Monday, December 31, 2018

BOOKS! (Please Look After Mom + Friday Black)

Whew! I said that I'd write a second book review during the month of December, and I made it just in time! Today I've got two books that were recommended to me out of the blue (I rarely ask for recommendations because my TBR list stays ridiculously long, haha!). The first was recommended to me by a really good friend, and the second was recommended to me by a bookstore employee whom I met while purchasing An American Marriage and Human Acts in the Bay Area (four months later and that trip is still coming up, go figure). Let's get to it!

Please Look After Mom by Kyung-Sook Shin
(translated from Korean by Chi-Young Kim)

I knew that I'd seen this cover previously but I never paid attention to it because it's rather generic. What a shame that this gem and Man Asian Literary Prize winner didn't get a cover that was more unique and eye-catching. I honestly thought it was just another Amy Tan or Lisa See novel (no shade to them, I just wasn't interested). But then my friend Irene randomly messaged me about this book last month saying, "It's messing me up so bad. Like, in a good way," and I appreciate her taste in books so I swiftly ordered it from ThriftBooks.

The year is 2007. An elderly couple ("Mom" and "Father") arrives at Seoul Station from the countryside to visit their children, all of whom are grown and living in the big city. Contrary to their past visits, none of their five children is there to pick them up, so they decide to make their way to their eldest son's home on their own. When transferring to a different train, the husband steps in assuming his wife is right behind him. The door closes, the train takes off, and he turns around to see that she's not there. He goes back to Seoul Station to retrieve his wife, but she's gone. Thus commences almost a year of efforts and revelations and guilt and family fallouts, as Mom's children desperately search for her.

The novel shifts from the perspectives of the middle child (Chi-hon, the eldest daughter who's also a writer), to the firstborn and eldest son Hyong-chol (Mom's favorite, the one on whom the family's socioeconomic mobility relied on the most), to Father, to Mom, and back to Chi-hon. While some family members are more involved in the search than othersChi-hon, once the most distant, winds up being the most guilt-driven and devoted to finding Mom, forsaking nearly all elseall of them learn something about Mom in the process that none of them cared to know or paid attention to before. And of course, with Mom being a long-suffering provider from a generation that survived colonization and war (she was still a teenager when she and Father married shortly after the Korean War), there was plenty that she hid from her family as well. I found myself most sympathetic toward Chi-hon and most disappointed, angered even, by Father. This was probably by design, given that Kyung-Sook Shin lays it on pretty thick about how self-interested and oblivious Father was. Either he was a rolling stone repeatedly leaving the family for weeks or months at a time, present but still leaving Mom to handle most of the housework, child-rearing AND farming, or he simply prioritized his own ailments over Mom's, never considering that there might be something serious going on with her.

Obviously the driving questions of the novel concern what happened to Mom: why and how she disappears, where she goes and what she does while missing in Seoul, and whether or not her family finds her. I'm not going to ruin any of that for you. I will say that though this is one of the saddest books I've read this year, and that it even prompted me to talk to my mom about whether I've been a decent daughter or not, it is totally worth the read. If you enjoy Korean literature, family drama, or mystery, if you love your mom, and if you've ever been taken for granted or taken someone else for granted, then read this book!

Favorite quotes:
"Most things in the world are not unexpected if one thinks carefully about them. Even something one would call unusualif one thinks about it, it's really just a thing that was supposed to happen. Encountering unusual events often means you didn't think things through" (30).

"How could you only do what you like? There are things you have to do whether you like it or not... If you only do what you like, who'd going to do what you don't like?" (60-61).

Friday Black by Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah

When I was checking out at Books Inc. in Mountain View, the woman ringing me up asked me what my favorite book of the year had been so far. Put on the spot, I was stumped, and the only book I could think of was Marriage of a Thousand Lies. She seemed to be familiar with it, and told me that a new book was coming out that I would also enjoy, implying that it was similar in some way to the one I'd mentioned. "It's called Black Friday, I think. Wait no, Friday Black! That's it, Friday Black is what it's called." Now. I'm not sure if she actually read Marriage of a Thousand Lies or was thinking of a different book when assuring me that its and Friday Black's sensibilities would match. Because those two books aren't similar at all! Other than that they're both written by children of (Black/Brown) immigrants, and that they both emphasize the oft-ignored struggles of certain people of color, they're completely different! However, I'm still glad that she recommended Friday Black to me, and that I put it on my Christmas list (thanks, Ma!). It's the last book that I read in 2018, and it's one of the strangest and most special wonders of them all.

I started reading it on Christmas Day, shortly after seeing the trailer for Jordan Peele's upcoming horror masterpiece, 'Us'. Now I'm writing about that same novel, the day after watching the newest episode of 'Black Mirror' ("Baldersnatch"), while also rueing that I can't give my full attention to the annual New Year's 'Twilight Zone' marathon that's airing on Syfy right now. And what superbly fitting works to bookend my experience with Friday Black, because the novel is reminiscent of all those styles. Black horror, satire, science fiction, stories with a moral or twist that refuses to go easy on you. I love those kinds of material. And like the anthology series 'Black Mirror' especially, it's hard to describe this collection of stories without giving away something essential, and I honestly feel like it's best experienced the first time, completely blind. I was intentional about not researching too much about Friday Black before reading it; I didn't even read the back cover or inner flaps so as not to spoil anything for myself. 

What I can say is that this novel is very, very Black. All of the main and most of the supporting characters are explicitly or implicitly noted as being Black. And two of its most disturbing stories reference Trayvon Martin and other Black youths who have been killed by white or white-adjacent people (especially cops) without justice. The book opens with "The Finkelstein 5", in which a young Black man's methods of self-determination, survival, and solidarity change when the white man who beheaded five Black children at a library gets acquitted of their murder. Later on, "Zimmer Land" blends the Trayvon Martin case and the woes of working in corporate America by following an employee of an amusement park where white people can massacre Black and Brown actors for sport. 

Other personal favorites of mine include "Friday Black" (where consumerism is a virus that turns mall customers into zombies and trampled people's bodies are simply shoved out of the way), "How to Sell a Jacket as Told by IceKing" (where a top seller in a department store witnesses himself being usurped by a newbie), and "In Retail" (where said newbie, now a manager, tries not to be bothered by the fact that an employee commits suicide inside the mall every six months, but the sales never stop). The way Adjei-Brenyah describes store operations, witnessing customer depravity, and having to find satisfaction in the dressed-up nothingness that's offered to you as an employee.... As someone who's worked a couple dead-end jobs (including retail) in the past, I just KNEW that he must've worked retail before, because there's no other way he would've been able to get those details so right! And after reading some of his interviews yesterday, I learned that I was correct!

These stories are both devastating and confusing at times. Adjei-Brenyah takes his time laying out the worlds of each story, spelling everything out in some and intentionally not answering certain questions in others, but nonetheless getting his point across in them all. Like a lot of the best satire, he takes facets of American life and current events, ratchets up certain elements to the extreme, and then lays them back in our laps to show us how absurd our real-life behaviors really are. There's so much grief, rage, violence, isolation, and suffocation that has to do with various Black experiences (as well as capitalism, and classicism, and war). And at the same time Adjei-Brenyah weaves in moments of humor. Hope, even. Like, how in the world does he manage that, in his first book no less? Friday Black is a marvel that I'm still trying to figure out. While I'm not sure if it's my favorite read of 2018 or not, it's certainly the most unique. Just read this book! That's all I've got to say.

Favorite quotes:
"If I had words left in me, I would not be here" (9).

"People say 'sell your soul' like it's easy. But your soul is yours and it's not for sale. Even if you try, it'll still be there, waiting for you to remember it" (100-101).

"you have to dig happiness up, 'cause it's not gonna just walk up to you and ask you how you're doing" (159).

Monday, December 10, 2018

BOOKS! (Human Acts + If Beale Street Could Talk)

I had planned to read like crazy in November and post two or three reviews... and somehow, yet again, time got away from me. Now it's December! At least with this review coming out today, I can confidently say that I'll be writing another book review before this month (this year) ends, and two book reviews in one month is more than I've been able to do in a while! In 2018 I started writing down the book pairs that I'm going to read and write about, so hopefully doing the same in 2019 (and being more consistent about pushing through that list) will help me get more reviews out. But for now, here goes:

Human Acts by Han Kang
(translated from Korean by Deborah Smith)

This was the other novel I bought at Books Inc. while I was in California, in addition to An American Marriage. I had a feeling that I couldn't just leave with one book in hand, so I walked through the rest of the store and willed something else to speak to me. And then I spotted Human Acts. Now, let me just say that I LOVED The Vegetarian when I read it last year. I was devastated by it, but in one of those readerly ways where a book profoundly touches my soul and jostles my notions about humanity. And at the time, I vaguely remembered that Han Kang had another novel out that was highly-praised, but I never looked into it. Now was the time!

Human Acts centers on the Gwangju Uprising or Gwangju Massacre (May 18th-27th, 1980), where protestors against dictatorial leadership and inhumane labor practices were met with violent repression by government troops in Gwangju, South Korea. As explained in the introduction written by translator Deborah Smith (also the translator of Bae Suah's A Greater Music), this sensitive subject is also incredibly personal to Han Kang because she lived in Gwangju for the first 10 years of her life and moved to Seoul not long after the uprising happened. It follows that this book is not simply an ode to Kang's hometown but a carefully-researched tribute to the victims and survivors of that tumultuous time, from activists and bystanders to missing persons and souls never fully set free. Along with the epilogue, each of the six chapters unveils the perspective of someone connected to a character named Dong-ho, a junior high student and volunteer who takes care of newly-dead bodies that await being claimed by loved ones during the uprising.

The first chapter ("The Boy, 1980") features Dong-ho going about his duties hours before soldiers are expected to descend upon Gwangju again. The second chapter ("The Boy's Friend, 1980") features the spirit of Jeong-dae, Dong-ho's missing best friend, recounting the shock and confusion of observing his body as it's added to a pile of other bodies. The third chapter ("The Editor, 1985") features a publishing editor named Eun-sook who used to volunteer with Dong-ho, as she contends with government censors and recovers from being assaulted by a police officer. The fourth chapter ("The Prisoner, 1990") features an unnamed political prisoner and torture survivor who served in a makeshift militia with Dong-ho. Next is Seon-ju ("The Factory Girl, 2002"), another woman who volunteered alongside Dong-ho, who's prompted to revisit her trauma when a researcher requests an interview with her. The last chapter features Dong-ho's mom ("The Boy's Mother, 2010"), speaking to her participation in a group of mother-activists, as well as to a family tragedy that's had a ripple effect for decades. And then the epilogue ("The Writer, 2013") features a fictionalized version of Han Kang as the writer in question (and the daugther of Dong-ho's former teacher), who returns to Gwangju to research the uprising and what happened to Dong-ho.

To depict the horror, absurdity, and confusion of these situations, Kang does not spare readers from the intimate details of violence and the desecration of human life and bodies. But somehow she manages to relay this information with care. And I'd learned about the Gwangju Uprising in college, but was flabbergasted by the context that Kang adds to it, namely the fact that Korean soldiers were trained to act brutally and mercilessly (and were rewarded for it) when fighting in the Vietnam War on the US's behalf, only to then return home and use those same tactics on fellow Korean people during the various demonstrations that arose in the 1980s. While I can't say that I have as strong an affinity for this novel as I do for The Vegetarian, I appreciate Human Acts so much for the honesty and vulnerability it conveys. If you're interested in historical fiction, Korean history, social movements, victims' testimonies, survivor's guilt, or how society supposedly moves on after a momentous tragedy happens, then read this book!

Favorite quote:
"what is this thing we call a soul?
... is it like a kind of glass? 
Glass is transparent, right? And fragile. That's the fundamental nature of glass. And that's why objects that are made of glass have to be handled with care... Before, we used to have a kind of glass that couldn't be broken. A truth so hard and clear it might as well have been made of glass. So when you think about it, it was only when we were shattered that we proved we had souls. That what we really were was humans made of glass" (129-130). 

If Beale Street Could Talk by James Baldwin

I rushed to get this book so that I could have it read in time before November 30th, when its film adaptation (Barry Jenkins! Regina King!) was supposed to come out. But then the film's wide release date got pushed back to Christmas Day, so now rather than being just in time, I am considerably early. Lucky me! Set in New York City, the premise of Beale Street is fairly simple. Tish and Fonny grew up together, and as young adults they've transitioned from merely best friends to being lovers as well. After consummating their relationship, they make plans to get married and find an apartment of their own. But then, Fonny is targeted by a racist white cop, arrested and charged with a rape he didn't commit, and thrown in prison. Not long afterward, Tish finds out she's pregnant. So now it's up to Tish, her family, and Fonny's family to band together to fund Fonny's defense, and hopefully get him out of jail before the baby comes.

I have to admit that I'm not a lovey-dovey person. Romance in and of itself doesn't interest me all that much, so the "love will prevail" theme that's so prevalent throughout the novel didn't do much for me. However! A black family striving at all costs to free an innocent son from jail and fiercely defend a little black baby from hateful people before it even enters the world? The women in said family primarily leading the charge and making ish happen? Two young people trying to build the life they envision without institutional racism dragging them down? I can get behind all of that! That's what I appreciate so much about Beale Street. It's not just a love story (which, sorry y'all, *snooze*), but a testament to the phenomenal good that can happen when people are seen, understood, and have folks who care stick up for them. Also, what a coincidence that I am just reading this book this year, amidst #metoo, as the book defends Fonny while still attempting to honor the suffering of Victoria (his accuser, who was raped but not by him).

I only have two disappointments regarding this novel. First: we don't learn as much about Tish as we do about Fonny, which is surprising considering that Tish narrates the entire novel. She's painted as naive and innocent, which is fair given her age and that she's the baby of her family, and she mostly just goes along with what Fonny wants to do because she trusts him. She's forced to become stronger and more intentional as a soon-to-be mom and the main one fighting for Fonny's freedom, but again, that transformation happens only in connection to Fonny. I appreciate Tish being a regular black girl just living her life, but she also doesn't have much of an identity apart from her fiancé.

My other disappointment is with the ending. The last paragraph repeats the same imagery previously used to describe a dream of Fonny's, so it's not clear to me if he's just dreaming again while still in jail, or if he's actually free and at home with Tish and the baby. It feels like a fakeout, and I'd like to think that I can appreciate an ambiguous ending, but if the movie ends the same exact way I know I'll be a little miffed. We'll see. Though the ending is unclear, it is a refreshingly hopeful story, even amidst the lived experiences of anti-black racism and isolation that often come up in James Baldwin's works. If you enjoy love stories, #blacklove, stories about young people trying to make it in the big city, family drama, black mothers, or anything written by Baldwin, then read this book!

Favorite quotes:
"For you see, he had found his center, his own center, inside him: and it showed. He wasn't anybody's nigger. And that's a crime, in this fucking free country. You're suppose to be somebody's nigger. And if you're nobody's nigger, you're a bad nigger: and that's what the cops decided when Fonny moved downtown" (37-38).

"he kissed my tears and then he kissed me and then we both knew something which we had not known before" (76).

"And they know nothing at all about the song they are singing: which causes Sharon to wonder if they know anything about themselves at all" (151).

Wednesday, October 31, 2018

BOOKS! (Home. Girl. Hood. + A Greater Music)

Spent 13 hours doing my hair last night and didn't finish until 8:30am this morning, slept most of the day (fatigue and dehydration, lawdhammercy!), and didn't have special plans for today anyway, so I'm spending what's left of Halloween at home writing this review. I started both of these shorter books early in the year, but for some reason didn't finish either of them until last month. Let's get to it!

Home. Girl. Hood. by Ebony Stewart

I know I've mentioned this before, but I've been a fan of Ebony Stewart ever since I witnessed her perform at the MSU Union back when I was a college student. Ebony is a spoken word poet and former sex ed teacher (she's a full-time artist now!). I bought her previous book of poetry Love Letters to Balled Fists  three years ago, and when I found out she'd be releasing a new book this year and that the painting of the fly girl rocking faux locs and a drink in her hand would be a limited edition cover, I didn't even have to think about ordering my copy right away.

Much like Love Letters to Balled Fists, Home. Girl. Hood. features poems about love and heartbreak, which are familiar themes in Ebony's work. But it also addresses Ebony's southern roots, the women and ancestors who made her who she is, the marvels and trials of being a Black woman (or "womyn"/"womxn") in America, Ebony's autonomy as a sexual being, bucking prescribed norms and expectations, and the duality of women's bodies being both sacred entities and sites of trauma. There's also some commentary about how white people appropriate our ish while also contrasting themselves from us in order to define themselves as "white", and how even the natural hair movement hasn't escaped being influenced by aspirations toward whiteness/lightness.

My favorites this time around include: "Hairitage", where hair-braiding is a form of communication, with mothers and grandmothers transferring information to us black girls with their hands. "How to Properly Flirt with Someone You're Attracted to and Want to Be Your Boo", which includes some strikingly brilliant, silly, and even gross declarations of love. "Happy Father's Day: the child gets it wrong", where Ebony expresses all the bitter hurt and biting sarcasm toward her inactive father that I wish I had the audacity to express toward mine. "Perhaps we should go back" which lists all the things we'd be taking with us (and the pitifully little that would be left behind) if all Black people in America decided to return to Africa. And "I Love Mondays", which cleverly explores people's hate for Mondays and then connects that to how it feels to be an outcast, underappreciated person in this world.

If you love your mom, care about what Black women have to say, and support women artists who are multifaceted and aren't ashamed of where they come from, then read this book!

Favorite quotes:
"weaving... mistakes, to
remind me that there will always be a hair out of place and there
will never be enough time to fix it, so tread lightly, braid carefully.

[...] She says, when your
hair's a mess they think your life is too. And I shouldn't give them the
satisfaction of knowing my business better than me." (from "Hairitage", p. 6) 

"Crumble under pressure, only slapbox those they know they can beat
by bringing a knife or a gun to a fight that only requires the use of hands.
Name a coward that didn't break the rules, make a fist, a bomb, a "law",
and hit a nigga hard enough for the ground to open up and fit a
whole body in. Or at the very least, didn't send the police mob
to our neighborhoods with maximum power and chains.

[...] white men never intend to use just their hands." (from "Slapboxing: not just another hood game", p. 50)

"I don't even wanna be brave.
I just don't wanna be afraid to be myself.
But fear is the part of me I know the most."  (from "Fear", p. 58)

A Greater Music by Bae Suah
(Translated by Deborah Smith)

I heard about this book from Julia Megumi, a writer and academic who's my favorite book blogger on Instagram, recommending mostly Japanese, Korean, and Asian-American literature. I can't remember why I decided to order this novel other than because of its unique combination of character, setting, and subject matter (young Korean woman living in Germany, musing about music). Ordered my copy from ThriftBooks and what arrived was an advanced review copy from 2016 with perfumed pages. I was delighted!

A Greater Music is narrated by at aforementioned Korean woman, who is also a writer. Her name is never given. Within the first 15 pages we learn of an incident where she was walking her friend's dog and somehow slipped and fell into a frozen pond. We know that she survives (the book is framed as a sort of memoir, written by the narrator after she has already returned to South Korea), but never find out how. Anyway, this passage is significant because as she thinks she's dying, we're introduced to the narrator's way of thinking about death, denial, humiliation, and her German-tutor-turned-lover, M. Through the narrator's voice, Bae Suah writes that time and memories are not linear, so it makes sense that the events of the book aren't relayed in a linear fashion. The retelling of a past event is interrupted by the recollection of an event that took place even further in the past, before returning to where the initial retelling left off. A memory triggers other memories, which invoke ideas and sensations, which transition to other seemingly (but only seemingly) unrelated memories. And so on. But I'll do my best to recap the bare bones of  the novel's chronology.

The narrator originally comes to Berlin to study, and during that time she becomes friends with a fellow university student named Joachim. Joachim introduces her to M, a sickly but independent woman who serves as her German teacher for a time before they become romantically involved. M is also the one who helps the narrator learn about and appreciate classical music. For some reason (not going to spoil it for you), the narrator and M lose contact and the narrator has to return to South Korea once her visa's expired. She then returns three years later during the Christmas holiday and stays with Joachim during that time, reading, wandering around Berlin, walking Joachim's dog, and thinking and dreaming a lot about M but not making an effort to get back in contact with her. Essentially, being severed from M has been such a devastating loss that the narrator isn't able to think about anything the same way again, or approach anything akin to a stable sense of happiness. (I promise it's not as depressing as I'm making it sound!)

If you don't like listening to people discuss music history, literature, love, or human behavior just for discussion's sake, then this book might seem dry. Aside from the minimal plot and the narrator's feelings about M, much of the book is just the narrator thinking really deeply and abstractly about those other topics. Luckily that sort of thing is right up my alley, so such passages read more like the book was meandering with a purpose. If you're seeking closure for a certain relationship, are interested in reading about Korean expats, enjoy classical music, or are just in the mood to read something set in Germany, then read this book!

Favorite quotes:
"Music transcends its so-called 'creator,' rising above whatever motivation—whether individual fame, avarice, or even pure egoism—lay behind its so-called 'creation.' Music is itself that spirit of artistic creation that can't be compassed by the human, which simply chooses the body of an individual as its temporary vessel... dedicating their 'own' music to a given individual would be beyond the power of the composer" (102-103).

"M wasn't someone whose entire being could be summed up in a snappy slogan or TV debate. Rather, she was like a book without any pictures. In other words, the kind of person who, unless you brought your whole soul to bear in reading them, would remain forever unknowable" (116).

Sunday, October 21, 2018

Affirmation and Gratitude (10/20)

One of my goals for the month of October has been to leave the house for non-routine or non-errand-related reasons at least once per week. This week, that reason was an affirmation circle for black women, put on by an organization called Dear Black Women. It took place yesterday, at one woman's home in Detroit. Each participant was encouraged to write a letter of affirmation to herself and submit it to DBW beforehand, and then we spent most of the circle reading the letters out loud together. The letters are allowed to be anonymous, but I included my name in mine since what I wrote about was so specific to me. Here's my letter, which I wrote a week ago. I hope that someone can draw some reassurance from it.

Saturday, October 13th, 2018
Dear Danielle,
By the time you read this out loud again, it will be October 20th, which is your yearly personal day of gratitude. I don’t believe it’s a coincidence that you found out a week ago that Dear Black Women’s affirmation circle would be taking place in Detroit on the very same day. Given this auspicious occasion, I, your week-ago self, would like to tell you all the reasons why I’m proud of you today.
I’m proud of you for leaving the house and coming to this event. You are very good at hiding, and it can be tempting to flake on opportunities like this, but I’m glad that you didn’t.
I’m proud of you for all the ways you tried to both challenge and stay true to yourself this year. Even if you didn’t realize that that’s what you were doing at the time.
You started traveling again (with the help of some very generous friends), to places you hadn’t envisioned yourself going to this time last year. And those travels taught you so many valuable lessons, namely: things can be easy (they don’t always have to be hard); it’s okay for you to rely on and collaborate with people more; everything doesn’t have to be an achievement or accomplishment (you’re allowed to do things simply because you want to); and peace of mind is immeasurably more precious than you think.
You finally performed again.
You started a new project, which would’ve seemed absurd and impossible to you just six months ago. You not only started it, but you’ve been so consistent with it! And sure, it’s been teaching you a lot of new skills, but you’ve also developed a practice of communicating with people more in a less guarded way, lifting people up, and expressing more gratitude. How cool is that?
And on top of all that, you made a really big, really difficult decision this year which you’d been agonizing over for a really long time. It’s ushered more uncertainty but also more hope into your life, and I know how much you needed to be able to wake up in the morning and feel hopeful again. I know how terrified you were to make that decision, but you made it, and that’s probably what I’m proudest of you for.
It’s not over for you. Nothing has been wasted. Think of all the things and people that re-entered your life this year that you didn’t even think to ask for, and yet you received them anyway. You’re going to keep growing, exploring, and letting passion and curiosity guide you closer to more of the things and people that you love.
There are probably some things that I’m forgetting; you know how you are reluctant to give yourself props. And I cried a lot while writing this letter, so I really hope you did make it to the affirmation circle so that you can share this with yourself and the sisters there. But anyway, I just want to end this by saying you are loved, you are a good person, you are doing your best, and I wouldn’t want to be anyone else but you right now.

Friday, October 5, 2018

BOOKS! (An American Marriage + Masks)

When I was in California back in August, I stopped at a Books Inc. in Mountain View on a whim and walked out with two books. Both my own selections, but they also received strong commendations and nods of approval from two of the store clerks who noticed me carrying them around the store. This review features one of them. On another day, I spent a couple hours seeking out old and used treasures at Bell's Books in Palo Alto, and only one book spoke to me while I was there. This review features that book too. Coincidentally, both of today's reads involve love triangles, though I didn't realize that connection until just now.

An American Marriage  by Tayari Jones

I can't remember the last time I read a book with such urgency. While still in the Bay I decided to forego an extra day exploring in San Francisco just so I could sit at a cafe in Palo Alto and read this book all day. On the way back home, I was reading and annotating so fervently at LAX that a really sweet older custodian lady noticed and complimented me on being "a good girl" because she thought I was studying. What's funny is that I put off reading this book for so long because of all the hype it's been getting. (Not proud to say that I'm still turned off by things that too many people are speaking highly of at the same time; trying to get over this.) And now I've put off writing about this very same book because I didn't want the story to be over. I could walk around just savoring it in my head without having to reckon with it or risk not doing justice to it with my potentially meager words. But it's been time.

Celestial is an artist and Roy is climbing the corporate ladder. They're a newlywed SpelHouse couple living the ideal life of a young, educated, successful black couple in Atlanta. Until one night changes it all. After visiting Roy's parents in his small hometown in Louisiana, they retreat to a hotel but are awakened in the middle of the night when cops bust down their door. Roy has been (falsely) accused of rape by another guest at the hotel, and despite his "respectable" background and the best efforts of both his and Celestial's families, Roy is convicted and sentenced to 12 years in jail. He only serves five of those years, but that's more than enough time to reconfigure Roy in unimaginable ways. When he's released, his first inclination is to pick up where he's left off: he wants his life and his wife back. But Celestial's doll-making business has taken off, and she's moved on with her childhood friend and next door neighbor Andre. They have their own ideas for how to contend with Roy, but will he be set aside so easily? And is Celestial really done with him?

I love how Tayari Jones informs us about Roy's time in jail through the letters that he and Celestial write each other, compared to the prose used in the rest of the book. It spares us a few of the more gruesome details, gives us a clear-enough idea of how much time has passed, and maintains the novel's initial focus on their relationship. We get both of their perspectives, but also the sense of limited access to each other's lives that Celestial and Roy face when communicating with each other. Jones enables us to not only feel the time that's been lost, but the moments that have been lost as well. Because each chapter is written from one character's perspective (either Roy's or Celestial's, but sometimes Andre's too), readers may be tempted to pick a side. For most of the book it was easiest for me to align myself with Celestial's personality and thought process, but that waned as she started to hide behind Andre more and have him deal with her problems (read: Roy). But Roy's imprisonment and release force everyone connected to him to reveal themselves in one way or another, so I suppose even Celestial couldn't help but be changed.

All in all, I'll say that An American Marriage is a book that no one should deny themselves the pleasure of reading. It's a messy love story but also an indictment of the American justice system and prison industrial complex. A collection of traumas and the ripple effects that are created when a marriage is ruptured by the harvesting of yet another black body by the state. A mix of love lives, misunderstandings, and family tensions, but also a tenderly raw tale of consequences, duty, and healing. It's my absolute favorite of the books I've read this year. If you care about Black people, enjoy reading treatises on love and relationships, know anyone who's gone to prison, love your mom, have ever had to make a difficult decision, or enjoy being a bystander to gossip, then this is for you!

Favorite quotes:
"Up until now, I thought I knew what was and wasn't possible. Maybe that's what innocence is, having no way to predict the pain of the future. When something happens that eclipses the imaginable, it changes a person. It's like the difference between a raw egg and a scrambled egg. It's the same thing, but it's not the same at all. That's the best way that I can put it" (41).
"He was gone, and I was gone, too. It was like I slipped on a patch of ice on a dark road inside my own mind" (54).
"I urge you not to disconnect from the people who remind you of the life you once had and the life you want to live again" (86). 
"I never had a chance, did I? I only thought I did" (278).

"What unkindness showed me that she loved me by revealing the ways that she didn't love me?... What cruelty revealed that she cared by making me understand the limits of the same?" (300).

Masks by Fumiko Enchi
(Translated from Japanese by Juliet Winters Carpenter)

Ibuki is a professor and Mikame is a psychologist. They're college friends and run in the same poetry and literature circles as middle-aged widow Mieko Togano and her daughter-in-law Yasuko, who's also a widow. Both Ibuki and Mikame are infatuated with Yasuko, and as they both vie for her affections, they become more curious about her mother-in-law, who seems to influence (if not outright control) everything that Yasuko does. Mieko's perpetually serene, composed, and graceful persona is indeed a facade, but they have no idea about her real plans, which enfold all four of them in something that will never be forgotten.

There's the obvious metaphor of masks, which represents how women often hide their true intentions. Not in the sense that they're inherently devious or corruptive, as traditional lore from virtually all cultures have tried to claim. But in the sense that, so long as women's livelihoods has been shaped by their ability to curry and maintain favor with the men around them, women have consequently had to swallow their hurt, passion, anger, and desires and channel them into other forms of expression. For Mieko, that happens to be feigning modesty while manipulating people and events behind the scenes. But beyond the obvious metaphor, I appreciate how Fumiko Enchi uses the meanings of Noh theatre masks to bring attention to common stereotypes and ideals of women which in turn shape how readers characterize Mieko and Yasuko. The first part of the novel is titled after "Ryō no Onna", a Noh mask that represents the vengeful spirit of an older woman tormented by unrequited love. The second part "Masugami" is named after the mask of a beautiful young madwoman, which could refer to Yasuko but probably more directly references a different character whom I won't mention. And then the third and last part is titled "Fukai", the mask of an older woman with a deep, unsearchable heart. Again, Mieko.

This novel is so smart. It opens with Ibuki and Mikame, and most of the passages are written from their perspectives so it's so easy to only notice what they notice, especially as it concerns Yasuko and Mieko. I admit, I fell for it and was blindsided when I realized what the two women are really up to. But even after the deed is done in the book, I still have so many questions. Is Yasuko as desperate to get away from Mieko as she claims? At what point does she change her mind, and is this her own decision or yet another effect of Mieko's covert influence? Is she only pretending to be a damsel in distress in order to distract the men and inflate their egos? If Mieko is motivated by vengeance, how does it serve her to trick one of the men into [redacted]? Neither Ibuki nor Mikame did anything to her, so how does this deception function as revenge? Or will any man do, so long as she can use him for her own purposes? And if Mieko is so bitter about how her late husband treated her, wouldn't it make more sense for her to act out that bitterness by ending the Togano family name rather than scheming to prolong it? Or is it less about the Togano name and more about ensuring that evidence of her rebellion against her husband lives on after her?

If you appreciate subversive women characters, enjoy reading academic writing about literature and/or spirit possession, can deal with books that don't answer all questions, and are interested in women and gender studies within a Japanese context, then read this novel!

Favorite quotes:
"Just as there is an archetype of woman as the object of man's eternal love, so there must be an archetype of her as the object of his eternal fear, representing, perhaps, the shadow of his own evil actions" (57).

"What are patriarchal notions of blood and family to a man who has given his child you for a mother?... I am not int the least sorry to have loved you... I want to tell you once again that I feel no lingering sense of guilt, no ugly scar on my heart; and that I sense heaven's blessing in this tangible fruition of our love" (105).

"Sometimes it's better to be the one not chosen" (129).

Thursday, September 6, 2018

BOOKS! (Marriage of a Thousand Lies + Convenience Store Woman)

Today I have two books recommended to me by the internet. Let's get right to it!

Marriage of a Thousand Lies by SJ Sindu

If I remember correctly, I was killing time on Goodreads one day and somehow came across a 5-star review that Roxane Gay (An Untamed State, Bad Feminist) wrote for this book, one which I hadn't previously heard of. I'm not sure which sold me on the novel more, the Roxane Gay stamp of approval or the premise of two closeted South Asian people marrying each other to act as each other's beards. Either way, Marriage of a Thousand Lies turned out to be one of my favorite reads this year! I'm so glad I took a chance on it.

Most of her life, Lucky (nickname for Lakshmi), has gotten through life by following her Sri Lankan immigrant parents' expectations, or at least by maintaining the appearance of such while keeping certain truths a secret. One of those truths is that she's gay. She's married to a respectable young man named Kris (Krishna) whom she became friends with in college. Kris is also gay. Their marriage, while a facade, allows them to pursue their respective love lives without being ostracized by their Boston area Sri Lankan community or being cut off financially by their parents. Living with Kris in Connecticut provides a comfortable distance as well. But when Lucky returns to her hometown to help take care of her ailing grandmother, the burden of being closeted weighs more heavily than ever when she learns that her childhood best friend and first love, Nisha, is engaged to marry a man. Lucky assists with Nisha's engagement and wedding preparations, and the two women resume their sexual relationship in the process.

Though they are both closeted, it seems that Nisha hasn't fully embraced her sexuality, and the stress of wedding planning only makes it more difficult for her to make up her mind. One minute Nisha wants Lucky to be her escape from the life that's been pre-planned for her, the next minute she's standoffish and can't bear to face the disapproval of their community or be shunned by her parents. And although Lucky tries to resist her feelings as well, she remains deeply in love with Nisha and weathers each heartbreak and disappointment in hopes that maybe one day they can be together without Nisha waffling from the fear of what people will think. Their rekindled relationship forces both of them to painfully confront the reality and potential consequences of their same-sex attraction. But while this eventually leads Lucky to greater self-acceptance rather than self-destruction, Nisha's wedding day looms and neither of them are sure which path Nisha will choose. I'll let y'all read the book to find out.

So much blunt, heartfelt, sometimes sarcastic, sometimes subtle, and sometimes devastating prose in this book. So much valuable insight on being brown and gay. I think it was necessary for SJ Sindu to delineate the strong (though not unmarred) ties that Lucky has with her family, in order to demonstrate how the ideal of living one's life and forsaking the opinions of others can be a specifically terrifying prospect for many children of South Asian immigrants. Even if they're grown or aren't on the best of terms with their family anyway, some still can't help craving their family's approval or literally needing it for financial and social survival. Oh, and props to Sindu for randomly (not completely random within the plot, just a pleasant surprise) having Lucky drive to Louisville, Kentucky to locate her estranged sister! My mom's city almost never gets a shout-out in literature, so this novel gets extra points just for that. If you're interested in LGBTQ literature, Sri Lankan culture, struggles of first-generation Americans, family drama, or tortured love stories, then this book is for you!

Favorite quotes:
"Most people think the closet is a small room. They think you can touch the walls, touch the door, turn the handle, and walk free. But when you're inside it, the closet is vast. No walls, no door, just empty darkness stretching the length of the world" (25). 

"I want to be part of the mess, wonderful chaos and movement, a purpose I haven't felt in my muscles for much too long. I haven't danced in ages and this is like scratching an itch deep under the skin. I remember what it's like to movelike something ballooning inside of me, like I'm going to expand and expand and become the air" (57).

"Art isn't small. Don't try to fit it into your fist" (74).

"I want to think so, believe she ran away for a reason that lasted" (215).

Convenience Store Woman by Sayaka Murata
(Translated by Ginny Tapley Takemori)

Just like Pachinko, I learned about this novel through a Japan Times article that I happened upon. Apparently this novel was a hit in Japan, and the English translation of this book was highly anticipated. The main character Keiko has never been "normal", having learned since childhood to adapt to social mores but not understanding or caring about them enough to practice them in her own life. To most people, her abnormality is exemplified by the fact that she's worked at the same convenience store for nearly 20 years and hasn't tried to get a "real" job or get married and start a family in all that time. She enjoys working in an uncomplicated environment, and she doesn't earn a ton of money but has enough to live a quiet life on her own. At some point, Keiko receives an unignorable amount of judgment and pressure to conform from her family, friends, and coworkers, to the point that she finds herself a live-in boyfriend just to get everyone off her back. She doesn't care about pleasing them, but also doesn't want to cause them further distress if her living or not living a certain way really means that much to them. Ironically, who she chooses to pose as her boyfriend and the arrangement that they have only add to the absurdity.

I was ready to be enthralled by this book, but something about it is... off. I think the writing style is what threw me the most. Not sure if that has to more to do with the original text or the English translation. There are certain turns of phrase that seem really awkward and unnatural, but perhaps they're just unfamiliar to me because I'm American (not up on British-isms yet, sorry). Overall I do appreciate that Murata poses the question of why people are so obsessed with normalcy and why they insist on invasively ensuring that other people live in the same presumably acceptable ways that they do. Like seriously, why is one's humanity defined by how normal they can claim to be? If you like reading about people who choose the road less traveled (not in a pretentious way), and what that means for women in Japan especially, then read this book.

Favorite quotes:
"I find the shape of people's eyes particularly interesting when they're being condescending. I see a wariness or a fear of being contradicted or sometimes a belligerent spark ready to jump on any attack. And if they're unaware of being condescending, their glazed-over eyeballs are steeped in a fluid mix of ecstasy and a sense of superiority" (65-66).

"I want to spend my whole life doing nothing. For my whole life, until I die, I want to just breathe without anyone interfering in my life. That's all I wish for" (108).

Saturday, September 1, 2018

Life Update (Hello September!)

Welcome to September, everybody!

It hasn't escaped me that I've been writing less and less every year since starting this blog in 2013. During the first three years I was writing hundreds of posts every year, and from 2016 onward it's decreased to the double digits. This year's number is the lowest ever. There are a few reasons for this, one of them being that when I started this blog I was still in college: had just turned 20, was up to more things then, and so had more to write about. Another reason is that since graduating I've tried to focus my writing on book reviews, J-drama reviews, and my travels. I'm not sure that my life or personality are interesting enough in themselves to sustain writing about them all the time (and again, I have a lot less going on now), so I don't write about personal things or random thoughts/opinions as much as I used to because—Who cares? Who needs to know?  But I still love writing, this blog is still special to me and is still very much "my thing", and I come here when I can. Most of 2018 has kind of worn me down so motivating myself has been difficult, but I'm in a much better place at the moment.

Well. Today is the 1st of September, which is the unofficial beginning of autumn in many people's minds here (but I still maintain that summer isn't officially over for another 3 weeks; y'all spend all year pining for summer and then when it's here you rush to make it more fleeting than it needs to be!). Since I barely wrote anything this summer, I thought to post a life update just so whoever's reading this knows that I'm still here, I'm still alive, I'm still writing. So here goes:

  • I started a podcast! Got the idea for it in May and launched it on Juneteenth (June 19th). It's called Young, Gifted and Abroad and in each episode I interview a different person of color about their study abroad experiences. Hence, "Perspectives on studying abroad from past and present students of color". We'll be at 12 episodes come this Tuesday! I initially started it because I was bored and frustrated and wanted to feel like I was still capable of doing things, and now working on it every week keeps me going. Plus all my guests have been lovely! Listen to the podcast here: 
  • My cousin (also the very first guest on the podcast) got married in July, and I was called at the last minute by another cousin to sing in the wedding. I had about four hours to learn the song ("You and I" by O'Bryan), but that actually worked to my advantage because I didn't have enough time to think myself out of it. It was so much fun! I hadn't performed since 2016, and it's been sort of a passive goal of mine to try performing again in 2018. And I did! Haven't performed again since then, but hey, I've still got four months left to put myself out there this year.
  • As of early August, I am now in between jobs. It's really for the best though. I felt like it was time to move on, and even though things are kind of uncertain right now, I feel more hopeful and at greater peace than I have in a really long time. Since I put in my notice in July, I've been surrounded by immense love, calm, assurance, and relief (joy, even?) coming from such delightfully random and not-so-random directions, so I honestly do feel like I made the right decision. Just praying that the Lord will hold my hand and that nothing that's for me will pass me by.
  • I just came back from spending 10 days in the Bay Area visiting a friend. She kept saying this year that I could come her way if I needed a break, so I took her up on it. It was more of a suburban vacation than a high-flying adventure, but I still had a wonderful time and learned some much-needed lessons. Check the photos out here: All dogs are BAYbies
What are my plans? I have more reviews coming and more podcast episodes coming. I'd like to make more artist friends so that I can become more confident and active musically. I'd like to get a good setup going with remote/freelance work (translation, editing, proofreading, transcription, maybe even writing) so I can see what that lifestyle is like. I had to go to an office almost every day for my 9-5, but personnel changes and time zone differences basically had me working remotely while at the office, and I enjoy the idea of being trusted to do what I need to do in solitude. Beyond that, I have no clue. But I'm open!

Here's to better, whatever that comes to mean.