiction that would define me for years, my attempt to secure undiluted solitude and my swift betrayal of this effort once in the spotlight of an interested man. I was pretending not to worry about the consequences of my isolation. But whenever I talked to anyone, I found myself overcompensating for the atrophy of my social muscles (44-45).

"I was sixteen. I could not have been a mother. The women in my family maybe should not have been mothers. This is not so much a judgment as a fact. They were dying inside their own bodies, and now all these dead components are my inheritance" (195).

"but somehow, after being a woman for twenty-three years... I too am still alive, and actually this is the more remarkable feat" (208).


Memorial  by Bryan Washington 

By the time Mike leaves Houston for Osaka to be with his dying father who abandoned him 15 years prior, giving his boyfriend Benson only a day's notice beforehand, these two lovers' relationship is already on the rocks. After four years together, Mike and Benson still love each other but love isn't enough to prevent them from fighting (with their words and their hands), or to mitigate the problems that they keep trying to solve through sex, silence, and willful forgetting. Add on the fact that Mike leaves with the full knowledge that his mother Mitsuko is flying in from Tokyo to visit him, and he doesn't tell her his plans until she arrives in Houston, and you've got a trio of people with a lion's share of unresolved issues between them. A Black American man is forced to be the unprepared host to a Japanese mom who's none too pleased to be in a stranger's care, while the Japanese American man who connects them has jetted off to the other side of the world. 

This novel is divided into three sections. First up is Benson's perspective on life in Houston, his job at a daycare, his difficult family history, and the twists and turns of his sexual history as a young gay man (including but not exclusive to Mike). The second part covers Mike's time in Osaka as he both cares for and argues incessantly with his disagreeable father Eiju, uncovers family secrets, and puts his chef skills to use by helping to run Eiju's small bar (the gruff warmth of that place gave me some very pleasant 'Shinya Shokudo' vibes). The third and final part is from Benson's perspective again, but has the couple reunited in Houston, attempting to figure out the future of their relationship and tying up loose ends with Mitsuko before she returns to Japan. After having read both Memorial and Tahar Ben Jelloun's The Last Friend—another novel that examines a relationship from the alternating perspectives of the two people in it—I'm very curious about the thought process behind how an author of such a novel chooses which perspective is presented first. I'd assume that Bryan Washington knew that having Benson go first would automatically afford him the benefit of the doubt regarding what he says about Mike and himself, especially since he's stating his case first, his voice familiarizes readers with what's going on, and he sets the tone for the rest of the novel. I think the book is arranged exactly as it needs to be, but I do wonder how the story would change if the order were switched.

It goes without saying that Benson and Mike's relationship is in trouble, and both men have their faults. I was so turned off by how inconsiderate Mike was to leave Benson and Mitsuko like that at the beginning of the novel, and then only communicate with them sparingly while he's away. Even toward the end when he and Benson discuss their options, he's one-track minded about moving to Osaka and doesn't believe Benson stands to lose as much as he does by leaving Houston for good. But at the same time, by going to Osaka when he does, Mike is able to accompany his dad during Eiju's final months in addition to learning the business sufficiently enough that Eiju can die reassured that someone he trusts can take over the bar when he's gone. If Mike hadn't been impulsive (one might even say selfish) enough to do that, even with all the distress and confusion it causes his boyfriend and his mom, he would've missed out on all those extra moments with Eiju and Eiju would've died alone. So to a certain extent, I get it. As for Benson, he definitely has anger issues and takes them out on Mike during their many arguments. But if I were a gay Black man in Texas, who was saddled with the responsibility of looking after my abusive alcoholic father while my mom and sister got to move on with their lives, and then my parents rejected me when I need them the most, and my first love was turning sour, and then my boyfriend left me alone with his mom for an undetermined amount of time while he flew across the world... I would be angry too. My point is that as imperfect as both Benson and Mike are, they have their reasons.

On a lighter note, Washington's sense of humor comes through so clearly, and this novel has so many delightful quirks! Like how Washington's intentional choice to truncate "white boy", "white chick", and "white lady" into "whiteboy", "whitechick", "whitelady" and so on emphasizes the particular type yet unremarkable quality of the white people he's referring to. Or how the often deadpan ("acerbic" as the book jacket describes her), suffer-no-fools Mitsuko cries her eyes out watching the rom-com Maid In Manhattan of all things. Or how Ahmad, the sole Black kid at the daycare who also seems to only listen to Benson, is an adorable little visionary who bucks rules and doesn't mince words. Or how the epigraph of this novel includes a quote from a Japanese reality show called 'Terrace House', said by a bassist named Masao Wada who's also in an incredibly famous band called Gesu no Kiwami Otome. (My point of connection to Masao Wada was the latter, but upon googling the quote I found an article of Washington's that makes very clear how much of a 'Terrace House' fan he is.) Relatedly, Washington writes about Japan and Japanese things like someone who's been there before and was paying thoughtful attention while he was there, which I appreciate. Also, fat people generally don't get to be fully-realized and complex romantic leads in enough forms of media, so I appreciate that Mike is very clearly noted as being fat or chubby. I wish he didn't have to feel as self-conscious about it as he is, but that's an understandable hang-up for a person to have in a fatphobic world. Last but not least, it's also worth mentioning that just Bernardine Evaristo's like Girl, Woman, Other, all the dialogue is written without quotation marks; in fact, there are none to be found in the entire novel. I know this is a literary choice, but I don't know the "why" behind it. Perhaps it's a trend?

As I progressed through this book, I tried to figure out why it's titled Memorial. I was thinking maybe the entire story serves as a "memorial" to Benson and Mike's relationship, bracing readers for their eventual and inevitable breakup, but the book doesn't exactly end that way. So I'm not sure about that theory. There's also a street in Houston called Memorial that's mentioned in connection to the releasing of Eiju's ashes, so maybe that could be it? I'm aware that I could just look it up and see what Bryan Washington has actually said about the title, but I suppose I want to sit with my guesses for a little while longer. As for whether this book merits the hype it's been receiving, I'll say this: I have no experience with dating or romantic relationships. None. Literally zero. And even I was feeling emotionally raw by the time I finished reading Memorial. That's how heartfelt and affecting it is. I did my best to speed through it for the sake of writing a review by the end of this month, but it's definitely a read that people should let linger. Take your time with it. If you have any interest in Houston and/or Osaka, are amused by odd couple situations, have dysfunctional relationships with your parents, love food/cooking descriptions (especially of Japanese food), want to read a gay love story featuring Black and Asian characters, or have ever been unable (unwilling) to decide whether a relationship is worth saving or has run its course, then read this book!
   
 Favorite quotes:
"A story is an heirloom. It's a personal thing... You don't ask for heirlooms. They're just given to you" (93).
 
 "I didn't tell him not to give up so easily, because he'd already made his decision.
I didn't tell him that we didn't know he was going to die, because everyone dies.
I didn't ask him why he'd already given up, because I didn't need to know.
I didn't tell him that it was too little too late, that forgiveness isn't something you just hand out whenever you feel like it.
I said, Okay" (157).

"No one gets to choose what steadies them" (172).

"It's not a waste, is what I'm saying. There are no wastes. Either nothing is a waste, or everything is a waste. But you two could do worse than each other, than being in each other's lives. Do you understand?" (300).

Sunday, January 31, 2021

BOOKS! (The Last Friend + Girl, Woman, Other)

I'm finally back writing on this blog for the first time this year! The way I see it, the entire month of January is fair game for saying "Happy New Year" to people, and I'm taking advantage of this final day of January to say Happy New Year to y'all! For my first book review of the year, I've got the last book I finished in 2020 (a French novel about male friendship that I found at a book warehouse) and the first book I finished in 2021 (A Booker Prize-winning story collection about Black British women's experiences, which I chanced upon at Target).

The Last Friend  by Tahar Ben Jelloun
(Translated from French by Kevin Michel Capé and Hazel Rowley)
 
If you've been keeping track, you might know that throughout 2020 I was steadily reading my way through a handful of discounted books I bought in Kentucky during the 2019 holiday season (see My First Five Husbands, The Perfect Nanny, Confessions, Moving to Higher Ground, and The Hole). And fittingly, The Last Friend is the last of those selections. I finished it in December 2020, which means I was able to read all six books within a year of buying them. And that's progress for me! Some books I fly through in hours or days, and others take me months or even years to finish because I read them off and on while flitting around to other books at the same time. So finishing The Last Friend (
French title: Le dernier ami) feels like a mini milestone, an end of an era that was consequential to me and me only. It also feels like a full-circle moment, because Moroccan-French writer Tahar Ben Jelloun was the first author whose work I read in a college-level French class. Back when my dad and stepmom were still together and I was still in high school, I spent spring break 2010 with them in Arizona. My stepmom knew I wanted to study French in college, so she arranged for me to sit in on a French literature class at Arizona State. And in that class, we read passages from Ben Jelloun's The Sand Child (L'enfant de sable). Ten years later, I've been able to read another work of his, but in its entirety this time. And in English, haha.

Ali and Mamed are teenagers when they meet at school in late-1950s Tangier, during the Algerian War of Independence from France (which Morocco was also involved in). Ali is the new kid from Fez, Mamed defends him from bullies, and the two quickly become best friends. Over the next 30 years, from secret trysts with girlfriends and sex workers, to studying film in Canada (Ali) and medicine in France (Mamed), to returning to Morocco and reuniting in prison after being wrongfully arrested by the king's secret police, to growing apart when their wives question their friendship and Mamed relocates to Sweden for work, the two men remain extremely close. Arguments arise due to their penchant for intellectual debates, and Mamed can be particularly disagreeable sometimes, but they are able to weather each storm. Until one day when Mamed and his family are back visiting Tangier, and he suddenly picks a fight with Ali, claiming that Ali cheated him financially and has taken advantage of him for the entire time they've known each other. He then declares that their friendship is over. Blindsided and confused, Ali writes Mamed a letter to figure out where Mamed's claims are coming from and hopefully reconcile, but Mamed's response is basically (and I paraphrase): Pay up, and piss off! And just like that, Ali never sees or hears from Mamed again. What Ali doesn't know is that Mamed has a secret that's making him behave this way, and with the help of one of their mutual friends, he makes sure that Ali never finds out.

Half of this novel is written from Ali's perspective and the other half is written from Mamed's. I was inclined to believe Ali's side of the story more because his version of events is presented first, and because he seems to be the more considerate and level-headed of the two friends. As is to be expected when dealing with people's subjective memories, Ali and Mamed's recollections both intersect and diverge. Some details differ, accounts of who did or said what are switched, Mamed mentions some things or people that Ali has left out, and vice versa. (Although now I think that that's quite clever on Ben Jelloun's part. Why rehash all the same scenes when you could just modify a few details and then insert new ones to add context and perspective?) They even put differing emphasis on certain events; for instance, Mamed spends notably more time discussing their imprisonment than Ali does. Such discrepancies are designed to raise the question of whether either of these two men are reliable narrators. Who is telling the truth, or at least the most complete version of the story? Furthermore, even though the book is about their friendship and allows both men to say their peace, the novel still feels like it's mostly about Mamed. Ali spends more time empathizing him, explaining his personality/behavior, and recounting events in Mamed's life than Mamed does for Ali. And Mamed's the one who breaks off their friendship, which makes everyone close to them (as well as the reader) focus even more on what's going on with him and what could've possessed him to act so erratically. I won't spoil the exact reason for why Mamed breaks up with his best friend, but if you've watched Korean dramas and are familiar with the "noble idiot" trope, well then... there you have it.

There's a huge theme of jealousy here; you can't miss it since it's mentioned frequently in Mamed's half of the book, and he even admits to being an insecure person. But believe it or not, his motivation for ending the friendship is actually quite tender, thoughtful, and could even be seen as self-sacrificial (or self-indulgent, depending on if you as a reader have come to like Mamed or not). There's this paradox of destroying a friendship in an attempt to protect it, to preserve it the way it was. And to preserve Mamed's pride, sure. But who truly wants to make someone they love
their oldest and dearest companionwitness them suffer? Mamed believes that that would be too much, and decides for himself and Ali that throwing away 30 years of life together is the lesser evil compared to the alternative of telling his friend, his brother, the truth. If you're interested in reading about enduring friendship (especially between men who aren't too macho to express love and care for each other), how recollections of the same events can diverge among the people who lived them (à la Rashōmon), Moroccan political history in the 1950s and '60s, and how French colonialism penetrated North African societies, thought, and ways of life, then read this book! 

Favorite quotes:
"These exchanges were supposed to keep our minds active so we wouldn't fall into the lethargy most people in Tangier suffered from. Especially in those days, when everybody lived in wariness and fear. A diffuse fear, without name or shape" (50).

"Some people hold up Britain as an example, but a country that colonized other countries can never be an example for others" (169).

"Ali spent three years pondering the cause of this inexplicable breakup... He clung to the image of his friend as a man of his word, a faithful friend, but decided that Mamed had taken another path in life, discovered new horizons, and didn't want to be bound by a relationship that reminded him of his youth and adolescence. Maybe he thought of their friendship as a book he had read too many times. Now it was time to start a new one" (172). 

"Night entered his room, never to leave it" (174).

 Girl, Woman, Other by Bernardine Evaristo
 
I first heard about this book back in 2019 when it was decided that Bernardine Evaristo would have to "share" that year's Booker Prize with Margaret Atwood. Many people online expressed how confused and disappointed they were by the judges seemingly choosing fame and familiarity over throwing their full weight behind the originality that is Girl Woman Other. And that's not to discredit Margaret Atwood; I enjoyed reading The Handmaid's Tale, and her renown as an author is deserved. But she already won the Booker Prize back in 2000, and in 2019 she won for her sequel to The Handmaid's Tale—meaning it wasn't even something completely new! Meanwhile, Bernardine Evaristo is the first Black woman to ever win what's considered Britain's most prestigious literary award, and I maintain that she shouldn't have had to share it with anyone. But I digress. That was in 2019, and it wasn't until a random trip to Target in 2020 that I spotted the paperback for GWO on one of the bookshelves.
 
Consisting of five chapters and an epilogue, Girl, Woman Other presents the stories of 12 Black British women, whose life experiences range from the present day all the way back to the 1890s. Most of them live in London, nearly all of them are African or Caribbean immigrants or the children of such, and a few of their stories are set in northern England. We meet each of them in chapters one through four, with each chapter containing three individual stories. Each of these 12 characters are connected, though some of the connections are revealed more gradually than others. I had to break it down by chapter in order to remember everything and keep the connections straight in my mind, so I'm sharing my breakdown with you (some spoilers to follow):
 
One: Amma is a 50-something lesbian and playwright whose hard-won big break finally arrives with the opening of her play, The Last Amazon of Dahomey, at the National Theatre. Yazz is Amma's daughter, an outspoken and trend-conscious student with a diverse array of college friends. Dominique is Amma's close friend and former theatre company co-owner, who experiences domestic abuse after moving to the United States to live with her girlfriend.

Two: Carole is sexually assaulted as a teenager but keeps it a secret, and later uses her math prowess to secure a career in finance and a place in more elite social circles. Bummi is Carole's mom, a Nigerian immigrant and fellow math whiz, who has her own cleaning business an unconventional romantic history prompted by grief. LaTisha is a single mom, supermarket supervisor, and Carole's former friend/classmate, whose father abandoned her when she was younger.

Three: Shirley is a history teacher at the school Carole and Latisha (from chapter two) attended, and has also been friends with Amma (from chapter one) since childhood. Winsome is Shirley's mom who's moved back to Barbados from Britain, and who previously had an affair with someone close to Shirley. Penelope is Shirley's racist and miserable white co-worker (a biology teacher at Carole and Latisha's school), and also Bummi's (Carole's mom's) first cleaning client.

Four: Morgan is a gender-free, half-Malawian social media influencer who attends and reviews Amma's play, and also crosses paths with Yazz at the after-party after having previously met her at a university event. Hattie (a.k.a. GG) is Morgan's great-grandma, a mixed/light-skinned woman who lives on a farm her entire life, marries a Black American man, and has a loss that nobody knows about (hint: it involves Penelope). Grace (Hattie/GG's mother) is an orphan consumed with her mom's memory and her Ethiopian father's mystery identity, who eventually marries a wealthy farmer (GG's father).
 
In case you're wondering, my favorite stories are Dominique's, Bummi's, and Winsome's. This is partly due to their salaciousness, but mostly due to how much their grief and longing resonated with me.
 
I started reading GWO in August 2020, which happened to be a very personally tumultuous month for me, and that plus the very strange year that 2020 continued to be meant that I didn't finish it until a few days ago. If I'm being honest, I did feel like the book started dragging after the halfway point (especially during the third and forth chapters), but that's probably because I was just personally less invested in most of the characters in those chapters. For all the insight that the two teachers provide about the British education system, I found Shirley to be kind of boring—which makes sense since she's written to be very uptight and insecureand I was profoundly confused as to why Evaristo was having me read an entire story about this bitter white woman (Penelope) in a book that is meant to prioritize Black women's experiences. And then Hattie just.... she's aware of being mixed but is also frustratingly ambivalent about it. She fails to instill Black pride in her children, only to then express disappointment that her kids don't identify as Black and that her descendants intentionally procreated with white people so as to erase Blackness from the family. How can you be surprised or disappointed when you yourself didn't set a strong precedent for embracing Blackness, and even your pro-Black husband was color-struck and chose you precisely because you're light-skinned? Honestly, how else did you expect future generations of your family to turn out, Hattie?
 
Furthermore, Penelope, Morgan, Hattie, and Grace being mixed meant delving into their parentage, which also meant me having to read significantly more about white people than I'd expected to when first cracking this book open. This also added to the slight dragging feeling I had when reading those parts of GWO. I know that in a colonialist country like England, especially given that a considerable amount of the Black women in it are mixed, one perhaps can't fully examine Black experiences without acknowledging the moments where whiteness has infiltrated or otherwise affected them... but it still felt like too much for me. Almost like the book had shifted ever so slightly off course. Although a handful of the other main characters reappear at Amma's after-party in chapter five, the book ultimately ends with an epilogue focusing on Penelope, and I didn't appreciate that. She's the character I liked the least, and is only Black according to one drop rule logic, not her lived experience, phenotype, how society treats her, or how she identifies herself. Am I to believe she's been redeemed? She's lived her whole entire life as a racist (and especially anti-Black) white woman, but because she learns she's 13% African and decides her mom's (Hattie's) brown skin doesn't matter to her, she's supposed to be included in Black womanhood? No ma'am. I understand that Evaristo means for all of these stories to be nuanced and complicated, and it's a worthwhile decision on her part to use mixed characters to examine who counts as "Black". And maybe I'm being too emotionally affected by this one particular fictional character. Nonetheless, I maintain that Penelope is no sista of mine.
 
Despite how much I've just ranted, I do believe that Girl, Woman, Other is absolutely brilliant and worth all the time it took me to finish it. If you're interested in story collections, Black women in Britain, or unconventional structure and punctuation choices (some passages are written in poem form, and there's not a single period or quotation mark to be found anywhere), then read this book! Or this "polyphonic social novel", as the back cover describes it!
 
Favorite quotes: 
"they were two halves of a circle moving towards completion" (165).
 
"Bummi lost her Faith the minute she walked into the Chapel of Rest and saw her beloved Augustine lying there in body only... she decided there was no great spiritual being watching over her, protecting her and the people she loved... the space once occupied by God was now hollow, and with no god to promise everlasting salvation, it hit her hard how much she was on her own" (169-70).
 
"Winsome wished he hadn't awakened a longing in her that he wouldn't satisfy
he'd given her a taste of himself and then withdrawn it
she didn't hate him for it, she wanted him more because of it
he became fantasy material... in a fantasy anything was possible
even now, so many decades later, she feels the old attraction stir when he arrives for the summer, and when she catches him in a certain light" (274). 

"Megan already knew it was time to grow up, the whole point of leaving home was to find out where she began and her parents ended" (320). 

"what matters most to me, is that I know how I feel, and the rest of the world might catch up one day, even if it'll be a quiet revolution over longer than my lifetime, if it happens at all" (328).

Thursday, December 31, 2020

2020 Hair

Can I just say that one of my biggest unintentional "accomplishments" of 2020 has been "converting" my mom to the natural hair community? It started out as an experiment back in April (twisting her hair instead of straightening it), then she kept asking me to twist her hair, and then she completely skipped the YouTube tutorial phase and went straight to buying natural hair products (Carol's Daughter, the Slap, Afrocentric headbands, detangling combs, etc.).

She wore her hair in fresh two-strand twists when we went to Louisville in October, and she was nervous about what the family might say about her new hairstyle. But then people in the family complimented her on it, and now she's not even thinking about having me straighten her hair again anytime soon. She tried something new, she's embraced her hair in a new and unprecedented way, and I helped her do that. My, my, my.

Tuesday, December 22, 2020

ドラマ (Dorama) Time! 24 - pt. 2

Continuing on from part 1, I've got two more dramas to tell y'all about for the second part of this J-drama review. Both of these shows are about women being mistreated and overlooked by society, so they're downers for the most part, but at least one of them has a promising ending. Let's get to it!

絶叫 (Zekkyou/Scream/The Voice Calling Your Name) - WOWOW/2019

  • Tokyo police find the body of a woman who apparently died alone in her apartment some months prior. Her body has decayed and cats have eaten part of it, but police find identification belonging Suzuki Yoko (Ono Machiko, 'Hajimemashite, Aishiteimasu') at the scene and conclude that she's the woman who died. A female detective named Ayano takes the lead on the case. Around the same time, a gangster who used a phony non-profit organization to steal vulnerably people's government benefits is also found dead.
  • Scenes of the police investigation alternate with flashbacks to Yoko's past, showing a woman who was uncared for since she was a little girl. Her mom loved her little brother more than her, and that continued to be so even after the brother was killed, Yoko's dad abandoned the family, Yoko and her mom were forced to sell their Shizuoka home and go their separate ways, and Yoko's mom became financially dependent on her.Yoko stumbles through adulthood in Tokyo alone, barely scraping by on jobs that include insurance scams and sex work.
  • The police eventually discover that Yoko was widowed multiple times. She would marry a man, that man would die under suspicious circumstances, and Yoko would receive a life insurance payout before finding a new husband in a different city. As the police get to the bottom of what Yoko was really up to and who she was involved with, they uncover even more unexpected truths about her.

Much like 'Soshite, Ikiru', this is another tale of a woman enduring many "blows to the spirit". Unlike 'Soshite, Ikiru', however, this show is anything but warm and uplifting. We know from the beginning that Yoko doesn't make it out, that despite her attempts to find some sort of purpose or love or happiness in life, she still ends up dying alone in her apartment with her body rotting amongst cat carcasses... Or does she? Whether Yoko is truly dead or alive and missing somewhere, what remains is that her life is miserable from beginning to end, all while she's desperately hoping for someone to see her and genuinely care about her for once. The show's title 'Zekkyou' (絶叫) means a scream, shout, shriek, or exclamation, and in the context of the show the word takes on an additionally solemn meaning: a silent scream, a cry for help that continues to be unheard and ignored. That scream, or "the voice calling your name" as the English title phrases it, belongs to Yoko. She's a textbook example of someone who can't catch a break, and despite her efforts life simply refuses to improve or get easier and less lonely for her.

The mystery of a woman who supposedly dies a solitary death was a significant draw for me, but I mostly chose this drama for Ono Machiko. As I've said in the past, she's one of my favorite Japanese actresses and her skill makes me feel like I can trust her choices about the projects she appears in. I haven't seen all of her work, but based on what I have seen, she hasn't disappointed me yet. Her performance in 'Zekkyou' is no different. It's a very short show (only four 1-hour episodes) and it doesn't end on a positive note. Still, it's a worthwhile examination of what desperation can push people to do, and what happens to those who have been abandoned by society and know it.

坂の途中の家 (Saka no Tochuu no Ie/The House on the Slope) - WOWOW/2019

  • Risako (Shibasaki Kou, 'Galileo') is an everyday housewife in Kanagawa, married to a typical salaryman and spending her days taking care of their three-year-old daughter until she's selected to be a lay judge in court (similar to doing jury duty in the States). The trial she's participating in involves a woman named Mizuho who's being prosecuted for drowning her baby to death. Public opinion has already concluded that Mizuho is a monster and a failure as a woman for not fulfilling her duties as mom, but the trial is meant to determine if the drowning was premeditated and if Mizuho's living conditions and mental state might preclude her from being solely responsible for her child's death.
  • As the trial goes on, Risako notices parallels between Mizuho's story and her own. This is especially so as her husband and in-laws begin asserting the demands of the trial and the stress of caring for an emotionally-volatile toddler as "proof" that Risako is an unfit wife and mother. Risako has a mom who's wealthy and overbearing, she gave up her career to appease her husband who barely helps out at home, and she had a harder time adjusting to motherhood than the other new moms around her seemed to have. Just like Mizuho.
  • In addition to Mizuho, the show explores the other jurors' personal experiences with parenting as well. One juror (Ito Ayumi, 'Cecile no Mokuromi') has infertility issues but now wants a child more than ever after her husband has already cooled off on the idea. A male juror has a daughter but doesn't see her often, because his resentful wife (a former rich kid) wants him home as seldom as possible so she doesn't have to think about how rich they're not. And even one of the official judges (Sakurai Yuki, 'Tokyo Dokushin Danshi') is struggling! Her husband has started bucking against being the primary caretaker for their son (as previously arranged), and wants her to step back from work into a more traditional housewife role.

Empathy and editing! Those are the biggest takeaways that I get from this show. What moms need, what women need in general, is more empathy and less judgement. Especially in a country like Japan where women are often expected to subsume their entire being under the designation of "wife" and "mom" once they get married and have children, and their value as women is questioned if they fail the expectations attached to those roles. As for the editing, I don't know all the technical terms but the show does lots of clever things to depict Mizuho's life and then re-imagine those exact same scenes with Risako in her place—seamlessly cutting back and forth between the two—which I think is a stellar way of emphasizing that these two women aren't so different and really any parent could find themselves in Mizuho's unfathomable situation. Would every parent go so far as to harm their child? Of course not. But the show cautions viewers against believing that behavior like Mizuho's comes out of nowhere, because it doesn't. A couple of times there's also a neat trick where a shot rotates in a full circle around the screen before returning to its original position, conveying how disorienting and overwhelming the situation is for the character who's in that shot, which was really cool to see. Cinematic, even.

Also, shout-out to the social worker who's called to assess Risako! At first we're led to believe that Risako's husband called the social worker to observe how out of her depth Risako is and, I don't know, remove Risako from the household? Take their daughter away? It's unclear what result the person who reported her was hoping for. Anyway, Risako is immediately on edge (as was I) because for her this is yet another person questioning her every move and seeking to punish her for not meeting their standards. But to Risako's surprise (and mine), the social worker gently helps her realize that her husband is trash! He's been emotionally abusing her by constantly making her believe she can't do anything right and putting her down instead of helping her achieve her goals (family-related tasks, making a valuable contribution as a lay judge, etc.). Not only that, but the social worker does her research, talking to anyone she can who's remotely connected to Risako in order to confirm her findings: Risako does need significantly more support so she doesn't crumble from the pressures of motherhood, but she herself is not the problem. I wasn't expecting anything positive or helpful from the social worker once that character was introduced, but the show turned it around and proved me wrong. Color me relieved!

This drama is a heavy one to get through, but it ends with a sense of hope after Risako finally speaks her mind during court deliberations and pushes back against the people who are controlling her the most (namely her husband and her mom). Watch this show if you like Shibasaki Kou and/or want to watch a show that's purposefully empathetic toward women.

Although I said that I was most impressed by 'The Naked Director', my actual favorite from this roster of J-dramas is 'Soshite, Ikiru'. It's consistently well-written, takes a compassionate look at humanity, and offers a solid conclusion to a story of young love that simply isn't meant to last. But of course, I would encourage anyone who's interested to give any of these five shows a try. (Except maybe for 'Dying Eye'. You can probably skip that one, haha.) Until next time!

Monday, December 21, 2020

ドラマ (Dorama) Time! 24 - pt. 1

I didn't think I'd finish watching my selections in time to have another J-drama review written before the end of the year, but it seems I've proven myself wrong! This time I watched five shows, and coincidentally all but one of them were originally aired on a Japanese cable channel called WOWOW. I choose J-dramas based on their premise and/or lead actors, not on which company broadcasts what. But judging from what I've seen from WOWOW so far, shows from that channel are less afraid to "go there", especially when it comes to depicting dark themes and mature subject matter. And since that's the kind of material I've been gravitating toward lately, I suppose it's fitting that my slate turned out the way it did. Plus ,WOWOW shows tend to have shorter runs (only four to six episodes) than the average J-drama, which meant that I could finish everything in half the time it would usually take me. I watched all the shows with English subs on Dramacool, with the exception of one show that's on Netflix.

ダイイング・アイ (Dying Eye/Daiingu Ai) - WOWOW/2019

  • A bartender named Shinsuke (Miura Haruma from 'Boku no Ita Jikan', R.I.P.) is involved in a car accident that kills a pregnant piano teacher named Minae (Takahashi Maryjun from 'Tokyo Dokushin Danshi'). "Dying eye" refers to the look she gives the driver as she's dying. A year and a half later Shinsuke's still on probation, but he loses all memory of the accident after Minae's husband tries to kill him by knocking him out.
  • After Shinsuke recovers, his girlfriend goes missing, and he's eventually seduced by a mysterious woman named Ruriko (Takashashi Maryjun) who has enchanting eyes. "Dying eye" is also a reference to Ruriko's eyes.
  • The more that Ruriko shows up and Shinsuke remembers details of the car accident, he realizes that he might not have been the only one at fault (hint: his bosses are shady), and he collaborates with a detective to discover what exactly happened to Minae/Ruriko.
The huge "reveal" at the halfway point of the show is that Ruriko is the ghost of Minae, which confused the heck out of me because it was so obvious from the beginning. Was it not supposed to be obvious? They used the same actress for both characters, just changed her makeup and put a wig on her, and she has very recognizable facial features. So I'm not sure if the audience wasn't supposed to not know it was the same person, or perhaps it was moreso about us watching Shinsuke realize who she was, since he was already having trouble remembering so many things relating to that incident? I don't know. But a huge reveal it was not. Granted, there is another twist later on in the show revealing that Ruriko isn't exactly a "ghost", so to speak, but by that point I'd stopped caring. The show is intriguingly mysterious at first, ending each episode on a cliff-hanger and making it seem like it's building up to something mind-blowing, but it really doesn't pay off in the end. The final episode is a dud that makes 'Dying Eye' underwhelming as a whole. It could've been a thougthful commentary on guilt, manipulation, curses, spiritual possession, and how creepy mannequins can be, and it tried but simply didn't stick the landing.

Now all I can think about are the aspects I didn't like or that didn't make sense. For instance, the scene of Minae getting hit by the car and bleeding out as she's pinned to a wall is quite graphic, and the show replays that scene multiple times (at least once every episode), which feels gratuitous. Overkill, if you will. The main detective on the case has a young partner who's killed by Ruriko for absolutely no reason, and we don't even find out how she did it; he just disappears in one episode and the cops discover his body elsewhere in the next. Shinsuke finds out that his girlfriend was killed by his former boss/supposed mentor, and instead of beating the mentor up or turning him in to the cops, Shinsuke accepts a bribe from the mentor in exchange for his silence. But dude, weren't you just worriedly and relentlessly searching for your girlfriend a couple episodes ago? Now her being dead is no big deal? Also, Shinsuke gets arrested at the end of the final episode and I can't recall what exactly he did to warrant arrest this time? It didn't seem like he'd committed any additional crimes. I could go on, but basically if you're looking for something with a satsifying or worthwhile ending, then don't bother with 'Dying Eye'. But if you're a fan of the late Miura Haruma and want to watch everything he's appeared in, which includes this show, then knock yourself out.

そして、生きる (Soshite, Ikiru/And, Live) - WOWOW/2019
  • Toko (Arimura Kasumi, 'Shitsuren Chocolatier') is from Morioka, and was raised there by her uncle after her parents died in a car crash. As a twenty-something, she's now a waitress and aspiring actress preparing for an important upcoming audition in Tokyo. However, the Tohoku earthquake and tsunami of 2011 prevent her from going, and in the aftermath she volunteers to help rebuild a heavily-impacted town called Kesennuma.
  • Kiyotaka is from Tokyo. He was raised by his wealthy aunt and uncle after losing his parents, and at first he meets their expectations by getting hired at a prestigious firm. But then he swiftly quits so he can focus on doing volunteer work in Kesennuma, which is where he meets Toko.
  • Toko and Kiyotaka start dating while also following their respective dreams. Toko gets another chance at an audition in Tokyo, and Kiyotaka gets an international development job that will soon have him moving to the Philippines. Toko learns some news that causes her to ghost Kiyotaka, and that decision becomes a point of no return in their lives and relationship.
Some of the most awful life events happen to these two lead characters, and with the absolute worst timing. I saw one of the commenters on Dramacool refer to such occurences as "blows to the spirit", and I couldn't think of a more apt description. And those blows just keep on coming. It seems like good things are happening and our lead couple can breathe and relax a little, and then BAM. 'Soshite, Ikiru' is a fairly depressing story... but told in the warmest, most thoughtful, tender, straightforward, and mature yet easygoing way possible. The transition between events is so smooth, and since there are only six episodes, the show makes use of every minute it has to convey something heartfelt and meaningful about interpersonal relationships.
 
The production value on this show is so impressive! From Morioka to Kesennuma to Tokyo to San Juan to Pasig, every location looks gorgeous and also like a real place that actual people live in, ruins and slums included. One episode is focused on the Philippines and they have Kiyotaka speaking Tagalog and English, they have Filipino actors, even the local media and news reports that are shown are designed to look as true to life as possible. (I've never been to the Philippines so I can't speak to how accurate it is, but it looks convincing to me.) The episode even touches on the question of whether development workers like Kiyotaka and the organizations who fund them are truly serving local communities, or are moreso meddling and perpetuating a cycle of inequitable relations between countries. Kiyotaka goes to San Juan with genuinely pure intentions after having volunteered to rebuild Kesennuma and believing he'd found his life's purpose, but even he has to reckon with how his presence might do more harm then good. And honestly, when it comes to talking about the Philippines and Filipino people specifically, and international development in general, I've never seen a J-drama broach these subjects with such nuance. It even connects seemingly-benevolent foreign influence (including Japan's) with the kind of destabilization that leads to terrorism, and I've just never seen that done in a Japanese show before. Again it's only one episode, so the commentary is brief, but it is sharp.

Until I heard Toko and her best friend Han-chan talk about how hard Japanese grammar and certain turns of phrase can be, I didn't realize that Han-chan is played by a Korean actress. Her name is Kang Ji-young and apparently she's a former K-pop star! I rarely paid attention to KARA (a K-pop girl group that used to be huge in Japan), so I didn't recognize Ji-young as being from that group. She's a decent actress, though, and as a fellow non-native Japanese speaker, I think her language skills are legit! And it's cool that the show works her being Korean into the show without having her character face mistreatment for being Korean. Han-chan's just a friendly, chill girl from South Korea who likes to spend extended amounts of time in different countries before moving on to the next destination whenever she feels like it. The only thing I don't like about the show is a character named Kubo, who's a salesman. I don't know if it was the way the character was written or what, but I just didn't care about anything he had to say. Every scene he was in, I was waiting for that scene to end and the next scene to start. I hesitate to think it was the actor's fault.

I mentioned Toko's ghosting of Kiyotaka as a point of no return because that's exactly what it proves to be, and the show tells us that yes, Toko does some things that the audience might think are incredibly misguided. But the point is that those are the "mistakes" that Toko chooses. She might avoid necessary conversations, but she also takes decisive action, stands by those decisions, and accepts the consequences. In the show's logic, choosing something and making a mistake is more conducive to moving forward than waiting for a sign or getting stuck, and I can appreciate that. 'Soshite, Ikiru' has a bittersweet ending for sure, but one that's reflective of the title of the show. Time will pass, life will continue to happen to you, and you have to find a way to keep living. Even if "what could've been" gets interrupted or never ends up happening at all. What a beautifully down-to-earth show this is!

全裸監督 (Zenra Kantoku/The Naked Director) - Netflix/2019
  • In Sapporo, Muranishi Toru sells English encyclopedias for a living until he loses his job and his wife leaves him. A chance meeting inspires him to put his sales experience to work in selling porn cassettes and magazines. He becomes incredibly successful until a competitor named Ikezawa (who runs a massive porn company called Poseidon) bribes the police to arrest Muranishi and shut his business down. Muranishi and his business partner escape to Tokyo.
  • After being lured back to Sapporo and serving jail time, Muranishi and his partner return to Tokyo and pivot to video, starting their own porn movie studio called Sapphire. They have a meager staff and meager funds, and at some point Muranishi begins playing the lead actor in each movie he directs, becoming the titular "naked director". His biggest star is a college student named Megumi who leaves her strict household so she can explore her sexuality more freely through doing porn.
  • Ikezawa keeps trying to put Muranishi out of business, all while the yakuza takes their cut of the booming porn industry and the police try to shut it all down.
Of all the J-dramas I watched this time around, I have to admit that I was most impressed by this one. I heard about it when it was released last year and I was intrigued but didn't know what to think of it, so I put off giving it a try. Once I did give it a try, however, I couldn't stop watching! This show is definitely for mature audiences, so I'd only recommend it if you don't mind lots of nudity and sex scenes. But the thing is, even though it's about porn, it doesn't feel lewd. If anything, the show is wacky and brilliant. It's almost nonchalant about all the sex that's going on (on camera and with many witnesses), which underscores the fact that sex work is a job just like any other. 'The Naked Director' also does an amazing job of not only recreating the look and feel of the 1980s, but also linking developments in the porn industry with economic changes that were happening in Japan at the time. And apparently Muranishi Toru and Kuroki Kaoru are real people, meaning this show is semi-biographical, which gives me a lot to think about.

Although the show is sex-positive, there are three specific young actresses whose involvement with Sapphire is presented as empowering and liberating when it's really not. Or rather, it's more profitable for Muranishi than it is liberating for them. The first actress who Sapphire mangages to find seems to feel an unexpected sense of appreciation and camaraderie through shooting her porn video; the crew compliments her on her hard work and how well she did, and she takes that to heart because she's never been commended for anything before. But later on when she moves on to an office job, she's forced to quit when her co-workers harass her for doing porn after someone from Sapphire distributes an uncensored version of the video. Meanwhile, that video she did is still money in Muranishi's pocket. The second actress is headhunted from Poseidon, and Muranishi pressures her to have real intercourse with her scene partner because her acting (pretending to have sex) isn't good enough. Once they start doing it for real, she's shown to enjoy it the whole way through. But then Ikezawa gets the police to arrest her (because it's illegal to distribute videos showing uncensored or unsimulated sex), leak her identity to the press, and inform her parents so that she has no choice but to flee Tokyo and head back to her parents' house in shame. Meanwhile, that video is still money in Muranishi's pocket.

The next actress, Megumi (or Kuroki Kaoru as she's known professionally), is the star who really gets Sapphire rolling in the dough. Her first video saves the company on two occasions, and she eventually becomes a spokesperson of sorts, appearing on talk shows to advocate for herself, represent Sapphire, and demystify porn as a whole. Her involvement in porn is framed as her embracing her truest self; she's always had sexual urges and been interested in sex, but couldn't express that under her conservative mom's strict control. In fact, Megumi showing up at the studio to apply as a porn actress for Sapphire quickly transitions to her having sex with Muranishi on camera, initiated by Megumi herself. It's Muranishi's first time being the scene partner to one of his actresses, and presumably Megumi's first time having sex ever. And she seems so into it and sure of what she wants, that the crew even remarks afterwards that she was really the one in control. But how can that be when she's having sex with a man significantly older than her, who's acting as a father figure by providing affection that she's never received from a man (the catalyst for their sexual encounter is a hug that he gives her during the interview), and she's doing it out of a sense of need, trying to save up money to study art in Italy and escape her mom? I think it's refreshing how self-assured and unashamed Megumi is about her sexuality, but that doesn't mean she's not also being exploited given the power dynamics at play between her and Muranishi.

There's an episode where most of the crew goes to Hawaii in a last ditch effort to create a best-selling movie that will keep the company afloat. I had a feeling that this episode would be corny (and I mean CORNY), as most Asian shows I've seen tend to be when they throw white/American/English-speaking characters into the mix, and I was absolutely correct. The dialogue and the plot take a nosedive until Muranishi returns to Japan, and it's the only part of the show that I wish I hadn't had to see. But other than that, I'm so glad that I finally decided to give 'The Naked Director' a chance, plus its opening theme song is bomb! And shout-out to Kunimura Jun, who plays a yakuza boss involved with both Poseidon and Sapphire. I last saw him play the devil incarnate in a Korean movie called The Wailing, and he's so excellent at playing characters who seem harmless but are actually evil!

I'm not done yet! Check out part 2 of this J-drama review, where I discuss the final two shows on my roster and select my favorite of them all!

Thursday, December 17, 2020

BOOKS! (Ma Rainey's Black Bottom + The Hole)

I read today's selections faster than I've been able to read any other books this year. That's my only reasoning for writing about them together. First up is an August Wilson play (soon to be a movie released on Netflix tomorrow!) about blues musicians that I read entirely in one day. And then I've got a Korean novel about a paralyzed man and his suspicious mother-in-law, the majority of which I finished up yesterday.

Ma Rainey's Black Bottom by August Wilson

After Chadwick Boseman passed away in August and I heard that his final role would be alongside Viola Davis in the film adaptation of this play, I made a mental note to read it beforehand. This would be my fifth August Wilson play (after Fences, The Piano Lesson, Seven Guitars, and Joe Turner's Come and Gone), and it'd been nearly four years since the last one I read, so I was genuinely looking forward to Ma Rainey's Black Bottom. Bought it from B&N in October, and then read it during one extended sitting earlier this month (the day before my birthday, in fact). Set in Chicago in 1927, it's the only play of Wilson's "Pittsburgh Cycle" that doesn't take place in Pittsburgh. Each of the 10 plays in the cycle is set in a different decade of the 20th century, and MRBB tackles the 1920s. Again, this is my fifth Wilson play, which means that I've read half of the "Pittsburgh Cycle" so far.

Over the course of a single day at a Chicago recording studio, a blues band rehearses, argues about style and artistic choices, and generally shoots the sh*t while waiting for their frontwoman Ma Rainey to arrive so they can record new songs for a record company. Cutler is the bandleader, guitarist, and trombonist. Slow Drag is the bassist (and "perhaps the one most bored by life" according to the play, which made me chuckle). Toledo is the pianist, the only literate member of the group, and in true August Wilson fashion he's the seemingly-odd character who frequently shares profound yet perplexing insights on the meaning of life and Black identity. And last but not least is Levee the trumpet player, the youngest of the group who has ambitions of having his own band so he can record his own music and become a star. The record company is represented by two white men: an exec named Sturdyvant who oversees the production and only cares about the bottom line, and Ma's manager Irvin who plays good cop but is also similarly money-focused, and doesn't truly care about or respect these Black musicians (including Ma) any more than Sturdyvant does.

Ma Rainey was a real person and one of the first professional blues singers, which I knew but had forgotten until after I started looking up the songs mentioned in this play. What I hadn't known was that "Ma Rainey's Black Bottom" was a real song, or that the "Black Bottom" was a style of dance. Detroit used to have a Black neighborhood called Black Bottom, so I thought maybe the play's title would refer to a geographical area, or would have a more poetic meaning like the depths ("bottom") of Ma Rainey's soul, or would simply be a euphemism for her actual behind. I guess that last one is accurate, since the lyrics of the song do use "Black Bottom" as a double entendre. I also find it delightfully fitting that I happened to read this book pretty soon after watching a TV show about strippers called 'P-Valley', and reading Wynton Marsalis' Moving to Higher Ground. The Southernness, the sensuality, the disastrous effects that white-led exploitation has on Black life and artistry, the primacy of the blues' ability to help Black people find the will to keep living, etc. Ma Rainey's Black Bottom is a solid amalgamation of the themes that I observed in those other two works.

The plot revolves around Ma Rainey, and her late arrival (with her stuttering nephew Sylvester and her girlfriend Dussie Mae in tow) is followed by more disagreements and delays as the recording session goes on. However, though she is given room to express her frustrations about having her voice commodified by white people and not being respected for her unique talent or how wealthy she's made the record company, the story as a whole doesn't focus on her as much as it does the bandmates and their conversations. And don't get me wrong, these men are hilarious! There's a joke in the play about New Orleans and a place called Fat Back, Arkansas that made me cackle out loud! I enjoyed reading their playful jabs and haunting stories about surviving white terrorism in the South, and I understand the value of highlighting the musicians who fill out the background instead of solely focusing on the star of the show. With that said, l don't know how I feel about a play that's named after a woman still being mostly about the men around her more than the woman herself. Especially since most of Wilson's plays that I've read so far are centered around Black men's perspectives. Which isn't to say that that's a bad thing, or that those perspectives are never interrogated, or that Black women's perspectives aren't also given weight in Wilson's work. Like I said, I'm just not sure how I feel about it.

Additionally, there are a few things that I'm left wondering about. For one thing, I noticed that Ma's band doesn't have a drummer. I don't know if Wilson made it this way intentionally, or if it's customary for blues bands not to have drummers, or if this was simply an oversight on Wilson's part. The last two explanations seem unlikely to me, so I really have no clue why there's no drummer. Also, what is the purpose of Dussie Mae's character? Merely to show that Ma is gay but not spend time discussing it? To be something of Ma's that Levee tries to take from her, since he is so resentful yet covetous of the success and authority that Ma has? Furthermore, it was unclear to me where Ma and her band are based. They're in Chicago to record, but they keep referencing an upcoming tour and trip to Memphis, Ma emphasizes how large and loyal a following she has in the South, and all the stories that the bandmates tell take place in the South (which is also where each of them originally come from). 

Obviously I'm still turning Ma Rainey's Black Bottom over in my mind, and I'm really excited to watch the movie when it comes out tomorrow. As humorous as the play is, one of the characters gets so distressed at one point that he tries to fight God (similar to how Troy tries to fight death in Fences), and another character doesn't make it out alive. As fortunate as Ma and her band are to be working as musicians, their pasts (hate crimes and manual labor in the South) and their present (racist cops and the bloodthirsty music industry) never fail to remind them how constrained the world can be for Black people during this time. This is an ebullient and bone-chilling play, and I think everyone should read it.

Favorite quotes:

"If I had my way
If I had my way
If I had my way
I would tear this old building down" (71).
 
"Wanna take my voice and trap it in them fancy boxes with all them buttons and dials... and then too cheap to buy me a Coca-Cola... They don't care nothing about me. All they want is my voice. Well, I done learned that, and they gonna treat me like I want to be treated no mater how much it hurt them" (79).
 
"You don't sing to feel better. You sing 'cause that's a way of understanding life... The blues help you get out of bed in the morning. You get up knowing you ain't alone. There's something else in the world. Something's been added by that song. This be an empty world without the blues. I take that emptiness and try to fill it up with something" (82-83).
 
"Gonna be a bit more things before I'm finished with it. Gonna be foolish again. But I ain't never been the same fool twice. I might be a different kind of fool, but I ain't gonna be the same fool twice. That's where we part ways" (90).

The Hole by Hye-young Pyun
(Translated from Korean by Sora Kim-Russell)

Just like Moving to Higher Ground, The Hole is another selection from a bunch of discounted books that I found a year ago in Kentucky, and after this there's only one remaining that I haven't read yet. I can't remember why I decided to buy The Hole in particular; I'm guessing it probably had something to do with it being a Korean novel and having an eery, introspective, and suspenseful premise. It opens with a cartography professor named Oghi waking up from a coma and realizing that he's paralyzed. He and his wife were in a car accident that only he survived, and now he's in a hospital, only able to move his eyes and blink at first. The entire novel is written from Oghi's perspective as he comes to terms with his new reality, struggles to recover (uncertain as to which state he'll actually be able to recover to), reminisces on his life before the accident, misses his wife, and gets used to relying on his mother-in-law for survival. Oghi has already lost his parents, and his mother-in-law is a widow whose daughter has just died, so now they're each other's sole remaining family and his mother-in-law has stepped up to take care of him. It's worth noting that Oghi is the only character who has a name, besides certain famous people who are mentioned. A few characters are given initials, but everyone else is referred to by their roles in relation to Oghi ("the doctor", "his wife", "his mother-in-law", and so on). Also, for convenience's sake I'm going to refer to his wife's mom as MIL in the rest of this review.

From the outset it seems like this will be a straightforward story about Oghi's process of recovering from multiple tragedies at once, or maybe that's just what I wanted it to be and so that's what I set my hopes on. But then things start to get weird, and then downright sinister, when his MIL's behavior begins to change bizarrely. After moving Oghi from the hospital to the house that he and his wife shared, the MIL goes from carefully doting on Oghi, to mocking and neglecting him while obsessively digging a giant pit (the titular "hole" of the novel) in what used to be his wife's garden, to isolating him from all contact with the outside world and removing his access to medical care. Oghi, still paralyzed, is confined to his bed the entire time. So then I shifted my focus to hoping Oghi would receive help and escape the situation somehow, but... well. More on that later. The financial, physical, and emotional strain of caring for Oghi seems to explain why his MIL's acting differently at first, and of course there's the possibility that she's always been petty and cruel but is just now letting that side of herself show. But then it's revealed that she's likely taking revenge against him for something he did to his wife. There's a room in the house that's full of his wife's writings about him, which Oghi knows about but hasn't read entirely. Whatever information it is that his MIL obtains through her late daughter's writing, it's clear that Oghi, our sympathetic main character, is not who he appears to be.

I read the dust jacket when I first bought The Hole last year, but had since forgotten what it was supposed to be about. Which I preferred, honestly, once I finally started reading it two weeks ago. I remembered that it would be suspenseful somehow, and I was glad to not be anticipating anything specific beyond that. It's the kind of novel that steadily builds up an intense sense of unease, confusion, and lack of control, the kind of novel where all the pieces don't come together until the very end (and even then readers are purposefully left with many questions). And that felt oddly familiar to me, but I couldn't put my finger on exactly why. Then I finished the book, finally read the dust jacket again, and saw the synopsis reference Herman Koch's The Dinner, and then it clicked. Yes! Exactly! Of course! THAT's the deceptively simply yet menacingly dark atmosphere that The Hole replicates. That and the Kathy Bates movie Misery, which I've never seen in full but know plenty about by virtue of cultural osmosis.

Speaking of mounting intensity, this has got to be the most cleverly-designed book that I've read in a long time. It's genius, really. On the first page of each chapter, there's a big black dot in the upper-right corner. That's something I took note of right away. What I didn't notice until halfway through the novel, however, was that as the chapters progress, the big black dot ("the hole") in the upper-right corner grows bigger. And bigger. And bigger. The higher the stakes get, the more chaotic and dire Oghi's circumstances become, the more imposing that dot becomes on the page. It goes from the size of a quarter in chapter 1 to the size of a grapefruit in chapter 15, and the visual contrast between where the story starts and ends still gives me chills. 

Now. I'm about to slightly spoil the ending, so be warned. The final chapter shows Oghi escaping the house, only to end up in the hole that his MIL dug. However, I'm inclined to wonder whether he actually escapes, or if it only happens in Oghi's mind? Because how does he go from only being able to move his hands and wiggle his fingers in the previoius chapter, to having enough upper body strength to raise his arms above his head, open doors, and drag himself across various surfaces? And wouldn't he have had to take his catheter out before pushing himself off of the bed in the first place? Perhaps he never actually leaves the bed and is only imagining what would happen if he were to escape and fall into the hole outside. And perhaps the act of imagining, along with the acknowledgement of his being trappedin the house, in his body, in the custody of his unhinged MIL, in this isolated life that's so unlike the life he had beforeis what allows him to finally grieve his circumstances, as the novel closes with him crying for the first time since he woke up from his coma almost a year prior. At least that's my theory on The Hole for now. If you liked Herman Koch's The Dinner, enjoy suspense and secrets, can appreciate open endings and not having every question answered, or are interested in learning how incredibly political map-making is, then read this book! 

Favorite quotes:

"Oghi struggled to accept that this was his body now... He did not know how to handle the disconnect between the old him and the new him. All he could do was foresee that nothing would be as it was, and he could not even begin to guess at how many things would be different in the future and how those things would change him" (32).

"No matter how hard you tried to draw the world, you could never be exact... It was impossible to capture the trajectory of life in a map... A world that could not be understood perfectly, could not be explained unambiguously, and was interpreted differently based on the political purposes and conveniences was no different from the world he was already living in. And yet, the one way in which maps were clearly better than life was that they improved with failure" (69). 

 "It was a time when their friendship had flourished for lack of hope" (74).

"His wife's tears had stopped not because she was no longer sad, but because the time had come to stop crying. And at last, Oghi cried. Not because of his wife. But because his time for crying had come" (198).

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 indirectly via a horror-themed 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 what 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 two decades together, I felt somewhat distanced from the quartet's collective journey to renown and success. This is 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 the genre but am not an expert on it. It's not necessarily my thing. I mention that to say that of all the classical music references Gabel includes, 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 ample 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 stick 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 about 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.

Serving as a comprehensive introduction to beginners, this book is also 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 notable musicians so 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 to 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 godchild 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 categorically has no merit? 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 does or doesn't "belong" 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 feel 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).