REVIEW: Sense & Sensibility

As a tried and true fan of Jane Austen, I was thrilled to find out SMTD’s first theatre production of the year would be the famous Sense & Sensibility. I resonate with Austen’s work because there’s realness and rawness to her characters beneath layers of social conventions and eighteenth century polity. Beneath the postured spines seated on cushioned dinner chairs, beneath the kind and ordinary curtsy of a bonnet-clad woman, beneath the pleasant laughter, the polite greetings, the performative manners, there is a precisely calculated diplomacy. Austen knows how to make a domestic novel scintillate with political and social meaning– she knows how to write a powerful and flawed woman grapple with a society entrenched in performativity. 

My roommate, who is currently taking a class on Jane Austen, accompanied me to the play (or I accompanied them– it was an assignment on their part). I wasn’t familiar with the book, though I’ve heard it’s slightly less compelling than Pride & Prejudice, which I believe is difficult to surpass in mastery and drama as it is. Thus, there was an innocent blankness to my viewing the performance, which I sometimes prefer to an oversatured understanding of context and previous adaptations (re: my review on The Goldfinch here can explain how my loving a book too much ruined the movie). 

The performance opened a few minutes before the lights officially went down; the characters started dressing on stage, men and women together, chitchatting, gossipping, fixing each other’s hair, playing cards, tossing a birdie around. It felt extraordinarily Brechtian, the show before the show, the actors initially as equals to the audience. Then– the lights went low and a Black-Eyed Peas started playing! Our characters, clad fully in regency-era attire, began a coordinated hip-hip-ish dance routine, danced while they brought the dead Mr. Dashwood in his shroud to the stage. Lights down; the gossips starts speaking heatedly about the Dashwoods’ newfound poverty, and thus begins the play. 

The story follows reserved Eleanor Dashwood and her emotionally eccentric sister, Marianne Dashwood, through a marriage plot. The Dashwood family are now poor and trying to stay reputable after the death of Mr. Dashwood. Their marriages must be well-calculated. Initially, both girls have men of interest, but as the plot goes on, these relationships slowly reveal prior commitments, betrayal, and heartbreak. Though the story finally ends on a happy note, we are taken through an emotional ride between two sisters: one who is unnaturally stoic, and another who has unrestrained melodrama, pitching us between the highs and lows of love and romance in a constrained and classist society. 

I truly loved this play. Some of the creative liberties they took were marvellous as well as comical: the gossips impersonating animals (one had acting like a horse down to a T!), some of the lines stressed just perfectly, and a few of the most mundane moments were the ones I remember most: the surreal moment were music started playing when the dashing Willoughby walks into the room in classic rom-com style, when Eleanor and Marianne’s beds were propped up standing up to face the audience– all of these essentially get at the whimsy and wit in Austen’s world. Set against a beautiful pastel stage that immersed me in the blush-toned hues of rolling countrysides and polished China, pink berets and umpire waistlines, I felt transported and enchanted. SMTD has never failed me in one of their performances, but this was a treat to watch. As an avid Austen fan, this was perhaps one of my favorite renditions of her work.

REVIEW: The Goldfinch

I fell in love with The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt this summer. I’ve said this many times after reading her first and cult favorite novel, The Secret History: that I am convinced Donna Tartt is the best novelist of our time, if not only my favorite. The intricacy of her genius is mind-blowing. The Goldfinch has every Fareah-esque theme a book could possibly have: large, sprawling, ambitious plots, a character we see grow and mature and break, glittering prose, an attention to the everyday, philosophical underpinnings, an incredible (!) best friend figure, unrequited love (not essential, but definitely a perk). I love The Goldfinch so much. I’ve reread some of the passages religiously. 

The story follows Theo, a bright and thoughtful young boy who loses his mother to an attack in an art museum in New York City. In his fervor, he takes a painting with him: Fabritius’ The Goldfinch. We follow him throughout his life, the secret possession of this painting threading its way through every milestone. The story is about a lot of things: love for objects, for art, for people; a search for meaning and value, and sometimes the crushing absence of meaning and value. It is a stirring and riveting story.

The narrative of the book is inexplicably tied with words, with prose, with life given form by language. It’s essentially part of the logic of the story, the central thrumming aesthetic question. Without the craft of language, the narrative seems lacking. I used to be a book purist– someone who believed that books were always better than their movie counterparts. I don’t believe this anymore, because I think that movies and books are two essentially different modes of storytelling, and so a movie adaption must be judged differently than the book. This being said, however, my heart still flinches at the injustice inflicted upon many a good book by horrific and painfully bad movie adaptations. The fact that The Goldfinch relied on language as an essential part of the structure of the narrative and in the history of Hollywood movies with bestsellers, I was incredibly weary of the film adaption. This, I believed, was one of the kinds of stories that movies could not capture. 

I went to the film with my friend who had not read the book. It was a nearly three-hour movie, dense and rich with images and motivations, trying too hard to encapsulate the plot of intricately woven nearly thousand-page novel. It is almost adorably endearing to me that any filmmaker would even attempt to grapple with the magnitude of this novel. It’s uncontainable! I wonder how Donna Tartt does it herself! Three hours is not enough! The psychologies of the characters are too complex, the relationship too deep, the philosophical underpinnings too expansive to capture in the form of film. Perhaps it is unfair of me to say this, and perhaps I am being unfair to the form itself, but they were much too ambitious. I think the film would have worked much better if they had focused on a particular aspect of Theo’s life and developed that carefully rather than trying to explain his relationship with Pippa, and Boris, and Hobie, and Mrs. Barbour, and Kitsey, and drugs, and artwork, and depression, etc etc. Choose one! You don’t have enough time!

Thus, in my opinion, the movie feels like a dilution of plot points, racing to the end. I cannot imagine the movie being successful as a standalone; without the book, it withers. Moreover, the images feel artificial to me, too constructed, and obviously symbolic– all in the varnish of a blockbuster-type style with oversaturated gray skies and all-brown and gray tones. I’m not entirely sure how to explain this, probably because I don’t have the proper film vocabulary, but it felt to me like the images were trying too hard to mean something. I would have liked it to all be scaled back, broken down into the elements of its true nature; not glamorized and made larger-than-life. I felt like I was watching a fantasy, like Harry Potter– and this was, intuitively, the wrong feeling for the story. 

My friend, who had not read the book, loved the movie very much, so perhaps this review is irrevocably restrained by my opinion. However, I did love that the movie reminded me more of my love for the book; when I got home, I sat down on the floor of my apartment with our dim lights while my roommates slept and re-read my favorite passages. If it could do that– spark joy and love, and remind me of what I loved– I am still grateful.

REVIEW: Gala Mukomolova Poetry Reading and Book Signing

In the first reading of the Helen Zell Visiting Writers series, I sat excited and enthralled to witness the arrival of poet Gala Mukomolova. It was lovely being back in the UMMA Auditorium for the 2019 inception of the series, with the warm light suspended by translucent threads, giving it the quality of floating Hogwarts candles; the dimness of the room lulling me into a kind of aesthetic trance; poetry washing onto the shores of my mind. And so entered Mukomolova’s work into one of my beloved programs at Michigan. 

In her reading, Mukomalova read from her debut poetry collection Without Protection. Mukomolova has many identities she explores in her work. She is Russian, Jewish, refugee, New Yorker, lesbian. These intersecting identities ground her work into her own universe, and she enters this space she has invented with the agency, authority, and recognition of her own power. I am currently unraveling what it means to write about your identity in your work– how much of it seems like “material” you’re performing, and how much is actually authentic. I haven’t read Mukomolova’s work in full and am only acquainted with the work she read to us, but it seems to me that she enters her poetry as her own creation. When she writes in Russian, or explains deeply personal situations, she seems to explain the narrative not for us, but for herself; the work, in some ways, seems to be the many aspects of her identity in conversation with the other parts in one place. To me, this seems wildly liberating, not the puppeteeting that might structure other inauthentic works. 

Mukomalova’s poetry collection explores the story of the old Russian fable about the young girl named Vasilyssa trying to escape from the witch Baba Yaga. Her power, bravery, and divine feminine energy guide her to enter Baba Yaga’s home Without Protection. The collection includes a multiplicity of narratives colasing into one, delicately woven together, the old and new and personal and universal all in conversation. One sentence will be about the story of Baba Yaga, the next an anecdote from Mukomalova’s life, another an advertisement on Craigslist. It’s a brilliant tapestry of multiplicity and power that Mukomolova crafts in her poetry. 

There is, moreover, a definite belief in the power of women, and more specifically, in the sexuality of women. Mukomalova writes:


I want everything. I want to be fucked like the wife who waited

for her soldier’s return, fucked: the island, the sand, the nymph, 

the lust that strands him. Fucked: the witch’s sword against his dick before she 

opens. Ill deep throat, I’m sayin’

it’s April, 72 degrees, I’m in love and wearing platforms. This song is just like 

my first years in America, the jump off. What I mean is reckless, performing 

a kind of hope.


Mukomalova’s poetry is unabashed about desire, about the complex highs and lows of wanting and not having, or wanting and having and being a woman. There is an erotic energy weaved into her poetry that gives it power and shamelessness, an unapologetic ode to her womanhood and sexuality. 

Overall, I enjoyed the reading very much. Rereading some of her poetry here to write this blogpost reminded me how thrilling it is to read it, and I have to admit that I enjoyed reading it more than I did hearing it. In any case, I think this makes it easier for you, dear reader of this blog post, to go out and read Gala Mukomalova’s stunning and multi-layered debut poetry collection Without Protection

Sources:, poetry except from

PREVIEW: Gala Mukomolova Poetry Reading and Book Signing

As I’m becoming more familiar and learning to recognize the intersecting pathways of my identity, I have learned to cultivate a deep appreciation for artists of different identities doing the same. Gala Mukomolova is one such artist who I believe may be able to shed light on the landscape of complex, often even opposing, experiences, and using art as a form of synthesis. From the few poems I have read, Mukomolova seems to have a rich sense of voice and a kaleidescopic, evocative representation of the world around her. I look forward to her reading on Thursday, September 5th at 5:30-7 pm in UMMA’s Helmut Sterne auditorium. A book signing will follow with book sales provided by Literati bookstore.

REVIEW: Spirited Away

Image result for spirited away

Michigan Theatre’s screening of Spirited Away was met with a delightfully long line outside the theatre, people willingingly shivering in the cold, anticipating the much-loved Ghibli classic. I have to admit before I go any deeper into this review that this was my first time watching Spirited Away– or any Ghibli movie, for that matter. It was such a treat to witness the spectacle of animation and the immersive fantasia of Chihiro’s journey into the spirit world. I walked out of the theatre with my head filled and spinning with colors, the trembling of leaves, the delicate swaddling of stars in the sky, the ordinary magic of life. I want to watch every Ghibli movie now and be muse to the enchantments it casts on the viewer– and, honestly, I want to watch it on the big screen. I’m so glad that the Center for Japanese Studies is extending their screening series called the “Icons of Anime” to show even more animated Japanese classics in the Michigan Theatre.

Spirited Away tells the story of ten-year-old Chihiro’s journey into a terrifying and fantastical adventure into some kind of spirit world. Her father stops in front of a derelict amusement park, and, despite Chihiro’s insistent disapproval, her parents enter the park and begin eating the food at the vending station. As nighttime descends, spirits emerge in the world around Chihiro. She desperately tries to go back to her parents only to find out, in one truly terrifying moment, that they’ve been turned into pigs. Chihiro must befriend the spirits in the theme park and work there in order to buy her and her parents their freedom from being trapped. Chihiro meets little spider-like coal-carrying creatures, an eight-legged man who mans the production of the resort, some friendly guiders, and a scary woman with a large, wrinkly face who owns the resort by night and stalks its grounds as a hawk by day. Chihiro also meets Hero who helps her– and whose fate it ultimately entangled with her own.

The plot of the movie is gripping in the beginning of the movie. It hits a bit of a dip in the middle and meanders a bit before picking back up by the conclusion. In the end, however, I’m not sure that the plot of the movie itself as engaging as the cinematic experience of it. There were plot points that seemed lazily patched-up at the end of the movie and the protagonist didn’t develop a great deal throughout the movie (perhaps she gained strength and bravery, but this wasn’t of real importance). The beauty and immersive animated experience of the movie overcomes its narrative weaknesses– but still, I can’t help but believe that the movie as a whole could have been strengthened by a better focus on plot structure and character development. Ultimately, however, Spirited Away was a truly enjoyable movie experience– magical, unique, and transportive, with the same power and childlike wonder as a Disney movie, but its magic works differently. I look forward to watching many more Ghibli movies.

(Image from Google Images)

REVIEW: CMENAS Film Screening: “Rachel”

“Rachel” is a documentary piecing together the nuances and injustices of the death of an American activist in Palestine named Rachel Corrie. Twenty-four year-old Rachel was on a trip to Palestine as a trained activist with a group of other activists in their twenties. At this time in the early two-thousands, the tension in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was gaining a new wave of intensity with the beginning of the Second Intifada. Rachel and her team were helping Palestinian civilians whose homes were most in danger of being destroyed by Israeli occupation. In an attempt to prevent the destruction of one such house, Rachel stood in front of a bulldozer to obstruct their moving forward; however, the driver of the bulldozer claimed to not see her– though the eye-witnesses to the case speculate otherwise– and ran her over; in a matter of seconds, her body was mangled beneath a mound of dirt and crushed by the metal. Rachel died. Though there seems to be evidence that there was criminal intent by the driver of the bulldozer, the case gained a momentary spark of media attention, only to die down with the injustice of Rachel’s death never to receive due legal attention. This documentary is an exploration of the testimonies of the activists who she travelled with, Israeli soldiers, and many others who were knew her or were related to her death.

The simple, straightforward style of the documentary makes it easy to follow all the intricacies of the evidence presented: testimonies of colleagues and family members, on-site videos and photographs, Rachel’s diary entries. By the end of the film, I felt fully educated about the facts of Rachel’s death– and the thing about the documentary is that it doesn’t ever once say outright that what happened to Rachel unfair or unjust. It just keeps building evidence, slowly but surely, until you’re painfully aware of all the wrong that was done to her. The driver of the bulldozer claimed that he couldn’t see her over the mound of dirt while her team says the mound was hardly a few feet tall; the US embassy failed to send an American to oversee her autopsy even though her parents requested it, probably because the US didn’t want to entangle itself politically; the general of the Israeli forces claimed that there was not enough eyewitness testimony or video evidence, only two opposing viewpoints, which seemed essentially inconclusive. No real legal action could be taken to prove that the driver of the bulldozer had criminal intent.

The documentary works to show that there was a system of injustice present that lead to Rachel’s death. The documentary illuminates the cracks of legality and excuses that Rachel slipped between. The documentary itself works as a bulwark against injustice. The film is modest in its cinematography and aesthetics, but it is large in its meaning and purpose. Rachel was one American activist whose life and injustice has been filmed and commemorated, but it’s a powerful reminder that there are people suffering from crises around the world who won’t get any attention. But there is a small line of hope, perhaps– as we keep talking about these injustices, as long as we make art and conversation about it– we can create a bulwark against it.

I’ll end this post with a beautiful letter that Rachel wrote during her time in Palestine: “You can always hear the tanks and bulldozers passing by, but all of these people are genuinely cheerful with each other, and with me. When I am with Palestinian friends I tend to be somewhat less horrified than when I am trying to act in a role of human rights observer, documenter, or direct-action resistor. They are a good example of how to be in it for the long haul. I know that the situation gets to them (and may ultimately get them) on all kinds of levels, but I am nevertheless amazed at their strength in being able to defend such a large degree of their humanity – laughter, generosity, family time – against the incredible horror occurring in their lives and against the constant presence of death. I felt much better after this morning. I spent a lot of time writing about the disappointment of discovering, somewhat first-hand, the degree of evil of which we are still capable. I should at least mention that I am also discovering a degree of strength and the basic ability for humans to remain human in the direst of circumstances – which I also haven’t seen before. I think the word is dignity. I wish you could meet these people. Maybe, hopefully, someday you will.”

(You can find more of her letters and diary entries here: I would seriously recommend checking them out– they’re gorgeously written and she’s so wise.)