Saint Young Men

By Hikaru Nakamura

With the premise of Jesus and Buddha taking a “gap year” from their divine existence to share an apartment in modern day Tokyo, I knew I had to check it out!  I was able to get a collected volume of the first 15 chapters at my local library, which has now opened for curbside pickup. According to the forward written by the Curator of Japanese Arts at the British Museum, it has been very popular in Japan for years, but has only been published in English last year. The British Museum was actually instrumental in the translation, and the forward describes the challenge of trying to accurately capture the puns and word plays.

The English edition is bristling with inline notes translating t-shirt slogans and other Japanese text within the illustrations, and post-chapter endnotes giving more extensive context for scenes, often explaining key elements of Christianity, Buddhism, and modern Japanese culture. In the end, it was these ‘translation notes’ that I found the most interesting.

At first description, I had imagined Saint Young Men as a comic book, with a single earthly adventure each issue, but it is more like a collection of comic strips with setups and punch lines every page or two. Which, there’s nothing wrong with that, but the forward was right, that it makes it a lot harder to translate. In addition to the language itself, there are such strong cultural elements to humor that I have to admit that I was often more confused than amused. So, it wasn’t so much the funny pages for me, but really interesting to read a light-hearted take on two religions, one of which I’m a lot more familiar with than the other.

The notes on Christianity tended to be fairly basic elements, almost all of which I already knew (think allusions to ‘loaves and fishes’ and the like), and I have to assume the Buddhist ones are similarly basic, but they were almost entirely new to me (his hair is tightly curled due to his divinity – though some quick research said that at least on some statues, those curls might be snails). About halfway through the book, I wondered if I should be a bit offended that Jesus is a hyperactive, low-attention-span man-child while Buddha is more sober and reflective, but Rebecca proposed that “odd couple” setup might be a manga trope that I’m also just not that familiar with.

All in all, I don’t know that I really ‘got’ the comic the way it is intended, but I did find it a fascinating read, so it is worth it for that, if you are interested in the niche cross-section of religions and manga. When looking for a cover image, I ran across some subtitled animated scenes from the book, which give a pretty good preview of the culture-clash-based humor.

The Frangipani Tree Mystery

By Ovidia Yu

Frangipani_TreeThis was both a charming and disconcerting read after my previous book. It is the first in a series of what the author describes as “a feel good history mystery without blood, sex and gore (enough of that in real life),” but which is also set in Singapore in 1936. The protagonist is a spirited and ambitious Chinese teenager attending the British-run mission school, who wants to get a job outside of her grandmother’s protective house. When the Irish nanny working for the ruling English governor dies in a mysterious fall, Su Lin cheerfully accepts the post and quickly befriends the English Chief Inspector investigating the case.

The governor’s family is precisely as racist as I would imagine a colonialist English family of the time, but Su Lin regards them with curiosity and pity, and with most of her mind focused on her charge, with whom she shares shares mutual affection, and her amateur investigations. The much older Inspector (no romance there, thank god) is clearly more aware of the impending global crises with some passing comments, but they have very little presence in this first book, where Singapore seems more of a hodgepodge of different cultures rubbing along together.

I have every intention of continuing with this series, and the fourth book has just come out, starting what the author is considering a sub-trilogy set during Japanese Occupation. I image that Yu will focus on the decency of her protagonist, her friends and family, and the richness of the Singapore culture in order to maintain a lighter tone during a time of human atrocities. (I hope very much that we see more of her grandmother who apparently runs an only semi-underground empire of illegal commerce.)

When We Were Orphans

By Kazuo Ishiguro

When_We_Were_OrphansThis was a random pickup for me, and I’m not quite sure what called out to me about it. I’ve never read any other novels by Ishiguro, but I enjoyed (in a sort of depressed way) the movie “Remains of the Day” based on his award-winning novel.

The thing is, I had got the impression that When We Were Orphans was a psychological thriller, based on the unraveling of an unreliable narrator, and it is very much not that. I intended to warn here about the misrepresentation of the publisher’s description, but then I went back and reread it:

In 1930s Shanghai, detective Christopher Banks seeks to solve his parents’ long-ago disappearance — and finds himself trapped in his own past.

While clearly not comprehensive, that is not inaccurate, and it seems I just interpreted it entirely wrong, which is actually embarrassingly on-the-nose for what the book is about. Protagonist Christopher Banks is no more unreliable a narrator than any of us are; instead of a study of one man’s fallibility, it is much more a look at how all of us see our lives through very filtered lenses, and when you have to rely on memories for any sort of objective truth, you are on very shaky ground.

The setting of the international settlement in Shanghai perfectly mirrors the theme of subjective observation as well. I went into this book remarkably blind: about halfway through, I turned to Rebecca and said, “it seems weird that the Japanese occupied Shanghai in the 1930s, but that China was with the allies during WW2 and Japan was with the axis?” A quick google search returned the answer, “whew boy, you have no idea!” Reading about the Westerners in Shanghai shrug off growing global tensions with an assurance that ‘everything would turn out okay’ and the protagonist’s slow awakening that everything was very much not going to turn out okay felt chillingly pertinent today.

I got kind of deep into themes above, but it is also a very engrossing character study and mystery of sorts. We get extensive flashbacks to Banks’ childhood with his parents in Shanghai, but after their disappearance, he is sent to live with an aunt in England, where he is determined to become a famous detective, a la Sherlock Holmes. It becomes clear that in this fiction, such famous detectives do exist, and Banks succeeds over time in becoming one. This formational part of the book is very odd, with his increasingly renowned cases being referenced without any context. It did a good job of establishing the character, while clueing in the reader that this book would not be about tidy solutions to discrete mysteries.

The tension builds gradually as Banks slowly circles around investigating his parents’ disappearance and the international atmosphere gradually shifts from relief over the end of ‘The Great War’ to amorphous dread that things might not be quite so settled after all. Ishiguro does a marvelous job of ramping up the tension, slowly at first and then exponentially faster to a quite frankly dizzying climactic crescendo. I wondered if perhaps some of the final reveals were a bit too melodramatic, but of course that thought led me right back to the novel’s them of society ignoring extreme violence and corruption as being ‘unrealistic’.

Here For It: Or, How to Save Your Soul in America

By R. Eric Thomas

Here_For_ItWhew, this book! I’m a big fan of R. Eric Thomas’ weekly e-newsletter,* and figured this would be a similar collection of essays: a combination of very funny personal anecdotes and political/social commentary. And it was, but just…even better: deeper, more complex, shockingly poignant. I was in awe of how he balanced humor and gravity, and how artistically he threaded themes through his personal life into reflections of our country as a whole.

One sentence, I’ll be laughing out loud, and the next will stop me short:

“The fact that I sometimes enjoyed dating a boy was, to say the least, discomfirming information for a Christian, black-esque straight person who spent his free time carefully curating an Audra McDonald fan page on the internet. And it didn’t feel like there were two sides of me fighting for dominance; it felt like I was coming apart at some basic level, like I was becoming diffuse, like water becomes mist.”

… “like water becomes mist.” Whew!

Thomas has had hard times, as he struggled with what it meant to be black, gay, and deeply Christian in America, but he finds such reflective truths and ultimate optimism that it was an ideal read right now. In his introduction, Thomas talks about his childhood love for Sesame Street’s The Monster At the End of This Book. It’s a funny, light-hearted critique of a children’s book through the retrospective adult lens. By the end, he ties this all into how difficult life seems now, but how important it is to forge ahead (as a very skilled professional writer, he of course does this much more meaningfully than I can). The title of his book comes from his conclusion that he is “here for it,” it being his life, with all its ups and downs, and that is how you save your soul in America.

*I have to plug his analysis of Governor Cuomo’s covid-themed poster, which had me howling!

You Can’t Touch My Hair

By Phoebe Robinson

You_Can't_Touch_My_HairI decided to take a break from reading serious intellectual books about race and racism, and instead turn to a funny book about race and racism! And honestly, comedian Phoebe Robinson touches on many of the points from So You Want to Talk About Race and White Fragility through humor, pop culture, and personal anecdotes, so I really recommend this to anyone who wants to laugh while they learn some hard truths. Actually, I just recommend this to anyone, since Robinson is a very smart and funny writer on a whole range of topics:

  • Do you want to know which Hall & Oats lyrics summarize the entirety of human history?
  • Do you want detailed advice on how to correctly google yourself?
  • How to avoid being the Black Friend? (or conversely and more importantly, how to avoid tokenizing a friend as your Black Friend)

She kicks the book off right away with her titular hair: how her hair, society’s reactions to it, and the affect those reactions had on her evolved over her youth and young adulthood, culminating in a history of black hair in media which illustrates the decades it took for natural black hair to be even slightly accepted today.

For me, one of the most striking stories she tells is about a director she worked with, which quite literally runs down all the hallmarks of white fragility like a checklist: denial of racist words, reassurance of being a good person, burdensome guilt-ridden apology and request to ‘talk it out further,’ and the final cherry on top of turning to a different black person for absolution. It should seriously be used as the prime example in DiAngelo’s book!

My favorite part of the book, however, was toward the end where she writes a series of letters of ‘advice’ to her “all-time favorite person: my two-and-a-half-year-old biracial niece, Olivia.” As a professional comedian, of course she’s funny, but she really shines when she’s also sincere: “Seeing how you view the world makes me happy. Ah! A comedian expressing a genuine emotion and not following it with a joke. Full disclosure: That was really, really hard for me to do just then.”

In addition to wanting to make sure Olivia doesn’t miss such pop culture gems as DMX singing “Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer,” she tells her how great it is to be black, to be a woman, and even tags in John Hodgman for the difficult task of talking up being white without sounding racist! (You’re going to want to read the story of John taking his friend Wyatt—who I assume is Wyatt Cenac—to a gourmet mayonnaise shop in Brooklyn.)

And finally, in her advice on being sex-positive, she goes on a lengthy tangent about the problematic 2014 movie Kingsman: The Secret Service, which first of all, shocked me about that movie since I’d never seen it, but then made me want to read an entire book of her dissecting what does and does not work in movies and tv shows. This book is so chock full of pop culture references that I finally just had to appreciate the ones that I got and let the rest pass, or I would have been constantly jumping over to google.

White Fragility

By Robin DiAngelo

White-FragilityWhite Fragility is written by a white woman very specifically for a white audience, to help us all process our feelings in a way that does not burden Black people around us. DiAngelo is explicit about this in the introduction: “This book is intended for us, for white progressives who so often—despite our conscious intentions—make life so difficult for people of color.”

DiAngelo writes in a very academic manner, which makes sense given that she started as a professor, with a matter-of-fact and somewhat dry style. She is now a consultant and trainer on issues of racial and social justice, and it’s quickly clear that she is very good at metaphorically holding white people’s hands while they slowly, and often grudgingly, wake up to systemic racism. (At one point, as she walks the reader through a common strawman argument, she requests that the reader take a calming breath.)

And by starting at the beginning, I mean she really starts at the very beginning: “Yet a critical component of cross-racial skill building is the ability to sit with the discomfort of being seen racially, of having to proceed as if our race matters (which it does). Being seen racially is a common trigger of white fragility, and thus, to build our stamina, white people must face the first challenge: naming our race.”

DiAngelo’s parallel of white fragility vs. racial stamina really speaks to me, since I want to be the strongest, most self-sufficient person I can be. Through occasionally excruciating detail, she makes it clear that avoidance of race issues is very much a weakness, and you only get stronger and more resilient by facing these truths head on. I admit that she is so methodical about walking the reader through the process of understanding white fragility, acknowledging it, and then combating it that it can be somewhat exhausting, but it has to be that way. As she describes, white supremacy is so deeply entrenched that we must be able to recognize it and combat it in every aspect of our society: “To say that whiteness is a standpoint is to say that a significant aspect of white identity is to see oneself as an individual, outside or innocent of race—“just human.”

To acknowledge white fragility, one must recognize the myths of individualism and objectivism which are so key to American society in particular. These myths deny the degree to which we are all influenced, even subconsciously, by cultural messages that for the most part work to bolster white supremacy. (This was also where I gave myself a mental pat on the back for already rejecting Ayn Rand’s bullshit.) It is no wonder she has to go into such meticulous detail; it is a huge undertaking to unravel these patterns of thought that have been reinforced since birth. DiAngelo is attempting with this book to remove the centering and the blindness that comes with it so we can see more clearly what whiteness means in our society.

She has somewhat repetitive wording, using similar phrases and going over the same topic in multiple ways, which can be a bit of a grind when reading, but does its job. Her guidance has continued to stay with me, reinforcing what I’m reading/hearing/seeing from people of color and giving me strength when I fear I’ll make something worse through ignorance. You are a far better ally if you acknowledge your inevitable mistakes and gratefully accept correction than if you try to avoid, by either inaction or unaccountability, ever falling into racist patterns (which doesn’t fool anyone anyway).

“Still, I don’t feel guilty about racism. I didn’t choose this socialization, and it could not be avoided. But I am responsible for my role in it.…Unlike the heavy feelings such as guilt, the continuous work of identifying my internalized superiority and how it may be manifesting itself is incredibly liberating. When I start from the premise that of course I have been thoroughly socialized into the racist culture in which I was born, I no longer need to expend energy denying that fact.”

So You Want to Talk About Race

By Ijeoma Oluo

So_You_Want_To_Talk_About_RaceHonestly, I did not want to read about race right now, let alone talk about it. I wanted to keep reading the historical mysteries and romances that have kept me moderately distracted during this pandemic, but they started to feel tiresome, and I knew that I couldn’t ignore this national dialogue any longer.

When faced with all the recommended readings, So You Want to Talk About Race was an easy choice, since I already follow Ijeoma Oluo on twitter and instagram, where she is very smart, funny, honest, and occasionally posts beautiful makeup demos. I’d been meaning to get to her book for longer than I like to admit.

Also, white complacency is insidious! I’ve done enough reading over the years that I’m more or less comfortable with terms like “social construct” and “intersectionality,” but this also means that I too often fall into the mental trap of thinking that I don’t need to do any of this recommended reading.

And boy, did Oluo school me fast! She writes So You Want to Talk About Race in the same accessibly conversational tone that she uses in her social media, so I’d initially thought it would be a pretty quick read. It came as a shock the first few times I had to set down the book for a day so that I could think through everything she had laid on me in the chapter I’d just read.

I can’t resist sharing a few passages that I highlighted:

From the chapter “Is it really about race?” on how our country’s economics is intrinsically connected to race:

Racism in America exists to exclude people of color from opportunity and progress so that there is more profit for others deemed superior. This profit itself is the greater promise for nonracialized people—you will get more because they exist to get less.

From “What is racism?:”

Systemic racism is a machine that runs whether we pull the levers or not, and by just letting it be, we are responsible for what it produces. We have to actually dismantle the machine if we want to make change….

Continue reading

Spellbound

By Allie Therin

SpellboundI feel like this review is the complete opposite of my previous one. The writing and plotting are not terribly polished, but it is just so charming that it provided a really excellent reprieve from our current world. This is the first book in Therin’s Magic in Manhattan series, set in 1920s New York and featuring a wealthy society man, who moonlights as an investigator of magic objects, and a young ruffian from Hell’s Kitchen, who uses magic on the sly as an assistant at a small antiques shop. The two cross paths over a dangerous magic ring, and thus kicks off mystery, magic, and romance! (The romance is PG-13 at most, I’d say, with implied sex but a literary fade-to-black with every scene.)

Our two main protagonists are also surrounded by various family, friends, and even antagonists who are interesting and sympathetic characters in their own right. Therin gives the reader peeks into their lives, which adds even more charm and richness to the book. The second book, Starcrossed, came out earlier this month, and was even more delightful, so I highly recommend them both for a fun distraction!

In my attempt to limit how much money I give Amazon, I decided to buy the ebooks straight from the publisher. Somewhat to my embarrassment, these are published by a Harlequin imprint, but I persevered, which necessitated getting the Harlequin reading app on my phone. This all felt like a lot of trouble and I was grumpy, but then the app was very easy to use and having it directly on my phone was convenient, too.

The Marlowe Murders

By Laura Giebfried and Stanley R. Wells

Marlowe_MurdersWell, this novel is a fucking mess. The preview reminded me a bit of classic Agatha Christie mysteries, with a wealthy and estranged family gathered at a huge mansion on a remote island for the wake of the family matriarch. It lacked Christie’s charm, though, with every character being absurdly dislikeable, but I often find that entertaining as well. It was sort of refreshing for the protagonist—bribed/extorted by one of the family siblings into serving as a maid for the wake for mysterious reasons—to explain that everyone finds her “difficult” and for me to agree with everyone. (As a 29-year-old woman trying to get her doctorate in the 1950s, it would have been very easy to sympathize that the cards were very much stacked against her if she herself hadn’t been quite so unpleasant.)

What I found less entertaining was the glimpses of unpleasantness from the author herself. One character is overweight, which is referenced in just about every scene, and seems an especially shallow descriptor since her true defining feature, along with the other members of the family, seems to be a cartoonishly psychotic temper. If a woman is threatening me with mortal harm, her body weight is the least of my concerns. In addition to adding an ugly layer of fat phobia to an already unpleasant novel, the constant digs quickly became tiresome and clichéd.

Once the characters and scene were set and the murder committed, the plot really started to go off the rails. There’s a chapter in most mysteries where the detective is stumped and just sort of runs through wild conjectures. They usually write themselves a list to help order their thoughts and get back on track, but this protagonist seemed to just decide to go with the wild conjectures approach the whole way through. The characters all jumping from suspicion to suspicion, based solely on the newest ‘clue’ made me feel a little unmoored as well, so I guess you could say that the author created an atmosphere of sorts.

The Moral Judgments of Henry David Thoreau

By Kathryn Schulz

ThoreauAs I mentioned previously, I’m struggling with full-length novels, and even short stories seem to require a level of focus I don’t quite have in me right now. However, I ran across this five-year-old take down of Henry David Thoreau, and gleefully read the whole article in a matter of minutes. I’ve already described my love of writers dunking on other writers (and politicians), and this is up there with the best of them.

I’d heard before that Walden was much less remote than Thoreau described and that his ‘isolation’ there is the epitome of invisible women’s labor as his mother brought him food and did his laundry, but Schulz drags him point-by-point in this beautifully comprehensive and funny essay. A few choice excerpts, but I highly recommend the entire thing:

“I cannot idolize anyone who opposes coffee (especially if the objection is that it erodes great civilizations; had the man not heard of the Enlightenment?), but Thoreau never met an appetite too innocuous to denounce.”

“Food was bad, drink was bad, even shelter was suspect, and Thoreau advised keeping it to a minimum.”

Judge_MathisAdditionally, a more low-brow, comfort read during this time is Samantha Irby’s semi-daily recapping of whatever Judge Mathis episode she watched on YouTube the previous day. This is basically exactly my attention span right now, a funny, rambling, mostly kind discourse on low-stakes court-room drama. I look forward to them every day, and they are one of the many little things helping me get through these times.