Sweet Bean

113 min.

This is such a delicate, kind little movie (I tried hard not to use ‘sweet’ there). I’m sure that Asian entertainment has dumb blockbusters, sappy, clich├ęd romances and downright disgustingly bad films as well, but those that find their way here, to our cinemas and televisions, have yet to disappoint. Maybe it’s in the cinematography, maybe because the script writers don’t seem to be afraid about keeping things small. Anyway, Sweet Bean.

Sweet bean posterThe movie is about food, but not just about it. How food is betrayed in Asian cinema is another thing that always tickles my fancy, by the way. Those people care. In this case, it’s about a man in a dorayaki (look them up for enjoyable pictures of food) stand, and an old woman that likes to help out. There’s a small plot line about a teenage girl as well, and in some way they’re all brought together by food.

Under that current develops a much harsher story, but the director manages to keep the balance between sweet and melancholic impressively well. This way, it’s not just something you watch and forget, you take it with you as a gathering of soft musings. And possibly with a craving for dorayaki.

Sweet Bean, Aeon Entertainment 2015

Booksmart

102 min.

What a surprise: female teenagers can be shortsighted, crude and bad decision makers as well! With this film coming from the people behind Superbad and similar material, I was honestly a bit surprised that there weren’t more nudity, body-parts, and/or poop related jokes.

Booksmart posterIn Booksmart two very devoted school-going and study-religious female teenagers and best friends are shocked when they discover that you don’t need to deny yourself a life to achieve the best grades and highest accolades. Even students that *party* turn out to have great grades, which means that the two feel like they’ve wasted their high school years and need to correct it before university. Luckily there are plenty end-of-the-year parties, and a party is what will change everything (they’re still teens, after all).

What follows are American Mr. Bean-like situations that sometimes go on too long, but at the very least gives the young women involved (and one man) room to show that they’re people with flaws and ups and downs and that sometimes you have to do something to discover if it’s someone you are/want to be or not.

That’s also what gives the film its charm: stereotypes are (slightly) dismantled and there are enough believable situations and actions that won’t make you wonder how far away writers are distanced from teenagers and high school.

Booksmart, Annapurna Pictures 2019

Crosstalk

By the time Briddey pulled into the parking garage at Commspan, there were forty-two text messages on her phone.

“You were so busy discovering if you could, that you didn’t spend time wondering if you should”, to paraphrase a certain fictional character involved with dinosaurs. Another subtitle could have been ‘Communication, are you sure it should be endless?’

And all that while I was recommended this novel as good representation of the romance genre. Maybe I should have known better, this author wrote Doomsday Book.

That doesn’t mean there isn’t any romance (although it’s a spectacular slow burn), it just means it’s surrounded by the scientific element of getting an implant that will make you sensitive to the emotions and moods of your loved ones. Sounds like a bad idea, right?

It turns worse when some things happen that shouldn’t and some shouldn’t that should. Willis spends a lot of time on lore, which a bit too often leads to “I can’t tell you that right now!” cop outs. It’s the only frustrating thing about the novel, and the only thing that brings the tempo down.

Honestly, with certain elements going haywire, you could even use this book as an argument for taking internet- and social media use down a tad. The romance, and the lore, are bonuses.

Crosstalk, Connie Willis, Gollancz 2016

 

Internment

I strain to listen for boots on the pavement.

Looking back after having finished this novel I realise how naive and privileged it is of me to have thought “well sometimes she’s exaggerating a bit”. Something about how we are doomed to repeat history if we don’t learn from it, etc.

In this case the lesson is ‘Do not imprison innocent people for the sole reason that their religion, skin colour and/or ancestral background is different from yours’. Shown in the Second World War, the States did it with Japanese Americans, and Samira Ahmed does it a few decades later with American Muslims. Because in Internment a president – very alike of the one the USA has right now – comes in power, and he’s much more effective in getting his racist ideas turned into actions. American Muslims are put into camps on American soil.

And just like before, there are plenty euphemisms going around. None can cover up that the camp is surrounded by barb wire, that every guard has a weapon and that any sign or sound of protest is violently taken down. Here comes my conclusion from the first paragraph in: isn’t this put down all a bit too extremely? I should know better. We all should.

It’s good that the novel is less than 300 pages, because there’s no escaping the terror the characters are put through. Not just the mental and physical torture; also the shock of seeing how fast people get used to it. Again, as we should know.

All this makes for a bitter pill that as many as possible of us should swallow.

Internment, Samira Ahmed, Little, Brown & Company 2019

The Woo-Woo

“Miss Wong, you’re seriously ill,” the neurologist in a midtown office said, preparing to offer me a sympathy tissue.

Has it been more since a month since my last use of ‘truth is stranger than fiction’? Because Lindsay Wong’s truth is far stranger than fiction. A Chinese-Canadian woman that grows up in a family that is rife with mental illnesses and superstition, but completely refuses to acknowledge the first one and follows the second one in (self)destructive ways.

It’s always interesting to have a look behind someone else’s door, and I always try to learn more about contemporary Asians (immigrant or not). In this case, I felt like I was just gaping a lot at the page, because is this how it goes? Or is this solely the impact of the denial about mental illnesses? And is it bad that I laughed (in disbelief) so often?

Because there’s drug dealing neighbours that pay their neighbour’s children to hang out with theirs, disgusting-sounding meals, insults viewed as different level of endearments and barely a plain, ordinary family member with an ordinary, healthy life around. Lindsay isn’t easy to love either, but gosh darn it, no-one should grow up in such an environment. And I don’t ask for it often, but: I’d definitely read a sequel.

The Woo-Woo, Lindsay Wong, Arsenal Pulp 2018

The Talented Ribkins

He only came back because Melvin said he would kill him if he didn’t pay off his debt by the end of the week.

Now how to talk about this one. There’s a fantastical element in this story (several, if you consider all the individuals involved), but I definitely wouldn’t call it a story from the fantasy genre. Maybe more magic realistic? Anyway, these talents can come in quite handy, but brought ruin to almost every owner – every member of the Ribkins family.

The Ribkins are a black family, with one generation starting out as activists (during the Civil Rights Movement) but seeming to have ended up in crime. Each of their stories rub against historical facts, which makes the people with extraordinary powers trope so much more realistic, and keeps the focus on those people, instead of what they do with their powers.

This is combined with a playground (Florida) that somehow manages to make all of it more surreal and real at the same time. Of course the main character needs to dig up money he hid around the state, of course their last name has a wonderful background. Ladee Hubbard bakes all of it together, and it tastes strange, but good.

The Talented Ribkins, Ladee Hubbard, Melville House 2017

Normal People

Marianne answers the door when Connell rings the bell.

I should have known that an impatient wait would only lead to disappointment, but I guess such repetitious mistakes make you human. This novel got plenty of accolades, but the summary didn’t particularly appeal me. After one review – one I didn’t even recognise the previous summaries read in – I changed my mind. Blow me away, Rooney.

There was no blowing away, only dragging down and wrestling through (negative) emotions. These two people, the main characters Connell and Marianne, are just …incomplete(?) and manage to simultaneously make it worse and better in the other. So much low self-esteem, depression, (mental) self-harm and words that should be said to improve things, but never are.

I finished this an hour ago and still feel that kind of daze of finishing a story that doesn’t let you come up for air. Of course, no story has to be completely happy, or even have happy moments, but every other word is doubted and dissected. The story involves only a few months, making me wish for these poor people involved for it to be decades because surely everyone deserves to have a mental breather.

And underneath all of it, I couldn’t find anything the author wanted to do with this story. Share suffering? Show us that there is no such thing as normal people? Or that no matter what kind of train wreck, people just can’t look away?

Normal People, Sally Rooney, Alfred A. Knopf 2018

A Beautiful Work in Progress

I sat on the king bed at the Best Western Mountain View in East Ellijay, Georgia, the night before the Double Tap 50K race at Fort Mountain State Park in the Cohutta Mountains.

I expected much more pages being about running, training, exercise and the judgment people reserve for fat people doing sports. Which is kind of sloppy of me, because it says right there in the title: a memoir. And no person came out of the womb with running shoes on.

So, after my initial lack of excitement about learning about this woman I’ve never heard before and didn’t know why I should have, I kind of got over it. I’m interested in what she had to say about her (long distance) runs, we’ll take the rest as it comes.

With Mirna Valerio being a fat collection of minorities in contemporary USA, there’s so much more to her stories about running and exercising than the regular blood, sweet, and tears (although they do show up). This might make you a bit impatient about the next story about a trial run, but it also shows you that nothing happens in a vacuum; not even exercising and sports.

So, for that, you could read this memoir. And, honestly, there’s definitely different kinds of motivation in it. You just have to work a bit harder for it. If not – there’s plenty of ‘regular’ running stories to be found.

A Beautiful Work in Progress; A Memoir, Mirna Valerio, Grand Harbor Press 2017

Bad Blood

November 17, 2006

I’m fond of the sentence ‘truth is stranger than fiction’, but this time the truth is so recognisable that the fictional version of it would have been waved away for being too boring. Ignorant people sticking to ignorance because it can possibly make them money? Sounds familiar.

This time there’s health involved though, which makes the schadenfreude slightly less because you know people might suffer more than a hurt ego and an empty savings account. Main villain is a young woman that decides she wants to be the next Steve Jobs, and as soon as possible. This leads to material that never works, a very tense work atmosphere and so much lies and threats towards both supporters and criticisers that you wonder if anyone involved has energy for daily life left.

So while you can laugh about all the dumb rich people that keep throwing more money at this company which is basically just a collection of shams, you’re confronted with the reality that this isn’t new. That companies work like this, that people out there will work harder for fame then for bettering society.

Yes, it’s a wild ride, but not an uplifting one. Just another argument for knowing that it’s truth: no clear cut happy ending in which everyone deserving of it get their comeuppance.

Bad Blood, John Carreyrou, Borzoi

The library book

Even in Los Angeles, where is no shortage of remarkable hairdos, Harry Peak attracted attention.

You had me at libraries, you from time to time lost me about the focus on not just the Los Angeles Public Library (so okay, it’s one of the main plots), but especially the background of the possible culprit and fluffy descriptions of ever person involved in any way. I would rather have seen book covers, if Susan Orlean felt like she needed to add some visuals.

But still: there is so much love for books and libraries and librarians that you almost feel yourself slip into that world that is more than only centered on books. Libraries are miniature societies, and Orlean shows it well.

So, if you’re about books, architecture, and American history through librarians – this is the book of your dreams. If just any of these categories do it for you: consider it as a bit of an encyclopedia; read a few chapters from time to time. That way, you’ll always have some time left to visit your own library.

The library book, Susan Orlean, Simon & Schuster 2018