Always catching up, always falling behind

Travel, pregnancy, holidays. Lately I feel like life is a never-ending series of obstacles — mostly good ones, but still — that are keeping me from catching my breath. Every day my to-do list grows… then shrinks… then grows even more. How? Help!


Well, one thing I can cross off today is sharing my thoughts on the shows, productions, and movies I’ve enjoyed over the past few months.

(Yes, months. Have I mentioned how behind I am?)

Based on an award-winning play, Kim’s Convenience is a sitcom about a Korean-Canadian family and their store. It’s not funny in a laugh-out-loud way, but I appreciate the quieter humor — and heart — inherent in the cultural observations and conflicts between the characters.

And unlike Fresh Off the Boat — which unfortunately I think has lost a lot of steam over the years — this show seems content to be what it is, rather than eroding into the more typical Westernized formula for comedies.

I’ll be honest, my default attitude toward any remake is wariness. Because are we really updating and improving upon the original, or just trying to bring it back for a cash grab?

In the case of She-Ra — a beloved classic cartoon from my childhood — I think they’ve done a really nice job reimagining the story and themes for a contemporary audience. Even the art style has been modernized in an elegant and inclusive way. Season 1 was a lot of fun, and I especially loved the complicated dynamic between She-Ra and Catra.

In a nutshell: Hamilton lives up to the hype.

I was afraid it wouldn’t, because I don’t adore the music in Moana the way everyone else seems to, so I thought perhaps Lin-Manuel Miranda might be overrated, at least for me. But no. He’s brilliant. Hamilton is phenomenal. Within a minute of the show starting, I turned to my husband and said, “I love this already.” And that feeling only grew as the story continued to play out on the stage before me.

Race. Revolution. Passion. Family. Tragedy. The music. The lyrics. The performances. The choreography. It’s all so wonderful, so epic.

The Edge of Seventeen was a solid coming-of-age story, told with a good balance of humor, cynicism, and hope. Hailee Steinfeld and Woody Harrelson are the stars, and with reason — but over the course of the movie, I was surprised to find myself just as compelled, if not more, by the performances of Blake Jenner and Haley Lu Richardson, as the brother and best friend, respectively. They each brought a lot of subtle power to these side characters, elevating the roles, and thus the story.

I first watched Miss Saigon roughly 20 years ago, and I think a lot of it went over my head at that time. Now, as a relatively “woke” adult, I found myself disturbed, even angered, by the story. By the way that a show ostensibly featuring Vietnamese characters completely lacked any semblance of real Vietnamese perspective. By the way that America and Americans were portrayed as golden ideals, in spite of their many misdeeds. By the lack of dimension or interiority to any of the Asian characters, who were pretty much all “bad.” (Whores, pimps, vengeful soldiers, impoverished fools, etc.)

I recognize that not everyone will have the same reaction, but truthfully, as a person of Asian descent, I did feel harmed in a way, and that has given me a lot to think about, as I consider other works (of fiction, film, etc.) that negatively impact some people, even while I enjoy them.

Instead of rewatching To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before for the fourth time, I decided to try a different rom-com starring Noah Centineo, and he didn’t let me down. He’s just as charming in The Perfect Date, but not at all the same as his TATBILB character. The tone of this movie was more like Easy A — less candy and sunshine, more sour cherries and neon lights. Which is neither good nor bad, just an observation.

I knew nothing about the show Dear Evan Hansen before watching it, but wow, did it pack a punch. It’s funny and heartbreaking, and so intense that, at least in our traveling tour, the actor playing the main role does not perform twice in one day. (Which mainly comes into play on weekends, when they have both matinees and evening runs.)

I thoroughly enjoyed the music, and I felt the show had a lot of valuable things to say about growing up, and parenting, in our image-obsessed, anxiety-ridden world.

15 years old at this point, Chasing Liberty features Mandy Moore and Matthew Goode — two people for which I have an inexplicable fondness — as the First Daughter of the USA, and a secret Secret Service agent who is tasked to protect her while she galavants around Europe. So of course I loved it, as unlikely and cheesy as it was.

In the literary world, Someone Great would probably fall under the “New Adult” label, which for various reasons, never really took off. The story is mostly about life in your 20s, which for many people involves epic heartbreak, evolving friendships, and casual sex and drug use. (Weed and ecstasy, in this case.) There were plenty of things I liked about it — especially the soundtrack, and Lakeith Stanfield — but I don’t think the whole was greater than the sum of its parts.

Always Be My Maybe was another one that I wanted to love more than I did. I laughed out loud plenty of times — because Ali Wong and Randall Park are great at writing and delivering one-liners — and I really appreciated the natural way that Asian-American culture was featured in the film. (Food. San Francisco. Complex parent/child relationships.) But overall there was a sort of raw, choppiness to it that didn’t quite work for me.

And while I applaud that he was game for it, Keanu’s role in this film was utterly ridiculous.

The highlight for me was Michelle Buteau, who played the best friend, and stole pretty much every scene she was in.

Quiet but competent, The Spectacular Now was probably the least exciting of everything I’ve seen lately. Everything about it just felt… kind of obvious, and unoriginal. It’s the story of a young man’s emotional pain, and the way he deflects it from himself by inflicting it on others. He’s supposed to be charming, but I wasn’t charmed. At least not by the protagonist. Shailene Woodley was as watchable as ever, and Brie Larson surprised me with her turn as the popular girl. (Not the kind of role I’m used to seeing her in. She brought some depth to it, though.)

Cleverly written — and actually kind of subversive while maintaining the key beats of a rom-com — Set It Up definitely exceeded my expectations. Zoey Deutch is completely adorable and endearing, and the chemistry between her and Glen Powell was strong. On the one hand, there wasn’t much new here; on the other hand, things don’t have to be new to be good.


Sometimes I think TV, movies, etc., aren’t that important. Why bother talking about them?

But they’re stories. I live for stories. I learn from stories.

And I think stories have the power to change and connect us.

Like this:
1+

EVERYONE KNOWS YOU GO HOME by Natalia Sylvester

It has been months since I read this book, but I can still vividly recall so much of it. Beautifully written without being overwrought, the story is full of insights about family, love, immigration, aging, and more. My copy is littered with Post-It flags marking favorite passages. 

This book also happens to be written by my friend Natalia Sylvester, who I greatly admire for her talent, her intelligence, her kindness, and her advocacy.

“You’ll grow slowly, and then all at once.”

“Remember how you used to blow bubbles into your drink through a straw? That’s how the first few kicks will feel.”

“After you give birth, every inch of you will be exhausted and in pain except for your heart.”

“When he cries, remember your body used to be his whole world. Cherish the moments he cries for you, but let him go a little more each day.”

This rings so true to my experiences with pregnancy, birth, and motherhood. A good reminder, as I approach the arrival of my second child.

“Who do you think he’ll be like?” he had asked Elda that day at the hospital. “More you or me?”

“Both. And neither. I think that’s the whole point,” she’d said.

So many people — including myself — like to play this game with children. Who are they more like, mom or dad? Well she’s got mom’s eyes, but dad’s nose. Or dad’s stubbornness, and mom’s fondness for sweets.

But what I find so amazing now — watching my own daughter grow up, as well as my friends’ kids — is how the combination of two people creates something entirely new and unique. IB is not a mini-me or a mini-Andy. She’s herself. More and more each day.

“‘Some people have holes in their hearts not even time can fill, but that doesn’t mean they’re broken.'”

Beautiful and true.

Isabel wondered if wanting to be happy for someone counted as being happy for them.

Intentions versus reality. I’m necessarily not proud to say, I’ve felt this gap in my own emotions many times. Less so, the older I get. But still.

“Decisions are not the same as choices.”

I don’t know if I ever contemplated that distinction quite so clearly before, but I thought about it a lot after reading this line.

Sometimes you have to make a decision even when all your choices are bad. Sometimes you have to make a decision even when you have no choices at all.

“I’m proud of you,” he said.

“For what? I haven’t done anything yet.”

“You’ve done everything. You are everything.”

In a society that often seems obsessed with accomplishment, this feels like such a radical expression of love and worth. It really affected me.

Grief is never really gone; it is just a darkness you eventually adjust to.

Grief is one of the themes of my work-in-progress, so I’m always interested in how other people experience and describe it.

“Life is shit, but it’s fucking beautiful.”


I also really enjoyed this: “Can You Just Trust That We’re Human? The Millions Interviews Natalia Sylvester”

There is so much responsibility to writing. Even when you’re saying, I just want to write a book that’s fun for someone. A book can have the power, while being entertaining, to change how a person thinks or lay the groundwork for it or make them say, “I never thought of that before. Let me delve into that a little more.” So, it’s something that needs to be done very carefully. I know there’s some resistance to that, as if it’s telling someone what to think. People tend to react against it as if it’s censorship.

This is art, but it’s a powerful art, and so how about wielding it well? It’s about the craft, too. It’s going to make all of the book stronger. In the revision, it’s a step back, of thinking, what am I trying to say and what have I said? You can never know completely, obviously, because people are going to interpret everything a lot of different ways, but you try to do your best.

On her exploration of immigration, both as a writer and as an immigrant herself:

You leave a whole country, you leave your home. Immigration also means a death. You’re leaving one life for another. You’re ending this whole life and existence that you had in order to hopefully live this new one. So, what’s the tradeoff. What’s lost in that trade?

Like this:
1+

Books, motherhood, and time

From “Boyhood on a Shelf” by Barbara Mahany:

That’s what reading together in childhood does: It forever binds us. My two boys, born eight years apart, played with their toys alone. Reading was where we nestled, where we sank in deep, side by side. Books are where our hearts did so very much of their stitching together. And they were my guideposts as a mother; they whispered the lessons I prayed my children would learn: Ferdinand, the gentle bull? Be not afraid to march to your own music. Harry Potter? Believe in magic. The tales of Narnia? Defend what is good. Tom Sawyer? Roam and roam widely. And never mind if you tumble into a slight bit of mischief.


I remember my mother reading to me. For some reason, Sylvester and the Magic Pebble and A Castle in the Attic stick out the most in my mind. But I know she started our nighttime reading years before either of those, with classics like Goodnight Moon and Dr. Seuss. My memories are hazy flickers of a candle’s flame. It’s not the sound of her voice that lingers decades later, but the feeling of being read to, and cared for. The feeling of shared discovery, as the stories unfolded before both of us at the same time.

It is interesting, and wonderful, to be on the other side of that now.

We started reading to IB almost as soon as she was born. Ridiculous, maybe, but oh well. First, it was simple board books with black and white illustrations. Then, little stories with cute rhymes. Now, we can tackle more complex picture books, with layers of meaning for all ages to appreciate.

I imagine we will do the same with RB, when he gets here. (Oh, by the way, I am pregnant again.) I very much look forward to reading to him too, and to her and him together.

I wonder which stories they will remember the most when they’re adults. I wonder what shape their memories will take.


From “How I Rebuilt My Childhood Library, Book by Book” by J. Courtney Sullivan:

When you’re dealing with used books that once belonged to children, even those listed as “like new” are worn. A stray crayon mark or a torn page is not a sign of neglect, but of love.

With the arrival of every volume, I’d get a thrill, remembering. Not just the book itself, but what it meant to read it under the covers with a flashlight, or on the back porch of our house…


In the publishing industry, there’s a lot of talk about how books are not in competition with other books — at least not truly or solely. They are in competition with movies, TV shows, apps, social media, etc.

Now that I’m a mother, and my time and energy feel much more limited, I understand this more than ever. At the end of the day, after I’ve put IB to bed, and daytime’s obligations have either been finished or saved for tomorrow, I have about an hour or two to myself. I typically spend the first thirty minutes “resetting” the house — cleaning dishes, putting away toys, etc. Then it’s my time to “relax.”

Relaxing should be easy, right? And what could be easier than surfing the internet or watching TV? Or scrolling through my Facebook and Twitter feeds? So those are the places I turn to first. The places where my mind can go a bit blank, usually.

But I don’t find fulfillment there. I don’t gain much if any nourishment from those things. Mostly when I close my laptop or put down my phone, I feel as if I’ve lost more than I’ve gained.

I don’t like that feeling.

Maybe “easy” isn’t always worth the tradeoff.

I want to read more. I want to write more.

And what’s stopping me?

Nothing at all.

Like this:
1+

Recently viewed: Buffy, Angel, The Guernsey Potato Peel Pie Society, and Black Panther

Well that’s a mouthful. And I even truncated two of the titles!

This past December through February, besieged by the chaos of holidays and recurring illness, I indulged in a lot of screen time. I wouldn’t say it was the best use of so many hours… but I always try to make my “creative consumption” productive — i.e., learn what I can about good storytelling, character development, dialogue, etc. Plus there’s something to be said for keeping one’s finger on the pulse of our culture, right?

Buffy the Vampire Slayer

I remember watching Buffy as a teen when it first came out. I only made it to Season 3 or 4 before junior year of high school started kicking my butt and I made the radical decision to cut out TV, go to bed at 10 PM, wake up at 5 AM, go for a run, and then finish whatever homework I had left before school.

(That was a remarkably healthy period of my life that I have never again been able/willing to replicate.)

So I did get to witness Buffy’s “golden years” in real-time, but what I learned from completing the series now is that while Seasons 1-3 were the best overall, Seasons 4-7 actually had the best individual episodes. (The worst too, though. The highest of the highs, and the lowest of the lows.)

Also, without getting into potential spoilers, I’ll just say that I loved how the show addressed the theme of the Chosen One being a lonely, thankless position (throughout the series, but especially in the end) as well as how Buffy empowered girls and women, both in the audience and in the actual story.

Takeaways:

  • Sarah Michelle Gellar is immensely watchable.
  • Even when you’re writing about imminent doom and recurring gloom, you can be funny. In fact, that’s probably the best way to tackle tough stuff.
  • Swing for the fences. Sometimes you’ll miss, but when you hit a home run, boy will it be worth it. Infamous episodes like “Hush,” “The Body,” and “Once More With Feeling” were big risks, because they were so different from the show’s normal style, but they are brilliant and beloved.

You’re not friends. You’ll never be friends. You’ll be in love till it kills you both. You’ll fight, and you’ll shag, and you’ll hate each other till it makes you quiver, but you’ll never be friends.

Love isn’t brains, children. It’s blood. Blood screaming inside you to work its will. I may be love’s bitch, but at least I’m man enough to admit it.

Spike in “Lover’s Walk” (S3E8)

Angel

As a teen, I loved Angel’s character in Buffy — to the point that I sporadically watched Bones out of lingering loyalty to David Boreanaz — but when Angel left for his spinoff show, I let him go. Fast forward to now, when friends heard I was finally going to finish watching all of Buffy, most of them urged me to binge Angel as well.

I can’t say I loved it, but I can see why it has faithful fans. Maybe even more so than in Buffy, the character arcs in Angel are astounding, for how significantly and yet organically many of the main characters change. Wesley in particular.

Season 4 was a disaster, though. Gina Torres just barely saved it. The soft reset in Season 5 was clever and enjoyable. And although Fred was my hands-down favorite, Illyria was pretty cool too.

Takeaways:

  • Amy Acker is great in everything.
  • Don’t force the hero into an ill-suited love story just because you’re worried the audience will lose interest without some sort of hook-up. Give people more credit than that.
  • Related: Sometimes romantic tension is better than romance.
  • You can pull off some wacky ideas if you do it with conviction. For example, puppets.

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Society

Honestly I went into this movie expecting a meaningless but sweet romantic drama that I could just pay half attention to while I did other things. Instead I found myself sucked into the heartfelt — and heart-wrenching — story of these islanders and the bonds they forged during the most difficult of times.

Takeaways:

  • Matthew Goode is painfully handsome and charming.
  • It’s okay to be sentimental and/or predictable as long as you do it well.

Black Panther

I think this is the best superhero movie I’ve seen in ages. Maybe ever? It’s big and fun and yet full of depth. It fits into the genre, but it’s different enough to stand out too.

(Disclaimer: I am not a big superhero movie buff. In fact, I find myself fairly fatigued by how many have come out in the past few years. I cannot keep up and at this point, don’t particularly care to.)

Don’t get me wrong, I enjoyed Wonder Woman — especially the first part with just the Amazonian women, and by the way, Gal Gadot might be human perfection — but Black Panther is several cuts above. The writing, the cast, the visuals… Everything was phenomenal.

I especially appreciated how elements repeated, tied in. Nothing was wasted. Each scene was important in the moment, then even more important later. And the themes of the story were both timeless (a son trying to live up to his father’s legacy, yet also do better) and timely (do we wall ourselves off to protect our treasures, or share our resources to enrich everyone?).

If I’m nitpicking, there are a couple moments that felt a bit Lion King-y to me… but that’s truly trivial.

In one scene, as the camera pans around several different Wakandan tribes, I found myself in tears, overcome with emotion just like when I watched Crazy Rich Asians. Because I know that Black Panther meant to so many black people what CRA meant to so many Asian people. Representation. A movie about people like us that wasn’t only meant for people like us. It was meant for everybody. And it kicked ass.

Takeaways:

  • Wakanda forever.
  • Use specificity to get at universality. It’s the details that people connect to.
  • A story can both fit the mold and break out of it at the same time.

“In times of crisis, the wise build bridges, while the foolish build barriers.”

T’Challa in the post-credits scene
Like this:
1+

Oregon in photos

My good friend and critique partner Stephanie Mooney has been on a creative kick lately, which includes a beautiful revival of her Instagram account. I adore her aesthetic, and I am inspired by her renewed energy.

“Suddenly I saw what photography could be: a tremendously potent pure art form, an austere and blazing poetry of the real.”

Ansel Adams

This past weekend I visited a long-time friend who now lives in Eugene, Oregon. We checked out the building where she works (on campus at the University of Oregon) and then took in their art museum. It was a low-key and refreshing trip* — and so lovely to reconnect in person.

*Until the last day, when I was supposed to return home, and instead woke to over 8 inches of snow, which the city of Eugene was wholly unprepared for. Long story short, after half a day of flight delays, cancellations, and reroutings, I managed to hitch a ride with a stranger to the Portland airport and then catch a red eye through Atlanta. Not ideal, but I did eventually make it home.

Like this:
3+

Page 1 of 208



Powered by WordPress & Theme by Anders Norén