Wednesday, March 25, 2020

BOOKS! (The Wedding Party + My First Five Husbands)

I just finished the longest book I've read in a while yesterday (more about that on another day), and I have three other finished reads waiting for me to review them, so I feel like I'm on a roll right now! Today I'm writing about two of those reads that I've kept waiting, and both of them focus heavily on love. Coincidentally, I also bought each of them in Louisville during the 2019 holiday season. The first is a romance novel written by a Black woman (yes, for the first time ever on this blog I am reviewing a romance novel!). The second is the incredibly detailed autobiography of an actress who starred in one of my favorite TV shows ever.

The Wedding Party  by Jasmine Guillory

Perhaps it's just the magic of the promotional cycle, but last year Jasmine Guillory's name kept popping up in my usual Internet haunts, even though I hadn't previously known she existed and also had no interest in reading romance novels at that point. (Romance fell into the same bucket as YA in that they're both genres that little Danielle, always-reads-beyond-her-grade-level-and-is-too-sophisticated-of-a-reader-to-indulge-in-fluff Danielle, decided were beneath her. I'm yet mending my snobbish ways, I promise!) The Nod, a podcast I was regularly listening to, re-released/re-visited a previous episode featuring Guillory that I'd somehow missed the first time around. I sometimes lurk on Roxane Gay's Twitter account, and she too sang Guillory's praises last year, going so far as to re-post her glowing 5-star Goodreads review for The Wedding Date (Guillory's first novel in her series of the same name). So last Black Friday in Louisville when Ma and I were looking for baby shower gifts for my cousin at Target, and I wandered over to the books section to find The Wedding Party, I figured this was my time to try something new. Ma raised an eyebrow at me like, "You sure?" when she saw the book I'd chosen, because even she knows that romance isn't usually my thing. But this time it was, and I'm so glad that I took a chance on this book!

Not gonna lie, I specifically chose The Wedding Party (book #3 in the series) because both of the featured lovers are Black. At the time of this writing, all but one of Guillory's other books feature Black women in interracial relationships, which is more than fine. But if I was going to give her work a try, then for me it was important to read a romance story about two Black people. Plus, the "these two people hate each other but also can't resist each other" concept seemed to be the most interesting and entertaining out of the available options. Main characters Maddie Forest and Theo Stephens are extremely close friends of Alexa, the protagonist of The Wedding Date who's now preparing to marry her boo. They absolutely love Alexa, but they can't stand each other. Maddie, a stylist on the rise, thinks Theo is boring and pretentious. Theo, the communications director for the mayor of Berkeley, thinks Maddie is shallow and only cares about outward appearances. Helping with wedding planning has them seeing each other more frequently, and eventually they start having sex on a regular basis. And they make an agreement: this is just sex, it'll last only until Alexa's wedding, and Alexa must never know lest things get awkward or Alexa tries to pressure them into dating each other for real. As you might guess, Alexa's interference isn't needed, because Maddie and Theo start falling for each other despite themselves and the "rules" they created for their situationship.

On screen and in books, popular/mainstream romance stories tend to follow a similar formula or set of formulas. And so to an extent, The Wedding Party is somewhat predictable. Of course Maddie and Theo are in a committed relationship by the end of the novel; that's just how it goes, and that's what we expect. But April Wolfe, a former co-host of a film review podcast I enjoy called Maximum Film! (formerly Who Shot Ya?) said something about storytelling that sticks with me to this day: It's not always about what happens, but how it happens. In other words, even if the ending of a story is common or predictable, what matters most is how we get there. And I think Guillory does a remarkable job of building onto each interaction that Maddie and Theo have, cultivating their attraction and involvement with each other gradually. I also appreciate how she uses the couple to demonstrate how misplaced and just plain way-off our assumptions about others can be, especially within the context of these two Black professionals who've become adept at hiding their childhood struggles. Aside from the exhilarating sex that Maddie and Theo have (Jasmine Guillory is also very good at writing sex scenes, in case you were wondering), their growing ability to be vulnerable with each other and give each other grace is the true mark of their progress.

If you enjoy "enemy turned lover" or "more alike than different" stories, dislike your best friend's other friends, have a secret talent, enjoy eating pizza A LOT, are fond of the Bay Area, are a career-driven person, are in the mood for a laugh, or you just want to read a romance novel that features mostly Black characters and is also written by a Black woman, then read this book!

Favorite quotes:
"Don't think that I'm trying to be modest here—it sure as hell was my idea and it never would have happened without me—but I needed everyone here and more to make it happen" (37).

"She'd told him so much. About her struggles, about her goals for herself, about why she was the person she was. Had he ever listened to her? Or had he just been waiting for his turn to talk?" (281).

"I always thought I had to be perfect, I could never make a misstep, or everything would come crashing down, but I guess I was wrong about that? I could have been fucking up for years!" (303).

My First Five Husbands... And the Ones Who Got Away  by Rue McClanahan

'The Golden Girls' is one of my favorite shows of all time. Before I write anything else about this book, you have to know that about me. I. LOVE. THE GOLDEN GIRLS. Of the four main characters, I wouldn't say that Blanche (played by Rue McClanahan) is my favorite, but any true GG fan knows that she's an essential part of the cast. So the day after last Christmas when I was combing my way through the aisles of a Book Warehouse near Louisville, and I spotted an orange book cover with a name and face that looked familiar, I couldn't help but gasp! Gasp, clutch the book to my chest, and then carry it tightly in the crook of my arm until I'd finished making all of my selections. No one, and I mean no one, was taking this copy of Rue McClanahan's memoir from me.

In all honesty, I assumed that this book would be fluff. So many celebrities put out books, and often they're just... you know what I mean? And that didn't matter to me! I was in the mood for a fun read, I was delighted to have found out that Rue McClanahan wrote a memoir, and I love reading memoirs anyway, so I was willing to accept this book for whatever it turned out to be. Bring on the fluff, I was ready for it! But I was truly impressed by My First Five Husbands. Not only is it well-written—Rue sure knows how to tell a story, and she has so many of them—but Rue manages to weave her life story, her career trajectory, and her romantic history together seamlessly. And the title of the book is not bait. Over the span of her adult life, Rue McClanahan did indeed get married to five different men (and then married a sixth), was proposed to at least seven times, and had various boyfriends and casual flings in between (including Robert Guillaume!). Born as Eddi-Rue in Oklahoma in 1934, Rue had anxiety and a fear of abandonment that went unaddressed until she was grown. As an actor and dancer who could sing a little too, she pursued her career largely in New York and LA artist circles where sexual norms were more relaxed. And frankly, she enjoyed men's company and sex was fun for her (you better believe she rates each of the men she mentions having sex with in this book). All of this led to Rue making some impulsive and sometimes desperate decisions, and clinging to mostly terrible men. Only two of the five husbands she discusses aren't completely terrible, and it's implied that she finally got it right with her sixth and last husband.

Of course Rue makes sufficient mention of 'The Golden Girls' too, but she's understandably discreet about whatever drama might have happened behind the scenes. She also emphasizes that while she and her character Blanche have a few things in common, most people don't know Rue like they think they do. And I can only imagine the research and strength of memory that must have gone into this book, to be able to mention so many people by name the way she does, the whole way through! Like Anna Deavere Smith does in Letters to a Young Artist, Rue doesn't merely name-drop for the sake of name-dropping. Performers, especially working actors, meet all kinds of people as part of the job, and all the people that Rue met influenced her life and her decisions in some way. Furthermore, she's honest about her failures and setbacks, she's real about the struggle to have longevity as an actress (especially for moms), and she's serious about her art and the people she loves. You can tell from this memoir that she just... she's gone through so much, and she cares so much! She actually gives a crap! My First Five Husbands was published in 2007, and Rue passed away in 2010. And when I finished this book, my immediate first thought was, What a vibrant and vulnerable gift. What a gift Rue McClanahan was, and what a gift she's given us through her memoir.

Favorite quotes:
"Promise me that if you take one thing away from this little journey of mine, it will be to henceforth and forevermore always summon the wit to say, 'Let me think it over.' Repeat after me: Let me think it over. If only those words had come out of my mouth!" (35).

"Meanwhile, this Little Miss Nobody was clawing her way up a very roughly graveled mountain, with hundreds—no, thousands—of other Little Miss Nobodies right beside her. And some of them had good connections! Dear reader, it was monumentally difficult. And for any aspiring actress who may be reading this, best she should know what it can really be like. Murderous!... but for me it simply wasn't an alternative. This was do or die. I had the talent, I had the drive, and I knew it was only a matter of time and luck. Unless Life intended to play some monstrous joke on me, that is" (140-141).

"I struggled to assimilate the information he was giving me, grateful to know that a deeply concerned but comfortingly practical Morrow was waiting for me in the reception area. The person you need with you at an event like this is a producer, not a director. Someone who will take action instead of telling you how to feel" (330).

Friday, March 6, 2020

ドラマ (Dorama) Time! 22 - pt. 2

Here are the remaining three of the five dramas that I started in early 2019 and completed just this week (haha). You read part 1, now let's get to part 2!

3年A組 - 今から皆さんは、人質です-  (3-nen A-gumi: Ima kara Mina-san wa, Hitojichi Desu/Year 3 Class A: From Now On, You Are All My Hostages/Mr. Hiiragi's Classroom) - NTV/2019
  • Hiiragi Ibuki (Suda Masaki) is a high school art teacher and the homeroom teacher for the third-year (3-nen) students who are in Class A (A-gumi). The school's star swimmer, Reina, has recently committed suicide after being bullied and falsely accused of using performance-enhancing drugs.
  • One day, Hiiragi detonates a bomb inside the school that cuts off his classroom from other parts of the building; now no one can enter or leave. He holds his students hostage, telling them that he won't release them until they confess to who was behind making and spreading the fake video that prompted Reina to kill herself.
  • Over the 10 days that Hiiragi holds his students hostage, he frequently posts and broadcasts on a social media site called "Mind Voice" in order to get the police and the public's attention.
This show, to borrow from Brandon and Justin of the Medium Podcorn movie review podcast, is "cuckoo bananas". It's not a bad show, and it has a really important message about the powerful ills of social media and how people should use their words for good. Suda Masaki even flexes his acting chops in an extended monologue where he's pleading, begging, beseeching the viewers of his livestream to change their ways and recognize how their online comments can have deathly consequences. But I just couldn't get over the glaringly-unaddressed Stockholm syndrome aspect of it all. I mean, come on! Hiiragi threatens to blow the kids up if they don't do what he wants, multiple times! He beats the crap out of a couple of the male students! He stages deaths and makes his students think they're watching their classmates die! He traumatizes those kids, but they all bond during it and learn to become more thoughtful people as a result, so it's for their own good in the end? Nah. There's a point about halfway in the show where the students have the option to escape, but they decide not to, because now they believe in helping Hiiragi uncover the truth of what happened to Reina? Nah, I just can't get with it. I only picked this show because I was curious about how it would play out, and I was interested in seeing Suda Masaki play something more intriguing than the writer-turned-model boyfriend character that I last saw him as in 'Jimi ni Sugoi!' (2016).  If you want an entertaining high school-themed show that keeps you guessing about what's going to happen next and has a smattering of social commentary in it, then '3-nen A-gumi' should be fine. But if you start thinking about things a little too much, you'll ruin it for yourself.

大恋愛 - 僕を忘れる君と -  (Dai Renai: Boku wo Wasureru Kimi to/Great Love: Together with You Who Will Forget Me/Don't Forget Me) - TBS/2018
  • Kitazawa Nao (Toda Erika) is a doctor who runs a women's clinic with her mom, who is also a doctor. Nao is engaged to marry a fellow doctor (a neurologist named Yuichi), when she meets Mamiya Shinji, a former novelist who now works for a moving company.
  • While helping Nao move into her new apartment, Shinji discovers that she owns his only successful novel, which was published 20 years ago. He doesn't reveal that he's her favorite author until later, and eventually Nao dumps Yuichi to be in a relationship with Shinji instead.
  • It's discovered that Nao has early-onset Alzheimer's disease, and Shinji suggests ending the relationship because he believes Nao's ex and her mom can care for her better than he can. During their time apart, Shinji publishes a new novel that becomes a huge bestseller. He and Nao reunite, deciding to get married and face the progression of her alzheimer's together no matter how hard it gets.
Toda Erika ('REVERSE') sho' nuff knows she can act! My goodness! ...Okay, just had to get that out first. I can't remember exactly why I chose this show. I don't think it was Toda Erika, skilled though she may be. Maybe it was because it seemed similar to 'Boku no Ita Jikan' (2014) or 'Algernon ni Hanataba wo' (2015) in that the main character succumbs to a progressive and incurable disease over time? I don't know. What matters is that this show is brilliant! A number of the latter episodes end in such a way that any one of them would've made a viable final episode for the show. In fact, a lesser show would've ended when Nao and Shinji get married. But not so! 'Dai Renai' leads us through the entire life cycle of their relationship, from the moment they meet in Nao's apartment, to when they reunite and get married, to later on when.... well, you'll have to get to that part on your own. My point is that the way the show actually does end is a heartbreaking but conclusive and fitting finish to a story that was full and complete the whole way through. And how often does that happen, you know? This is a love story that feels genuine but isn't overly sappy, and unlike 'Boku no Ita Jikan', it won't leave you in a complete puddle on the floor. You still might cry though, so have some tissues on deck just in case.

アンナチュラル (Unnatural) - TBS/2018
  • Misumi Mikoto (Ishihara Satomi) is a forensic pathologist on a lab team called UDI that's hired to investigate when people seem to have died from unnatural causes. By conducting autopsies, running various scientific tests, and using their own investigative reasoning skills, Misumi and her colleagues often do the work that criminal investigators are unable or unwilling to do. 
  • One of Misumi's colleagues is an intern named Kube, a part-time journalist for a shady publishing house, who's secretly using his UDI intel as source material for articles. Another of Misumi's colleagues is Nakado, a rude and gruff autopsy doctor who's obsessed with finding the person who killed his girlfriend years ago. And of course, Misumi has a secret past of her own.
  • Will Kube's secret activities be found out? Will Nakado get the revenge he seeks? What about Misumi's past motivates her to do this job? And how many possible ways are there for people to die? You gotta watch to find out!
I can't remember why I picked this show either, but it probably boiled down to the fact that Ishihara Satomi ('Takane no Hana') is the lead. As I've mentioned on multiple occasions, she's one of my favorite Japanese actresses, and I'm likely to give any drama she's in a try. And sure, the 'CSI'/murder mystery element of 'Unnatural' is not new. The show 'Galileo' (2007) comes to mind, and though it was a massive hit when it aired in Japan, I wasn't wowed by it when I saw it. But 'Unnatural' kept my attention the whole way through! Maybe it's my Ishihara Satomi bias, maybe it's the fact that I don't watch these types of shows often that makes this one stand out, or maybe this show really is just that good! Whichever it is, I have no complaints. I will say that 'Unnatural' is probably not the best option for people who are uncomfortable seeing body stuff on screen (dead bodies, body parts, blood/other bodily fluids) or violent death scenes. UDI solves many cases, but the show's moreso about how the team works behind the scenes, so if that co-worker or friendship element is of interest to you, then give this show a try.

For my favorite of the bunch this time around, I'm gonna give it to 'Boukyaku no Sachiko', with 'Dai Renai' at a close second. 'Boukyaku' has it all: the heartbreak, the gradual recovery, the food porn, the literary element, the camaraderie, the comedy, the randomness, and most importantly Takahata Mitsuki thoroughly sells it as the titular character. If I were more of a hopeless romantic I probably would choose 'Dai Renai', but again, I stand by my sentiment that that show is brilliant in its own right. Now I'm off to find more J-dramas to watch. Hopefully it won't take me until 2021 to write about them... we'll see!

ドラマ (Dorama) Time! 22 - pt. 1

I'm finally back with a new J-drama review! Pretty soon after posting my last review back in January 2019, I actually started five dramas from 2018 and 2019 that I was really interested in. But it took me a while to watch them all, and I didn't finish the last of them until three days ago. So I guess much of me returning to this blog in 2020 entails picking things up where I left off, and taking the time to not leave things unfinished. For part 1 of this roundup, I'll be writing about the two shows that had shorter episodes than the other ones (about 30 minutes long compared to the typical 45).

フルーツ宅配便 (Fruits Takuhaibin/Fruits Delivery Service) - TV Tokyo/2019
  • Sakita Shinichi loses his job in Tokyo, moves back to his hometown, and gets hired to work for a company that dispatches female sex workers to local hotels at male clients' requests. The women who work for this company are given names of fruit as nicknames, hence the "fruit" in "Fruits Takuhaibin".
  • Though Sakita is the main character, each of the 12 episodes focuses on a different woman who works for Fruits Takuhaibin (similar format to 'Blanket Cats' from 2017). Episodes usually explore why these women are doing this work, and what pressures they face that could put their jobs in jeopardy. (They're not allowed to have actual intercourse with clients or have relationships with them outside of work, but some clients arrogantly assume they can make the women to do whatever they want for the right price.)
  • As "manager", Sakita's job is to book reservations for the women, and drive them to and from the clients' hotels safely. He doesn't tell his family or his friends about his job, but he considers being more upfront about it when he realizes thatminor spoiler alert!his best friend Emi is a sex worker for one of the more brutal and cut-throat sex businesses in town. 
The theme of sex work is what drew me to this show. I was most curious about whether the characters would be portrayed as shameful and dirty, or if they would be given more respect and compassion than that. Thankfully, it's the latter! Though the show has some intense or even bleak moments, it also frequently has a comedic and tender tone. Fruits Takuhaibin seems to be the only sex service in town that treats women more like people than commodities. The staff Sakita works with are kind and caring, the women can refuse to see clients whom they no longer feel comfortable with, and even Misuji (the no-nonsense owner of the company) is somewhat lenient in his approach when firing certain women for breaking the rules. I only have two gripes. First, while things get better for Sakita as he comes to terms with this industry and realizes that helping sex workers feel safe and supported is what he wants to do with is life, nothing really gets significantly better for any of the women. The consistent consolation for pretty much every woman featured in each respective episode is basically, "keep your head up and things will get better for you some day, somehow", which... feels a little hollow. Second, there's a gratuitously violent thing that happens to Emi in the final episode that didn't seem to serve any purpose besides shock value, and I think we could've done without that. But overall, I was pleased with this show.

忘却のサチコ (Boukyaku no Sachiko: A Meal Makes Her Forget) - TV Tokyo/2018
  • Ever since Sasaki Sachiko was dumped on her wedding day and her would-be groom Shungo disappeared, all she can think about is what went wrong and where Shungo might be. She can't even pronounce the word "kekkon" (marriage) without stuttering, that's how torn up she is.
  • Sachiko realizes that she briefly stops thinking about Shungo whenever she's eating delicious food. So in addition to digging even more deeply into her work as a literary magazine editor, she throws herself into trying all the delicious foods she can find, from Tokyo to Miyazaki. But of course, she can't help but look for signs of Shungo along the way.
  • Will Sachiko ever see Shungo again? Will she be able to get over him if she can't find him? Will food solve all of her problems in the meantime? Gotta watch the show and see!
I hadn't realized until after I started watching this show that it was based on a manga of the same name, which makes the show's physical comedy and style of humor make a lot more sense. I also hadn't realized at first that I'd seen the lead actress before: Takahata Mitsuki played the mean girl in 'Mondai no Aru Restaurant' (2015)! She played that role just fine, but I was so incredibly impressed by the cleverness and sense of timing she displays in 'Boukyaku no Sachiko'. Sachiko's kind of awkward and the show's a little wackyat one point she and another character break into a full-on musical number extolling the virtues of onigiri, and that's just in episode 2. But I couldn't help but become endeared to Sachiko and sympathize with what she's going through. She's intensely serious most of the time (her huge eyes don't blink that often and her lips are often pursed), she's great at her job and is well-respected by her colleagues and clients, and for everything she's got going for her she just can't get over yearning for explanations and a second chance in the face of a major personal disappointment... Hmm. Perhaps I liked Sachiko so much because she is basically me, haha! But that's neither here nor there. This show is shot well, it's funny, and you get to ogle at a variety of dishes and cuisines that are available in Japan. If you enjoyed a similar food-themed show called 'Samurai Gourmet' (2017), and if you remember Herbal Essence's orgasmic shampoo commercials from the 1990s and early 2000s, then you've got Sachiko's food scenes in a nutshell. It's all in good fun!

Make sure to check out part 2 of this J-drama review to read about the other three shows that I watched over the past year, and to find out which one is my favorite of them all!