Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Losing Gracefully.

I went to a bowling alley with a friend yesterday. We bowled two games. We are both mediocre players, so we kept pace with each other's low scores at first. Then she got ahead of me, sure to win. To our mutual bewilderment, I got a spare on my 9th turn and two strikes on my 10th turn, beating her by 10 points in the end.

That was the first game.

The second game, despite my best efforts I went on a supreme losing streak. I bowled eight times (4 turns) and I got absolutely nothing. I lost that game by over 30 points.

I bowled my best ever game and my worst ever game back-to-back.

Sometimes the proverbial "L's" come swiftly after a major high, and you just have to take them gracefully.

Sunday, February 26, 2017

BOOKS! (The Martyred + The Book Borrower)

Historical fiction doesn't typically float my boat, but I recently finished two considerably mournful novels that fall into the category in their own way. First is a war novel that I found at a bargain bookstore. Second is a gift from the neighborhood Little Free Library.

The Martyred  by Richard E. Kim

This is another classic that I'd been oblivious to until now. Apparently this book was a bestselling hit when it was originally published in 1964, and its author is known as the trailblazer in Korean-American literature... and unfortunately for me, I'd never heard of either. 

The Martyred is set in Pyongyang in the early phases of the Korean War, at a time when the city has changed hands and is under South Korean control. Captain Lee, a professor who became an intelligence officer after joining the army, narrates the story. His commanding officer, Colonel Chang, orders Lee to investigate the recent abduction of 14 Christian ministers from Pyongyang: 12 of them were executed, and of the two survivors only one, Mr. Shin, is mentally sound enough to give a statement. But while Lee is in search of the truth, what Chang seeks is fodder for anti-Communist propaganda that will boost  morale and tarnish the North Korean cause. Through gaining Mr. Shin's confidence, Lee eventually learns that Mr. Shin has been lying about what really happened to the 12 "martyrs", supposedly guarding he truth for the good of Pyongyang's vulnerable civilians including the Christian community. Lee's best friend Park also has a stake in what happened, since his father was one of the 12. Though his father had previously disowned him for being an atheist, Park remains curious despite himself to know about his father's final moments.

The novel considers a number of deeply complex issues, and doesn't intend to solve any of them. You have the church co-opted by the state, as Colonel Chang ingratiates himself with local Christian leaders solely for their social capital (Christianity was an almost trendy phenomena among answer-starved Koreans at the time). And then you have the value of truth, whatever that happens to be. Are there occasions when people would be better off not knowing the truth about something, even if they demand it? When have people suffered enough, and who decides this? When faced with their human frailty, often people become desperate to have something to believe in, to have some assurance that there's meaning to their suffering. At the same time, others may conclude that there's no such meaning to be found. The Martyred offers no simple answers, but acknowledges that in times of peril, the appeal of belief systems can both sprout anew and wither away. In this way it's somewhat reminiscent of Floating Clouds (Ukigumo) by Fumiko Hayashi, which I would also recommend.

Favorite quotes: 
"Do you know I wished my father hadn't been a martyr? I wanted him to have failed at the last moment. I hoped he had been defeated, yes, crushed, so he would know what it was like to be weak in spirit. What it was like to doubtto doubt his god, his faith, everythingto taste the horrible injustice and suffering of this life... I can't weep for him. I could have if he had failed. I could have wept for him if he had experienced at least a moment of human weakness. That's why I sometimes weep for Christ" (97).
"Or, would you rather tell them this war is just like any other bloody war in the stinking history of idiotic mankind, that it is nothing but the sickening result of a blind struggle for power among the beastly states, among the rotten politicians and so on, that thousands of people have died and more will die in this stupid war, for nothing, for absolutely nothing, because they are just innocent victims, helpless pawns in the arena of cold-blooded, calculating international power politics? Well, now?" (107).

The Book Borrower by Alice Mattison

The ratings for this book aren't great. Look at Goodreads or any major online retailer that sell books, and you'll see that it averages 3 stars at most. But I quite enjoyed it! It's  about two decades of friendship between two women who meet at a park (presumably somewhere on the East Coast) in 1975. Deborah, the more social and laid-back of the two, was given a book titled Trolley Girl by her streetcar hobbyist husband but instead passes it off to Ruben, the more serious and strait-laced of the two. The borrowed book is a semi-biographical account of the involvement of a young Jewish anarchist woman in a 1920 labor strike that turned deadly.

The Book Borrower is nearly 280 pages long but only has five chapters. Each one ends with an event that would understandably end the pair's friendship or drastically alter their perceptions of each other (for example, Ruben gets Deborah fired twice). And yet time goes on, their respective families grow, and their friendship persists. We're not privy to how they patch things up in between each potential rupture, as each chapter picks up months or even years from where the previous one had left off. But somehow this adds to the intimacy of their friendship; their bond is something that even they can't fully comprehend or articulate. Perhaps it isn't so surprising, then, that when Trolley Girl's author enters Ruben's life and causes her to re-visit the book, Ruben can't help but question whether what she knew of Deborah was only a shadow of who her best friend really was.

From the first page, the novel repeatedly switches between Ruben and Deborah in the present and the text of Trolley Girl as Ruben reads it. So you have this book-within-a-book thing going on at first which isn't explained and isn't smoothly transitioned (Mattison probably chose not to make it easy for the reader), so I suspect that a lot of people were thrown off by the confusion. But if you can stick it out and enjoy reading about the more substantive aspects of female friendship, you might like The Book Borrower more than you'd expect.

Favorite quotes:
"Public transportation is a big womb. We are carried. We do not drive ourselves. The engineer takes care of us. That's why stories and songs about trolleys and trains are cute. But if something goes wrong on public transportation, it's much worse than anyplace else. Why is crime on subways so scary? Because trains are our mother. Somebody holds up the train, he's killing our mother. Think about it" (104).
"People had said to her, Now Deborah will always be with you: meaning, apparently, that Ruben could pretend to talk to Deborah and pretend to hear her answers. But when she did that, she had at her disposal only her memory of what Deborah had said in the past. If Deborah were alive, she would not say exactly what Ruben imagined she might say. She never had" (230).

Thursday, February 2, 2017

ドラマ (Dorama) Time! 16

The winter broadcast season has been underway in Japan for about two weeks now and I'm still scoping out my choices. While I'm still ruminating on what to watch this winter, for now let me briefly share what I watched in the fall. In the order that I finished them: 

砂の塔~知りすぎた隣人 (Suna no Tou~Shirisugita Rinjin/Tower of Sand~The Neighbor Who Knew Too Much) - TBS/2016

Aki is a housewife whose blended family (her husband, their elementary-aged daughter, and her husband's teenage son from a prior marriage) at first thinks they are lucky to have snagged an apartment in a new 50-floor high-rise tower. But elitism is the rule amongst the other housewives in this building, and the hierarchy is based on which floor you live on. (The higher the level between floors 26-50, the higher social status you're afforded; floors 1-25 aren't even worth mentioning.) Aki just barely makes it into the elite moms club by moving to floor 26 and has a hard time fitting in. Her only "friend" is an elusive flower arrangment artist/teacher, also a member of the moms' group, who's used her creations to sneak surveillance cameras into all the other housewives' apartments. All the while, a serial kidnapping case has the whole neighborhood on edge, as an unknown pied piper casts judgment on local moms by sneaking their kids out from under their noses.

I'd originally been attracted to the moms-as-mean-girls aspect, as it reminded me of the backstabbing ensemble of housewives in 'Namae wo Nakushita Megami' (2011), which I thoroughly enjoyed. That show was more about the secret lives of each woman in the main cast, whereas 'Suna no Tou' focuses more on Aki and her family being out of their depth. Although, there are a number of key secrets that are eventually unearthed! The catty moms in Aki's building and the serial kidnappings are linked, but perhaps not in the way that you'll think they are.

逃げるは恥だが役に立つ (Nigeru wa Haji da ga Yaku ni Tatsu/Running Away Is Shameful But Useful/We married as a job!) - TBS/2016

Often abbreviated as "Nigehaji", this manga-based drama was THE primetime hit of the fall broadcast season. I'd tried to sit through the first episode but got bored, so I passed on this show originally. But then I kept seeing Japanese news headlines about it online and saw how huge its ratings were (it ended up averaging 14.5% of the viewership during its timeslot, with the final episode alone earning nearly 21%). Part of the show's popularity is due to its lead actors: Aragaki Yui has been leading dramas for years, and Hoshino Gen's career has been on a new wave since his uplifting hit single, "SUN" was released in 2015. Another part of the popularity is Hoshino Gen's latest hit song, "" (Koi/"Love"), which inspired a massive dance craze as the theme song for 'Nigehaji'. The cast is shown performing the choreography at the end of every episode, so you have at least 11 chances to practice along!

In short, the hype made me give the show another chance. Aragaki Yui plays Mikuri, a 20-something who's having trouble finding a full time job despite an advanced psychology degree and years of job-searching. Hoshino Gen plays Hiramasa, an awkward employee at a tech company who keeps to himself. Thanks to Mikuri's parents, she ends up working as Hiramasa's housekeeper, and in time they decide to make a special arrangement. Mikuri becomes Hiramasa's live-in housekeeper, and in exchange Hiramasa lets her live with him and puts her on his insurance. They basically enter into a common-law marriage on paper in which Mikuri gets paid for doing what housewives throughout Japan have to do for free, but she and Hiramasa maintain an employee-employer relationship. But as Mikuri endeavors to ease her loneliness and Hiramasa's shyness, the nature of their relationship shifts. It's not the most eventful drama, but it does take an introspective look at both conventional and non-conventional relationships. Plus it's lighthearted and utilizes pop culture parodies to make it more humorous. Other pluses include Hiramasa's nosy co-workers, Mikuri's aunt, and an out gay couple (not fully revealed until the end).

地味にスゴイ!~校閲ガール・河野悦子 (Jimi ni Sugoi~Kouetsu Girl Kouno Etsuko/Simply Great! Proofreader Girl Kouno Etsuko/Pretty Proofreader) - NTV/2016

I suppose when it comes to dramas, I'll follow Ishihara Satomi wherever she goes. What can I say? I'm a fan! In this one she plays the titular Etsuko, an aspiring fashion writer who scores a job working for the company that publishes her favorite fashion magazine, Lassy. Only instead of being hired as a fashion writer, she's hired to work in the basement with a team of proofreaders who thoroughly (and manually) scan and edit all of the company's publications. It's the opposite of what she wants but it seems to be kismet. For starters, the first syllables of her last and first name match the name of the department (kouetsu). Not only that, but she's excellent at proofreading! She not only checks for grammar and spelling errors, but she goes on excursions outside the office to verify place names and plot points. Sometimes she even seeks the authors out directly to suggest changes. Don't let the cute outfits and over-the-top personality fool you! Kouno Etsuko is no airhead; she's actually quite thorough!

This workplace drama is also not extremely eventful but it is fun to watch. The show acknowledges each and everyone one of Etsuko's outfits between scenes, and she seems to charm every character who encounters her and her ideas. This especially includes Yukito (Suda Masaki), a best-selling novelist and an emerging model at Lassy (he initially hides his identity from the public in both respects). He's also Etsuko's boyfriend, but their relationship evolves slowly due to busy schedules and misunderstandings about each other's intentions. Also charmed is Etsuko's former schoolmate Morio (Honda Tsubasa from 'Koinaka') who has Etsuko's dream job but hasn't found her stride yet. If you like fashion, dramas set in the publishing industry, and/or Ishihara Satomi, then 'Jimi ni Sugoi' has just enough going on for you to keep watching. There's also an adorable gay couple in this show as well.

'Nigehaji' is too obvious of a choice, 'Jimi ni Sugoi' has something missing, and coming off of the high intensity of 'Suna no Tou', I was entertained but still slightly underwhelmed by both. So this season's favorite is 'Suna no Tou' for me. They're definitely all worth watching, though!