Saturday, September 17, 2022

BOOKS! (The Fifth Season)

Sometimes your friends suggest stuff to you and they're actually right. You think you won't be down for it, but they're right. Like, seriously right. I didn't get it back in December 2021 when I started this novel, and honestly still didn't fully get it when I passed the halfway point at the end of August this year, but I get it now. Last December my dear friend Sho was visiting from Tokyo, and we met up at a Korean cafe for some boba (for them) and bingsu (for me). They surprised me with a box set of N.K. Jemisin's Broken Earth trilogy as a Christmas gift, with the disclaimer that they knew sci-fi and fantasy aren't usually my thing, but they genuinely thought I might enjoy this book series as much as they did, and hoped I would give it a try. So, to humor my friend and show gratitude for their thoughtfulness, I started reading book 1 (The Fifth Season) that same month, and then progressed through it leisurely all 2022. But something happened in chapter 13 that had me picking up speed this month. And then from chapter 17 onward I literally could not stop. I needed to know what would happen next, and next, and next.
 
I stayed up all night Thursday finishing The Fifth Seasonaltogether it's 449 pages divided into 23 chapters, plus a few interludesrested and let the book marinate in my mind on Friday, and here I am Saturday writing this review. And I do get it now! Sho was so right! I'm writing about this novel on its own because it's taken me nine months to finish it, and its meatiness requires my undivided attention. This review will be as long as it wants to be. This review will also be overflowing with spoilers, because I'm using it to piece things together so I can dive into book 2 with my head on straight. (Although I suspect there's no way to prepare for what N.K. Jemisin has in store in that one.) In fact, this might be the most spoilerific book review I've ever written; I'm explaining the book to y'all as I explain it to myself.

The Fifth Season by N.K. Jemisin
 
In this book's universe, the entire world consists of a single continent called the Stillness (think a re-formed Pangaea, except it's faintly shaped like Africa). People live in all different types of communities ("comms") depending on their geographic location, and their full names are arranged by their given name (first), their "use name" based on their skill/occupation group (middle), and the comm they come from (last). Every few centuries or so, environmental disasters (especially but not exclusively earthquakes or "shakes") happen of such magnitude that they set off a period where conditions become inhospitable for most human, animal, and plant life, and comms are destroyed or reshuffled. These periods are called "The Fifth Season" or simply "a Season", capital S. (Think an extended winter like The Long Night in 'Game of Thrones', except it happens multiple times and each Season is given its own name.) Humanity basically has to start over again once conditions become stable, with survivors establishing a new civilization to replace or pick up from where the previous civilizations (or "deadcivs") left off. Much reference is made to stonelore, the preeminent sacred textor mere folklore, depending on if people believe it or not—and historical record of this world. In the current civilization within The Fifth Season, the Stillness is united as an empire, with the imperial capital and biggest city being Yumenes (population: seven million).
 
In this universe, there are people born with the power to sense and manipulate the environment around them, which is most often expressed through their ability to start, stop, and divert earthquakes. These people are called "orogenes", their power is called "orogeny", and people who don't have this power (the majority of the population) are called "stills". Because their power can be unpredictable and isn't fully understood, orogenes are treated like monsters by most stills, and regarded as dangerous weapons by the empire. To make that danger useful, the empire has established the Fulcrum, an enormous, heavily-guarded military complex within Yumenesa city within a city, reallywhere orogenes live, work, and are trained from childhood to use their powers to serve the public. After completing school (or "creche"), they wear official black uniforms and acquire rings that signify their skill level as their careers progress (ten-ringers are the highest rank). Orogenes who aren't born and raised in the Fulcrum, aren't able to live in peace in other comms, and are young enough to be trained, are often located and corralled to the Fulcrum by "Guardians", CIA agent/slave catcher mash-ups who wear unsettling smiles and burgundy uniforms. (Guardians also live and work in the Fulcrum. They're the children of orogenes who don't have orogeny, but are genetically predisposed and surgically-modified to be able to counteract orogeny instead. In other words, their job is to ensure orogenes fear them, obey them, and never become too powerful. Any Guardian can exercise this authority over any orogene, but each orogene also has their own specific Guardian who's assigned to them for life.) Also in this universe, there are gigantic, man-made, upside-down, hexagonal crystal obelisks of varying colors floating around the continent. No one remembers why they exist, but they become important later.
 
The Fifth Season opens with a prologue where an as-yet-unnamed orogene man and his companion (a mysterious creature called a "stone eater" who isn't human but can make herself appear like one) look over Yumenes before said man, intending to break the world, creates an earthquake that destroys the capital and sets off a new Season. The chapters after that follow any one of our three main characters, who are each orogene women/girls. In the order that they're introduced:

Essun. A 42-year-old wife, mother, and schoolteacher in a comm called Tirimo, where she's been passing as a still for the past 10 years. The only people who know her secret are her friend Lerna (a doctor) and her two young children who are orogenes just like her. The day of the Yumenes quake, but before its reverberations would have hit Tirimo, Essun finds her almost-three-year-old son Uche dead at home, and her daughter Nassun (older than Uche) missing. (Presumably, at least as Essun has deduced, her husband Jija discovered that Uche was orogene and beat him to death, then fled with Nassun in tow.) While mourning over her son's body, she diverts the Yumenes quake away from Tirimo when she senses ("sesses") it coming, but this tips off everyone else in town that she's orogene, and she has to flee the comm because they're biggots (and because she needs to find her daughter). She then heads southward, in the opposite direction of Yumenes, and is gradually accompanied by a little boy named Hoa (a stone eater) and a trans woman named Tonkee, a scientist who's obsessed with studying obelisks. They eventually arrive at a comm called Castrima, which is an above-ground front for an underground geode city that runs on orogeny and welcomes orogenes. Essun doesn't find her husband or daughter there, but she is reunited with Lerna... and someone else too. Essun's are the only chapters written in 2nd rather than 3rd person.

Damaya. A little girl in a rural comm who's the only orogene in her family; her parents (especially her abusive mother) fear her and make her live outside in the family barn once her powers become more apparent. Her mother arranges to have Damaya taken away, and that's when a Guardian (Schaffa, Damaya's specifically-assigned Guardian) arrives to take Damaya to Yumenes. Damaya thrives as an advanced learner at the Fulcrum, and when she realizes she's being bullied by other kids (or "grits", as orogene children in basic training are called), her method of stopping them has extreme but conclusive consequences. She wanders around the Fulcrum during her free time. Which is fine, until she and a still girl who's posing as a grit find a secret passage, which leads to a secret pit where the floating obelisks used to be made. On top of seeing what she's not supposed to see, the Guardian who catches them becomes possessed and starts telling Damaya vague but ominous things that she's not supposed to hear, and Schaffa kills that Guardian in front of Damaya. If Damaya can't be obedient she must at the very least prove herself useful, and so Schaffa immediately makes her take and pass her first ring test to spare her from being gravely punished for the discovery she's made.

Syenite. A four-ringer in her twenties trying to climb the Fulcrum ranks and earn a cushy, quiet life, who is assigned to breed with her new mentor, a ten-ringer named Alabaster. They're dispatched to a coastal city called Allia to clear coral from the harbor there, but this mission is merely a cover for them to go way together and make a super powerful orogene baby that the Fulcrum would raise and cultivate. Someone poisons Alabaster's food, and while he's recovering Syenite removes the coral on her own. Which is fine, until she also accidentally unearths a cracked red obelisk (with a seemingly-dead stone eater inside?) that was buried in the sea. After Alabaster recovers, a Guardian shows up and attacks them both, and Syenite accidentally sets Allia on fire trying to defend herself. (She harnesses energy from the obelisk and the obelisk explodes, leaving a volcano in its wake.) Alabaster's stone eater friend (Antimony) whisks him and Syenite to a pirate island called Meov where orogenes are celebrated and appointed as comm leaders. There, Syenite and Alabaster both fall in love with the comm leader called Innon, Syenite gives birth to Alabaster's son (Corundum), and they're a happy throuple family for almost three years. Until Syenite goes back to Allia to seal the volcano, which alerts the Fulcrum and has a fleet of ships descending on Meov to seize Syenite, Alabaster, and their baby. Alabaster gets saved by Antimony again, Innon is murdered by a Guardian, and Syenite, cornered by Schaffa and refusing to return to the "slavery" of the Fulcrum, tries to kill herself and her son by wrecking Meov and its surroundings. (Think that infanticide scene in Toni Morrison's Beloved, or the real 1856 story of Margaret Garner that Beloved was based on.) Except Syenite lives, and after washing up back on the continent and wandering for two years, she settles in Tirimo and takes on a new name... Essun.

"THEY'RE ALL THE SAME F$&$&&# PERSON?!?!??!?!?!? N.K. Jemisin is a genius, I swear." That's verbatim what I messaged Sho when I read the reveal, and both statements are true. I was marking all of Syenite's chapters with post-it notes because hers were the most resonant to me (and they had the most levity/humor/sarcasm). Little did I know that every chapter is technically a Syenite chapter! The Damaya and Syenite connection came first (Damaya takes on the name Syenite when she earns her first ring), which I'd already sensed by a certain point in the book. But then I immediately thought, "YO... What if Syenite started a new life and renamed herself Essun?" And I was right! Not only that, but Alabaster is the unnamed man at the beginning who, after being rescued from Meov, intentionally tries to destroy the world in order to avenge himself and his family. That's him and his stone eater friend in the prologue. He's also the other person Essun reunites with in the underground city.
 
And I thought the Henry/001/Vecna reveal at the end of 'Stranger Things' season 4 (volume 1) was impressive! Truly, I'm so amazed by how things work together because like I messaged Sho, "Timing really is everything when it comes to when you consume media and how you respond to it. I watched [the Vecna reveal] in May and was blown away. Because of that (and because of clues that I picked up in Jemisin's writing), I was open to a similar thing being possible in The Fifth Season, and so while it wasn't a COMPLETE surprise, I was still blown away by how she pulled that off. Made me appreciate the ingenuity even more, even if I could sense that the reveal was coming." And whereas I shouted while watching 'Stranger Things' because the brilliance of that villain origin story was so thrilling, the Damaya/Syenite/Essun reveal in The Fifth Season stunned me into complete silence. My stomach dropped and I had to look away from the book and just sit in stillness (no pun intended), with my hand over my face. Because... my God. This woman has gone through so much. Too much. She lost three different families! She had two different sons, twelve years apart, both die at the age of two! This woman is believable as three separate characters because Damaya, Syenite, and Essun's respective chapters genuinely read like separate lifetimes. But at the same time, you can pinpoint the exact moments where our hero transitions from a love-starved child unaware of the depth of her power, who's a brilliant student and also a little too curious for her own good (Damaya); to a sarcastic and confident young woman whose sense of justice eventually eclipses her ambition to play the game of the Fulcrum (Syenite); to a jaded, grieving mother who mentally beats herself up at the slightest distress because she thinks she brings death on all around her (Essun).
 
I didn't look up any information about The Fifth Season before I read itI simply trusted Sho's recommendationand the only writing of N.K. Jemisin's that I'd read previously was her essay in Well-Read Black Girl. But knowing that the author was a Black woman, I based my reading of The Fifth Season on my own presumption that all characters were Black unless described otherwise. And that approach actually helped me understand the story more thoroughly than I could've anticipated. Canonically, orogenes can be any race, but the parallels between being orogene and being Black in America are there. "Rogga" is the slur of choice that stills hurl at orogenes (and that some orogenes used amongst each other), and how is that not an obvious reference to "nigger" or "nigga" for Black people? And let's not forget the respectability politics of the Fulcrum! Orogenes use their abilities to save lives and entire comms, yet they must demonstrate an inordinate amount of self-control to avoid punishment for being a perceived danger to the public. They are reduced to their usefulness, severely over-surveilled, not allowed to leave their dwelling without official permission much less create a different life for themselves, not allowed to do anything that might scare the stills, and are all the while expected to be polite and grateful. That don't sound like being Black American to you? The science-y part of this novel might not be my forte, but I was still picking up the messages that Jemisin was putting down! With that being said, although the book repeatedly describes being part of the Fulcrum as slavery, for the longest I couldn't internalize that because the Fulcrum wasn't giving plantation to me. It was giving specialized, extremely stringent branch of the military; it was giving bureaucratic mega-corporation; but it wasn't giving plantation. It wasn't until Syenite and Alabaster left the Fulcrum and started interrogating what they went through that the slavery parallel set in for me. And their stand-off with those Guardian ships in chapter 22 made it even clearer. 
 
Looking at The Fifth Season as social commentary, even though the book is quite emotionally heavy, I felt refreshed by the frequently-expressed idea that the way we live now is not the only or best way to do things simply by virtue of being a long-established status quo. It wasn't always like this, and it doesn't have to be like this in the future either. Furthermore, there are places where the undesirable are not only appreciated, but respected and valued as essential. In other words, our current world shaped by colonialism, white supremacy, and capitalism is not the only world we can aspire to. It's not the only possible pinnacle of human achievement. We can create spaces of our own; we can try to make this world a better one. Imagine reading a book about the world ending over and over again, and genuinely finding hope in it (and not in a cynical or depressed way either). Sounds ridiculous, right? But that's precisely what I found. And that's another reason why I believe Jemisin is a genius.
 
To start rounding things out, let me list a few more aspects that I adore about The Fifth Season. Lube and dildos exist in this universe! Queer people (especially queer men) exist in this universe! A trans girl (who lives long enough to be a trans woman) exists in this universe! Black matriarchs are still called "Muh Dear" in this universe! A polyamorous family exists in this universe! BDSM (is hinted at existing) in this universe! Birth control exists in this universe! And I mean, sure, a ton of people die as a result of Syenite and Alabaster's respective world-breaking, including their own son. However. Imagine being a Black child whose parents love you so fiercely that they would destroy an island to spare you from bondage, and fell an imperial capital to take vengeance against the people who dared try to capture you. Is that not the very embodiment of them declaring, "I don't play about me and mine"? I can't not be moved by that.

And finally, I leave you all with the last (for now) of the flurry of messages I inundated Sho with immediately after finishing The Fifth Season: "Oh, and thank you for buying me the set and convincing me to give this trilogy a try. It's taken me 9 months to read the first book because I was apprehensive about not understanding things (because sci-fi/fantasy) and was slowly getting used to the world of TFS, plus the tone of it is pretty dreary at times. But once stuff started popping off after Syen accidentally pulled that obelisk out of the sea and it shattered, the Blackness and the queerness started REALLY jumping out in earnest, and I realized that D/S/E might be (are in fact) the same person, I was like, 'OH! We're cooking with grease now! I'm locked in!' Haha." What else I gotta say? Read this book!
 
Favorite quotes:
"His fingers spread and twitch as he feels several reverberating points on the map of his awareness: his fellow slaves. He cannot free them, not in the practical sense. He's tried before and failed. He can, however, make their suffering serve a cause greater than one city's hubris, and one empire's fear" (6-7).
 
"There should be a better way. There must be. Sanze can't be the first empire that's managed to survive a few Seasons. We can see the evidence of other ways of life, other people who became mighty... I realize you only have the education the Fulcrum gave you, but think, will you? Survival doesn't mean rightness. I could kill you right now, but that wouldn't make me a better person for doing so" (123-24).

"There passes a time of happiness in your life, which I will not describe to you. It is unimportant... But what is important is that you know it was not all terrible. There was peace in long stretches, between each crisis. A chance to cool and solidify before the grind resumed" (361). 

"Allia, this was Allia, this was a human place, there were people here. People who didn't deserve to die because
of me
because they were too stupid to let sleeping obelisks lie, or because they dared to dream of a future. No one deserves to die for that" (383).

"This is home until I can escape it" (388-89).

Wednesday, August 31, 2022

BOOKS! (I Think I Might Love You + The Perfect Find)

Truth be told, August hasn't been the greatest month for me, and even as I try to write this review, I'm not in the greatest of spirits. Maybe this review will be shorter than usual, I don't know. But one of the things I tried to do this month to lift my spirits (or at least sufficiently distract myself) was read Black romance! Specifically, the two romance novels I ordered as a 4th anniversary/100th episode present to myself (see Young, Gifted and Abroad). First up is a novella about a late-blooming college student/ice cream franchise owner with anger issues, being mutually aggravated yet charmed by a veterinarian tasked with supervising her community service after she vandalizes her ex's car. And then, a novel about a 40-year-old fashion magazine editor whose second chance at her New York career includes a second chance at love... with a 22-year-old filmmaker/coworker who's also her boss's son. 
 
I Think I Might Love You by Christina C. Jones
 
I wasn't exaggerating when I said that Carole V. Bell's essay "I'm Rooting for Everybody Black: Black Solidarity, Black World-Building, and Black Love" (from Black Love Matters) thoroughly sold me on I Think I Might Love You! I'd never heard of the novella or Christina C. Jones when I read that essay, but Bell's description of how overwhelmed the male lead (Kadan, in his early 30s) is by the female lead's beauty as a Black woman (Jaclyn or Jac, in her mid-20s) was too alluring for me not to read the whole novella for myself. Because who doesn't want to imagine being worshiped like that, even if Kadan keeps his reverence for Jaclyn to himself at first? 
 
Kadan has good reason to hold back because 1) the first time he meets Jaclyn, she's drunkenly using her key to let herself into his apartment (the one he's subletting from Jaclyn's sister, which Jaclyn hadn't known about), then punching him in the face and kneeing him in the groin when he, caught off-guard and in the nude, confronts her about the intrusion. And 2) Jaclyn is exactly his type. He loves wild women, as did his father, but hoeing basically cut his dad's life short and Kadan doesn't want to risk the same fate. So when Jaclyn unexpectedly walks into his vet clinic not long after their dustup, carrying the stray cat she found on her fire escape and later asking to volunteer there since she's been sentenced to 400 hours of community service—his clinic is the only court-approved establishment that still has volunteer spots open—he keeps his obvious attraction to her under wraps.
 
But then there's all the slick, sarcastic banter that evolves into flirting so seamlessly that neither of them even have to try, because they're both feeling each other. And then there's the house call when Kadan comes over to check on the stray cat (Miss Thing) that Jaclyn reluctantly adopted, which leads to the human pair doing "qualitative research" in Jaclyn's bed. And then there's the time when Kadan helping to serve a rush of customers at Jaclyn's ice cream shop leads to him also helping her relieve some stress on top of her office desk. And then there's their fake-dating arrangement to get Kadan's sadiddy aunt (the judge who sentenced Jac to 400 hours of community service) off his back; Jaclyn pretends to be Kadan's girlfriend when judge auntie visits the clinic, and she's his date to their local university's alumni ball (where judge auntie tries to set him up with a sadiddy woman just like herself). Jaclyn and Kadan had agreed not to catch feelings the first time they had sex, but by the time they go to the alumni ball, feelings have been caught! So they agree to give Jaclyn some extra time alone to mourn her previous relationship and focus on graduating, before moving forward with their new relationship.
 
I must say, naming the cat Miss Thing is one of the most brilliant choices that Christina C. Jones makes with I Think I Might Love You. It's such a telling name. Jac doesn't want to keep the cat, much less name it, so she starts calling it Miss Thing in an unsuccessful attempt to remain detached from it. And that name, "Miss Thing" is so impersonal and full of contempt, but is also such specific Black-woman-putting-someone-on-notice phrasing (almost as pointed as addressing a woman or girl as "Little Girl", regardless of her age), that it's actually adorable! Especially given the fact that despite Jac's grousing and trying to act mean, everyone around her calls out the fact that Miss Thing ain't going nowhere! That's her cat now.

The only thing that rankles me about I Think I Might Love You is that Kadan doesn't go to Jac's graduation ceremony; he surprises her at her apartment after the festivities are over instead. Sure, he wants to give her space to focus on finishing school and process how she feels about him romantically, and the idea is for them to pick up where they left off after graduation. But how does that translate to him not showing up for the ceremony at all? Kadan's reasoning is that he didn't want to make Jac's day about him, but... huh? How would him being there make the day about him? This is a huge milestone in Jac's life, one I'm sure she would've wanted to celebrate during the day with both him and her folks (who already know about him), but he doesn't show up for it because his mere presence would somehow take precedence over everything else? That still doesn't make sense to me. Other than that, though, I'm so impressed with ITIMLY. It's a wonder that Jones has been able to fit such a robust love story into a mere 133 pages! I wish it were longer, but maybe that's where the other two books in the "Love Sisters" trilogy come in. We'll see. If you appreciate snark, relationships hilariously starting off on the wrong foot, foul-mouthed Black women who have good hearts but are often misunderstood, rescue cats, workplace romances, Black college towns, or admittedly hoe-ish veterinarians, then read this book!
 
Favorite quotes:
"I put a few pieces in the bowl—then stopped to check the internet to make sure cats could even eat chicken [...] I slid the bowl to her, close enough she wouldn't have to move too much to get to it. That heifer took one sniff, looked at me, then put her head down without even touching it.
 
I sucked my teeth. 'Okay, I know your ass isn't being picky?' I pushed the bowl closer, prompting her to lift her head for another long 'bitch, can't you tell I don't want this??' stare" (14).
 
"'I think I might... love you,' I admitted. 'Just a little though. Like, right at the beginning, you know? And I know it's stupid soon to say something like that, but it's just the truth. So if me being a weirdo and saying that isn't too much of a turnoff, then—'" (133).

The Perfect Find by Tia Williams

I knew that Tia Williams had another successful romance novel before Seven Days in June, and I'd heard that Netflix has a movie based on The Perfect Find in the works (due in 2023, with Gabrielle Union and Keith Powers playing the leads Jenna and Eric, and Black & Sexy TV founder Numa Perrier directing). But my introduction to Jenna and Eric was actually their cameo at a party in Seven Days in June! Which kind of spoiled the HEA of The Perfect Find for me, because I knew already that in the Tia Williams extended literary universe, Jenna and Eric do end up married, raising their rambunctious toddler named Otis together. All the more reason to read The Perfect Find, though, right? Because I knew going in that it wouldn't be a downer.

Well, The Perfect Find doesn't end as downer, but Jenna is in a pretty low place at the beginning. In 2012, 40-year-old Jenna has just returned to New York after spending a couple years hiding out in her rural Virginia hometown. Hiding out became necessary after she broke up with her fiancé Brian, a real estate developer whom she'd been with since her late teens (they were college sweethearts), and whose obsession with wealth and reluctance to get married or start a family left Jenna with little choice but to leave their high-society New York life behind. Which meant not only selling most of her fancy outfits, but also being replaced as fashion director at a print magazine during her absence, losing most of her and Brian's mutual high-society friends, and starting over from scratch financially. Having had enough time to wallow, lick her wounds, and keep sharp by teaching some fashion courses at the local community college, Jenna makes a deal with her rival Darcy, who arose as a fellow Black woman in media/fashion at the same time as Jenna (especially the late 1990s and early 2000s). The deal: Jenna can work as an editor at Darcy's street style digital magazine (StyleZine), at a significant pay cut, under an eight-month contract. In those eight months, Jenna must use her style advice column and the new web series that Darcy's assigned her to develop to triple StyleZine's readership, otherwise Jenna's fired. 
 
Buzzing with the stress of her new job and of still being single while her ex has already found someone new, Jenna goes to a party and drunkenly makes out with a handsome young stranger on a Friday night. Only to go to work Monday and have Darcy introduce that stranger as Eric, Darcy's son, a 22-year-old recent film school graduate who'll be Jenna's videographer for the new web series (along with helping her understand social media). After antagonizing each other at first, Jenna and Eric try to be adults about this wild coincidence, putting their previous encounter behind them in favor of being excellent collaborators and solid friends. Their desire for each other is palpable, however, hence an office romance that evolves from secret texting, to secret dates, to secret trysts in the fashion closet that only Jenna has the keys to. They're putting both of their jobs at risk (since they both rely on Darcy's good graces for their livelihood), and their life goals differ greatly. In addition to getting her career back on track, Jenna desperately wants to be a mom and her fertility options are waning, whereas Eric is living out his 20s and just beginning to establish himself as a venerable filmmaker. But can their devotion to each other and mutual movie nerdery compensate for the fact that they're at such different stages in their lives? The Perfect Find is the name of their web series, which becomes a massive hit, but of course the phrase also refers to Jenna and Eric unexpectedly finding the true love of their lives in each other.

Seven Days in June is still my favorite between the two novels (and still my favorite read of this year) due to how much I relate to it on a personal level, but from a steamy romance standpoint, The Perfect Find is way hotter. Like, waaaay hotter! And I was not prepared! There's a BDSM-lite power play thing that Jenna and Eric do leading up to and during the first time they have sex—steered mostly by Jenna, as it's important for her to reclaim her sexual power after letting Brian lead for two decades—and gah-lee! That made the prior 170 pages of will-they-won't-they after their drunken makeout session worth the wait! When she's not worrying about what their relationship means or what their future together looks like, Jenna is a tease with Eric, and the book itself is a bit of a tease too. TPF makes you wait, and then it delivers, over and over again.

I'm not a fashionable person, and occasionally I can fall into the trap of dismissing certain fashion and beauty-related phenomena as superficial or frivolous. So it was refreshing for me to learn about that world from Jenna's perspective (no doubt modeled off of Tia Williams herself, who was a beauty editor for 15 years and has the same Jennifer Beals à la Flashdance curls that Jenna's described as having). Sure, the fashion industry is both ridiculously fun and stupefyingly cut-throat, and the people working in it can be desperate and petty. However. This thing, fashion, is also art. These people are also artists. The advice Jenna gives in her style column and to fashion school students, in addition to her own silly yet meticulous habit of giving a name/theme to all of her outfits, demonstrates her immense knowledge of how much clothes reveal about who people are and what they want. As far as Jenna's concerned, clothes tell a story just like film does. If you're interested in older woman/younger man love stories, underdogs and/or second chances, women moving on from bad break-ups, disastrous dinner parties, Black female friendship, forbidden office romances, potential pitfalls of Caribbean parenting, sex scenes in both private and public locations, or what the fashion industry and social media were like in 2012-2013, then read The Perfect Find!

Favorite quotes:
"It's just always been there. I guess, when I was a kid, my life felt... messy. I loved that movies had a beginning, middle, and end. Everything works out in the third act. Or maybe it doesn't, but at least you have an answer. And I like making the world look how I want it to look. It feels like I'm God" (73).

"'Profane, but pure,' she said. 'Sacred. That's what I want it to feel like [...] I want to know without words. I want to fall so violently that I risk breaking into a million pieces. I want to love so desperately it's indecent. I want it to be wild and fated and forever. A no-choice connection. Do you know what I mean?

[...] I know that kind of love is an unsustainable fantasy. But I'd kill to have that intensity of feeling for someone'" (161-62). 

"I met you way too soon and I don't know what we do about that. But I love you. I love you like it's my calling [...] Your you-ness ruins me" (274).

Sunday, July 31, 2022

BOOKS! (Nowhere Is a Place + Boys Come First)

July said she got places to be, and she ain't have time for us. So here I am already at the end of another month, writing a new book review. There's no rhyme or reason to me pairing the following novels together, other than they're the two books that I've most recently finished reading. Now that I think about it, both do involve 30-somethings catching their lovers cheating and driving across multiple states to escape the drama and the hurt, and both were also written by Black authors who are currently based in Brooklyn, but those commonalities didn't occur to me until just now. First up, a novel about generations of Black/Native women rooted in Georgia from 1836 through the mid 1990s, as told by a descendant who writes about them while road tripping to a family reunion with her estranged mother. And then, a novel about love woes, work woes, gentrification, and friendship between three gay Black men in Detroit (their hometown).
 
Nowhere Is a Place by Bernice L. McFadden
 
I love when I go to a bookstore or a sale and take something home with me just to say I didn't leave empty-handed, while not actually expecting much, only for that very same book to blow my mind (like If I Had Your Face did). Instances like those make me feel like I was meant to read that book at that exact point in time (like The Fisher King did). Such is the case with Nowhere Is a Place. In May I went to my local library to start editing episode 98 of my podcast, and popped into the spring book sale they were having before I got started. But it was the nth day of the sale, and the pickings were slim by then. Just as I was headed out the door, I spotted Nowhere Is a Place and recognized Bernice L. McFadden's name; I hadn't read any of her work yet, but I'd heard much acclaim about her debut novel Sugar. And without any context, the title spoke to me in an inspirational sort of way: Even if I feel like I'm nowhere, that's still somewhere, right? So I figured I'd make this my introduction to McFadden, and the lady at the sales table let me have it for free! She initially asked for $1, but then said it was free since it was one of the books that the library had discarded (as opposed to being donated by the public, I guess?). I'm still not sure if that's true or if she was merely in a generous mood, but either way, I took my free hardcover copy of Nowhere Is a Place home that day, expertly-laminated jacket and all!

In her late 30s, after getting kicked out by her abusive and cheating boyfriend, Sherry drives from Chicago to a seaside fishing village in Mexico, getting an abortion and making her yearly vacation spot her refuge for the next two years. While wallowing there in her grief, she finds love again with a younger man whom she first met in her early twenties. This new love gives her the courage to come out of hiding in 1995 when, loved up with her boo and newly pregnant, Sherry is informed about her extended family's upcoming reunion in Sandersville, Georgia. With this news, she drives alone to Nevada to personally invite her estranged mother Dumpling to go on a road trip to Sandersville with just her, separately from Sherry's two siblings. (Sherry and Dumpling are estranged because Dumpling randomly slapped Sherry, hard, when Sherry was six years old. And while Sherry has spent her whole life hoping for an apology or explanation, Dumpling doesn't seem to remember the slap.) On the road, Sherry express her desire to write a book about their family history, and based on Dumpling's recollections and her own artistic license, Sherry starts drafting a novel based mostly on the women who came before them, including:

Lou (originally Nayeli). She's born around 1830 and raised somewhere along the Atlantic Coast in her Yamasee tribe until 1836, when she's captured by a rival tribe and sold into slavery on the Vicey cotton plantation in Georgia. As a teenager, she meets Buena Vistaa Black man enslaved by the Viceys' relatives who falls in love with Lou at first sightthey get married, and they proceed to have four children. Vicey's daughter had previously taught Lou to read as a joke, and Lou not only secretly retains that information but gives her husband and children the gift of literacy as well. Suce is their fourth child, and their only daughter who isn't sold away.

Suce. Suce and Brother (originally Jeff) are the last of Lou's children left on the Vicey (then Lessing) plantation by 1865, when Brother leads Suce and the other remaining slaves in seizing control of the plantation and holding Lessing hostage. They achieve this while having no clue about the Emancipation Proclamation or the South's defeat in the Civil War because Lessing had suppressed that information. Williewho walks from Kentucky to Georgia after being released from slavery, and who's been seeing Suce in his dreams despite never meeting her beforeis the one who informs everyone about their freedom upon his arrival that same year. Willie and Suce later get married, and once the group forges Lessing's will in order to bequeath the plantation to themselves (securing their place in Sandersville for generations to come), Suce smothers Lessing to death. She goes on to have 15 children, and the 12 who survive include a daughter named Lillie.

Lillie. A young, loose, wild woman who suddenly marries an older man (a minister) named Corinthians in 1915, using life as a preacher's wife in Philadelphia as her ticket out of a country existence in Georgia. (And her ticket away from her older brother Vonnie, who's molested her and at least two of his other sisters.) Lillie has three children with Corinthians before he dies, and after selling the church she lets loose again, decking herself out in her favorite color (red), having a love child, and frequently neglecting her kids to go party and sleep with various men. Eventually, two of her sisters have to come from Georgia to check on the children, and one of the sisters stays in Philly until Lillie dies of a mysterious illness. Then, big sis moves all of Lillie's children back to the family land in Georgia. The third of Lillie's four children is a plump little girl named Clementine, who most people call Dumpling. Dumpling, of course, grows up to be Sherry's mom.

So in the present of 1995, Sherry in her late 30s is the great-granddaughter of someone who was enslaved until their teenage years (Suce). That's how close the history of slavery is to her. And considering that Dumpling and her siblings were partially raised by Suce, that means Sherry's really only one generation removed from it. While reading, I noticed that all the parts with Sherry and Dumpling (which I assumed comprised the main plot) are italicized, while all the past events Sherry recounts, which take up most of the novel, are not italicized. As if to signal that the core story of this novel is actually in the past, and even though Nowhere Is a Place opens with Sherry, she's more so our conduit to that past. As for Dumpling, I was going to summarize her like I did the other women above, but something happens to her as a preteen that precipitates her slapping six-year-old Sherry as an adult, and it's worthwhile for people to discover that sequence of events on their own; I don't want to spoil it. Instead, I'll point out that there's this theme throughout the novel of mothers harming their children for complicated reasons, and Dumpling isn't exempt from that unfortunate legacy (or generational curse, as one might call it today). It starts with the cruelties of slavery forcing Lou to kill one of her sons as an act of mercy, extends to Suce being unaware (and then in denial) of the molestation happening in her household for years, then morphs into Lillie's vengeful spirit using her eldest daughter Lovey (Dumpling's big sister) to torment Vonnie. That torment has a devastating impact on young Dumpling, which later causes her to slap her own daughter when she's triggered by the memory of what happened.

For brevity's sake, I'll just hone in on two additional motifs that stood out to me: spirits, and the color blue. For starters, Lou is the granddaughter of a Yamasee medicine man, the spiritual leader of their village. As an enslaved woman, she's haunted by the disgruntled spirit of the son she mercy-killed for the rest of her life, developing a cancer that swells her stomach and requires her to symbolically give birth to it on her death bed, with an "ocean" surging out from inside her as she dies. Suce regularly talks to spirits and/or herself, is similarly haunted by one of her dead children who resents dying so young, and is able to sense when something's wrong with any one of her 12 living children. And as previously alluded to, Lillie's spirit possesses her daughter Lovey's body in order to enact succubus-style revenge against her brother (Lovey's uncle). Apparently, the spirits in the Black Lessing family are rarely at rest. And the color of that restlessness is blue. Blue is the color of the eagle-shaped granite charm that Lou's grandfather gives her as a child and that gets passed down to her female descendants, and it's also the color of the water she expels upon her death. Blue is the color of the eyeshadow Lillie wears to offset her red outfits, and the color of the moonlight that her spirit is bathed in when Lovey encounters her. Blue is the color that Dumpling avoids for the rest of her life after being traumatized in her preteen years, to the point of never wearing the color again and refusing to dress her dolls or her children in it. And blue is the color of the beaded necklace that six-year-old Sherry is wearing when Dumpling slaps her. There's also something to be said about the recurrence of the number 12—the age Suce is when she meets Willie, the number of years Suce is cursed by another enslaved woman to not have children after marrying Willie, the number of Suce's children who survive into adulthood, the age that Lovey and Dumpling are when their respective innocence is compromised, etc.—but I figure I've expounded enough for one day.

When I started reading Nowhere Is a Place, I expected to read about a mother and daughter settling their decades-long beef (as described by the inner jacket), and granted, Sherry and Dumpling do have a breakthrough in the end. However, I didn't expect that I'd actually be reading a story about the multi-generational impacts of slavery. And that story spoke so much to this present moment in 2022—with legal attacks on women's bodily autonomy, and Black elders' warnings of us being "one vote away from the auction block" proving to be more than mere paranoia as many conservatives try to repeal rights and recreate bondage wherever possible—that I was stunned. As gruesome as the details of NIAP sometimes are, I'm grateful to have read it because it reminded me that I and other Black people of today (especially Black women) are not alone in our suffering. We are not the first to feel like hostages in the country of our birth, not the first to question why we're even here or wonder when things will get better without regressing. Although that reminder doesn't necessarily make me feel better about what's going on right now, it does make me appreciate the opportunity this work of fiction provides to acknowledge our ancestors' suffering, and to honor the joy that they snatched in the midst of it all. I finished NIAP wanting to cry for them, and I don't remember feeling this spiritually connected to a novel since Homegoing. NIAP is easily my second favorite read of the year (so far), after Seven Days in June. If you've ever experienced a Black family reunion, been interested in road trips, valued the importance of "knowing someone's heart", had tension with an older relative who doesn't remember your childhood the way you do, or wanted an example of Black people taking their reparations while neither waiting for over a century nor settling for white hand-me-downs, then read this book!

Favorite quotes:

"i was torn from my somewhere and brought to this nowhere place
i felt alone in this land that was nowhere from my everywhere.
 
[...] time flowed on like the river
like the river, time flowed on, but i held tight to the memories of my
someplace, refusing to believe that my everywhere had always been
here in this nowhere place." (Epigraph).

"They didn't want to light kerosene lamps for light or go to church every Sunday, 'cause, shit, even the Lord rested on that day, so who was watching and listening while they sweat like pigs in the summer and froze like the ground in the winter all the while singing his praises?" (226).

"Soon? What the hell could she connect that to? Nothing more than an answer to myriad questions [...] Soon didn't mean shit. But she kept the notes anyway, just in case one day it could" (272).
 
 
Boys Come First by Aaron Foley
 
I read and appreciated Aaron Foley's first book (How to Live in Detroit Without Being a Jackass) when it was published in 2015, and I've been following him on social media for a while. So when I heard that he was putting out his first novel called Boys Come First in May 2022, I knew I'd be reading that too! Boys Come First was the other book I ordered, in addition to Black Love Matters, when Barnes & Noble had their 25% off pre-order sale in late January this year. I was eager to see what Foley could do with fiction, and also eager to learn about the gay scene (especially the Black gay scene) in Detroit, according to a native Detroiter who's also a Black gay man himself.

The titular "Boys" of Boys Come First are a trio of friends in their 30s named Dominick, Troy, and Remy (DTR... D-e-T-R-o-i-t... get it?). The novel opens with Dominick, an advertising exec, driving from NYC back to his mom's house in Detroit after losing his job and catching his boyfriend of eight years cheating on the same day. He's able to secure a job at a local advertising firm to tide him over, but soon finds himself constrained by how cluelessly yet insistently white the firm is despite operating in a majority-Black city. Remy is a real estate agent and local celebrity ("Mr. Detroit") who has a roster of frequent bedfellows but desires a real relationship. As he alternates between two particular would-be boyfriends, he also has his ethics called into question after helping a pair of wealthy white developers shut down a charter school to build a ridiculously expensive apartment complex in its place. A sixth grade teacher at said school (also the main one questioning Remy's ethics and loyalty to Black Detroiters) is Troy, a half-Black and half-Bangladeshi man who proudly claims Black, and whose intention of becoming more involved with community activism inadvertently results in his being stuck in an abusive relationship with his hotep boyfriend. Troy develops a casual cocaine habit as he deals with the stress of said boyfriend, strategizing how to keep his school open, and his enduring estrangement from his rich and largely unaffectionate father. 
 
Dominick and Troy met as high schoolers at a summer program at Michigan State University (Go Green!), whereas Troy and Remy met through a frightening incident at a party as Oakland University students. (Of all universities! Just down a few streets from me!) With Troy as the common denominator, Dominick and Remy don't become friends until Troy introduces them following Dominick's hurried return to the city. Coincidentally, Dominick becomes the new common denominator when Troy and Remy have a falling out over their opposing livelihoods. And while all three want fulfilling, committed relationships (not just sex) and fear ending up alone, Dominick is especially concerned about getting married before turning 35.

Once I read the line "with a wrinkled chitterling dick and a hog maw butthole" on page 8 and recovered from laughing myself sore, I knew I was in for a wild ride. And Foley did not disappoint! His writing is clear and concise, the dialogue is tight, not one scene is wasted, and he balances earnest sincerity with just plain silliness in a way that made me trust the directions that he chose to take Boys Come First in. As a multi-layered slice of life story, I didn't know exactly where the novel was headed in the end. I was sure that Troy and Remy would make up after falling out, and I figured Troy would overcome his shame about being abused to finally tell Dom and Remy about it. But other than that, every chapter was full of surprises, which made me enjoy BCF even more. Also, Foley deserves all the credit in the world for not shying away from writing about gay dating and sex, in multiple contexts, and in explicit detail. It's not necessarily his job to demystify those topics for readers, but I'm just saying... you might learn a thing or twelve! And the learning comes from both the horny and the wholesome; Remy talks to his little (Gen Z? Gen Alpha?) cousin Paris about being gay after Paris opens up about his interest in boys, and the eight-year-old winds up bringing some wisdom of his own to those conversations.

I was born in Detroit (raised in the suburbs), spent much of my childhood attending both of my parents' respective Detroit churches when they were were still together, spent even more time in the city when my dad (a teacher in Detroit) moved to the west side after the divorce, got my hair done in Detroit until the age of 22, and have popped in and out of Detroit for countless activities for as long as I can remember. All of that to say, while I am not from Detroit (and am mindful not to fraudulently claim the city as my own), I do know some Detroit things. Hence, I recognized many of the aspects of Detroit life that Foley mentions in Boys Come First, like riding the Giant Slide at Belle Isle as a kid, or witnessing "New Detroit" white millennials dance to Motown hits at dives like the Marble Bar. (Foley is frequently gracious enough not to name certain names in BCF, but he's also brilliant at describing people, places, and phenomena in a way where those in the know can peep exactly who, where, or what he's talking about. And I just know he was talking about the Marble Bar in the opening paragraph of chapter 18. Ask me about the time in February 2020 when I went there, just around the corner from the Motown Museum, during Black History Month, and all of the DJs during this particular "Motown Music Night" were white, most of the patrons were white, and the only Black staff in the whole place were the bouncers at the front door.) 
 
I've gotta say though, reading this book was also bittersweet. Its breakdowns of gentrification and how Detroit will inevitably continue to change (often but not always to Black Detroiters' detriment, and not to the same degree for every Black Detroiter), were sobering. And as delightful as it was for me to relate to so many of the Detroit/Metro Detroit references, it was surprisingly painful for me to read them and reckon with the fact that they're still so close to home precisely because Idespite my feverish efforts to the contraryam somehow one of those people who still has yet to move away from their hometown (away from Michigan entirely). But that's me bringing my own personal baggage to the reading experience, obviously; that's not Foley's problem.

I was curious about why Remy is the only character whose chapters are written in first-person, and it seemed a little too convenient for Troy's growing substance addiction to disappear (or at least never be mentioned again) after he learns of a loved one's grave illness. But those curiosities aside, I think Boys Come First is a true joy! Just like how Bryan Washington's Lot felt like a book written by a Houstonian for Houstonians, BCF is a similar vibe but for Detroiters. Plus, what a small world! BCF received a lovely blurb from Deesha Philyaw (author of The Secret Lives of Church Ladies, which I still adore) on the back cover. And one of the "day-ones" who Foley names in his acknowledgements is actually the older brother of one of the few other Black girls I knew from my Japanese classes at MSU! (Said brother is a Wolverine, but I won't hold that against him.) If you are interested in and/or fond of the city of Detroit, care about Black Detroiters, know about the Giant Slide, enjoy copious music references, are entertained by messiness, have ever grown apart from a close friend, or simply want to read more LGBTQ literature written by Black people, then read this book!

Favorite quotes:
"That was the first time, on the Lord's Day, when someone who wasn't blood-related to Dominick had told him they loved him.
 
And now, as he tried futilely to fall asleep alone in his teenage bedroom, he wondered if anyone else ever would" (17).

"The tactics were simple: scare the new white people in any way possible. If they wanted to be in Detroit, they would have to accept it all" (134).

"'I'm still all here,' she said, pointing a red fingernail to the right side of her temple. 'Some folks don't even know they're here'" (230).

Wednesday, July 13, 2022

ドラマ (Dorama) Time! 28 - pt. 2

Gave you part 1, and now I'm giving you part 2 of this review, as promised! Here are the other two J-dramas, plus an honorable mention, that I watched in spring/early summer this year. I picked the following J-dramas because they seemed like weird and/or scandalous shows that had something thought-provoking to say. (Also, I just found out that they're both based on manga written by a woman named Sakai Eri.) I picked the honorable mention because it's an adaptation of one of my favorite novels.
 
ヒヤマケンタロウの妊娠 (Hiyama Kentarou no Ninshin/Hiyama Kentaro's Pregnancy/Hiyama Kentaro's First Pregnancy/He's Expecting) - Netflix/2022
  • 'Hiyama Kentaro no Ninshin' presents a world where some cisgender men can get pregnant. (No, the show doesn't explain how or why this is happening, only that men who can't or choose not to terminate their pregnancies all give birth via C-section.) Kentaro (Saitoh Takumi from 'Tokyo Dokushin Danshi'), who works at an advertising agency and has casual sex with various women, starts experiencing strange symptoms (sweating, exhaustion, vomiting, nipple swelling and lactation). Turns out he's been knocked up by Aki (Ueno Juri from 'Alice no Toge'), his longtime friend with benefits.
  • Aki doesn't want children because it'll likely derail her hard-won career as a writer and photographer; for Japanese women, becoming a mom often means leaving the workforce for good. She heavily supports Kentaro getting an abortion so they can both move on with their lives. And that's the plan, until Kentaro takes a huge risk by revealing his pregnancy during a pitch meeting at work for an important client. The novelty of him being a pregnant man appeals to the client, and they hire him as one of the spokesmodels for their rebrand campaign. In other words, Kentaro keeps his baby to secure the bag.
  • The downside of this career boost is that without Kentaro's knowledge, his bosses devise a three-year advertising plan to milk him and his baby for all they'll be worth (pun intentional on my part). Meanwhile, Kentaro weathers the challenges of pregnancy and family planning with Aki, while also building community with other men who are or have been pregnant. Surprisingly, this includes Kentaro's own father (played by Lily Franky from 'Kyouen NG' and 'The Naked Director'), a scammer who previously abandoned the family due to the stigma of giving birth to Kentaro back in the 1980s.
Meh: This is less a criticism of the show itself and more a criticism of the fact that even if being pregnant emasculates or feminizes them in the eyes of others, sexism would still work in pregnant men's favor. When Kentaro first starts acting unpredictably and looking disheveled at work, his boss demotes him to administrative duties and busy work that are usually reserved for women. (He basically receives the discriminatory cold shoulder that women often get in the work place whether pregnant or not, but especially once pregnancy starts affecting their work habits and availability.) The irony of Kentaro deciding to keep the baby is that it has nothing to do with genuine acceptance and support in the workplace, and everything to do with the salaryman's tendency to do whatever it takes to benefit his employer, even if it means exploiting himself. Kentaro's best case scenario, remaining in his bosses' good graces while also securing a modeling campaign, is only available to him because he's a man doing what's seen as a woman's job (being pregnant). If he were a regular degular woman, his employer would view his pregnancy as unremarkable and inconvenient, and he certainly wouldn't be getting a spokesmodel gig or celebrity status from it.
 
Better: However, to the show's credit, 'Hiyama Kentaro no Ninshin' does touch on this double standard. Most of the closest people in Kentaro's life are women, and his female co-workers remind him that, basically, he ain't special! He's only treated as special for doing something that thousands of women are already expected to do without complaining or questioning or inconveniencing the people around them, and there's a lot about carrying and raising children that Kentaro is ignorant of because he's a man who hasn't bothered to know about those things until now.
 
And to Kentaro's credit, him being close with women does contribute to his ability to adapt to pregnancy (once he decides to keep the baby), quickly catch on to the discrimination that women face, and be more mindful of his privilege. Sure, people believe he's less of a man because he's carrying a baby—some even insist that he's becoming a "mother", not a fatherbut he also acknowledges that his newly-acquired media following is due to people being more willing to listen to him than to women. Even though he often states obvious things that women have been discussing online already for ages (like how maternity clothes are too dowdy-looking, etc.).
 
Best: When I first heard about the show and began watching the first episode, I wondered if it might be a commentary on transgender people becoming parents, which would've been fascinating to learn about. But the show goes out of its way to emphasize that this phenomenon is about cisgender male pregnancies (男性妊夫/dansei ninpu, or 男性妊娠/dansei ninshin). With transness being left out, the show explores other gender-related topics, like what male pregnancy would mean for their female sex partners (their baby mamas, if you will). Would it be a lucky opportunity for a woman to have a baby without needing to interrupt her career by carrying it herself, like Aki sees it? Would it be romantic to have a man go through the turmoil of pregnancy, medical appointments, incessant unsolicited advice from others, and the pain of childbirth for her, like Aki's friend sees it? The wife of Kentaro's new preggo friend Miyaji must raise the son they already have (which she gave birth to) in addition to running their florist business and tending to her increasingly hormonal husband. So would having a pregnant husband/boyfriend/FWB actually be triple the burden, like it is for her?
 
I also appreciate how informative 'Hiyama Kentaro no Ninshin' is about Japan's abortion laws. (While 2021's 'FM999' did wow me with its creative approach to the lived experience of abortion, the legal aspect didn't come up.) For instance, both Kentaro and Aki must sign a consent form for him to get an abortion as initially planned, which reflects the real-life fact that Japanese women (especially the married ones) often aren't allowed to receive abortions without the other progenitor's (a man's) consent. Relatedly, Kentaro doesn't find out he's pregnant until he's 9 or 10 weeks along, and isn't able to schedule an abortion until after the 12-week mark. But by that point an abortion is treated as a stillbirth, and Kentaro would've been required by law not only to bury the fetus, but also report the abortion to a city office so he could receive permission to do the burial? My googling couldn't tell me how accurate that part is, but imagine the extra hassle and potential trauma of having to do that too!

シジュウカラ (Shijuu kara/Starting at 40/From 40 Onward/After 40) - TV Tokyo/2022
  • Shinobu (Yamaguchi Sayaka from 'Kyouen NG') quits her 20-year middling manga artist career in Tokyo to relocate with her husband and son to a big house in the suburbs. However, one of her comics from over a decade ago (about married women having affairs, something she fantasized about doing early in her marriage when her husband cheated on her) sees a sudden boom in popularity. This prompts the publisher to commission Shinobu to write a brand new series about female infidelity. So she turns one of the rooms of the house into her office, and hires a manga assistant to help her.
  • Said assistant is a baby-faced 22-year-old named Chiaki. While they're drinking at a bar to celebrate completing the first volume of the new series, on what also happens to be Shinobu's 40th birthday (which her husband had forgotten about), Chiaki propositions Shinobu but she plays it off. This exchange sets off at least a year of will-they-won't-they, and for most of that time she tries to keep things professional. With her encouragement, Chiaki makes his own comic about being sexually exploited in middle and high school by grown women who paid him for sex. Shinobu doesn't want to be like those women, and even though she briefly runs away with Chiaki, she changes her mind and opts to stay with her family. Shinobu's husband becomes suspicious and starts antagonizing her, but then he almost dies from a heart attack.
  • Five years later, Shinobu and Chiaki have lost contact. Chiaki's manga career has stalled since his debut comic was published, so he works as a chef. Whereas Shinobu's career has flourished, but she's bored and her comics have become uninspired. And her now-retired and dependent househusband is acting increasingly needy. So she has an affair with and tentatively accepts a marriage proposal from a magazine editor (also her ex-boyfriend from high school) who's commissioned her to for a new project. Separately, this same editor also commissions a new project from Chiaki in order to keep tabs on him. Both the editor and Chiaki's live-in girlfriend attempt to drive a permanent wedge between Chiaki and Shinobu when the pair start interacting again, but those attempts ultimately fail.
Meh:  Episode 12 (the final episode) is weird. I know I said weird is what I wanted, but I didn't like it. The editing for that episode is different (I can't describe in technical terms why it's different, but I could just tell). A few supporting characters have random voiceover monologues that no one asked for. Shinobu and Chiaki reunite in a romantic sense, but it still just feels so... unearned? Not just from an age standpoint but a lack-of-chemistry standpoint as well. While it's clear throughout the series why Chiaki is in love with Shinobu, I never understood why Shinobu would still be stuck on Chiaki once she isn't a miserable housewife anymore (once she doesn't need him for escape anymore). You're 45 now and still longing for this baby-looking young man because why? Because of his prolific talent? Because he saw and empathized with your unhappiness back when no one else did? There's a scene in episode 11 when Chiaki tells Shinobu that he's giving up and wants to forget both manga and her entirely, and she's the one still trying to convince him that her affection for him is genuine even though a relationship between them would never work. I watched that entire scene like, "Shinobu! Girl! Let the boy go live his own life! STANNUP!" Why a woman of her age and success would still be interested in Chiaki is beyond me, and I very much could've gone my whole life without ever seeing the sex scene at the end of episode 12.
 
Better: The scene where Shinobu sits down with Chiaki to help him understand that he was taken advantage of by those grown women of his past is so necessary. As she emphasizes, just because he got money out of it and his body reacted like bodies do when physically aroused, doesn't mean he enjoyed any of it or that entering into those arrangements at such a young age was his own fault. He was a child. He is not a bad person; he's a victim. (And his trifling mom knew about it the whole time but never said anything because she was spending that money too!) 
 
There's a black and white bird with grey wings that appears in Shinobu's earlier work and then reappears (sometimes in Shinobu's imagination, sometimes not) in other parts of the show. For some reason, it took me until after I'd finished the final episode to google the show's title in katakana form (シジュウカラ) and realize that shijuukara is the name of that specific bird! A bird that's also known as a Japanese tit. I was already aware of shijuu as an alternate reading of 四十 or 40 (usually yonjuu), which refers to Shinobu's age and makes the title 'Shijuukara' translate to "From 40 Onward". But I had no idea that 'Shijuukara' was actually a double entendre referencing the bird as well! That's so clever!
 
Best: That ending theme song by SpendyMily, "Koukai"? It GOES! The lead singer's tone and ability to emote with his voice reminds me so much of Mitsumura Tatsuya, lead singer of the now-disbanded NICO Touches the Walls (one of my favorite bands in high school and college).
 
Honorable Mention: Pachiko (Season 1) - Apple TV Plus/2022

Based on Min Jin Lee's 2017 novel of the same name, 'Pachinko' is an American production that traces the history of the Baeks, a Korean family contending with Japanese hegemony from 1915 Busan to 1989 Tokyo. (In the show, at least in season 1, 1989 is the present.) Much of the events center around the oldest and youngest members of the Baek family. There's Sunja (Youn Yuh-jung from the 2020 film Minari), a permanent resident in Japan who was born in Busan during Japan's colonization of Korea and who moved to Osaka as a pregnant newlywed in 1931. And there's her grandson Solomon, an NYC-based finance guy who takes a temporary assignment in Tokyo in hopes of elevating his career. Solomon was born and raised in Osaka but was sent by his father to continue his schooling in the US as a teenager, and in bubble era Tokyo he mistakenly assumes that his Korean-ness is irrelevant to his professional aspirations because anti-Korean sentiment in Japan is a thing of the past. The deal he's trying to close (convincing a Korean grandmother to sell her home to his firm's client so the client can build a luxury hotel on that land) forces him to confront his Korean identity in unanticipated ways. Concurrently, Sunja reflects on all the difficulty that she's survived and pushes herself to return to her birth country (accompanied by her son Mozasu, Solomon's father) for the first time since 1931. 

Sunja's storyline is extremely faithful to the book, with the exception of her return to Busan (the book version of Sunja never sets foot in Korea again). And although Solomon's character exists in the book as well, the TV version of him is where the 'Pachinko' creators seem to take the most liberties. In the book, there's a character named Noa (Solomon's father's older brother, so his uncle) who similarly struggles to embrace being Korean, to the point of cutting off contact with his family so he can pass as Japanese, and eventually dying by suicide. 'Pachinko' takes the tortured self-hatred of Book Noa and replaces it with the naiveté and arrogance of TV Solomon. TV Noa's misfortune is referenced in retrospect (though not in detail), and he does appear as a child, but it remains to be seen whether season 2 will portray the more tragic aspects of that character as written in the novel.
 
Because Pachinko is one my favorite novels, watching the TV adaptation has been a no-brainer for me ever since I first heard that it was in development. And then I heard that Youn Yuh-jung was playing Sunja, that Hallyu superstar Lee Min-ho (my K-drama crush in high school) was playing Sunja's yakuza baby daddy Hansu, and that Justin Chon (Seoul Searching, Gook, etc.) was one of the co-directors, and that's all I needed to know! Masterful wouldn't even scratch the surface of describing what a cinematic and historical gift 'Pachinko' is. You wanna talk about art that sets the proverbial captives free? This show is it! Especially episode 4, where Sunja and Solomon each witness different forms of Korean resistance and embrace getting rained on (literally) as they return to their true selves. And Lee Min-ho's solo episode (episode 7) about how Hansu survived the 1923 Great Kanto Earthquake AND the ensuing Kanto Massacre that targeted Korean people? That was a big-budget history lesson that broke my heart. Those events aren't mentioned in the novel, so I know the 'Pachinko' team did their research for that one! Have I not said enough? Watch 'Pachinko' if you know what's good for you!

Having reviewed all the Japanese and Japanese-ish dramas that I've watched recently, I gotta pick a favorite, right? Excluding the honorable mentions, 'Kikazaru Koi ni wa Riyuu ga Atte' is my favorite this time around. Sure, 'Koi Nante, Honki de Yatte Dou Suru no?'' has a very similar premise and a similarly lengthy title, commits more to its romantic angle, and has a more cohesive plot (especially if we're comparing final episodes). But 'Kikazaru Koi' has Yokohama Ryuusei as the male lead, stealing every scene he's in even when he has no dialogue, and for that, 'Kikazaru Koi' is the winner in my book! And if we're including the honorable mentions, then 'Pachinko' far and away surpasses all of the other five shows. Yes, I'm biased because it's based on a book I already love, but so be it! Now off I go to watch more J-dramas!

Tuesday, July 12, 2022

ドラマ (Dorama) Time! 28 - pt. 1

I'm finally ready to review the J-dramas that I watched during the rest of spring and the beginnings of summer! Would've been ready sooner but I kept finding additional shows to watch, and I just finished the last of them today so here we are! This edition of Dorama Time features four J-dramas, plus two honorable mentions (shows that are partially in Japanese and set in Japan, but aren't Japanese productions). Since I've got so many shows to write about, I'm going to try streamlining my thoughts using a Meh/Better/Best approach (an idea I've just come up with, you'll see what I mean). For part 1 of this review, I'm focusing on the first and last J-dramas that I finished on this roster: two love stories that are both about career women who design and/or promote home goods, falling in love with chefs who have troubled pasts and a fear of commitment. The reason why I chose these shows eludes me now, but since I wasn't initially familiar with most of the actors in either show, I can only assume that I chose them for escapism purposes.
 
着飾る恋には理由があって (Kikazaru Koi ni wa Riyuu ga Atte/Why I Dress Up for Love/There's a Reason for the Love I'm Wearing) - TBS/2021
  • With her hands and eyes perpetually glued to her phone, Kurumi is insanely busy managing her own following as an Instagram influencer, doing PR and social media for the home decor company she works at, AND being a de facto personal assistant/stylist/wrangler for her boss (Hayama) whom she's secretly been in love with for seven years. In fact, she's so busy that she forgets to renew her apartment lease, which causes her to rent a room in the spacious house that her divorced, middle-aged chef friend (Kouko) owns.
  • Three people are already renting the other extra rooms in Kouko's house: a reclusive visual artist named Ayaka (played by Nakamura Anne from 'Grand Maison Tokyo'), a psychiatrist named Haruto, and Haruto's cousin Shun, a young chef specializing in Spanish cuisine who was once a wunderkind in Spain and tried to run his own restaurant in Tokyo but flopped. Still bruised from the failure and disappointment, Shun has made nonchalant his middle name. Except for the food truck he runs to make a living, he maintains little to no attachments to anyone or anything; his minimalist room is nearly devoid of furniture, he only has a few sets of clothing, and he's lost track of his smartphone that he no longer uses. Shun often dismisses Kurumi's social media-obsessed lifestyle as superficial, which leads to numerous petty arguments between them. 
  • But then late one night, Kurumi and Shun brush a little too closely when retrieving items from the fridge at the same time, and they share a kiss. And as the housemates go on more group outings, Kurumi and Shun's growing attraction for each other becomes undeniable. Can they become something real, enough for Kurumi to forget about her crush on Hayama? When Hayama moves into the sharehouse temporarily and Shun peeps his interest in Kurumi, will that be enough to make Shun step up, stop pretending he doesn't care about anything, and get both his love life and career back on track?
Meh: Kurumi's career crisis in episodes 9 and 10where she gets bashed online for unknowingly promoting a plagiarized bag design on Instagram, her job as social media manager is jeopardized, and the hate comments have her spiraling to the point of wanting to quit her job and move to Hokkaido with Shun when he gets a new opportunity theredidn't seem like that big of a deal to me. I understand that this crisis serves as further character development for both Kurumi and Shun, especially when Shun tries to talk his girlfriend down from such a drastic decision. (Now that he's emerging from his self-imposed social isolation and working in a restaurant again, he warns Kurumi from experience that running away only leads to regret, and he doesn't want her to make the same mistakes he did.) But couldn't Kurumi have resolved her work crisis by simply deleting that IG post, never directly addressing the plagiarism issue, and waiting it out until netizens' fickle attentions inevitably shifted to something else? Isn't that what tons of companies and public figures do when they have a PR scandal?

Also... is 'Kikazaru Koi' about Kurumi and Shun's love story? Is it about Kurumi realizing her dream of becoming a product buyer of stylish, handcrafted, and eco-friendly home goods? Is it about Shun overcoming his past failures and learning to care about things again? Is it about the housemates' collective friendship? One could argue it's about all of those things, but at various points it seemed like the show couldn't make up its mind, and none of those plotlines got enough airtime for me to feel them out the way I would've liked. The love story is what drew me in, but once I got into a groove with that, the show would shift focus, come back to the romance, then shift focus again, gradually getting less romantic as the show went on. 'Kikazaru Koi' ends with a solid, standard 10-episode run, but I genuinely believe the story would've benefited from two additional episodes. Episode 10 speeds through too much trying to tie up the remaining loose ends.
 
Better: How refreshing it was to see Nakamura Anne stepping outside of her usual sporty, long-haired, super-feminine, put-together model image to play Ayaka, a character who has short hair, an androgynous style, a gruff personality, and a situationship with her co-worker (pregnancy scare included)! 
 
The all-consuming nature of social media is not a new topic, but whereas 'FOLLOWERS' examined how social media (or SNS as it's referred to in Japan) can make or break careers, 'Kikazaru Koi' uses Kurumi to demonstrate what it's like when social media IS the career. Whether its for her job's IG or her personal IG, Kurumi's got multiple alarms set to remind her when to post content throughout the day, and she can't even take a bath without her phone nearby. I felt stressed just watching her, and while I don't envy that life, Kurumi's character definitely deepened my respect for social media managers.
 
When Kurumi first stepped foot into her Kouko's house and the camera panned out to show the entire place, I literally gasped. The interior design is so simple, sparse even, a style I would normally think is boring. But something about Kouko's house blew me away, and it might be the most beautiful house set I've ever seen in my 13 years of watching J-dramas. So much open space and natural light! Neutral walls with warm-toned wood floors, ceilings, and doorframes! A sunken dining area! And who can forget the breathtaking outdoorsy scenes from when the group goes on a trip to Yamanashi? The camping (glamping) domes at Shakushiyama Gateway Camp, with Mt. Fuji looming like a sleeping giant in the background! The onsen that sits right on a riverbank! My goodness!

Best: Yokohama Ryuusei is absolutely perfect as sensitive and smirky-but-not-mean-spirited Shun! I love that Shun confessing his feelings for Kurumi doesn't take long, and that it's also not forced to be an overblown moment; the moment reflects his laid-back yet sincere personality. At the end of episode 3, he and Kurumi are eating alone at a campfire in Yamanashi, and he's feeding her while refusing to let go of her hand. (He claims it's to help her "detox" from always reaching for her phone, but we know what's what.) And suddenly he admits, "I've been having dreams about you," to which Kurumi responds by joking, "Maybe it's because you like me or something." And Shun pretends to pause and consider it before cheekily replying, "Yeah, I guess you're right. I probably do like you." Would you believe that I replayed that scene a dozen times? Because that's what I did! There's a different scene at the end of episode 6 where Shun tries to act all broody and detached to avoid getting hurt, even telling Kurumi that he'll be fine if she chooses Hayama instead of him. But Kurumi wastes no time interrupting him (literally putting her hand over his mouth and pinching his lips shut) to say, "Shut up! I chose you, remember? I'm choosing YOU." Shun tears up hearing this, and then they snuggle together under a blanket on Kouko's balcony while the sun sets, and it's super soft and intimate! I replayed that scene multiple times too!
 
One of my favorite hallmarks of 'Kikazaru Koi' are the touching post-credits scenes of each episode which display how much attention Shun pays to Kurumi without her noticing, and how he actually puts a lot of thought into his interactions with her beforehand (even though outwardly he seems to be messing with her all the time). In general, Shun prefers to show Kurumi his affection through things like sarcasm. Or feeding her the exquisite food he makes at the sharehouse and in his food truck. Or attempting to break into a park at night so Kurumi can see the fully-bloomed sakura trees that she missed due to her busy work day, and then setting up an indoor viewing at the sharehouse instead, using a sakura-themed art piece that Ayaka had just made. Or, as previously mentioned, holding Kurumi's hand so she won't be distracted while they spend alone time together by a campfire. Real "acts of service" type stuff, and I dig it. It takes Shun the entire series to learn how to not only show but also tell how he feels, but when he gets it right, he really gets it right. 

Last but not least, that ending theme song by Hoshino Gen, "Fushigi"? Splendid. Nothing else to be said.

恋なんて、本気でやってどうするの?(Koi Nante, Honki de Yatte Dou Suru no?/Who Needs True Love?/What Do You Really Do About Love?/How Do You Love For Real?) - Fuji TV/KTV/2022
  • 27-year-old Jun is so dedicated to her work as a tableware designer that her two best friends jokingly call her by her job title (buchou or "Chief") as a nickname. She's a virgin who believes relationships are a waste of time because nothing is guaranteed and everyone ends up alone in the end. Deep down, she's also terrified of becoming just like her mom, a love-obsessed woman who repeatedly abandoned herself (and Jun as a child) running behind countless men before eventually getting dumped.
  • Around the same period that Jun's crush/co-worker/former high school classmate marries one of her subordinates (i.e. not her), she and her two best friends become regulars at a new French bistro called Salut. Salut is extremely popular with women because of its handsome waiter and sous chef named Shuma. After closing time he'll basically sleep with any woman who asks, and even offers to let brokenhearted Jun use him as dating practice, but he avoids serious relationships. Jun accepts Shuma's offer but of course ends up falling in love with him anyway, and after confessing her feelings and being sufficiently d*ckmatized by Shuma, they enjoy the beginnings of their new, no-longer-pretend love.
  • That is, until Shuma's gambling and alcohol-addicted mother leaves her rehab facility to live with him and begins sabotaging his relationship with Jun. Both Jun and Shuma's careers are threatened, with Jun being demoted due to lackluster sales of the latest plate collection she's designed, while Shuma's dad who owns Salut plans to shutter the restaurant. Jun and her friends collaborate with Shuma and the head chef to help save Salut, but our lead couple eventually breaks up because of Shuma's mom. Meanwhile, a different high school friend of Jun's (Otsu) offers her a loveless but stable and drama-free marriage. In the midst of all this chaos, can Jun and Shun be convinced that true love is worth taking a chance on each other again?
Meh: Less of a "meh", more like a "hmm". At the end of the final episode, Otsu's at a bar drinking Jun's rejection away, and he happens to strike up a conversation with Misaki, the nail salon owner who often lets Jun and her two besties come by to chat about their relationship troubles because they're all Misaki's friends too. As the pair converse at the bar, Misaki reveals to Otsu that for all the relationship advice she regularly gives her friends, she's actually asexual. (Which is a category that I was tempted to put Jun into at the beginning of the show given how uninterested she is in romance and how confused she is by other women's obsession with dating and sex, but I digress.) And on top of that, Misaki divulges that her only experience with romance is her years-long crush on... Jun! So basically Otsu and Misaki, unbeknownst to each other, are at a bar drinking over their unrequited love for the same woman. Which is such an intriguing and unexpected plot twist that it's almost a shame that it was dropped in at the last minute. If Misaki's character was written to be a queer asexual woman from the beginning, then I would've loved for that perspective to be expressed more in her earlier conversations with Jun and the girls.
 
Better: I didn't mention it in the summary above, but Jun's two best friends Kyoko and Arisa go on their own complicated relationship journeys as well. At the beginning of 'Koi Nante, Honki de', housewife Kyoko is unhappily married to her inattentive gamer dude husband, and by the end she leaves him for Kaname (Salut's head chef). Their connection is innocent at first, with Kaname making a consolation meal for Kyoko when she hangs out at Salut after hours because she's sad about her husband forgetting their anniversary. Kaname initially doesn't like to be seen and rarely comes out of the kitchen when customers are present, but he makes exceptions for Kyoko, discretely gives her little treats whenever she dines at the bistro, and gradually starts teaching her how to cook French food as they spend more time together.
 
As for Arisa, the beginning of the series has her dating a married man. But when she catches him cheating on her with someone else—is it still "cheating" if he was already cheating with her in the first place?—to blow off some steam she starts dating Katsumi, a nerdy-looking employee at the convenience store she frequents. Katsumi proves to be more charming and thoughtful than Arisa would've given him credit for, and they become boyfriend and girlfriend even despite Arisa trying to hide how much she likes him, and despite Arisa's incomplete efforts to end things with her married ex. More on that in a second.
 
I was glad to see the name of the real-life restaurant that makes all of Salut's food (bistro-confl. in Setagaya, Tokyo) stand out enough in the show's credits for me to easily find them online. And the ending theme song "Watashi" is also quite nice. Dramatic, emotional, yet still catchy. Apparently Matsumura Hokuto, who plays Shuma, is also in the boy band SixTONES ("stones"), which sings the song.
 
Best: That makeout scene between Jun and Shuma at the end of episode 4, whew! Without words, only using his body, Shuma communicates how much he WANTS Jun in that moment, ya hear?  
 
And we support a man who's sure about the person he loves! Katsumi's so sure about Arisa that when he learns she cheated on him (broke up with her married ex but slept with him one last time for closure's sake), he thanks her for their time together and lets her go not because he resents her, but because he acknowledges that their relationship wasn't serious. It meant slightly more to him than it did to her, and while mutual feelings did grow over time, he knows that at first Arisa was only dating him to kill time. But then, Katsumi's still so sure about Arisa that when he finds out she's working at a hostess bar to earn the 3 million yen in damages that her married ex's wife demands (approximately $22,000 USD when I'm writing this), he decides that he's not giving up on Arisa after all. Katsumi's so sure about Arisa that he takes out all of his money from the bank to help settle her debt, accompanies Arisa to the married couple's house to deliver said money, and HE apologizes to the wife on Arisa's behalf so the wife will leave Arisa alone! Who does that? A man like Katsumi does, that's who! 

Honorable Mention: 義理/恥 (Giri/Haji; Duty/Shame) - BBC/Netflix/2019

Kenzo is a detective and his younger brother Yuuto works for one of Tokyo's multiple prominent yakuza organizations. After an incident, Yuuto is presumed dead until he resurfaces in London and assassinates the nephew of his boss's rival. This sets off a war between rival yakuza groups in Tokyo, and Kenzo is sent to London to retrieve Yuuto so that the latter's punishment can hopefully restore order. Posing as an exchange student taking a criminology course, Kenzo unexpectedly finds his mission both bolstered and complicated by Kelly (the Scottish woman who teaches the course and is also a detective searching for Yuuto), Rodney (a gay, half-Japanese sex worker and drug addict who knows London's club scene), and Kenzo's own daughter Taki (who steals her mom's credit card and runs away to join her dad).

This is a fantastic watch if you don't like neo-noir or crime thrillers (or you don't think you like neo-noir or crime thrillers) but are interested in Japanese stuff. A bilingual production shot between Japan and the UK is no easy feat, but the team behind 'Giri/Haji' pulls it off with stunning precision. William Sharpe's performance as Rodney was my absolute favorite aspect of the entire show. His brazenness, his sarcastic humor, his inner demons, his one liners? Perfection. That moment in episode 1 when he's at a bar, the bartender informs him, "Your boyfriend's here," and Rodney replies flatly, "I don't have one of those," with disgust and feigned confusion as if he doesn't know what species of creature a boyfriend is but he's certain he wants no parts of it? Oh, from then on I was all in! Regardless of the other plot developments to follow in the series, wherever Rodney's character was going, I was willing to follow.

Last year I was a guest on a podcast about multilingual people called Speaking Tongues, and after recording that interview the host Elle Charisse recommended 'Giri/Haji' to me, but I didn't get around to it until late last month. And as I told Elle, I'm still unsure about the filter that makes everything (especially the Japan scenes) look like it takes place in some bygone decade. I don't know if it's because 'Giri/Haji' is a BBC production, or because a lot of Western people's frame of reference for Japan is the 1980s, or if it's a purely stylistic choice, but it threw me off. Besides that, overall I'm very glad that I finally watched this series! So imagine how disappointed I was to discover that there'll be no season 2; the show ends on multiple cliffhangers and creator Joe Barton had plans for a second season, but then the BBC cancelled the show altogether in 2020. 

Part 2 of this J-drama review coming soon!