Thursday, December 20, 2018

December is the sneakiest month of all

(With apologies to TS Eliot...nah, that's okay. He was a jerk.)

I meant to put up a post earlier, but December got off to a rough start. Still, I managed to get in a lot of reading, including:

  • Warrior and King by Ellen Oh. Really liked Warrior, but I chafed a little at the romantic emphasis in King. But this is how it goes, even for modern YA, I suppose.
  • The Obelisk Gate by N.K. Jemisin. I wasn't sure I would read the rest of this series after The Fifth Season. Jemisin deserves every accolade she's received, but the first book was so dark. I know, she's keeping it real, but I can take only so much murder (of children) and cannibalism before I've got to walk away. But I'm glad I gave it another shot. While still plenty dark, The Obelisk Gate provided a ray of hope and, perhaps more importantly, an explanation. Looking forward to The Stone Sky, which I should have in my hands any day now.
  • The Grace of Kings by Ken Liu. If my list doesn't look impressively long, please know that the heft and complexity of The Grace of Kings made me feel like I was reading at least three books I was done. It felt like Game of Thrones in Southeast Asia, but in the good way. Liu was the translator behind Cixin Liu's The Three Body Problem, and he's just as brilliant in his own work. The sequel The Wall of Storms is currently looking at me on my reading table, but I need a break before I go back in.
  • Speaking of Cixin Liu, I've started reading The Dark Forest, the sequel to Three Body, and Ball Lightning, a standalone that exists in the same universe. Really digging Ball Lightning--spooky, but in the good way.
  • Finally, also started reading Throne of the Crescent Moon by Saladin Ahmed. It's a recommendation from my library, and this might be the first time they've steered me wrong (actually, wait: they also thought I'd like Magonia). I'll post about it if I actually finish it.

As for writing, I met my modest goal of ten thousand words in November, but I don't want to do it again. I love the people I know through NaNoWriMo, but the contest aspect of it turned writing into drudgery for me. I needed to step away for a few days, and then I found the words pouring out of me. I'm finally over the sophomoric admonishment that you have to write every day if you want to consider yourself a writer. You have to write on more days than you don't, but never go to the notebook or keyboard just to put random words down.

Randomly, I finally deleted my accounts on Instagram, Twitter (I only rejoined to find information on one of my local races, but that was silly because no one had anything), and Tumblr. I left Twitter because they're a cesspool, Tumblr because the people complaining about losing the porn made me roll my eyes (but, pro tip to Tumblr and all of these other sites: try hiring actual human beings to look through sensitive material if you want to make sure you avoid serious things like child porn), and Instagram because Facebook, their corporate overlord, is just disgusting.

I'm on the hunt again for good if not great blogs, so in addition to book recs, please hit me up with your favorite blogs if you've got any.

Saturday, November 24, 2018

Post Day of Plenty Reading

My week blew up because one of my kids wasn't feeling well and we ended up in the ER. We're all okay--very, very okay--but the lack of sleep on Tuesday night meant Wednesday's productive activities were canceled. But that's okay, because I got a lot done on Tuesday.

The one upside of so much time in the hospital was that I got a lot of reading in. I finished The Three Body Problem by Cixin Liu, and oh my, it is one of the best things I have ever read. Right after that I tucked into Prophecy by Ellen Oh and finished that in two days (sorry, but Thanksgiving festivities got in the way). I now need to read everything Liu and Oh have written. Serpentine by Cindy Pon was pretty good, too, but I'm not jonesing to read the sequel like I am the other two. Also need to read The Grace of Kings by Ken Liu (who just happens to be the translator of the Three Body Problem).

A young woman scarred by the Cultural Revolution is assigned to work on a project to make contact with intelligent extraterrestrials. What could possibly go wrong?
Semi-legendary version of medieval Korea with a female warrior heroine who has mystical powers. Where have you been all my life?

Weirdly, I struggled mightily and then finally gave up on Dragon of the Lost Sea by Laurence Yep. I think most would agree it's not as difficult as the other three, and probably falls into Middle Grade...but when one considers how much Middle Grade books grated on my nerves at that age, it suddenly starts to make sense.

I also might just be burnt out from all of the reading over the last two days, along with the writing I've been dragging out of myself for NaNoWriMo. A walk would make me feel better, but the universe's punishment for ordering a bed frame from Amazon is that their delivery is late and I can't leave the house until it arrives. If only I'd gone to Ikea, where I could have gotten in a good walk while looking for something that would break in a year. In fairness, Amazon did apologize for FedEx's mistake, but if I don't get this thing by tomorrow there are more than a few thrift shops in Boston I'll be happy to spend my money in.

What did you read this week?

Saturday, November 17, 2018

Don't be an Intellectual Snob: Artistic Lineages, 80s Fashion Magazines, Information Entropy

I'm taken with Austin Kleon's idea of tracing our influences and the people who influenced them as a way of deepening, I think, our understanding of our own artistic impulses. I encourage people, even those who don't think of themselves as creators, to explore what it is that moves you.

Not feeling too well in the latter part of the week (it take about two weeks of non-stop activity and socializing for me to me remember why I've sworn off such things), I decided to start tracing my creative ancestry in order to keep myself in the game. What I have so far is woefully incomplete, but I'm pleased to see it still reflects my eclectic tastes. And while Google has done much to ruin the internet, there is something kind of neat about being able to see the influences of Tolstoy on a pre-delivered page.

Words, of course, are my thing, but it would be a sorry world if we all stayed in our lane (that applies to people in general as much as artists). I get a thrill from finding musical artists to fall in love with, and while I'm much more discriminating about the visual art I enjoy (I think I'm not unique in that; most of us have a "tighter" band of what we consider attractive visually than in the other arts), when I find a piece that speaks to me, I could stare at it for hours. So it's worth coming up with a list of composers and painters and tracing their pedigree.

The artist that first came to mind was Marc Chagall. For me, his art is perfect: whimsical, magical, visual fairy tales, and like the best of all fairy tales, profound in both its simplicity and surrealism (see Thought below). I remember the feeling I first had when I saw his art, as if the world was opening up to me beyond the clean, perfectly geometric lines I'd been told I needed to live in. This, of course, prompted me to place the memory in a specific time (aren't we all such linear creatures?), and where I saw him for the first time.

Antonio rocchi su dis. di marc chagall, le coq bleu, 1958-59
Le Coq Bleu, Marc Chagall

The answer was that the first time I saw his work was when I was twelve in 1985, shortly after his death, and the place I saw him was in Harper's Bazaar (and I'm pretty sure it was the May issue). Could it have been Vogue? Maybe, but it was one of the two, and I remember staring at those pages, completely entranced. It was definitely in a Harper's Bazaar that year that I read about the passing of Tennessee Williams, and with such lyrical quotes that I decided I had to read him, and soon.

As I thought about this, I remembered that this was just the first contribution, and I use that word without irony, that I got from the glossies. Trust me, I learned more about makeup application than was useful, but I also learned about literature and art; that's got to be part of the reason that I was enthusiastic about reading and watching things my classmates turned their noses up at, including Oscar Wilde. (That was definitely a Vogue contribution; the editors there were constantly mimicking his arch affect.) Just as importantly, I learned a lot about personal finance from Glamour, whether it was getting a binding estimate on moving cost's, or the merits of using the stock market index to find the best place to apply for a job (FYI, it worked). Finally, let's give it up to American Elle, who in its first year included a profile of Mies van der Rohe, making him sound like kind of curmudgeonly badass. Less is more, suckers.

Is saying I read the articles in women's fashion magazines the equivalent of saying you read the articles in Playboy? Probably. Is someone going to remark that I'm making women's magazines sound like the picture book equivalent of what one might get in a more "serious" magazine? Almost definitely--smart people can be pretty snotty.

A quote:
I don't want to be interesting. I want to be good.
--Mies van der Rohe

A thought:
He remembered taking a class in information theory as a third-year student in college. The professor had put up two pictures: One was the famous Song Dynasty painting Along the River During the Qingming Festival, full of fine, rich details; the other was a photograph of the sky on a sunny day, the deep blue expanse broken only by a wisp of cloud that one couldn't even be sure was there. The professor asked the class which picture contained more information. The answer was that the photograph's information content--its entropy--exceeded the painting's by one or two orders of magnitude.
--The Three-Body Problem, Cixin Liu

Monday, November 5, 2018

Exploring Asian and American writing, and NaNo thus far

A couple of weeks ago I decided that I was going to read more Asian and Asian American writers--but that's not going to stop me from opening this post with my thoughts on a Korean movie.

I was so excited that Netflix got a new Korean movie that I ignored the reviews that said it was "off", but I should have listened. Illang: Wolf Brigade made almost no sense to me. The backstory is admittedly compelling: China rattled its saber one too many times, which forced Japan to re-arm. In response, the two Koreas agreed to reunify in order to put up a strong defense. But a group called The Sect is against reunification, and they use terrorist tactics to prevent it. In response, the South Korean government forms an elite security force known as the Wolf Brigade. After a security operation goes sideways and numerous unarmed school girls are killed, the Wolf Brigade begins to hide their faces behind masks.

Interesting, but while what I just described could have taken easily half an hour to cover on film, that was glossed over in under five minutes. When the story picks up five years after the incident with the school girls, another young girl with the Sect (Shin Eun-soo), who just happens to be wearing a red sweater, leads the soldiers through an underground system of tunnels after most of her cell has been killed. Cornered, she blows herself up, devastating the unit. One soldier (Gang Don-Won) takes it particularly hard. When he's asked by an old colleague now working for the security department (Kim My-Yeol) to visit the older sister (Han Hyo-Joo) of the dead girl, the story really begins. I'm not giving anything away when I say that nothing is as it seems.

Little Red Riding Hood

By the end, I had no idea what the movie was about. It had slick visuals, the kind I haven't seen in Korean cinema before. Think Blade Runner but without mechanized human beings. Seoul looks cold and hopeless, and whatever high ideals people think they're fighting for is overshadowed by the daily grind to survive. My issue was that there wasn't enough of Gang's inner life to explain why he had enlisted to serve in the first place. And while I understood Han's conflict, I needed to know more of her backstory to understand how she found herself in her situation. It's ironic that a film that really mastered visuals indulged in so much telling and not showing.

Rebel Seoul by Axie Oh also explores what a post-unified Korea would look like and, perhaps not surprisingly, does a better job of it (books > movies, who knew?). Here again the Koreas have unified in reaction to forces in Northeast Asia, but this time the rebels want Korea to be an independent country, not part of a greater council of nation. Seoul, known now for being one of the most technologically advanced cities on the planet, is so advanced in the year 2199 that it has its own Dome which protects it from outsiders--including the have nots in Old Seoul. Do I need to say that this was a dystopian YA, the genre I swore I had no interest in several years ago? Okay, fine, you caught me, I'm a fan, and I can't wait for the sequel to come out.

I'm dying to get my hands on The Three Body Problem by Cixin Liu, the first book in an internationally acclaimed Chinese sci fi series. I can't remember, but I think this was recommended to me after I ready City of Brass by S.A. Chakroborty, but it's only now that I feel brave enough to tackile it. While I wait in the library queue, I've gotten my hands on some works by Asian-American authors, including Serpentine by Cindy Pon, Prophecy by Ellen Oh, The Grace of Kings by Ken Liu, Dragon of the Lost Sea by Laurence Yep, and Half World by Hiromi Goto. Serpentine reminds of the real reason that I avoided YA: some of the themes make me squirm. I'm not uncomfortable with exploring a same-sex orientation awakening, but I found a parent's violent reaction to it very hard to read. The more things change, the more they don't.

Even if you can't write 50K words this month, why not write anyway?

We're five days into NaNoWriMo right now and I've technically signed up, but there's no way I'm writing 50,000 words this month. I did it last year and I was grateful for the kick-start to my project, but it took a lot of out of me, to the point where I don't think I wanted to write for a month after that. On top of that, my sons are now high school-aged and we've cranked up the intensity of instruction. If I write 10,000 words this month, I'm going to be very pleased with myself. I'm sure some purists are going to wonder why I'm bothering at all, but it's nice to be able to have an excuse to hang out with other writers for a month.

What are you working on (or watching or reading) this month?

Friday, October 26, 2018

Worth the Binge! Blog Hop - the Marvel edition

I wrote on Monday about my love for K-dramas. That, of course, wasn’t what got me started on Netflix binging. That honor goes to House of Cards, but I’ve already talked about how over that series I am (the Kevin Spacey douchiness makes me feel better about that decision). What kept me paying the ever-increasing subscription charge after that were the Marvel shows. So let’s talk about the good, the bad, and the What The Hell is Going On.

My husband and children watched Daredevil before I did, but I could hear it in the background and thought it was taking itself wayyy too seriously, and that’s taking into account the tragic backstory of being blinded as a child and then orphaned. I think, overall, that’s still a good way to describe both Matt Murdoch aka Daredevil (Charlie Cox), but that overlooks the charms of Matt’s BFF and law partner Foggy Nelson (Eldon Henson) and secretary turned journalist Karen Page (Deborah Ann Woll). Honestly, Karen’s frequent outbursts and teariness irritated me at first (women don’t cry enough on television, right?), but by the sixth episode I found myself grudgingly admiring her determination, fortitude, and courage. She was well paired with journalist Ben Urich (Vondie Curtis-Hall) and later editor Mitchell Ellison (Geoffrey Cantor), who helped her (and of course Daredevil) expose the corruption of Wilson Fisk aka Kingpin (Vincent D’Onofrio). 

Well, what do you expect when you're a vigilante?

You’d think D’Onofrio would have been enough reason for me to watch this in the first place (did anyone else watch Law and Order: Criminal Intent just for him, or was that just me?), but the ridiculous graveliness he injected into Fisk’s voice made me cringe. Again, something I grew to ignore as the episodes marched on and we got a glimpse into the horrific childhood that shaped him into a crime boss with delusions of sainthood. Humanizing him even more was his love affair with Vanessa Marianna (Ayelet Zurer), a gallery owner shrewd enough to know what he really was but brave enough to stay with him after he bared his soul. Those touches of humanity were almost enough to get me through the absolutely savage treatment he inflicted on both friends and foes.

That was Season One, and it was definitely interesting enough to make me tune in for Season Two, but that was a disappointment. I can’t even describe it, other than to say that the presence of both Frank Castle aka The Punisher (Jon Bernthal) and Matt’s old flame Elektra Natchios (Elodie Yung) was supposed to serve some ridiculous plot that would explain why Matt would be so isolated by the end. Whatever. All I remember is by the end I was screaming at both Foggy and Karen that they needed to get as far away from him as they could.

If Daredevil in total earns a B (because I’m generous), Iron Fist is lucky to get a C. You’ve heard all of the complaints before, so I’ll just recap: Marvel was cowardly in the Seventies for wanting a martial arts hero but being unwilling to make the character, you know, actually Asian (I mean, it worked for Kung Fu and David Carradine, so why not?) and today’s Marvel and Netflix were extra special douchey for hiding behind said forty-year old decision; even given that, Danny Rand (Finn Jones) and Ward (Tom Pelphrey) and Joy Meachum (Jessica Stroup) positively reeked white privilege, and not even in the fun way a la Dynasty or Gossip Girl; the plot was ridiculous; Jones couldn’t act; and the actors had no chemistry. Some of that is all true to varying degrees, but it’s overlooking the most important problem: in the words of the legendary Michael Logan when describing the downfall of daytime soaps in the late 1990s, the writing sucked. It wasn’t fair to ask any of the actors to be more given the truly cringe worthy dialogue they were given and the stupid plot they were asked to support. Kudos to David Wenham as Harold Meachum and Pelphrey for being able to rise above the script (most of the time), but since in essence they were telling the story of a parent-child relationship gone to Hell (and then resurrected), their job was arguably less difficult. 

Let's agree that maybe this isn't the strongest premise.

It baffles me that most people felt Season Two was better, because if anything, I found the dialogue even harder to listen to, especially what they had Colleen Wing (Jessica Henwick) say. The bright spot was the introduction of Alice Eve as Typhoid Mary, but the less said about the stupid plot that brought her on, the better.

Those are the heroes that could use some work, so let’s talk about the ones who got it right.

Luke Cage is one of the coolest shows on television at any time. Best music, hands down; best group of female characters on any show (while I love Jessica Jones, she’s the only one on her show with her act together, and not always at that); incredible supporting cast (Alfre Woodard, Simone Missick, Karen Pittman, Rosario Dawson, Mahershala Ali, Sonja Sohn, and Ron Cephas Jones are only the most memorable); and, dare I say it, coolest villains (I shouldn’t have been sympathizing with Bushmaster (Mustafa Shakir) by the end, but I couldn’t help it). And Mike Colter as the titular Luke Cage played a reluctant superhero, well, as realistically as one can. 

In fairness, something like this could give anyone an inflated ego.

If Season One was all about Luke’s origins as a hero, then Season Two was about how close the line between savior and sinner can be. Honestly, by the second episode I wanted to slap Luke. No, dude, don’t get in your long-suffering girlfriend’s face (Dawson as Claire Temple) when she tells you to chill out and then don’t prove her point by punching your fist through a wall. The defining character trait of any villain is that they see themself as a victim who doesn’t have a choice, and Season Two made you squirm through every episode as Luke used that excuse again and again. When Season Two ended a la The Godfather, it made perfect sense even if you hated it.

But that’s not to say that there wasn’t A LOT to love in Season Two. Misty Knight (Missick) is a smart cop back from a maiming who’s aware enough to see when she’s in danger of falling over herself, but the real standout, in my opinion, was Priscilla Ridley (Pittman), the cool as ice police captain who forced Misty to be a better cop. Woodard was amazing as Mariah Dillard, the councilwoman who just couldn’t run far enough away from her own demons, and Theo Rossi was sometimes hypnotic as the amoral Shades Alvarez who finally remembered that he had a conscience. All of them were enough to make you want to watch Season Three, even if Luke had sold his soul to the devil.

(And then there’s the continuing bit about “getting coffee”. The look on Luke’s face when crime boss Rosalie Carbone (Annabella Sciorra) advised Luke that he didn’t like espresso because he’d never had it made right is reason enough to watch the show.)

But if I give Luke Cage an A, Hugo- and Peabody award winning Jessica Jones gets an A+.

Jessica Jones (Krysten Ritter) is a hero, period. She’s snarky, alcoholic, bitter, and self-loathing, but at the end she’s too intrinsically good not to help when someone genuinely needs her. In Season One, she knew that Kilgrave (David Tennant), the creepy supervillain who kept her in a psychic prison months before, was toying with her when he dangled his latest victim in front of her, but her instincts to help the otherwise helpless drowned out those of self-preservation. Similarly, when Oscar (J. R. Ramirez), her building’s super tried to kick her out of her apartment in Season Two for, basically, having superpowers, that didn’t stop her from saving his son when he was about to fall out of a window. She is, underneath the tough skin she assumed as a result of her psychic torture and rape, extremely sympathetic, no matter how imperfect someone may be. Lawyer-shark Jeri Hogarth (Carrie-Anne Moss) set Kilgrave loose on Jessica in Season One, but when she realized that Jeri was being set up by con artists pretending to have healing powers, Jessica stepped in to warn her; even if Jeri didn’t deserve to be trusted, she also didn’t deserve to be screwed.

Wary, just out of a fight, and ready for some more: classic Jessica Jones.

Unlike Luke Cage, Jessica doesn’t need or particularly want accolades for being helpful. In fact, she’s more likely to be alone and persecuted for just that. Still, when she’s at her lowest (and usually stinking drunk), her impulse is to help. After being thrown out of a bar for being too rowdy and then being told by a homeless man that she smelled, said man asked if she had any money. Instead of being insulted, she gave him the only thing she had: a coupon to a sandwich shop. That, right there, is the real Jessica Jones.

Season Two ended with Jessica both more alone and more hopeful than she’d been before. The fate of her family finally revealed, she had a chance to say goodbye to her mother and ended the codependent and increasingly toxic relationships she’d fallen into with both her foster sister Trish (Rachael Taylor) and former employee Malcolm (Eka Darville). But concluding those relationships left her space to begin a healthy romance with Oscar and have a chance at a normal life. Of course, we know that’s not going to last, as the final shot of Trish shows her with the superpowers she’s been so desperate for since she met Jessica. We know that’s not going to go well, and we know Jessica is bound to be sucked in.

Having said all of that, I have no idea what’s going on with this franchise.

I was not surprised that Iron Fist was canceled until I read that the second season was better received by critics and audiences alike. Initial buzz was that it might be a candidate for the new Disney streaming service (oh good, ANOTHER one). But then came the news last weekend that Luke Cage had been canceled. Um, what?! Much as I sneered at the character on screen for Season Two, the story made sense—and it was good. And, I hear, it was so popular on its first weekend that it crashed Netflix’s servers. Theories abound as to what happened, but it seems that “creative differences” plus increasingly unrealistic financial expectations exploded last week, and Netflix has judged that they don’t need Marvel anymore. Probably they don’t.

There’s the interesting possibility that Iron Fist and Luke Cage are going to be paired, just as they were in the comics...but, yeah, I don’t know. As good as Luke Cage was on screen, in my opinion, they messed with some of the DNA that makes their comics so interesting. While on television Danny and Colleen are an item and Luke was briefly paired with Misty, in the comics MISTY is Danny’s very serious girlfriend and Luke ends up married to Jessica Jones and raising a daughter with her. (The characters had an ill-father fling in Season One of Jessica Jones, but that was complicated by the fact that Jessica had killed his wife while under Kilgrave’s thrall.) Oh yeah, in the comics Misty and Colleen are also a crime fighting duo of their own who call themselves Daughters of the Dragon.

Do we want to guess why Netflix/Disney/Marvel decided to shift those pairings? (Let me know if you need me to spell it out.) And if they decided to do a course correction, while Misty had great (albeit weird) chemistry with Ward, there is absolutely none with Danny. And while I thought Colleen and Misty had some potential in Season Two of Luke Cage, by the time I was done with Season Two of Iron Fist I was hoping that they’d minimize the amount of time Misty was on so they wouldn’t ruin her character any further. It’s the writing, people, it is always the writing.

Having said that, when Danny made a cameo appearance in Season Two of Luke Cage, I, along with many other viewers, felt like finally the character had some potential. He and Luke have solid chemistry, and when the writing is there, Jones does a good job. So, with some reservations, this might be able to work, but they’re going to have to do a good deal of futzing first. 

Whew! Thanks so much to Kerrie, Morgan, and Caroline for a fun week of options to fill your non-existent free time with. Thanks to everyone who read, and please let us know what you think we should be binging on.

Monday, October 22, 2018

Worth the Binge! Blog Hop - the K-drama edition

When Caroline Fardig asked what our next blog hop should be, I immediately thought of Netflix binging, because oh my, I’ve been binging shows on that platform a lot lately. I mentioned that my stints in the hospital made me reevaluate my stance against screen time. (Honestly, it is much easier to watch an engrossing story than to read it when you’re somewhat disoriented.) One of my happy discoveries was that, after a few years of shunning Korean dramas, many of the ones offered on Netflix are really good, and totally worth a few hours of my time (or, you know, half a day, or maybe an entire weekend).

K-dramas succeed for the same reason that British dramas do: limitations of time prevent them from getting too greedy and force them to keep the story tighter than some bloated American dramas that want to milk as many seasons, episodes, and syndication fees as possible. (I don’t even watch The Walking Dead, and after eight seasons I’m sick of it.) Which isn’t to say that some dramas don’t drag on longer than they need to (if something goes over sixteen episodes, be suspicious), but in general the story ends on a satisfying if not always perfect note.

I’ve watched numerous dramas in less than six months, and I originally started this post with the intention of going into all of them. But once that draft started hovering around 3000 words and I wasn’t quite done, I decided to focus on four: Stranger (aka Secret Forest), Life, Mr. Sunshine, and White Nights aka Night Light.

Stranger wasn’t the first Korean drama I watched, but the second. More importantly, it’s one of the best things I’ve ever seen on television and a new standard I measure all shows by, not just the Korean ones. It might be simplest to think of this as (yet another) updated version of Sherlock Holmes, with Cho Seung-woo’s Prosecutor Hwang Shi-mok as the (literally) emotionally scarred Holmes and Bae Doona’s Lieutenant Han Yeo-jin as the warmer John Watson. And if that’s what gets you there, fine, but it’s sooo much more. It’s an intricately plotted mystery that was planned in order to expose the corruption (I mean, no kidding, it’s Korean entertainment) that includes the police, the prosecutor’s office, the ministry, and, of course, the CEO of a powerful chaebol (conglomerate). You won’t really know what you’re looking at until Episode Four, but by then you’re already going to be sucked in by the characters, including Deputy Chief Prosecutor Lee Chang-joon (Yoo Jae-myung), sleazeball prosecutor Seo Dong-jae (Lee Joon-hyuk), ambitious prosecutor Young Eun-soo (Shin Hye-sun), and inspector Yoon Se-won (Lee Kyu-hyung). When you find out exactly who did what and why, you’re not going to feel any better when they catch the culprit. (I don’t think I’ve ever cried during a confession before.) But it’s the chemistry between Cho and Bae that’s going to find you binging as many episodes of this per day as you can and asking yourself will they/won’t they/should they?

Most of the main characters from Stranger (and oh my god is there going to be a season 2?!)
Everyone on the planet has probably heard of Descendants of the Sun, an internationally successful juggernaut that may have made the viewing public take K-dramas seriously. This year, the same team brought us Mr. Sunshine. (Unlike many other Korean dramas, that really is the original title. You won’t find out why it’s named that until halfway through the series, but I’ll preview that you’ll be tearing up when you get to that moment.) I admit to being more than a little indignant to read people hoping for a “happy ending” while they watched this, because the subject matter is the beginning of the end of the Korean kingdom/empire aka Choson as the Japanese tightened their grip and turned it into a colony. While this was criticized by some for being too charitable to the Americans and demonizing the Japanese, as someone who has read much about this period, I thought it did a good job of showing all sides. You shouldn’t thank the Japanese occupiers for anything they did—but it’s worth noting that they were the ones who forced Choson to outlaw slavery. And while most former Korean slaves still led lives of desperate poverty, it was no longer legal to murder and discard them. As Eugene Choi/Choi Yu-jin (Lee Byung-hyun), the son of slaves who became an American Marine captain, told his friend Gu Dong-mae (Yoo Yeon-seok), the son of butchers who became a Yakuza samurai, they may live in treacherous times, but they, unlike their parents, have choices. Would that have been possible without the Japanese occupation? Eventually. By 1894? Probably not.

Just some of the motley assortment of people fighting for Korean independence in Mr. Sunshine
As with, oh, history in general, it would be a mistake to think that this is just a story about the Japanese versus the Koreans. As to be expected from an ancient civilization, Korean society was both deeply complicated and deeply flawed. People had many reasons for fighting for independence with qualifications, just as they did for collaborating with the Japanese. This is is not to excuse the atrocities or to say that there weren’t ever clearcut victims and villains, but in most cases, choices were messier than we might think looking back, and Mr. Sunshine explored that.

While the series was long (24 episodes in total), I didn’t feel like any of the time was wasted. The story follows both Eugene and Go Ae-shin (Kim Tae-ri), the young aristocrat he falls in love with who leads a secret life as a sniper for the Righteous Army. Other main characters include Gu Dong-mae, Kim Hee-sung (Byun Yo-han), the wealthy young man whose grandfather owned and killed Eugene’s parents, and Lee Yang-hwa/Hina Kudo (Kim Min-jung), the wealthy daughter of a traitor to Japan who owns a hotel and despises her father. All of the men share an affection for Ae-shin and, frankly, have nothing else in common. However, the three develop a friendship that transcends class and history as they all come to the conclusion that Choson, for all its faults, deserves its independence. Similarly, while Ae-shin and Yang-hwa begin their interactions with a barely concealed contempt for each other, in the end they both earn the other’s respect by be willing to make the ultimate sacrifice in order to preserve the country they love.

This ends in 1919 and I don’t think I’m giving anything away to say that few of the characters are left standing at the end. If anything, the “happy ending” is that Korean resistance continued up to that day and right through 1945.


Does everything look lighter after that? Perhaps, but that’s not to say that others didn’t deliver the same kind of sucker punch of desperation after betrayal. White Nights aka Night Light (I have no idea why these names are chosen, I swear) stands out from most of the K-dramas I’ve watched because the two main characters are women. Not only that, Seo Yi-kyung (Lee Yo-wan) is a corporate shark and Lee Se-jin (Uee) is a con woman desperate to learn at Yi-kyung’s feet and become a success like her. Yi-kyung’s motivations are complicated: her father was deeply betrayed by his fellow organizers of the Korean-Japanese Olympics in 1988, but she later falls in love with the son of one of those organizers, Park Gun-wook (Jin Goo of Descendants of the Sun fame). Once out on her own, she begins her career as a gallery owner who follows a twisty (and twisted) plan to slowly take over South Korean business and control the office of the presidency itself, which just happens to involve the former president who also betrayed her father. Se-jin is willing to help her until she sees the moral toll this costs the both of them. I loved watching two brilliant women maintain their affection for each other even as they tried to outwit the other. If anything, the conflict deepened their respect for the other.

An earnest con woman, a ruthless shark, and a wishy-washy chaebol heir walk into a television show...
The final K-drama I’ll mention is the one I most recently completed. Life (that, too, is the original Korean title. Don’t ask why, because it’s not like there isn’t a Korean word for “life”) centers around the staff at a teaching hospital of a university that’s recently been acquired by a chaebol. It’s easy early on to side with the doctors versus the corporation at the beginning, especially when President Koo Seong-hyo (Cho Seung-woo) orders the hospital to shut down the emergency, maternity, and pediatric departments because they aren’t profitable. A threat of a strike causes the Seong-hyo to back down, but shortly after he discovers that the doctors hid a death due to negligence. The president has the moral upper hand until he makes the truth public...and on the back-and-forth goes. We quickly discover, however, that as much as the president wants to turn the hospital into a money maker, he’s the best protection the staff has against the chaebol chairman Jo Nam-hyeong (Jung Moon-sung), who’s willing to destroy the hospital if it won’t become profitable for him.

The most chilling part of the show: these are the people responsible for our health care
It won’t take much for American audiences to recognize the many quandaries that arise when healthcare is seen as a business, just as many of us will sympathize with the argument “big business” makes that they can provide a level of oversight a chummy clique of doctors is unwilling to impose on itself. It’s messy, and no one comes out looking perfectly right, just as in life.

I must mention here that I wanted to watch this was not only for Cho Seung-woo but also for Lee Kyu-hyung. I didn’t think the actor could break my heart any more than he had in Stranger, but I spent 20 minutes of the last episode with tears streaming down my face as I watched him in his final scenes as the paraplegic orthopedist/health administrator Ye Seon-woo. I’ll watch this guy read the proverbial phone book and probably need tissues while I do so.

Lee Kyu-hyung, a rising star
A shout out must also be given to veteran actress Moon So-ri, who played the tough as nails Neurosurgery department head Oh Se-hwa. God damn...not to give anything away, but when she tells a corporate bully that she knows fifty ways to kill someone without leaving a trace and that he’d better take his son’s pictures off of social media, you’re going to clap.

Moon So-ri, a versatile, veteran bad ass 
I feel bad not having given explored the other K-dramas and comedies I’ve watched and loved over the past few months, but here’s a list of other dramas I hope you also decide to explore.

Live (not to be confused with Life!)

And that is that! Thanks for reading, and be sure to check out Kerrie’s post tomorrow, followed by Morgan, Caroline, and then me again (I have thoughts and feelings about the Marvel shows!).

Tuesday, July 10, 2018

Much less Amazon for me

Back in the day, I wrote a lot of reviews for Amazon, and at certain points, I had a good rank to show for it. That was when it was fun: I read or watched something, then shared my thoughts on it. Some of my reviews were pretty long, but people appreciated my thoroughness. For some reason, I was invited to review for the Vine program, which meant that Amazon would send me things to review. While it was ridiculous to consider that a form of compensation, it certainly made it easier to try new things. I still think thoughtful, non-professional reviews are what gave Amazon an edge: while there were always abuses, for the most part, it was just people giving their opinions.

But then it started not being fun, and then it started getting ridiculous. Some vendors started paying for reviews, Amazon started making it progressively more difficult to leave a review, then started getting rid of some altogether. And that would be okay if Amazon hadn't been so indiscriminate, as they were with things like, for example, where an author put their table of contents. I won't bore you if you're not an author selling on Amazon, but there's a whole universe of ways in which some unscrupulous authors gamed Amazon's system and then equally egregious ways Amazon addressed it. Everyone who's worried about AI taking over the world needs to examine Amazon's dysfunctional algorithms, and then after that read David Gaughran's blog to discover how working with Amazon can feel like a bizarre nightmare.

I knew this and I stewed about it, thinking that my days on the system were numbered. When, finally, I realized that one of my reviews on someone else's book had been removed without any explanation, I'd had enough. Over one weekend this winter I spent hours removing every review on Amazon that I could. You'll still find four reviews from over a decade ago, but that's about 700 less than what was there before. Had I been simply deleting the content, it wouldn't have taken that long, but I wanted to preserve the reviews for many of the books. The majority of them went onto my Boston Public Library account, but a handful went onto Goodreads. Absolutely worth the trouble.

Can someone tell me what that arrow is pointing to?

I knew it was only a matter of time before Amazon started deleting reviews that had been left on my products, so I was only a little disappointed to find that I had lost reviews from two different people this weekend. I'm waiting for more, and frankly, I'm waiting to be delisted from them altogether. No, I haven't done anything to merit that, but neither have a lot of people who have suffered the same fate.

Please allow me to insert the perfunctory "of course I'm grateful to Amazon for opening up the market so indies could self-publish" and "I know Amazon is a private business and they can change their terms and conditions any time they want" yada yada yada. Sure, all of that. But it's also gotten ridiculous. The value they brought was that they eliminated the need for many of the "gatekeepers". And that's great, but at least you knew which rules those parties operated under. It seems they've replaced the old guard with reactive caprice. Sorry, I can't bring myself to say thank you anymore.

I have no idea what the alternative is, but for now, I hope everyone expands their universe beyond Amazon. Aside from your local bookstores (yeah, I know, a lot of them have closed), there's Barnes & Noble, Smashwords, Kobo, Apple, and even Etsy. I know, many of those sites are not perfect, but the point isn't to replace Amazon with something else but to take advantage of all the options in the marketplace. Who knows if that will force Amazon to be better, but I know that nothing will if everything stays the same.

Friday, July 6, 2018

Thoughts on plastic, waste, and what really needs to be done.

Welcome to Plastic Free July. After a little bit of thought, I decided to jump into it this year. In doing so I realized that I've been at this for a while.

Whenever I see some nifty new vegetarian or vegan product, I have three reactions. The first: "Ooh, I've got to try this." The second: "Ugh, there's so much packaging." (FYI, the second one isn't usually articulated with words as much as it is a visual of me trying to dispose of said packaging, and let's be honest, we know that most of it isn't recyclable but will simply end up as garbage.) The third: "Maybe I can buy the ingredients to make this myself? That will probably be cheaper anyway." As much as I love grocery shopping--I'm an anomaly, I know--that bit of dialogue gets exhausting after several years (or decades).

When I initially heard about this challenge, I curled my lip. I compost, I make an effort to be realistic about the waste I'm producing, and for the last two years one of the most disheartening things I face is how much recycling my family produces. I'm already conscious, I'm already trying, go bother someone else.

However, after seeing so many people talk about this on the internet, I decided to give it a shot, and I've been pleasantly surprised by how much better I feel. Proactively eschewing plastic means that I don't enter into my local food co-op with a vague sense of uneasiness. It also means that I now no longer have that feeling when I'm in my kitchen that my packaging is going to leap out and touch me. Finally, it doesn't hurt that most of the items without packaging tend to cost less (the revelations of bulk shopping deserves its own post).

But having said all of that, I'm calling b.s. on the entire thing.

Unfortunately it's not that simple

The American economy is dependent on consumption, and as such it behooves us as consumers to be conscious about what we're buying, where it comes from, and where it goes when we're done with it. It's nothing to be proud of that we're also a throw away culture, especially because most of what we're throwing away ends up landfills. Let's be conscious, let's be thoughtful, and in general let's buy less.

But let's also be objective. We are a throw away culture because our products have planned obsolescence built into them. Our smartphones--these powerful miniature computers that are so advanced most sci-fi couldn't have conceived of it--aren't meant to last more than three or four years. (Please; we all know it's really two.) Same with laptops, and if you are the person who happens to stretch out your consumer tech, people look at you not with admiration but pity; why are you holding onto something that went out of date six months after you bought it? And if you decide to buck convention and repair something rather than toss it, you're told that it's "not worth it" because the repairs will cost more than buying a new version. I speak from experience: the slightly cracked screen the broken camera lens on my phone aren't worth the expense of fixing, the Acer Chromebook I bought about two years ago is unusable because no one--including Acer--makes a replacement for the power cord which stopped working nine months ago; and I've been the owner of a convection toaster oven since September when I decided that it was ridiculous that I was looking at my third fix for my oven igniter in four years. (I'm not joking--this is what happens when you bake as opposed to buy for your family.) And before you ask, yes, I did have to use the warranty to exchange the toaster oven already.

I am not going to solve any of these problems by not using plastic straws or bringing my own utensils when I get take out. And while the real solution for a lot of those issues is now in reach for my family--make an investment purchase in something that will last a decade and not a year--that's a recent development and I would never suggest that that's the answer for many people because it's just not possible. When we're debating whether people should get a living wage or a minimum wage, it's ridiculous to insist that they spend hundreds of dollars on something they can barely afford to spend tens on.

Finally, know this: even if every consumer in this country stops buying things packaged in and/or made of plastic, we're still going to have a plastic pollution problem because we're more than just a bunch of consumers. Think about the plastics used by medical, construction, hospitality, computer and electronic manufacturing, apparel, fishing, printing, and almost any other industry you can think of. Now ask yourself how they dispose of them, even if it comes down to tiny widgets. That adds up as well.

None of this is to say that we as individuals shouldn't do our part, but we need to recognize that our part doesn't end with not using a plastic bag. It's the least sexy solution in the world, but talk to your family, friends, and representatives about limiting or eliminating plastic not only for consumer products but also for industry. And keep talking about it, because plastic isn't going anywhere any time soon.

Thursday, June 21, 2018

The new me

After intermittently complaining about chest pains for most of my adult life, I finally looked sick enough the first Saturday in April to convince someone that I needed to be seen. The Emergency Department wasn't impressed--and doctors literally said that to me--until a blood test came back "not negative" and showed some damage had been done when I reported being nauseous, dizzy, and light-headed. Long story short (if only because I don't want to have to relive that weekend), it's probably something called a microvascular dysfunction. More angina (chest pains) than heart attack, but it can definitely take the wind out of you. 

Since then, I've been binging on the eye- and mind-candy I've been trying to get away from since the end of last year: lots of Instagram, lots of Netflix. It also took me, no joke, about five weeks to be able to crack open a Donna Leon mystery (or anything else), but so far I don't have the same kind of voracious appetite to read that I used to.

The episode forced me to come to terms with the things I really want to do. I want to blog about food, both recipes that my family can eat and my thoughts on food justice. I want to talk about fitness. I want to document my gardening. I want to talk about tidying. I want to be more fun--but I also want to be more serious when the need arises (like now). In other words, prepare for this space to reflect me as a fully fleshed individual, and not just someone who writes about writing.

But speaking of writing, yes, I still am! I'm over 110,000 words into this epic and people, I'm not even halfway through. I'm overwhelmed with what I put in front of myself, I'm terrified about all of the work I'll need to do to make sure everything is pulled together, and I'm still really excited. So, you know, same as every other project!

That's all for now. Until later, please enjoy the roses from my community garden. (Gosh, what a difference a little bit of deadheading last year made...)

Tuesday, February 27, 2018

Been There, Done That: An Indie Author Panel on Writing and Publishing (Part 2)

And we're back! Yesterday my fellow authors and I talked about what goes into our work: the writing, the revising, and the editing. But that's only part of the business, and sometimes less than half. Today we're going to talk about the business side: publishing and marketing.

The Business: Publishing and Marketing

Why indie publishing?

Deb Nam-Krane: As I said yesterday, my characters didn’t neatly fit into the popular categories. To make myself attractive to publishers and before that agents I would have had to have scrapped a lot of my story. On top of that, I had already written a series, and almost every agent’s blog I read said that they wanted standalones.

That, plus the fact that two successful indie authors I knew gave me the lowdown on what the business really looked like both in the indie and traditional worlds. If I could go back, I would have done this much sooner!

Jami Deise: I was unable to publish traditionally. There are two pieces of advice that new writers commonly get: write what you know, and write the book you want to read. In two cases, I wrote what I knew, and I was the only one who wanted to read it!

Caroline Fardig:  Originally, because no one wanted my first series.  Now, because I like the freedom.

Erin Cawood: Because I broke too many rules for traditional romance. But now I love being in control.

Where do you publish and why?

DNK: I don’t think there’s an indie author out there who doesn’t publish on Amazon via the Kindle Direct Publishing program. Having said that, the benefits I got from being exclusive to Amazon didn’t make up for losing out on other potential markets, like iTunes, Kobo, Barnes and Noble, and Smashwords. On top of that, I’m uncomfortable with how predatory Amazon is with indie authors. They don’t seem to have the capacity to stop blatant scams (like those “Summary of” books that rip off popular nonfiction books), but if a random indie author puts their table of contents in the wrong place or gets carried by a popular newsletter, they can have their book yanked. I don’t want to be completely vulnerable to that kind of company.

JD: I am on Amazon exclusively because frankly I’m too lazy to deal with all the other outlets. My second book went out with a small indie publisher, and I found out that without control over my pricing options, my sales were minimal, which is why I went back to self-publishing for my third book.

CF:  Amazon, of course.  I use Smashwords to get my books out to the other outlets.  They’re very easy to work with, especially lately, so I’m happy having a central place to run books through.

EC: I mainly publish on Amazon.

What do you spend money on when you publish?

DNK: Editing and a well-designed cover. Even if you’re just getting a proof-reading, it’s money well spent. Everyone expects an indie to be an amateur and they will find errors (as they will in traditionally published books these days). Make sure that they’ll find as few as possible.

No matter how much you’ve spent on editing and how brilliant your prose is, if it’s got a lousy cover, no one’s going to want to buy it (and a lot of people are going to cringe). Covers don’t have to cost a lot—there are a lot of companies that sell premade covers, for example—so there’s no excuse not to have something professional when you go to sell.  

JD: For this last book, I spent a lot of money with a book launching company, and that turned out to be a mistake. I did get a professional cover and website design out of it, though.

CF:  Editing, cover art (I can do it myself, but it look SO much better when someone else does it), publicity.

EC: Editing, cover art, marketing.

If you could only spend money on one thing, what would it be?

DNK: A cover. Worse comes to worse, you can usually bargain with someone who can do at least a proofread for you. That is sometimes possible with a cover artist, but not as likely.

JD: I agree. The cover is extremely important.

CF:  Publicity in the form of sales channels like Bookbub, Ereader News Today, Bargain Booksy, etc.  Sometimes that is the only way to get your name out there.

How do you tell people about your book? In other words, how do you market your work?

DNK: My blog and my newsletter. Facebook got to be too expensive for what they were offering, which wasn’t much, and I haven’t heard good things about Amazon Ads.

You don’t have to blog every week, but even if you blog three times a year, you should have a page for each of your books, with the cover, blurb, and links to where the book can be bought. Ideally, you’d also include an excerpt and some reviews, too.

I think this is going to be the year during which we focus on the newsletter subscribers we have and stop trying to get new ones at the same pace.

JD: I spend a lot of time pestering my friends on Facebook. They haven’t blocked me yet.

CF:  I’ve hired a publicity company for my last 2 self-pubs, and it’s worked out very well.  Other than that, I have a newsletter and post on Facebook and Twitter.  I have a blog, but I think people only read my posts when I link from Facebook, so again, Facebook.

EC: Having a schedule of regular releases is important, hence the reason I'm taking a year out of marketing to to concentrate on writing. But I have a newsletter, Facebook and Twitter accounts, a website, and I also advertise.

What’s been your most effective marketing tool?

DNK: Giving my first book away for free! It’s a good way to stay visible and generate interest in the rest of my series (most of the titles don’t stand alone).

JD: I haven’t been able to get a Bookbub ad, but an ENT ad breaks even.

CF:  For the money, Bookbub.  For getting people information about me, I’d say my personal Facebook page works better than my author page.  But you can’t bombard people--I think a single post when a new book releases is enough.

What threats do indies currently face?

CF:  I think oversaturation of the market is a big problem.  I guess it faces traditionally published authors as well, but with a company behind you, you get more opportunities to get your name out there.  It’s difficult to get noticed in a sea of other authors.

DNK: What Caroline said, plus the fact that Amazon’s terms get tighter now every year. Latest rumor I heard was that authors who aren’t exclusive to Amazon are only going to get 50% in royalties, down from the 70% we’re getting now.

What opportunities do indies have?

CF:  Well, actually getting a book published is the biggest one.  Only ten years ago, being an indie meant having to sink a bunch of money in hundreds of vanity press book copies and trying to sell them out of your garage.  But now that it’s so easy to put your books out online, we have virtually no outlay of cash up front--if you don’t count editing and cover design like we talked about earlier.  For my first series, I used friends as editors and made my own covers, so I had no expense.  Now that I’m generating some income, I’m using part of that to pay for editing and cover design, and I think it helps make a better product overall.  But it can be done frugally if necessary--which is a huge boost to an author just starting out!

DNK: Good point! Being independent means we can be flexible and ride out changing market and industry trends and still be the ultimate decision makers, both for our stories and our marketing.

We'd love to hear your thoughts on publishing, writing, and reading in our modern world. Hit the comments down below, and thanks for reading!