8Books Review: “American Sutra” by Duncan Ryuken Williams

American Sutra: A Story of Faith and Freedom in the Second World War by Duncan Ryuken Williams revisits Japanese American internment through the lens of Buddhism.

Williams begins as World War II breaks out and Japan becomes an enemy of the United States. He examines the Japanese Buddhist communities in Hawaii and the mainland, how Buddhism’s role in the community impacted the decision making around who was interred and in what sequence, how Japanese Christians fared in comparison, how internees found ways to adapt Buddhism for strength and survival, how Japanese Americans fighting in the war petitioned for their own priests and proper death rites, and countless individual stories.

This is an academic book, so it’s not for the faint of heart, nor is it what I would suggest as an introduction to the history of Japanese American internment (if you’re here, reading this, I can only assume that you don’t need such an intro), but what it does offer is a detailed, thoroughly researched, and thought-provoking new angle. Religion offers an important lens, understudied and under acknowledged. Williams offers multiple views on its role, from Buddhism being another way in which Japanese were identified as alien, to its ability to offer solace to a Japanese American soldier being tortured in the Philippines.

And though covering a dark chapter in American history, Williams pitches this as a hopeful saga about American multiplicity, religious freedom, and offers a timely call for inclusion over exclusion.

8Books Review: “The Lonesome Bodybuilder” by Yukiko Motoya

By Timmy Pham

The Lonesome Bodybuilder, by Yukiko Motoya, contains eleven stories wrapped in a dark fantasy. Drawn from a collection of stories originally in Japanese, the work was only last year translated to English by Asa Yoneda, and published by Soft Skull Press in November 2018. This collection is Motoya’s English-language debut.

At the heart of the stories is “An Exotic Marriage”, a new translation of “Irui konin tan” (previously translated as Tales of Marriage to a Different Sort), for which Motoya won the 154th Akutagawa Prize in 2016. The novella-length story centers on a troubled wife who has noticed her individualism slipping away both figuratively and literally as her marriage continues. The story builds itself around the realism of neighbors, an apartment dog park, and her husband’s obsessive media consumption, but, as with all the eleven stories, takes turns of dark whimsy, their faces begin to droop and metaphors of snakes devouring one another become more reality than figurative gestures.

The other stories of the collection are similarly haunting in a way that feels like Motoya has brought Grimm Brothers to the 21st century. In the story “Typhoon,” a child waits at a bus stop and learns about flying umbrellas from a raggedy man. The title story, “The Lonesome Bodybuilder,” is the quiet journey of a housewife who channels her quiet determination into a newfound hobby. “How to Burden the Girl” is especially odd, centering around a new neighbor with an anime appearance and Oedipean backstory that sounds like it was lifted from bloody video game. The stories are indeed dark, but demure in a way that is haunting. To call the stories feminist is an easy, but lazy label, as Motoya is able to offer a range of dark insights from capitalism and consumption in “Fitting Room” to women in corporate culture in “I Called You by Name.” Give The Lonesome Bodybuilder a read, as Motoya’s work will undoubtedly leave you confused and amused.

*****

Timmy Pham lives in New York City and only recently trained himself to read on public transportation without getting a headache.

8Books Review: “Blame This on the Boogie” by Rina Ayuyang

By Timmy Pham

There are many things to love about Rina Ayuyang’s Blame This on the Boogie, but one that stands out to me is her waxy, crayon depiction of skin tone. In her first autobiographical comic, Ayuyang captures snippets from her life growing up as one of few Filipino Americans in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania to the struggles of motherhood and postpartum depression in sunny California. Drawing from the vibrant colors of Hollywood musical cinema and flashy television, Ayuyang crafts a beautifully scrappy look into a unique and relatable (for me at least) Asian-American experience.

But back to the art for a second. Asian-American graphic novelists have been the rise, American Born Chinese by Gene Luen Yang from 2006 was the first graphic novel by an Asian American I read and fell in love with. More recently, I was thrilled to read and witness the success of Thi Bui’s graphic memoir, The Best We Could Do. Both illustrators present clean story-lines with equally distinct coloring and lines. Blame This on the Boogie provides an entirely different approach. Ayuyang’s stories bleed into one another, with no clean panels to guide the reader, and her colors are pure and stacked. It is a strong and well-executed choice that echoes her love of dance and sport. As a darker-skinned Viet boy, I grew up avoiding the brown crayon, reserving it for trees and ground, but Ayuyang artful layerings of yellow, red, orange, and brown all help lend the full range of tone and dimensions to her depictions of herself, her family, and the racial diversity of an American experience. Cheers to that.

Content-wise, Blame This on the Boogie reflected back much of what I knew as the child of immigrants. Living room dance parties, a hungry acceptance of new American culture (yay football–though I grew up in Seattle and therefore am obligated to grimace at her love of the Steelers), and the fascination with American pop-culture that bleeds onto the internet (Ayuyang stans Kym Johnson and Hines Ward’s partnership in Dancing with the Stars) all reflect a familiar experience of a blended Asian-American world amid loud visiting titas. Give this graphic novel a pass through, the ballet sequence at the end (as is customary with Hollywood musicals) is a treat.

(Editor’s Note: Check out more of the gorgeous interiors over at Drawn & Quarterly)

*****

Timmy Pham lives in New York City and only recently trained himself to read on public transportation without getting a headache.

8Books Review: “The Bird Catcher and Other Stories” by Fayeza Hasanat

Fayeza Hasanat’s debut short story collection, The Bird Catcher and Other Stories, is set in the Bangladesh and the United States. It is filled with questions about identity and belonging, about those who are seeking answers under the weight of expectations–their own or otherwise.

A favorite discusses a talkative grandmother who wrestles with the idea of home, herself an immigrant, residing with her children in the U.S. Several others turn on gender dynamics, and those who are between genders or missing some traditional aspect associated with proscribed roles for men and women. Many take dark turns, faced with life on the edge.

Hasanat’s writing is a bit flowery to my taste, but her concepts are intriguing and her characters vulnerable, and their experiences of feeling out of place honest.

 

8Books Review: Pulutan! Filipino Bar Bites, Appetizers and Street Eats

If you need some last minute inspiration for your Thanksgiving extravaganza, take a look through Marvin Gapultos brightly-colored book of finger foods, Pulutan! Filipino Bar Bites, Appetizers and Street Eats. Now given if you don’t cook a lot of Filipino food (hi, me), you might not have fermented shrimp paste on hand which makes the pork meatballs with spicy coconut sauce temporarily out of reach. But you probably do (or your neighborhood run-of-the-mill American grocery store will) have the ingredients to whip up some spam mac’n’cheese.

Pulutan! is seriously flashy, with bold colored pages, and drink pairings for every dish. Organized by how you cook it (grilled, fried), the opening chapter introduces the concept of pulutan to novices (hi, me again). No recipe is longer than an open spread, so you know it can’t be all that complicated. The instructions are easy to follow once you’ve got all the ingredients on hand.

NYC Theater Review: “The Chinese Lady” by Lloyd Suh

Lloyd Suh’s new play, The Chinese Lady, takes us on a journey with the first Chinese woman to set foot in the United States. Her name was Afong Moy. She arrived in 1835 at the age of 14 and was put on display as “The Chinese Lady.” The cost of admission? 25 cents for adults, 10 cents for children. Co-produced by Ma-Yi Theater Company and the Barrington Stage Company, the cast of two–Shannon Tyo and Daniel Isaac–takes the audience on a journey through Afong’s life.

Afong (played by Shannon Tyo), we are told, comes from a well-off family, the youngest of seven, and has bound feet–making her a curiosity to New York audiences. Her family sold her into two years of service with American merchants. We are quickly introduced to Atung (played by Daniel K. Isaac), her translator, who we are told speaks both Chinese and English. Most of the speaking stays with Afong, with occasional interjections from Atung that bring warmth and comedy and humanity to these largely forgotten historic figures.

We follow Afong as she ages, but remains on display, even meeting President Jackson. Her optimism begins to waver, her clothes changes, and still she thinks about relations between the U.S. and China, between her and her audience. Towards the end, the play rapidly casts its audience through Chinese American immigration history via Afong–1882 Exclusion Act, the Geary Act, and on–before jumping to the present. This is an important lineage, but I felt this contemporary jump overly much and a bit didactic.

Still, Suh’s play seeks to dive into and through our constant conversations about identity and cross-cultural understanding and belonging and otherness, all the while weaving in our collective past. And that makes it worthwhile.

The Chinese Lady is playing at Theatre Row (410 W. 42nd Street) through Sunday, November 18. Cost: $30-$42.25. Tickets are available by calling 212-239-6200; or online at: www.telecharge.com/Off-Broadway/The-Chinese-Lady/ or through TodayTix at https://www.todaytix.com/x/nyc/shows/12360-the-chinese-lady#noscroll

Photo by Eloy Garcia

‘Fresh off the Boat’ Episode Review: “Mo’ Chinese Mo’ Problems”

Fresh Off the Boat, Season 5, Episode 5: “Mo’ Chinese Mo’ Problems”
Original airdate November 9, 2018.

The ladies will kick it:  While going door to door as a U.S. Census volunteer, Evan discovers there’s another Chinese family in the neighborhood (Reggie Lee, Ming-Na Wen, and Jimmy O. Yang).  The Huangs and the Lees are overjoyed, but Louis feels his new buddy moving in on his friendship with Marvin, and Jessica becomes disillusioned when Elaine turns out not to be the role model she hopes.

Eddie and Emery, inspired by Evan, pose as Census volunteers in order to find out which neighbors have their own swimming pools and when during the day nobody’s home.

The rhyme that is wicked:  I’m not going to lie.  I’m totally here for anything Ming-Na is in (okay, except Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.), so I was going to like this episode almost no matter what.  Add Jimmy O. Yang, this year’s runner up (to Awkwafina) for Summer of ________ status, and I’m willing to forgive almost anything.  I love the decision to play Queen Latifah’s “Ladies First” when Elaine saunters up to the mural wearing her low-rider jeans.  Everyone bows to Ming-Na.

There’s an interesting and almost surely deliberate irony when Jessica twice, in the company only of Louis and the Lees, utters stereotypes of Chinese people and Jewish men in an episode where she protests the stereotypical portrayal of Asians in a school mural.  I am not smart enough to break it down, so somebody please do it in the comments!

Deirdre is hilarious in this episode.

Lines I enjoyed:

“You always find fresh ways to be boring.” (Eddie)

“I’m usually four times more beautiful than this.” (Elaine)

“My oldest son’s middle name is Elvis.” (Louis)

“I hate racism and I love a trap.”  (Jessica)

“Betrayed by my beautiful face.” (Jessica)

“Maybe turn you into a sausage man.” (Marvin)

Those who don’t know how to be pros:  

I said I’d be willing to forgive just about anything.  Among “anything” are tons of overacting by all the principals including the guest stars (but not including Yang).

Is “whale tale” an anachronism?

FOB moment:  The Huangs welcome the Lees with a fruiting lemon tree.

Soundtrack flashback:  “Ladies First” by Queen Latifah (1989).  If you haven’t heard the early Latifah stuff, I recommend it highly.

Get evicted: The episode is rescued from a C by the end, with Horace’s redo of the We Are the World mural, plus of course the guest cast, whom I adore.  B.

 

‘Fresh Off the Boat’ Episode Review: “Workin’ the ‘Ween”

Fresh Off the Boat, Season 5, Episode 3: “Workin’ the ‘Ween”
Original airdate October 20, 2018.

It’s the heart afraid of breaking

Marvin and Honey ask Louis and Jessica to be their baby’s godparents.  Jessica eagerly agrees, mostly so Marvin and Honey can have a date night, leaving the Huangs to babysit on Halloween night, and shutting down Louis’s efforts to persuade Jessica to dress in a couples costume with him.

Jessica and Louis are alarmed to discover that they aren’t the naturally talented parents they thought.  Their claim that Eddie was weaned from the pacifier with no problems is a deception by Louis; their claim that Emery’s weaning was even easier is a deception by Jessica.

Eddie gets a job selling mattresses (his boss is played by George Wendt) and works Halloween night to prove he has what it takes.  Trent comes by to help, but he’s much more of a hindrance.

Evan and Emery, dressed as Dana Scully and Fox Mulder, get to hand out candy at the front door, where they have a problem with a girl who shows up repeatedly, each time in a different costume.

That never learns to dance

Another silly but mildly entertaining Halloween episode.  The costumes are great, and it’s nice to see the continued development of Eddie’s character (in two separate plots!).  There’s a moment at the end of the teaser where Louis gives his dejected face.  That face is some excellent Randall Park acting.  My favorite costume in the episode is Grandma as Freddy Krueger.

Despite this being a really meh episode, the tag at the end is completely unexpected, perfectly in character (which is a brilliant paradox), terrific character development for Eddie, and genuinely sweet.  Sweet Eddie is the best!  Eddie made Evan!

Lines I enjoyed: “Alf was a puppet?” (Jessica).  “You love black dresses and putting words into my mouth” (Louis).  “Not being wise is being dumb.  You make me dumb” (Jessica).  “Damn you, perfect Evan!” (Louis).

It’s the dream afraid of waking

Trevor Larcom as Trent was, last season, regularly the best actor among the young men who play Eddie’s friends. He has an off episode here, and it may not be his fault.  Trent’s part in this episode is idiotic.  Hudson Yang as Eddie feels pretty off as well, although he has a few good moments in the mattress store.  All three plots feel like something out of the sitcom plot handbook.

FOB moment:  “A Japanese man saved my father’s life once, so you’re hired.”

Soundtrack flashback: “The Rose” by Bette Midler (1979) and the theme from The X-Files by Mark Snow.

That never takes a chance: The wonderful final few seconds of the episode give it a boost, but not much of a boost.  B-.

 

‘Fresh Off the Boat” Episode Review: “The Hand That Sits the Cradle”

Fresh Off the Boat, Season 5, Episode 2: “The Hand That Sits the Cradle”
Original airdate October 12, 2018.

I’m goin’ out tonight: Jessica volunteers to take care of Honey’s zuo yue zi (“sitting the month,” which I just learned is a thousand-year-old tradition).  Her insistence on Honey’s taking it easy makes Honey suspicious, overheated, and wine-deprived.  She has a feeling Jessica is compensating for something.  Louis takes advantage of Jessica’s being at Honey’s house for a month by trying to bond with Evan, who’s much more interested in doing his own thing until Jessica returns home.  His own thing includes reading Churchill: Lad to Legend.  Eddie and Emery are inspired by Pumping Iron to get into bodybuilding, mostly because they “just want to get stronger than Grandma.”

I’m feelin’ all right: There’s something endearing about Jessica’s not knowing how to deal with (or talk about) the failure of her novel, A Case of a Knife to the Brain.  She seems humbled in a way she’s completely unprepared to understand, and rather than lash out or muscle her will into being, she wanders.  I love this Jessica, and Constance Wu does some wonderful acting in the scene where Honey calls her out.  I also will not complain about any Honey-heavy episode that’s not baby-centric.

Eddie-Emery partnerships are almost always interesting, and Louis going too far while being focused on someone else is one of the best Louises.

Some lines I enjoyed: “I sleep on her failure every night” (Grandma).  “There’s no such thing as quality time.  There’s just time” (Jessica).

Gonna let it all hang out: I have no real complaints about this episode.  Even Marvin is charming (especially when he says he’s hit his pre-baby weight: before Nicole, who’s 18).  But this is the second episode of the season, so it’s apparent that there is no Roseanne joke coming.  Come on, FOtB writers.  The door is wide open for a very funny joke about Roseanne Connor throwing the Huangs under the boat and then finding herself written out of existence.  It doesn’t have to be cruel; it can just be pointed.

FOB moment:  I learned something about sitting the month.  There’s also something cultural in “There’s no such thing as quality time; there’s just time,” right?

Soundtrack flashback:  “Man! I Feel Like a Woman” by Shania Twain (1997).

Final grade, this episode: An altogether pleasant episode that doesn’t distinguish itself from the rest of the utterly competent episodes making up most of the corpus. B.

Non-Spoiler ‘Fresh Off the Boat’ Episode Review: “Fresh Off the RV”

Fresh Off the Boat, Season 5, Episode 1: “Fresh Off the RV” (season premiere)
Airs tonight, October 5, 2018 at 8:00.

It’s the end of summer, 1998 in Fresh Off the Boat time, and it’s time for Honey to have her child, and it’s time for Marvin to give up his sports car, and it’s time for Jessica’s novel A Case of a Knife to the Brain to finally see its release.  Nicole and Eddie have some Saturn Time: Nicole’s got some big news for her best friend.

The official summary from ABC gives more details than I would, so skip this paragraph if you’re very sensitive about spoilers.

While Honey and Marvin celebrate the birth of their baby, Jessica’s book is finally released, and she’s optimistically looking forward to a book store reading that’s been set up by her publisher to help boost sales. Louis is so excited to promote the book across the country that he buys an RV from Los Angeles Lakers great Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, who owns an RV dealership which is managed by underappreciated Calvin (Jaleel White, “Family Matters”). Meanwhile, Emery and Evan are concerned about Eddie after Nicole tells him that she’s moving to New York, and he seems completely unfazed about losing his best friend.

It feels like the show is slipping into its groove.  All the characters feel familiar, and there’s even a celebrity cameo in the RV sales lot across the street from Shaq Motors.  It has a few surprises and laugh-aloud moments, and everyone looks great.  Especially Jessica.  I’ll comment on a couple of disappointments in my review of episode 2 next week.

Part of the plot is suspect.  People line up for a certain novel published in the U.S. on September 1, 1998, but I don’t think it was quite the phenomenon its successors were in following years.

Soundtrack flashback: “Everywhere You Look” by Jesse Frederick, the opening theme for Full  House.  “Back in the Day” by Ahmad (1994).

My grade for this episode: B.

8mm Review: ‘A Simple Favor’

A Simple Favor (2018)
Anna Kendrick, Blake Lively, Henry Golding.  Written by Jessica Sharzer (based on the novel by Darcey Bell).  Directed by Paul Feig.

A Simple Favor is being marketed as a thriller, but it’s really more of a mystery, so if you’re put off by thrillers (as I am), be assured that it’s not very scary and not very violent, and it doesn’t have edge-of-your-seat moments the way thrillers usually do.

Anna Kendrick plays Stephanie, a widowed mother who puts her name next to three jobs for her young son’s class party sign-up sheet while the other parents say mean things about her behind her back.  When she’s not volunteering for class mom activities, she produces a vlog for other moms.

She meets Emily, the beautiful mother of her son’s classmate.  Stephanie and Emily become friends, but for Stephanie it’s a very uneasy friendship.  Emily is wealthier, more successful, and more adventurous than she is, and where Stephanie is eager to please and quick to apologize, Emily seems to disdain any attitude that doesn’t begin with oneself.  She admonishes Stephanie for saying “I’m sorry,” and threatens to punch her in the face if Stephanie ever says it again.

Emily disappears a week after she befriends Stephanie, and the rest of the film involves finding out what happened to her.

It’s fun in the way a good puzzle mystery is fun, engaging all the way and difficult to predict.  Every character seems at times likeable and despicable, with nice performances by Kendrick, Lively, and Henry Golding as Sean, Stephanie’s husband.

Early promo materials (including trailers) featured only Kendrick and Lively, but the success of Crazy Rich Asians, which stars Golding, had the studio releasing new promos highlighting all three principal actors.  This is not meaningless: there’s no way to tell if it’s lasting, but there has already been a Crazy Rich Asians diversity effect even on films already completed before its release.

Anna Kendrick is my second-favorite actress over the past several years, so there’s a huge bias here, but if you also find her charming, you’ll want to see this film.  If not, deduct a few points and see it anyway for a good two hours of engaging escapism.

Rating: 79/100

8Tracks Review: ‘Love Yourself: Answer’ by BTS

Love Yourself: Answer by BTS
Big Hit Entertainment 2018

The new BTS compilation album (with 7 new tracks!) dropped August 24, and if you know even one person who’s a BTS fan, you knew about it probably a couple of weeks in advance because BTSers could not shut up.  I can’t say for sure, but I’m pretty sure anticipation of the new album even brought one of my friends out of Twitter hibernation.

Fake love

Until a few years ago, I was a high-school teacher, so I’ve seen boy-band crazes come and go, but there has never been anything like this BTS thing.  Among those in my life who can’t stop are a retired middle-school teacher, the esteemed restaurant critic of the Honolulu Star-Advertiser, and one of my college friends who took her daughter (or daughters? I’m a bad friend) to Los Angeles to see the group in concert.  I’m in my late 40s, and each of these women is in that neighborhood, something I only mention to highlight the fact that something very unusual is going on here.  This did not happen with N*Sync.

I’ve heard snippets, you know?  Never a whole song, but little bits of music in people’s Instagram stories, and nothing stood out for me.  It was K-pop and it sounded like K-pop and it didn’t sound to me any better or worse than any other K-pop.

I get it.  For those unfamiliar with a genre, it all sounds the same.  I’m a metalhead and I realize that to casual observers, all my favorite metal bands sound the same (that is, mostly terrible) when nothing could be further from the truth.

These are people whose opinions I value on wide ranges of topics including music and art.  One early-30s blogger I’ve become online acquaintances with turned me on to emo-screamo band Thursday, and I dig a lot of the music she likes, but now she’s all about BTS.

(l to r) the cute one, the smart one, the quiet one, the rambunctious one, the ladies’ man, the kind one, the animal lover, the future televangelist

Two weekends ago I made a commitment to give it the fairest shot I could.  I was going to listen to Love Yourself: Answer all weekend long, and only this album.

And I didn’t care for it, but by the end of the weekend, I could name (and even sing along with) a couple of tracks I actually like, and most of the time the rest of the songs weren’t bad.

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