Tuesday, November 29, 2016

BOOKS! (Tears of the Giraffe + Annie John)

Looks like I've been hitting upon a couple of duds lately. I suppose it happens to all of us avid readers, especially to those of us who invariably must finish a book once we've started it. Today I've got one book that I didn't care very much for, and another that I liked well enough at first but which I appreciate even more now after having sat with it for a bit.

Tears of the Giraffe (The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency #2) by Alexander McCall Smith

I read the first book in this series two years ago and recently found the third at a used book sale, but I decided to buy the second just in case I might miss something in between. Turns out I could've skipped this one altogether! Tears of the Giraffe isn't nearly as eventful as its predecessor, where numerous mysteries were included in order to establish Mma Ramotswe as a detective and set a precedent for how she approaches and solves her cases. The sequel, on the other hand, contains only two mysteries that each require minimal effort and ingenuity: a local man who suspects his wife of having an affair, and a white American woman who seeks closure regarding  her college-aged son who had disappeared 10 years prior. The rest is pretty inconsequential. Mma Ramotswe's fiancé Mr. J.L.B Matekoni adopts a pair of siblings from the orphanage that he does odd jobs for, basically electing her for motherhood without her input. But when she discovers this, they discuss it briefly once, and then she takes the kids to her house for lunch and a tour of their new home as if everything has been resolved. Which does not read as believable to me at all. As a woman who knows and does what she wants, I had expected Mma Ramotswe to make more of an issue of it (I know I would have!). And then there's Mr. J.L.B Matekoni's wretchedly lazy maid on whom we spend a considerable amount of time but who seems to serve little purpose other than comic relief, and even she's more irritating than comic. My hope is that Tears of the Giraffe was written as a breather, setting up some of the more mundane details in order to prepare for something more engaging in the third book. I wasn't planning to read beyond that one anyway, but we'll see if I'm correct.

Favorite quote:
"'How do we know that Gaborone will still be there in fifty years' time? Have the ants not got their plans for Gaborone as well?' Mma Ramotswe smiled. It was a good way of putting it. All our human endeavours are like that, she reflected, and it is only because we are too ignorant to realize it, or are too forgetful to remember it, that we have the confidence to build something that is meant to last. Would the No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency be remembered in twenty years' time? Or Tlokweng Road Speedy Motors? Probably not, but then did it matter all that much?" (95-96).

Annie John by Jamaica Kincaid

As a student I had the great fortune of being assigned to read Jamaica Kincaide's "Upon Seeing England For the First Time" essay in high school, and later on to read her novel A Small Place as a sophomore year in college. So when I spotted Annie John at the aforementioned used book sale, I felt compelled to snatch it up too! In keeping with the imperialism-related focus of most of Kincaid's material, this novel features the titular young woman narrating her childhood and adolescence in Antigua while it was still a British colony. Given that the novel is written in past tense, we are led to believe that Annie John is at least 17 years old if not completely grown at the time of writing, since that is the age when she leaves the Caribbean island for England, with no intention of returning.

Of the two Kincaid books that I've now read, I wouldn't say that Annie John is my favorite. Nonetheless, it is so evocative of the wonder, mischief, and agony of youth that I wouldn't be in a rush to discard it. Annie John's gradually tempestuous relationship with her mother affected me the most, as someone who is close to her own mom. While Annie John adores and is inseparable from her mother as a little one, as a teenager she wants nothing more than to get away from her mother (and to a extent, everything in relation to her life on the island). But Kincaid doesn't allow the reader to dismiss this behavior as typical teenage moodiness. In fact, Annie John's enmity begins with what she perceives to be betrayal. As she enters puberty, her mom becomes stricter with her and reduces the physical displays of affection they once shared. Her mom is simply trying to raise her daughter to be a proper young lady (whatever that means for that particular place and time), but because she doesn't explain the "why" of all this to her daughter, Annie John feels like she's being punished and can't figure out what she's done wrong. Her conclusion is that her mom doesn't love her anymore, and a hurt and confused Annie John strives to best her mother in a spiteful competition of who can show the least love. She reveals less of her life to her mom, gives icier and more curt responses to her mom's questions, pursues more mischief, tells more untruths. But as much as she claims to abhor her parents, she winds  up following in their path. Her mother left her native Dominica for Antigua, and her father was on his own following the death of the grandmother who had raised him. They both obtained independence and were thrust into adulthood due to tumultuous circumstances in their teens, and in attempting to distance herself from her them, Annie John actually becomes resembles them all the more. If you enjoy reading Caribbean literature and stories of teen angst outside of the mainstream YA genre, try Annie John.

Favorite quotes:
"I envied the way the air seemed to part for them, freeing itself of any obstacle so that they wouldn't have to make an effort. Now I could see that the air just parted itself quickly so that it wouldn't have to bear their company for long. For what a dull bunch they were! They had no different ideas of how to be in the world; they certainly didn't think that the world was a strange place to be caught living in" (90).

"For I could not be sure whether for the rest of my life I would be able to tell when it was really my mother and when it was really her shadow standing between me and the rest of the world" (107).

Monday, November 28, 2016


Admittedly I'm out of my depth with this one. I know nothing about Miami, and though I know more about the LGBTQ community than I did even a year ago, I still know nothing personally of the lived experience of being gay. One of my favorite podcasters Xavier D'Leau (from Jade & XD) briefly reviewed the film but wasn't impressed by it, quipping that (and I paraphrase), "This is a gay movie made for straight people", which I can somewhat understand. He also said you'd have to be really smart to get what the film's angle is, and perhaps this is one of those moments where I'm not so smart, since I feel like something significant went over my head. Which is to say, I'm not sure that I took away from it all that I was supposed to. But here goes.

Seen Monday, November 21st: Moonlight

A journey through the childhood ("Little"), adolescence ("Chiron") and early 20s ("Black") of a young black man named Chiron coming of age in Miami. Growing up poor and practically having to raise himself as his single mom sinks into a crack addiction, Chiron manages to find tenderness in unexpected people and places. While his circumstances and cruel peers bully him into being hypermasculine, those moments of tenderness and refuge allow him to explore his sexual identity along the way.

What I really like about this film:  Mahershala Ali getting shine as a featured character. No matter what I see him in, even if he's playing an intimidating or no-nonsense person (see his role in the final two Hunger Games movies), his face is so full of warmth, wisdom, and kindness. It's completely possible that he's wretched on the inside and is just that adept of an actor, but for me he's one of those actors whom you want to believe is a good person in real life. His dual ability to play hard and soft at the same time is reflected in his role as Juan in Moonlight. He's a drug dealer who doesn't play about his business, but as Chiron's father figure, can only bow his head and shed a tear in shame when confronted by this child whose mother is addicted to Juan's product. Also, the scene where Juan teaches Chiron how to swim in the ocean is divine. The scene appeared to be a baptism in the film's trailer, and in the film itself there is still something tender and holy about that moment.

The lighting. The colors. The contrast. A fantastical world sprouting from the hood. I wish I had enough film studies vocabulary to explain what I mean, but I can't. Watch the film and you'll see what I mean.

What I Don't Like About This Film: This is actually part of the genius of the film rather than something I dislike, but I feel like we never truly learn who Chiron is as a person. We know all of his nicknames, we know the people who make and break his world. We know he's got a tenderhearted soul on the inside, but who is he? One could argue that it's not even clear what his sexual orientation is. Obviously he's had same-sex feelings and encounters, but would Chiron necessarily identify himself as a gay man? From early on, numerous people remind him that he's gay or somehow not masculine enough and that he should expect to be mistreated for it, but this is long before he has the chance to examine himself or even know what a "f*gg*t" supposedly is. He is drawn to his classmate Kevin, but is this because he's attracted to him specifically or because Kevin's the only person his age that's kind to him? Upon their reunion as adults, is the intimacy they share in the final scene a lovers' embrace, or a pair of long-lost friends holding each other up? Perhaps I'm too straight and inexperienced in matters of the heart to properly appreciate the subtleties. But my impression is that at the end of Moonlight, Chiron is just on the threshhold of being able to express himself as an unencumbered adult.

Would I recommend it?:  Most definitely. We don't have many black boyhood movies, and we certainly don't have many black boyhood films that contemplate masculinity and sexuality with the care that Moonlight does. This film is beautiful and valuable and necessary, so if you have the chance to see it then please do!

Saturday, November 5, 2016

BOOKS! (The Stones Cry Out + Who Will Cry for the Little Boy?)

I think I've got something good going with this doubling-up approach to reviews. Perhaps I'll keep this up until year's end and return to longer reviews after the new year (new reading goal, more time, less presure). We'll see. Both of today's books passed through someone else's hands before getting to me; I bought one at a local used book sale, and I borrowed the other from my mom.

The Stones Cry Out by Hikaru Okuizumi 

This Akutagawa Prize-winning novel is relatively short and yet manages to breeze through three decades from the ending stages of World War II to the 1960s/70s wave of student activism in Japan. The Stones Cry Out is told from the point of view of Tsuyoshi Manase, a bookshop owner who starts collecting, analyzing, cleaning and categorizing rocks as a hobby following WW2. The man who had inspired this hobby was an ailing lance corporal in Manase's ramshackle unit in the Philippines during the war, whom Manase actually killed as an order from their sword-happy captain to drop dead weight. Said lance corporal's last words were mostly hysterical babbling about rocks, and it is unclear whether Manase is genuinely inspired by this information, or if taking up the hobby is an act of penance that turned into a passion. Either way, Manase's passion for rock collecting earns him considerable renown as an amateur geologist. But as a consequence of this hobby which brings him such a strong sense of importance and fulfillment, his firstborn son dies, his wife has a mental breakdown, his marriage is rendered unsalvageable, and his connection with his younger son is almost nonexistent to the point that Manase is helpless in the wake of said son's violent rebellion as a university student. Rather than rock-collecting itself, however, what's largely at play is Manase's general disengagement from social and familial aspects of life. (We do not learn enough about his pre-war life to know if this has always been his personality or if this internal shutdown is a consequence of him not properly addressing his sordid war memories and stifled guilt.) The Stones Cry Out's title is a reference to Luke 19:40, but also happens to echo Genesis 4:10, in that often sites of violence, bloodshed, or psychological distress maintain a remnant of those events that will always make itself known. And Manase must contend with his memories before his past takes more from him than it already has.

Favorite quote:
"Manase tried to imagine what it must be like to die together with his commander, to fall under the fire of the recognizable enemy, hearing in his ears the voice that had ordained his death, spurred by the whistling of naked steel. He imagined himself in a field shrouded in a lilac haze, an infinitely tragic figure; the bullets piercing his flesh seemed to give more pleasure than pain. To shed tears because now he was about to die for the Great Cause he had heard so much about, at the same time yearning for a swift death―" (26-27).

Who Will Cry for the Little Boy? by Antwone Fisher

A man with many hats, Antwone Fisher is best known for his autobiography Finding Fish and the film that it inspired, Antwone Fisher, which was helmed by Derek Luke and Denzel Washington. He is also a poet. Fisher writes in the forward of this book of poems that poetry is a cherished pastime of his that has always brought him peace and a sense of security in himself. Most of the collection is comprised of love/relationship poems he wrote in his spare time or per his Navy friends' requests, and... it shows. Perhaps it's just me, but I wasn't really feeling any of them. There were some memorable lines, though! Maybe these poems would be well-suited for a poetry slam or an open mic; they might not do anything for me just reading them off the page, but when read aloud with the right intonation, emotion and rhythm, maybe they could be quite engaging.

Favorite quotes:
"We lived this way, and loved that way, ask anyone who had seen us" (13). 

"I must have painted you with me, more than one hundred times. I love you more than life itself, on this canvas called my mind" (37).

"Lightning strikes and thunder rolls, my eyes are damp, your heart is cold" (47).