Yellowface: The Good and the Not-So-Good


Yellowface (2023)

By R. F. Kuang

Harper Collins, 323 pages




 Given that Babel is one of my favorite novels of recent memory, the next novel by R. F. Kuang had to be a letdown. That happened with Yellowface, though not for the reasons I anticipated.


There is still much to recommend, so let's start with that. First, it blows the lid off the viciousness of the publication business, especially agents, editors, marketers, legal teams, and social media trolls who can make or break a book. Yellowface details how the previously mentioned invent more than the writers. In other words, not all the fiction is on the page.


Is a writer’s life glamorous? Kuang presents it as a lonely profession of toil, rejection, self-doubt, turf protection, endless rewrites, negotiation, and for the chosen few, ephemeral success. The book that gets published is seldom the one that the author set out to write; it is shaped by market-driven publication teams that claim mystic knowledge of what readers want, what's unique, and what's too outré. As is often the case, they want books to conform to the world they helped create.


Yellowface also makes us contemplate the definition of plagiarism, as well as who has the right to tell a particular kind of story and who was guilty of cultural appropriation. Enter jealousy, the cancel culture and just plain nasty troublemakers.


And its heart are two 27-year-old writers, Athena Liu and June Song Hayward. Athena had a book deal before she even graduated from college. She is hailed as a generational voice in Asian American literature, is attractive, owns classy digs in Georgetown, and has money galore. What she lacks is friendship. She is a self-absorbed loner with cloaked contempt for critics, readers, and publishers. For some reason, Athena occasionally wants a girls’ night out with Hayward. June doesn't really like Athena much, but she appreciates her talent and her complimentary remarks about June's writing.


Secretly June envies Athena's success, as her own writing has garnered decent reviews but not much gain. One soiree at Athena’s apartment ends with a bout of laughter in which Athena chokes, June's attempts at the Heimlich maneuver fail, and by the time ET's arrive, Athena is dead. On impulse, June lifts a completed manuscript from Athena's desk and spirits it away.


It's not quite what you think. June is shocked that Athena considered it finished. There are a few golden sentences and there is possibility in the story of Chinese conscripted labor in World War II, but it’s a boring, rambling mess filled with asides and dense detours few readers would wish to navigate. June painstakingly does her own research, creates characters, imposes narrative coherence, and completely rewrites it until all that's left is the general idea.


Whose book is it? June shops as her own, has a spat with one publisher, and lands another who promises it will be the year's literary sensation. But if you think June did surgery, the publishers have much more in mind, including adding romance and heroic white characters. They also decide to put the name of Juniper Song on the cover because it sounds faintly Asian. June never pretended to be Asian, but she's cowed into going along with dropping her surname. (Her middle name Song is merely a melodic  family name.) Her publisher assures her all will be fine.


The book is indeed a big hit, but her photo leads trolls to question where a white chick gets off donning yellowface to write about Asians. The publisher doesn't care as long as the sales roll in, but social media explodes when proprietary trolls insist that nobody who isn't Asian could write such a book. They drop the charge that she stole it from her dead friend. Did she? As the sharks circle, things get very complicated.


Yellowface shifts from conscience-wrestling to a thriller and it's not a smooth transition. Kuang is a skilled storyteller but–and it’s big but–the tale she tells is very analogous to Jean Hanff Korelitz's The Plot (2021). The externals are different, but the manner of reworking a dead author’s ideas are quite similar. To be clear, I’m not suggesting the P-word, as Korelitz didn't exactly invent the scenario. However, The Plot is more consistent in tone and the psychology of its protagonist. I was, however, disappointed that Kuang published her book so soon after Korelitz’s novel appeared.


Rob Weir


Best of 2023 Concerts and Art Exhibits

Best Concerts:


Okay, so I got a little preoccupied, forgot to fix a broken link, and didn’t get around to finishing my (personal) best of 2023 lists. Belatedly, here is my list of favorite concerts  and favorite art exhibits.


Tom Paxton


I saw numerous concerts last year, but several stood out. First, a shout to one at the end of 2022 at the Whately Town Hall. Tom Paxton turned the packed venue into a giant living room that felt so much like a farewell tour that there were many moist eyes as audience members sang along to their favorites from an icon of the Folk Revival.


Mary Chapin Carpenter


The best show by far came from Mary Chapin Carpenter, who appeared at Northampton’s Academy of Music in August. The AOM is not a great venue for amplified music, but MCC’s sound crew squeezed out the best sound I’ve ever heard there. She is also the consummate pro who knows how to sing a song, not just scream it. 




Close on MCC’s heels were five  Celtic shows at Bombyx in Florence: Altan has been around since 1987, but the band breathed new life into their performance rather than just mailing it in like so many veteran acts do. I had heard recordings of the Scottish band Breabach, but I was pleasantly surprised by how energetic and exciting they were on stage. Speaking of which, Ireland’s Lunasa has long been an instrumental group but they’ve added singer/guitarist Colin Farrell (no, not that guy) who allows the band’s repertoire to expand. It was a great show. If you’ve never seen fiddler extraordinaire Eileen Ivers, you don’t what Celtic music sounds like when it melds with other musical forms. Ivers plays with passion and fire. I also caught the farewell tour of Clannad, who are coming off the road after 52 years. You’d never know they’re in their geriatric years!


That’s a segue to mentioning Judy Collins who appeared at the AOM. She’s 84, but still sings like an angel. Every now and then you hear her shift to a lower register, but she recreated her album Wildflowers and transported us back to 1967. How she can still sing like that is like asking how Catherine Deneuve still looks gorgeous.


The AOM saw another goodbye in its John Prine Tribute lineup as part of the Back Porch Festival at the AOM. A solid lineup of local musicians formed a band that fronted various guest artists to celebrate Prine’s life and amazing repertoire of songs poignant and funny.


Finally, Lisa Bastoni’s show at the Parlor Room was simply a warm throwback to the days when folk music didn’t need more than a guitar and a sweet voice.


If you’re wondering if I saw any bad shows, yeah, one. Lisa Lambert at the AOM, which was like an LGBTQ version of Hee Haw. She has some chops, but her voice also audibly broke and strained.


Best of the Art World:


This needs to be broken into several categories. Some of our most joyous moments took place behind our computer listening to the amazing talks from Jane Oneail, founder Culturally Curious (https://iamculturallycurious.com/ )Jane makes you understand and care about art you never thought you’d like.




But I really need to parse the shows because we were lucky enough to be in Europe in May. It’s hardly fair to compare our favorite experiences to gallery shows Stateside. If you’re ever in Lucerne, Switzerland, a must go is the Sammland Rosengart. (It’s not the city art museum.) In the private Rosengart Collection you will see voluminous numbers of canvasses from Pablo Picasso (above) and Paul Klee (below) and I liked both immensely. In fact, I liked the Klees in Lucerne more than what I saw in Bern’s Paul Klee Museum.




If you consider medieval churches art–and you should–Chartres might be the best of France given that Notre Dame is still under reconstruction. If not Chartres, then certainly the jewel box Ste. Chapelle in Paris.




Ste. Chapelle


The above said, of all the repositories I’ve ever entered, Musée D’Orsay in Paris might be my favorite. If you like Impressionism, Fauvism, Post-Impressionism, or pretty much any other kind of art, sculpture, or photography from the years 1848-1914, it is the place to go. Even the revamped train station that houses it is spectacular. The only thing restricting your enjoyment is that it’s so rich that your brain might explode from trying to take it all in.




Paul Signac

Van Gogh


There are huge galleries on both sides & 3 floors


We saw some fine shows back home as well. Three stood above the rest. A show at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts devoted to John Singer Sargent and fashion was sprawling and amazing. A trip to the Cloisters in New York City, where I hadn’t been in decades, was almost as good as visiting Cluny in Paris. But I give a slight # 1 nod to a show of Edvard Munch and Nature at the Clark Institute of Art.  


Edvard Munch's "Starry Night"



We didn’t actually see any disappointing exhibitions, large or small. As for the latter, if you’re ever in the area, pay a visit to the Brattleboro Museum of Art in Vermont. When you don’t have a huge endowment or permanent collection, clever curators can do a lot with limited resources. Few do it better than, in New England parlance, the folks “up to Brat.”  


Rob Weir


Barbie: Fun 10, Story 5




Barbie (2023)

Directed by Greta Gerwig

Warner Brothers, 114 minutes, PG-13



If you told me on January 1 of last year that I would watch a film about the doll Barbie, I would have suggested you check yourself into rehab. But, as almost everyone on the planet knows, Barbie the movie actually happened. It had a big budget–more than $125 million–but Greta Gerwig as director and cowriter (with Noah Baumbach) made a film that has raked in $1.4 billion and counting.


How to review such a cultural powerhouse? I know practically nothing about Barbie beyond what I saw in TV ads that interrupted my boyhood Saturday morning cartoons. In my generation, any boy with a Barbie invited ostracism and even those with a G.I. Joe were suspect. No apologies or regrets, it’s simply the way it was. Thus, I am not qualified to say what Barbie dolls meant or did not mean to little girls of my era or to the women they are now.


I can comment on Barbie as a piece of filmmaking. The set designs of Sarah Greenwood and Katie Spencer are fabulous. They took inspiration from the mid-century modernism of Palm Springs and built a Barbie fantasy land bathed in pink with aqua accents. The sets tiptoe the line between toy world and the sort of sharp lines-meet-garish colors often associated with 1950s architecture.

 Equally impressive were the costumes from Jacqueline Durran and the hair/makeup efforts of Ivana Primorac. I have no idea how many Oscar nominations Barbie will garner, but I’d not be surprised to see it sweep all things production and style related. (I hope that doesn’t happen with music, much of which I found annoying. Then again, it’s not the sort of thing you’ll find on my playlists.)


A surprising admission: I found Barbie fun to watch. Its two leads­–Margot Robbie as Stereotypical Barbie and Ryan Gosling as Beach Ken–were well cast and clearly enjoyed chewing up the scenery. Robbie was especially an inspired choice. At one point in the movie she is so depressed that she feels “ugly.” We hear Helen Mirren’s snarky voiceover telling Mattel that if they want someone to look ugly, “don’t cast Margot Robbie.” That’s for sure! She’s simply stunning physically, but also throws herself into her role and isn’t afraid of self-deprecating humor. (Ditto for a buffed up Ryan Gosling, who apparently can sing.)


Here's the rub. It’s simultaneously a satire, an extended commercial for Mattel, and has a storyline that is too often cloying. After we revel in Barbieland–where every female not named Skipper is a “Barbie” from Mattel’s evolving product line (Black Barbies, professional Barbies, plus-sized Barbie)–the movie confronts the need to impose a story of some sort.


Some sort indeed. All the males are named Ken, except for the dumped product Allan (Michael Cera), and most are in love with Stereotypical Barbie, especially Beach Ken and Tourist Ken (Simu Liu). It’s futile, of course, because every day is exactly the same in Barbieland and nobody has genitals. (There are some funny, if cheap jokes about that.) But when Stereotypical Barbie asks if anyone ever thinks about “death,” it’s an indication that there is a rip in the barrier between Barbieland and the real world that Weird Barbie (Kate McKinnon) insists must be fixed.


Robbie and Gosling set off to the real world, a shocking and awkward encounter that will involve going to Mattel headquarters in Los Angeles, where CEO Will Ferrell and his all-male board are horrified to see Barbie. This sets off a heavy-handed caper/chase film that covers terrain such as Ken’s discovery of patriarchy, a tween who hates Barbie (Ariana Greenblatt), her mother who doesn’t (America Ferrera), philosophy lite, meeting Barbie’s creator (Rhea Perlman), major trouble in Barbieland–rebranded as Kenland–a showdown between Kens, dealing with the rupture, Barbie’s Pinocchio-like desires, and a hysterical ending line. It sort of/kind of works, but it’s also undeniably hackneyed.


To its credit, Barbie raises themes and questions about patriarchy, femininity, feminism, materialism, mortality, the meaning of beauty, and a few other things. But don’t worry; like Barbie dolls it’s more gloss than substance. This is in part because Mattel Films was involved in the production. Mattel deserves credit for poking fun at itself, but like all things in the movie, it’s a gentle jibe designed to help its bottom line.


Rob Weir