Thursday, May 13, 2021

Family Book Swap: Interior Chinatown

Title: Interior Chinatown
Author: Charles Yu

via Amazon

Yu's novel about the life of "Generic Asian Man" Willis Wu is written in screenplay format.  Willis is an actor - or is he a character? - on a cop show called Black and White.  The leads are a Black man and a White woman.  Willis and all of the other Asians are background characters.  Of course, it's all an elaborate metaphor for the ways race plays out in American society, especially for those of East Asian descent.  While the weaving in and out of "reality" can be a little confusing, that's sort of the point.  Even Chinatown itself is simultaneously the reality and the metaphor for the compartmentalization of Asian culture in the United States.

Along the way, Willis navigates the complications of his relationships with his aging parents, falls in love, becomes a parent, gets divorced and reconciles with his ex-wife.  All the while, he works out his place within Chinatown and beyond it, against Asian-American expectations and those of the broader society.  Beautifully and convincingly, Yu makes some important points:
  • Not all Asians are Chinese.
  • Not all Chinese are of the same culture either.  He references the numerous dialects flying around Chinatown several times.  Willis's own family is Taiwanese.
  • Asians have been in the United States since 1815, that's earlier than any of my own paternal-side northern European ancestors arrived.
  • There has been a long history of laws restricting the property, immigration and citizenship rights of Asians in the United States, the last of which were not repealed until 1965.
  • Asians are not the only ones who feel unseen in White male dominated society.  
  • The societal relationship between Asian Americans and Black Americans is complicated.  Asians know their history of oppression pales in comparison to those of Black people and as a result are often reluctant to complain.  The "Model Minority" status of Asians only complicates that.  But the cop show metaphor demonstrates that Black Americans, at least Black men, exceed Asian Americans in terms of cultural visibility.
The final analysis: Asians are the permanent guests in American culture.  Even though their presence predates that of many European immigrant groups, they can only ever hope to exist within the defined parameters of White expectations.  Yu, through Willis, pleads no innocence for himself.  He admits to fetishizing the coolness of Black culture and romanticizing White women.  However, he has little choice but to live within the box in which society has confined him.  In Chinatown, be it reality or metaphor.

Interior Chinatown is excellent and it reads quickly.  I'd say this is the first book I've read in a while which I can see recommending to anyone I can, starting with my daughter.  With the targeting of Asians in the age of COVID and the recent, horrific murders in Atlanta, understanding the plight of Asians within American society has never been more important.

Wednesday, May 12, 2021

Squid Mixes: Bijou Cocktail

A Bijou Cocktail combines gin, green Chartreuse, sweet vermouth and orange bitters with lemon peel and Maraschino cherry as optional garnishes.  I got my recipe from The New York Bartender's Guide.  The Bijou was invented by Harry Johnson, a legendary bartender of the late 19th, early 20th centuries.  Bijou means jewel in French.  The three liquors are each meant to represent a different jewel: gin for diamond, vermouth for ruby and Chartreuse for emerald.

My wife commented that the drink looks like a lighter Manhattan.  The flavor, though, is quite different.  Predictably, the Chartreuse dominates, though there's enough of the vermouth to emphasize cinnamon hints.

Bitters of the Month

Per Runamok's suggestion to try their Maple Floral bitters in a gin based drink, I added three dashes to my current Bronx Cocktail recipe.  The result was a spicy orange flavor, particularly brown spices like cinnamon and cloves.  The bitters helped to bind the gin and the orange together, supplying a dimension the orange often lacks on its own.  We both agreed that the addition improved the drink.

Tally a win for Runamok!

Tuesday, May 11, 2021

Family Book Swap: Parable of the Sower

Title: Parable of the Sower
Author: Octavia E. Butler

via Amazon

Lauren Olamina is a fifteen-year-old girl living in southern California in the 2020s.  Except it's not now exactly.  Butler published her novel in 1993.  In the future she envisioned, climate change has brought economic collapse.  Lauren's family lives in a gated community which doesn't do a very good job of protecting them from roving street gangs, many of them high on a drug which makes fire look awesome.  So they burn people's houses and also rape and murder people.  And steal all of their stuff.  It's all pretty bad.  

However, Lauren's not one to sit quietly.  She's prepared for the worst, or so she thinks.  She has also invented her own religion.

When reading a dystopian narrative, one must parse out what is metaphor from what is cautionary tale.  In this case, while Butler offers a culprit for the future condition of the world, the sad truth is that much of her story is a repackaging of history, or even the present.  Forced migration - where Lauren's adventure ultimately leads - is real.  It has happened over and over again.  Listen to news reports about current conditions in Honduras and it doesn't really seem so different from the horrors Lauren must escape.  Human slavery is real.  Human trafficking is real.  The exploitation of "unskilled" labor is real.  Butler hits on all of these in a fictional context but it's an easily believed world.

At one point, Lauren and her fellow travelers go through Salinas.  No late 20th century writer brings up Salinas, California by accident.  It's an obvious allusion to Steinbeck.  The message is clear: this has all happened before and I'm not even the first person to write about it.

Parable of the Sower is a strong novel and it reads fairly quickly.  Butler develops characters well, though I'd say there are a few too many of them.  I was half-tempted to make a diagram.  There is a sequel and I'm definitely curious.  In fact, Butler initially envisioned a trilogy though she died in 2006 without having written a third book.  

Monday, May 10, 2021

Star Wars Comics: Dark Lords of the Sith #5-6, Dark Empire II #3-4, The Early Adventures #8

In the Dark Lords of the Sith, we are reminded of one of Star Wars's most important lessons, one with tremendous relevance in our own world.  The Jedi attempted to drive the Sith to extinction but it didn't work.  Evil always comes back.  You can defeat the Nazis.  You can marginalize white supremacists.  But the evil doesn't die.  One day, someone's ambition will exceed their morality.  One might even be elected President of the United States.  Even when they eventually fall, others will be watching.  Someone might even learn from their mistakes and the next time could be much worse.

Never underestimate the power of the Dark Side.

My Recent Reads

Tales of the Jedi - Dark Lords of the Sith #5: Sith Secrets
Originally Published February 14, 1995
Writers: Tom Veitch and Kevin J. Anderson
Artist: Chris Gossett
In-Story Timeline: 3,996 BBY

  • Jealous of Ulic Qel-Dorma and suspecting - correctly, sorta - that the Jedi is a spy, Satal has him tortured.  Aleema, though, is clearly falling in love with Ulic.
  • Nomi, Cay and Tott travel to Koros Major in order to rescue Ulic, despite the fact that Ulic had ordered them not to.  
  • Nomi is captured by the Ketos.  Not wanting to let on to his new friends that he has split loyalties, Ulic does nothing to save her, even claiming he will perform the execution himself.  Secretly, though, he hopes Nomi will be able to save herself.
  • Nomi, understandably, is rather miffed.
  • Though, she does, in fact, get away.
  • Ulic finds out that Satal is the one who ordered the attack that resulted in Master Arca's death.  Ulic and Satal duel.  Ulic wins.
  • But Satal gets the last laugh.  Earlier, he had injected Ulic with Sith poison.  The anger which had risen in Ulic as he slew Satal only served to strengthen the power of the Dark Side over Ulic.
  • Nomi, Cay and Tott get away but must leave Ulic behind.
  • Meanwhile, Exar Kun is on his way from Yavin to challenge Aleema and Ulic whom he sees as his Dark Side rivals.

Tales of the Jedi - Dark Lords of the Sith #6: Jedi Assault
March 14, 1995
Veitch and Anderson/Art Wetherell

  • The Jedi prepare a larger assault on Cinnagar.
  • Master Thon warns that they should not attempt to rescue Ulic, instead that he should suffer through the consequences of his venture to the Dark Side.
  • Attending to the wounded Ulic, Aleema presents him with a Sith amulet.
  • Exar Kun has now arrived on Cinnagar and his own amulet is drawn to Ulic's.
  • The Jedi get through to Ulic but he refuses to leave, despite Nomi's declaration of love.
  • Cay and Qrrl, another Jedi, want to take Ulic by force but Nomi won't have it, accepting Thon's prophetic warning.  The Jedi leave.
  • Ulic and admits to Aleema his initial plan to destroy the Sith from within.  She admits she already knew.  As the two embrace...
  • Exar Kun arrives.  Kun and Ulic duel, though the combined power of their amulets summons the spirits of Sith Lords.
  • The lords appoint Kun Dark Lord of the Sith and Ulic as his apprentice, a power structure we all know will carry forth for several generations.

Dark Empire II #3: World of the Ancient Sith
February 21, 1995
Veitch/Cam Kennedy
In-Story Timeline: 10 ABY

  • Luke and Solusar are on Ossus, searching for ancient Jedi artifacts - an interesting parallel with the Tales of the Jedi story though, presumably, the Jedi in Dark Empire are looking for Light Side artifacts.
  • They encounter two Force-sensitive children, Rayf and Jem, tied to a tree.  They rescue them but incur the wrath of their tribe, the Ysanna.  However, when the Ysanna recognize the Jedi for who they are, the tribal chief embraces them.
  • Palpatine sends Sedriss and Vill Goir to capture the Jedi at Ossus.  They all battle under the same tree.
  • However, it turns out the tree itself is a Jedi, Master Ood Bnar!  That's a new one.
  • Bnar sides with the Jedi and helps them win the fight, killing both Sedriss and himself in the process.
  • After he dies, the Jedi discover Bnar had been hiding a cache of lightsabers, which Luke hopes to use to train the Ysanna to become Jedi.

Dark Empire II #4: Battle on Byss
March 21, 1995

  • Lando and his team launch a Trojan Horse-style attack, hiding inside a shipment of War Droids bound for Byss, the Emperor's throne world.
  • Meanwhile, the Emperor has a new superweapon, the Galaxy Gun.
  • The attack is going the Rebels' way but the Emperor has a countermove up his sleeve: the Chrysallis Beasts.
  • Under attack by bounty hunters above Nar Shaddaa, Han chooses a risky move: entering a gas cloud.
  • Fortunately, the cloud isn't so large and on the other side, he and the rest of his Millennium Falcon companions find an isolated civilization on the planet Ganath.  Their ruler, though, is Empatojayas, a Jedi Knight.
  • Back on Ossus, the Ysanna bring Luke to a long-hidden Jedi library.
  • Luke offers to train all of the Ysanna to be Jedi, though the chief refuses.  However, Rayf and Jem choose to go with Luke to be trained and the chief respects their wishes.

Classic Star Wars: The Early Adventures #8
March 14, 1995
Reproduction of a newspaper comic strip from 1980
Writer and Artist: Russ Manning

  • Collects the story As Long As We Live... which originally ran from April 22 - June 16, 1980.
  • Luke visits Arda-2, a neutral planet which sells arms to both the Rebels and the Empire.  Luke comes with a complaint: the TIE-fighters would seem to be equipped with a targeting device that is able to lock onto equipment in the X-wings sold to them by the Ardans.  Is this a double-cross?
  • While the Ardans deny any wrongdoing, one of the merchants, Mag Doum, clearly knows all about it.  
  • When Luke announces a plan to bring Princess Leia into the discussion, Mag moves to cover his tracks, enlisting Kiros Zorad and his son Zon to kidnap Leia.
  • When Luke discovers the abduction, he runs after the Zorads.
  • Han Solo soon arrives on the planet as well and he sets off to rescue Leia, too.  Mag lends Han his speeder so as to alleviate suspicion.
  • Soon we find the Zorads are actually good guys, manipulated by Mag Doum.  We're all friends now.
  • Well, except for Mag Doum.  Luke and Kiros confront him.  
  • Mag gets away to his ship.  On his way off world, he contacts Vader who now is determined to destroy all of the Arda worlds.
  • Kiros, stowed away on Mag's ship, manages to get off a warning to the planet.
  • Arda-2 now sides with the Rebels in a self-preservation move.
  • Kiros crashes Mag's ship into Vader's Destroyer.  Zon, now in his own X-wing, is shot down and he crashes into the Destroyer as well.
  • Vader is forced to retreat.  The Zorads die heroes.

Friday, May 7, 2021

Star Trek: Data's Day

Episode: "Data's Day"
Series: Star Trek: The Next Generation
Season 4, Episode 11
Original Air Date: January 7, 1991

In this week's story, Data is composing a letter to Commander Bruce Maddox, a cyberneticist and Data's one-time nemesis.  Data recounts a "normal" day in his life.  I find it reminiscent of various M*A*S*H episodes in which one of the characters writes a letter home.  Of course, it's not just an ordinary day.  Data is to give away the bride at Chief O'Brien's wedding!  Also, the Enterprise is bringing Vulcan Ambassador T'Pel to the Neutral Zone to negotiate a peace treaty with the Romulans and Data is assigned as her escort.

"Data's Day" is a strong episode for numerous reasons.  Obviously, there's significant Data development and it's one of the funniest installments thus far.  Data's dance lesson with Dr. Crusher is absolutely wonderful.  Naturally, McFadden did the choreography herself, having an entirely separate career in that field.  Both actors did most of their own dancing, too.  The secondary narrative with T'Pel is strong, too - Romulan stories tend to be.  The introduction of Keiko Ishikawa O'Brien (Rosalind Chao) will have lasting impact.  She's an important recurring character on both Next Gen and DS9.  And, of course, Data gets a cat: Spot.

Acting Notes

Rosalind Chao was born September 23, 1957 in Anaheim, California.  She started young in the business, performing with a traveling Peking opera company from age 5.  Her parents sent her to Taiwan in the summers for actor training.  She attended Pomona College but graduated from USC.

Thanks in no small part to her associations with Star Trek and the aforementioned M*A*S*H, Chao has been one of the most visible Asian-American actors in Hollywood for nearly 40 years.  She had her breakthrough as Soon-Lee, Klinger's wife, married in M*A*S*H's legendary final episode.  With Trek, she almost made the original Next Gen cast as she was considered for the role of Tasha Yar.  Big screen stardom came with The Joy Luck Club in 1993.  More recently, she played Hua Li, the title character's mother in 2020's live action remake of Mulan.

Wednesday, May 5, 2021

Bitters of the Month: Maple Floral

Runamok Maple is based in Fairfax, Vermont, a town I typically drive through every day.  Syrup is, of course, their primary product but they launched a line of cocktail bitters (and also cocktail mixes) just this past year.  Maple Floral is one of three bitters on offer, the others being Maple Orange and Maple Aromatic.  

On its own (with gin), the Maple Floral has a touch of spice with a perfumey aroma.  We haven't played much with floral bitters yet so this is new territory.  The company site suggests adding the Maple Floral bitters to gin or vodka drinks.  We'll definitely be trying that soon.

Monday, May 3, 2021

Star Wars Comics: The Early Adventures #5-7, Dark Lords of the Sith #3-4, Dark Empire II #1-2

These stories are getting fun!  What's cool is that the various series, while written in different decades and set in different millennia, are gradually tying together.  In effect, the Star Wars comic books begin to comprise a world of their own.  I like that.  While the films will always and should always be the primary attraction of the franchise (though The Mandalorian is certainly challenging that assumption), I appreciate it when the supplementary materials are able to hold up well in their own right.  That definitely happened with The Clone Wars and in 1995, it was beginning to happen with the Dark Horse comics.

Cam Kennedy, the artist for Dark Empire, was born in Glasgow.  He broke through while working for the British magazine 2000 AD, particularly their Judge Dredd and Rogue Trooper stories.  He has worked on numerous titles for both DC and Marvel, including Batman, Daredevil and Nick Fury, Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D.  He was also the artist for comic adaptations of both Kidnapped and Jeckyll and Hyde.

My Recent Reads

Classic Star Wars: The Early Adventures #5
Originally Published December 13, 1994
Reproduction of a comic strip from 1979
Writer: Russ Manning
Artists: Russ Manning, Brian Snoddy and Rick Hoberg
In-Story Timeline: 1 ABY
  • Collects the story Princess Leia, Imperial Servant which originally ran from November 6 - December 31, 1979.
  • Leia, in evading Imperial capture, ends up on Phelarion, a Megonite moss harvesting planet.  The operation is run by Thalassa Tarkin, wife of the recently killed Grand Moff Tarkin.  While Leia tries to pass herself off as one of the workers, Thalassa knows who she really is and tries to use her for her own purposes.
  • Instead, Leia teams up with Sparv and Bikum Calus, a couple of workers trying to smuggle Megonite moss off the planet for their own material gain.  
  • At first, the smugglers don't trust Leia but eventually they all work together.
  • In the end, Han Solo shows up in the Falcon to save the day, helping the three escape, evading the Imperials once again.

Classic Star Wars: The Early Adventures #6
January 3, 1995
Reproduction of a comic strip from 1980
Manning/Manny, Snoddy and Hoberg
In-Story Timeline: 0 ABY

  • Collects the story The Second Kessel Run which originally ran from January 1 - February 25, 1980.
  • It's one of the many iconic Han Solo lines from the original movie: "You've never heard of the Millennium Falcon?  It's the ship that made the Kessel Run in twelve parsecs."  I am comfortable admitting, I'd never actually given much thought to what Kessel actually was, though I'd always assumed that it had something to do with smuggling.  Turns out it's a planet at one end of an important spice smuggling route.
  • It is also the home planet of Professor Renn Volz who invented the Ion Ring, a ship which can dramatically alter a planet's climate.  While Volz intends to use his machine to help people, the Empire, predictably, has a more sinister vision.
  • Imperial Captain Bzom boards Volz's ship and kidnaps the inventor's daughter Mira, holding her hostage so the professor will do his bidding.
  • Fortunately, Mira is able to escape and stowaway on the Falcon while Han and Chewie, naturally, are in Kessel to begin a spice run.  
  • When they pick up Luke en route, Luke discovers Mira.  Obviously, our heroes come to the Volzes' rescue.
  • Unfortunately, in order to keep the Ion Ring out of Imperial hands, Professor Volz is forced to destroy it.

Classic Star Wars: The Early Adventures #7
February 14, 1995
Reproduction of a comic strip from 1980
Manning/Manny, Snoddy and Hoberg
In-Story Timeline: 1 ABY

  • Collects the story Bring Me the Children which originally ran from February 26 - April 21, 1980.
  • Our heroes save a class of children and their teacher from Imperial goons.  One of the children, Berd, escapes and has a special super secret plan for rescuing everyone.
  • The story, I have to say, is god awful.  It nearly killed my interest in this series but looking ahead, it looks like the ship will be righted soon.
  • Wesley Crusher was not a new concept.  A kid thrown into the action of an adventure tale: a very popular gimmick in the 1980s.  Marvel tried it.  Star Wars tried it.  Transformers did it.  Spielberg made it work with E.T., at least commercially.  Otherwise, it nearly always falters.  Maybe I was just the wrong kid for the idea to take hold.  I didn't want to be the kid.  I wanted to grow up and be the adult.  
  • Plus, this particular story edges far too close to Sandy Hook territory for me to be able to see it as a light-hearted romp, especially since the usual Star Wars characters - apart from Chewie - aren't inclined to do anythig to help at first.
  • Poor concept executed in poor taste.

Tales of the Jedi - Dark Lords of the Sith #3: Descent to the Dark Side
December 3, 1994
Tom Veitch and Kevin J. Anderson/Chris Gossett
In-Story Timeline: 3,996 BBY

  • There are two threads in this issue: the war between the Jedi and the Krath told from the Jedi point of view and Exar Kun's continuing quest for knowledge of the Dark Side.
  • Jedi/Krath War:
    • The Jedi meet on Deneba to figure out what to do.
    • Ulic Qel-Dorma has a controversial idea: a Jedi should infiltrate the Krath and destroy it from within.  He volunteers himself for the job.  While Nomi and Master Arca both object, Ulic decides to go for it.  This idea of destroying the Sith by becoming the Sith is, of course, an essential recurring theme in the broader Star Wars narrative.
    • The Krath attack Deneba.  They gain the upper hand in the battle by turning the Jedi's servant droids against their matters, a move perhaps foreshadowing Order 66?
    • Master Arca is killed in the battle.
  • Exar Kun:
    • On Korriban, the Force Ghost of Freedon Nadd leads Exar Kun into the Mausoleum for Vanquished Enemies.  Nadd collapses the cave, crushing Kun, and tells Kun that he can only be saved by accepting the Dark Side - nasty trick!
    • Kun accepts.
    • Here's where the crossover fun begins.  After giving Kun the chance to experience his new Dark Side powers, Nadd tells him the story of Naga Sadow, a great Sith magician whose followers found refuge on the fourth moon of Yavin.
    • Well, the devoted will recall that Yavin 4 was the site of the Rebellion headquarters when they launched their first attack on the Death Star in A New Hope.  
    • Star Wars comic book readers in 1994 might also have taken note of a story from the Classic Star Wars series: The Night Beast.  In that tale, our heroes encounter a monster living underneath the ruins which housed the Rebel base.  The creature, strong with the Dark Side, was left behind when the moon's "previous inhabitants" left.  It would seem we're now getting a story about who those inhabitants might have been.
    • Nicely done, Mr. Veitch!

Tales of the Jedi - Dark Lords of the Sith #4: Death of a Dark Jedi
January 10, 1995
Veitch and Anderson/Gossett
  • Jedi/Krath War:
    • While Ulic is preparing to go to the Empress Teta system, both Nomi and Ulic's brother Cay try to talk him out of his plan to infiltrate the Krath.  Ulic is resolved.  Off he goes.
    • But not before he and Nomi have a big goodbye smooch.
    • Ulic arrives in Cinnegar.  He attends a public execution where several carbonite miners stage an attak on Aleema.  
    • Seeking to gain the trust of the Ketos, Ulic joins the fight against the rebel miners.
    • Ulic doesn't know it yet but the Ketos have been aware of his presence since he arrived.  They willingly bring him into their confidence, though Satal is clearly jealous of him.
  • Exar Kun:
    • On Yavin 4, Exar Kun runs into the Massassi, the followers of the late Naga Sadow.  They take him prisoner and brought to the temple to be sacrificed.
    • During the ceremony, a great beast is created.
    • Taking control of a Sith amulet, Kun uses the Dark Side of the Force to destroy the beast.
    • The Massassi accept him as their new leader.
    • Kun uses the amulet to finally destroy the Force Ghost of Freedon Nadd, once and for all.
    • As he does so, Nadd reaches out to the Ketos to warn them of Kun's ascendence.

Dark Empire II #1: Operation Shadow Hand
December 20, 1994
Veitch/Cam Kennedy
In-Story Timeline: 10 ABY
  • The Dark Empire story continues.
  • Luke has begun his effort to restore the Jedi Order, beginning with his new friend: Kam Solusar, a reformed Dark Jedi.
  • The Empire, led by Executor Sedriss, attacks Balmorra, an independent world which had been the main producer of AT-STs for the Empire.  Now they are rebelling. 
  • A big droid battle ensues between Sedriss and the Balmorran Governor Beltane, both sides showing off their latest secret weapons.  The Balmorrans prevail.
  • Back at Rebel HQ, Mon Mothma reveals that Beltane has a shipment of his new droids for the Rebels.  Wedge suggests a plan to pick them up.
  • Luke suggests the droids be used to liberate more worlds but he is voted down.
  • Next, Luke heads to Ossus to find Jedi artifacts, an interesting parallel with the Exar Kun story.
  • Meanwhile, through one of his clones, Emperor Palpatine is reborn.  

Dark Empire II #2: Duel on Nar Shaddaa
January 24, 1995

via Amazon

  • For their part, Leia, Han and Chewbacca head to Nar Shaddaa so Leia can find Vima-Da-Boda, the old Jedi woman who gave Leia a lightsaber the last time they were there.
  • With the Vima-Da-Boda character, the Dark Empire saga connects with Tales of the Jedi.  She is the direct descendant of Nomi Sunrider, by way of Nomi's daughter Vima.
  • Upon arrival in Nar Shaddaa, it becomes clear the Millennium Falcon and her occupants are all on the most wanted list for both the Empire and the Hutts' bounty hunters.
  • Still, our heroes found Vima and bring her with them, surviving an encounter with Boba Fett on their way out of dodge.