About this Journal
The Ratings System for Reviews*

On a 0-10 Scale, with 10 the highest possible score:
0 - So awful I didn't even finish it. I doubt you'll see this rating that often.
1-4 - Various degrees of badness. Not recommended (unless you're in a masochistic mood).
1 - One of the worst books you'll read EVER.
2 - One of the worst books you'll read this year.
3 - One of the worst books you'll read this month.
4 - Hmm. You should probably stay away from it, but it won't kill you or anything.
5 - I didn't care one way or the other, and, I suspect, neither will you. If the genre interests you, go for it.
6-10 - Various degrees of goodness. Recommended.
6 - Generally recommended for transitory diversion.
7 - Highly recommended as a good, thought-provoking, weighty read.
8 - One of the best books you'll read this month.
9 - One of the best books you'll read this year.
10 - One of the best books you'll read EVER.

*subject to change if/when I think of something better
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Jan. 1st, 2007 @ 02:10 am Book Reviews from December 2006*
Barker, Pat. The Eye in the Door. 1993. New York: Plume, 1995.
          Summary: The second volume of The Regeneration Trilogy. Dogged by a backdrop of hatred against pacifists and homosexuals, tormented by his own ambivalence about the rightness of war with Germany, and determined to free hometown friends from conviction of treason, Lieutenant Billy Prior's personality starts to fracture, and not even Dr. Rivers can help him. In time, though, he seems to overcome his multiple personalities as the events of history progress.
          Comments: Though I liked the first volume of the trilogy Regeneration quite a bit, this one was even better! It was, for some reason, a much easier and much more enjoyable read. Fewer characters to worry about, and those central to the plot--Billy Prior and Dr. Rivers--came alive for me in this book in a way that they simply did not in the previous. Billy in particular, the schizophrenic sexual omnivore and entirely original Pat Barker creation, is great. Dr. Rivers continues to be intriguing, and I loved the homoerotically-charged therapeutic sessions between him and Billy.
          Speaking of homoeroticism, that particular theme is more explicitly developed here at the end with the reappearance of Siegfried Sassoon, openly expressing romantic affection for the soldiers under his wing. And, also, of course, with Charles Manning, who is stressing over Maud Allan's libel suit. That lawsuit underlines a new theme that the author begins developing: That, despite the cult of manhood promulgated by the nationalistic culture of war, the war was also liberating women by employing them in the munitions factories and providing a better wage than their husbands were earning--and doing it way faster than many were comfortable with.
          Homosexuals and "loose women," along with pacifists, become scapegoats for a beleaguered British government that fears it is losing the war. The title of the novel, The Eye in the Door, is a reference to the constant surveillance and paranoia of the period. Oddly, the visual metaphor for this particular abridgment of democratic freedom speaks far more loudly and persuasively right now than The X-Files era during which Barker wrote this novel the first place (or, for that matter, the early 20th century, I could easily imagine) and bluntly reminds us that seeing danger from without makes us too ready to turn right around look for danger from within.
          Notes: trade paperback, 10th printing
          Rating: 7/10 - Plainly-written but undeniably haunting. A remarkable work that brings the WWI era and its ambiguities back to life.

Barker, Pat. The Ghost Road. New York: Dutton, 1995.
          Summary: The final volume of The Regeneration Trilogy. Billy Prior heads back to the front to live (and die) his last days fighting, while Dr. Rivers remembers his anthropological sojourn in Melanesia and his interaction with the wise man of the village, Njiru.
          Comments: Ah, after two such plain-spoken yet profound prequels, what a disappointment! This novel bounces back and forth almost exclusively between Dr. Rivers' recollections of the indigenous people of Melanesia and Prior's experiences (toward the latter half entirely in journal entry form) back at the front in France. Note the irony that the doctor reminisces while the officer writes. For the first time, I felt that Pat Barker was feeling constrained by the historical events surrounding her characters; the two storylines were by no means an easy fit. The themes that appear elsewhere in the trilogy--the ethics of pacifism, the homosexual threat of the military, etc.--are quickly rehashed but not expanded. The only significant new addition is Njiru's revelation of spirit or God Ave, the "destroyer of peoples," that presages disease or war and his final lesson to Rivers: how to exorcise it. This rhymes with the author's account of the end of the war and a dying soldier's declaration that "It's not worth it." Though Prior seems to have convinced himself otherwise, that about sums it all up. With regards to both war AND this novel, that is.
          Notes: hardcover, 1st American edition, 2nd printing
          Rating: 5/10 - The Ghost Road ends Barker's explosive trilogy with a disappointing fizzle. Essential only for the completists amongst us.

Buruma, Ian. Inventing Japan: 1853-1964. New York: Modern Library Chronicles, 2003.
          Summary: The history of the rise of modern Japan, from the arrival of Commodore Perry and his black ships to the 1964 Tokyo Olympics.
          Comments: Ian Buruma, one of my all-time favorite scholarly writers, has provided a concise, readable, and intelligent summary of the history of modern Japan whose greatest narrative strengths lie in the pre-WWII period. Though I noticed that he did at times shy away with some of the most politically-charged controversies (To what extent was Emperor Hirohito responsible for the war? To what extent did Koreans actually support Japanese rule?) and offers the answers least likely to offend, for the most part his analysis seems sound and his research thorough.
          Perhaps anticipating his later collaboration with Avishai Margalit on Occidentalism, Buruma cleverly notes that the Japanese sense of their own cultural uniqueness is a direct result of their contact with German/Nazi notions of German cultural superiority and that many of the things now regarded as traditional in Japan are actually modern confabulations. Ever heard it said, for example, that the salaryman is the modern-day samurai and that he is responsible for Japan's booming economy? Perfect example. The understanding of "samurai" in this equation is actually relatively new invention; suffice to say that real samurai weren't like the samurai of the contemporary popular imagination. For a culture that has historically been heavily influenced by that of others, none of this should come as a surprise, but it IS after all important to remember that much has been made both within Japan and abroad of Japanese exceptionalism and that it is mere myth.
          Even though, as I suggested earlier, I felt the post-WWII chapters to be the weakest and most laden with semi-connected, ill-explained factoids, this book is perfect for anyone who wants to understand the Japan they are seeing in the news right now. Everything that's happening now is simply a logical continuation of the history of the past century, and things are unlikely to change course--until Perry's black ships (or something else as violently momentous) come again, that is.
          Notes: hardcover, 1st edition, 1st printing
          Rating: 6/10 - As perfect an introduction to its subject as you are ever likely to get in English. Anyone with casual interest in anything Japanese should check it out.

Buruma, Ian and Avishai Margalit. Occidentalism: The West in the Eyes of Its Enemies. New York: Penguin, 2004.
          Summary: An investigation into the origins and permutations of "occidentalism," a dehumanizing, two-dimensional image of the West as it relates to industrialization, economics, ethnocentrism, and religion.
          Comments: Obviously intended to be paired with Edward Said's classic Orientalism and in large part a reaction to the socio-political realignment in the wake of 9/11, this is the sort of comprehensive yet tightly-focused cultural history that I only wish I had the expertise to write. Though the authors contend that Occidentalism actually started in the West and was appropriated by the East, one of the underlying theses that comes out on occasion, particularly in "The Occidental City," is that these culture clashes are virtually prehistorical in their basis and that the supposed two sides of the issue have become oriented to a West vs. East schism.
          Otherwise, according to the authors, we can pretty much blame the Germans for every bad idea that has arisen since then. The essentialist notions of "Kultur" that gave rise to the Nazi party has also inspired generations of Japanese fascists, Russian nationalists, and Islamic jihadists. (And, apparently, Judeo-Christian tradition accounts for the rest.) Though I suppose it seems like an oversimplification to demonize one particular ideological movement for such a wealth of bigotry and tragedy (not to mention narcissistic to say that prejudice against the West is the West's own fault), there's no disputing the persuasive power of such revolutionary (bad) ideas.
          Naturally, no solutions whatsoever present themselves...but there aren't any quick-fix antidotes for bigotry. (If there were, well, no one would be writing books like these anymore.) Treatments represent the only alternative, and one of the best ones is simple, clear-sighted understanding. In that sense, this book is invaluable. After all, if we conclude that indeed "they" got it from "us," as the authors contend, then there really is no fundamental "us vs. them" schism at all--it's all just one big, dysfunctional "we," reaching as far back in time as all of us can see.
          Notes: hardcover, 1st edition, 1st printing
          Rating: 7.5/10 - An innovative, level-headed, and timely investigation into the source of anti-Western stereotypes. Highly recommended.

Kannagi, Satoru. Only the Ring Finger Knows Vol. 3: The Ring Finger Falls Silent. Trans. Duane Johnson. Los Angeles: Juné, 2006.
          Summary: Originally titled Kusuriyubi wa Chinmoku Suru, Sono Yubi dake Shitteiru 3. With illustrations by Odagiri Hotaru. Wataru Fujii's cram school life is complicated by a lonely Masanobu Asaka and a jealous Yuichi Kazuki. Meanwhile, Shohei still wants to separate Wataru and Yuichi and sees the perfect opportunity to wreak strife during the "celebrity" charity auction Wataru's school festival. Fortunately, his plot is foiled, and the lovebirds emerge more devoted than ever.
          Comments: Okay, I didn't think it was humanly possible for me to hate Vol. 3 any more than I hated Vol. 2 of this sorry excuse for a novel series, but I was wrong! It's the longest installment yet, which means I've wasted even MORE hours of my life than I did on the previous volume. Kannagi Satoru is back with even more "Must meet the word count at all costs!" excrement that marries unnecessarily wordy, repetitive descriptive narration and dialogue (mostly dialogue) with hardly any plot whatsoever. And "Who needs adaptations?" translator Duane Johnson is back as well with his poorly-edited, sorry excuse for a polished English text. (You know, I don't care how the Japanese break paragraphs--so sorry but that just ain't something you want carried over. Dude, if you don't break the paragraphs correctly, I have trouble figuring out who's talking. Are we clear on that yet!?? AND, goddammit, I have trouble figuring out where the scenes are suppose to break, too!) On the bright side, the book is so bad to begin with that Johnson can only bring it down so much further. Can't ruin it if it's already shit, right?
          As for why the story itself--in any language--is so awful, let me number the ways: 1) The protagonist. He's absolutely nothing special, a real wimp, but for some reason he's the apotheosis of what BL (and shoujo) manga men want. 2) The Destined Lover. He's an absolute asshole who thinks being abusive and telling his boyfriend whom and whom not to talk to is a sign of devotion--and the novel appears to agree with him. 3) The Rival. Waaaay nicer than Destined Lover, but if you're nice you come in last, and you know he's gonna lose before he even makes his first move. This is the sort of stuff that gets shoujo manga labeled misogynistic, and Kannagi assumes that, for homosexual relationships, social approbation is normative and skirts the issue entirely by never making her characters face it even though Yuichi's brother mentions it in his rationale for trying to break them up. Lovely, eh? Suffice it to say that I wouldn't wish the Only the Ring Finger Knows novels on my worst enemy.
          Notes: paperback, 1st American edition, 1st printing; first published in Japan in 2005
          Rating: 1/10 - If a rating below a "1" were possible, this novel would get it. One of the worst novels I've read this year? Bah! More like one of the worst novels I've read so far THIS CENTURY.

Konohara, Narise. Cold Sleep. Trans. Douglas W. Dlin and Iori. Los Angeles: Juné, 2006.
          Summary: After losing his memory in a car accident, Tohru Takahisa finds himself taken in by the gentle yet enigmatic Fujishima. Since Fujishima refuses to give him any answers to his past, Tohru goes looking for it, but what he finds is unsatisfactory...and, instead, he finds himself falling in love with Fujishima. However, only when a woman seeking revenge for her brother's death takes her anger at Tohru out on Fujishima, do the two confess their love for each other. Also includes to short stories featuring high school classmates that meet eleven years after graduation and strike up an unlikely friendship.
          Comments: Marginally better than any DMP novel translation thus far (or subsequently, if the first volume of The Man Who Doesn't Take Off His Clothes is any indication), but, unfortunately, the book itself in it's original form is fundamentally weaker than any of Konohara's other English-language releases. Those just looking for sex scenes get no satisfaction whatsoever in this novel. And, plot-wise, there's no satisfaction to be had here either--in EITHER of the stories. Both pretty much end with a confession of love, and in the title story you don't even get any explanation as to who Fujishima was to Tohru before he lost his memory. In her afterword, the author claims that this is the first installment of a series, but God only knows if we'll ever see the sequels. (DMP appears to be rethinking their BL light novel line, and, though I really do want to read them--or at least the good ones!--in English, if what they license isn't going to be good, they might as well just stop.) Even though I'm notoriously weak when it comes to sappy happily-ever-afters, there just wasn't enough here to make it worth my while.
          Notes: paperback, 1st edition, 1st printing; originally published in Japan in 2003
          Rating: 4.5/10 - An unessential novel that exists primarily to soak up money from an undiscriminating BL novel fanbase. Of questionable absolute value, even to enthusiasts.

Konohara, Narise. The Man Who Doesn't Take Off His Clothes. Vol. 1. Trans. Kelly Quine. Los Angeles: Juné, 2006.
          Summary: Originally titled Nuganai Otoko 1. Don't Worry Mama! series. With illustrations by Shimizu Yuki. Section Chief Fujiwara is Anna Kaitani's boss from Hell, but when Kaitani suddenly starts caring about his job and a new product line, Fujiwara's there to every step of the way to stop him from taking any "risks." So, Kaitani decides to blackmail the boss with compromising photographs...and during the blowback a co-worker mistakes them for gay lovers into S/M! Well-meaning meddling in their budding "relationship" on the part of the gay community lands Kaitani locked in a room with a drugged Fujiwara--and, before he knows it, they're having hot sex. But only Kaitani remembers, and now he really is in love...
          Comments: More shoddy editing from DMP's Juné novel line. Less than ten pages into the first chapter, I notice an error. Less than ten pages past that, I noticed another. And so it goes. Fortunately, the translation, despite specific points at which I believe the word choices were inappropriate, was at least readable, and the story was, despite getting off to a very slow start (multi-volume pacing can be a bitch), delightfully entertaining. You just know it's gonna be good when the hero bemoans the fact that his parents gave him a girl's name. When Kaitani had his drunken boss tied up in order to take porno shots of the guy, I was chuckling, and by the time he had the boss tied up AGAIN on his apartment floor, I was laughing outright. The ridiculousness of it all naturally gets even more extreme when Higashiyama (from Don't Worry Mama!) catches a glimpse of the compromised Fujiwara and blithely assumes that the two are a couple. Which then leads to gay bar-hopping and gay mixers...and a lovesick gay waiter. It's all very cute and lots of fun. (Though those looking for tons of hot sex scenes should look elsewhere. There's only one. *ahem* Sex scene, that is. I'll let you decide whether or not you think it's hot.) Definitely the funniest and most tightly focused Konohara Narise novel I've read thus far. But I guess that's not saying all that much.
          Notes: paperback, 1st edition, 1st printing; originally published in Japan in 2005
          Rating: 6/10 - If you go into this with absolutely no expectations, you'll be pleasantly surprised. Well-entertained, even. A must for fans of BL and/or gay romantic comedy.

Leavitt, David. Florence, A Delicate Case. New York: Bloomsbury, 2002.
          Summary: The Writer and the City series. David Leavitt narrates the history of the Anglo-American expatriate community in Florence and highlights the lives and writings of its luminaries.
          Comments: Though Florence boasts more "important" artwork and history than you can shake a stick at, novelist David Leavitt focuses less on the prosaic sights of the usual guidebook and more upon the underbelly of what he characterizes as a medieval, claustrophobic locale popular as a place of suicide. Specifically, the way in which it became a bohemian community for aspiring--and often homosexual--artists from elsewhere, mostly England and the United States. (He seems particularly attached to Ronald Firbank.)
          One of Leavitt's primary theses in this little tome is that these artists squandered their artistic talents with gossip and petty vendettas. By the time I had gotten to the fifth and last chapter when he began a truncated account of his own adventures in Florentine expatriate society, I was well on my way to a disgusted conclusion regarding this author's own hypocrisy. He was gossiping when he should've been documenting! As we all know, gay guys are stereotyped for that sort of behavior, but Leavitt has actually acquired a track record for this sort of thing in the wake of the publication of While England Sleeps...so I suppose he can relate on a personal level. Luckily for him, though, he saved himself at the last second: "I'm struck by the degree to which, without ever intending to, I seem to have adopted the very tone of the Anglo-Florentine memoirist that earlier I saw fit to decry" (165). Amen, brother. At least he realizes it. And readers who get this far will likely be pissed off--for, like the works of those aforementioned memoirists, Florence, A Delicate Case fails to live up to its writer's full potential or, for that matter, his recent track record.
          Notes: hardcover, 1st edition
          Rating: 4/10 - An overheated, unnecessary account of the greatness of Western art and culture designed to please a Western audience who already believes that it is the only important human civilization on this planet.

McCarthy, Cormac. The Road. New York: Knopf, 2006.
          Summary: A man and a boy, both unnamed, traverse a desolate, post-apocalyptic American landscape where all is ash, heading south in order to escape the ravages of winter. Amidst unspeakable horrors of human desperation, the dying man has vowed never to leave his son alone--even if that means killing him with his last bullet. Yet in the end, he cannot bring himself to do so, but his son finds a measure of salvation with an enclave of "good guys."
          Comments: WOW. How could a novel wherein so little actually happens be so absolutely captivating? The prose is blunt yet lyrical in the best of American modernist tradition (although I did notice a few unfortunate typos), but unlike such literary greats as Hemmingway or Faulkner, Cormac McCarthy's writing in this novel has its stylistic quirks but never descends into obscurity or confusion--the tightly-woven narrative perfectly evokes the repetitive nature of life on the road, the constant anxious anticipation of the atrocities up ahead, and the increasingly tense feeling between the man and the boy as the story progresses.
          Though obviously written in the Western tradition with a bit of science fiction for added flavor (there's no time spent explaining what the heck happened to the world), I'm most immediately reminded, oddly enough, of Minekura Kazuya. Of Stigma, not Saiyuuki. Both stories feature a man and a boy traveling the world with a stated goal, but the reality is that the real object is to stay together. And, most importantly, both stories feature bleak, near-hopeless worlds in which there are hardly any signs of life whatsoever. And, suffice it to say that I absolutely loved Stigma when I read it, and I love The Road as well.
          Notes: hardcover, 1st edition
          Rating: 7.5/10 - A powerful tale that lingers in the mind like the aftermath of an otherwise forgotten nightmare. One of the must-read novels of 2006.

Miller, Isabel. Patience & Sarah. 1969. Vancouver: Arsenal Pulp Press, 2005.
          Summary: Originally titled A Place for Us. Early 19th century America. Painter Patience White and Sarah Dowling, a farmer's daughter raised by her father like a boy, meet by chance and soon fall in love. The younger Sarah is determined to make her way in the world with a farm of her own and invites Patience along, but Patience, afraid of social approbation, refuses, and Sarah ends up traveling with a bookselling parson for a year and failing to free herself permanently from her family. Upon her return, however, Patience proves to have had a change of heart, and now SHE is the one who wants the two to live alone together. Patience convinces her brother to buy her out of her inheritance, and the two women purchase a farm ninety miles north of New York City.
          Comments: Okay, so I didn't believe for a second that two 19th century American woman were ACTUALLY narrating this charming little novel...but who cares? The novel's accessible and largely modern prose allows the sheer joy and exuberance of the story to shine through and allows its writer Alma Routsong (under the pseudonym Isabel Miller) to tackle a wealth of feminist and lesbian dilemmas without seeming unnecessarily didactic. Sarah's realization that she cannot simply become a female man in order to ease her interactions with either Patience or society at large is an important one, and she grapples on numerous occasions with the impossible with just to become male so that she can get what she wants without having to fight for it. Also lovely was Patience's way of arguing Sarah into leaving with her; the inconvenience of traveling in inclement weather to each others' homes and hiding the true extent of their affections from their families becomes increasingly untenable the longer they do it.
          I was also delighted by the sympathy with which ALL of the characters in this novel are treated--there are no villains or apparent writerly grudges against, say, parents here. The enemy of the heroines is societal and religious institutions. Moreover, all of the supporting characters find an uncomfortable fit with some aspect of those institutions. Patience's brother Edward, for example, is, in spite of himself, intrigued and perhaps aroused by the idea of two women together, while Dan Peel is attracted to Sarah when he believes that she is a boy. In short, Routsong makes a concerted effort to embrace the whole of human sexual variation with compassion and tolerance. And, in my opinion, that's the absolute best way of going about writing a book about minority issues: Prove that you're better than your oppressors by refusing to roll over your grievances into more hate and oppression.
          Notes: trade paperback, Little Sister's Classics edition, 1st printing
          Rating: 6.5/10 - A delightful, humane novel that transcends its classic lesbian romance niche and is sure to be appreciated by anyone who enjoys an author with a sweet yet unassuming voice of hope.

Pratchett, Terry. Reaper Man. 1991. New York: HarperTorch, 2002.
          Summary: Discworld series #11. Death is told that he will die and tries his hand at farming. Meanwhile, the resulting buildup of life energy is causing chaos in Ankh-Morpork, where wizard Windle Poons discovers that he has become a zombie and must thwart a parasitic entity that lures humans out of the city and into an organic hive that bears a remarkable resemblance to a shopping mall. In the end, of course, all is restored to normal and Death is back in business.
          Comments: Okay, the "Who am I going to call?" ghost-busting riff was pretty funny, as was the star-crossed romance between Mrs. Cake's werewolf daughter Ludmilla and the reverse-werewolf Lupine. On the other hand, the snow globe to shopping cart to super mall life stages of the parasite was a bit...overboard, if I do say so myself. 'Course, this was written in the early 90's, when the mallrat was virtually a cultural icon. So perhaps Pratchett can be excused for that.
          Pratchett pretty much has a trademark on the chapter-less, ADHD narrative structure, yet I couldn't help but notice that this novel seemed to bounce about a bit less than usual; most of the action centered around Bill Door a.k.a. Death or Windle Poons. Naturally, focus is a plus in my book, so yours truly didn't develop as severe a case of attention deficit while reading this novel either. Plus, it DOES explain the origin of the Death of Rats, which, since finishing Hogfather, always had me wondering. Still, nothing about it really captured my imagination (Why's he making Death such a emotional weenie?), and I wouldn't exactly call it Pratchett's finest hour.
          Notes: mass market paperback, 11th printing
          Rating: 5/10 - Fans of the Discworld will want to read them all, of course, but you won't be missing much if you give this one a pass.

Pratchett, Terry. Wyrd Sisters. 1980. New York: HarperTorch, 2001.
          Summary: Discworld series #6. Ramtop witches Granny Weatherwax, Nanny Ogg, and Magrat Garlick form a reluctant coven and soon find themselves meddling in royal politics when King Verence of Lancre is assassinated by the duke. Though they find a home for the king's infant son with an acting troupe that passes through and speed up time so that he makes it to adulthood in a timely fashion, turns out that Tomjon would rather stick with theatre and his brother the Fool ends up taking his place on the throne.
          Comments: This is the first Discworld novel to feature any female protagonists, and, due credit to the author, boy do they make a splash! The sources of this novel's satire are Shakespeare's plays (think "Hamlet" for ghosts of murdered kings and "Macbeth" for witches) and pretty much every fairytale that involves a fairy godmother or a witch. Yet, unlike the ridiculous (and all-male) wizards, the witches, despite their occasional airs, are bastions of reliability by comparison. They're also independent of men and remarkably powerful, which is quite cool. And, in true fairytale fashion, they turn out to be the power behind the throne.
          Most Pratchett's novels are heavily indebted to the high fantasy tradition of Tolkien, Adams, and their successors and will probably not be fully appreciated by readers who are not already fantasy/sci-fi fans with a sense of humor. However, due to the fast and furious classic literary allusions throughout, Wyrd Sisters is certainly the most immediately accessible of Pratchett's novels that I've ever read, even for those who do not normally enjoy the high fantasy genre and is an excellent entry point for laypersons who wish to get acquainted with the UK's top-selling writer.
          Notes: mass market paperback, 12th printing
          Rating: 5.5/10 - Your inner English literature major will cackle with delight.

Rich, Frank. The Greatest Story Ever Sold: The Decline and Fall of Truth from 9/11 to Katrina. New York: Penguin, 2006.
          Summary: Former drama critic and New York Times columnist Frank Rich documents the ways in which the Bush administration systematically lied to the public and manipulated the media in order to retain power in the face of looming public disapproval and to further serve the neocon agenda.
          Comments: Okay, confession time: I LOVE Frank Rich. Keenly insightful when it comes to the nation's mood yet not overbearing in an over-clever, self-satisfied fashion a la Maureen Dowd, he's been my favorite columnist for several years now, even before he joined the elite roster at the *ahem* Paper of Record. I've never seen anyone connect what's going on in pop culture so deftly with what's going on everywhere else yet nonetheless keeping so utterly faithful to reality (Rich has never been one to trumpet the supremacy of the so-called moral values contingent, for example), and I was hoping for more of the same in this new anti-Bush administration polemic.
          Unfortunately, suffice it to say that I didn't get what I was hoping for. Though this book represents a comprehensive and exhaustive summation of everything that happened in the mainstream media (most notably on TV) as it relates to the Bush presidency, and a full one-third of it is a timeline that compares the White House's oft-fictional narrative that it used to sell the war with what it is actually known to have known about the situation in the Middle East...it's TERRIBLY BORING. Save for brief appearances in the first and last chapters, the brilliant, scintillating sound-byte analysis of culture combined with politics gives way for thorough but tiresome documentation of a lot of things that I didn't want to know about the first time around a lot of things that annoyed and disgusted me when I did learn them on second exposure. Sadly, I'm just not a fan of factoid books.
          Nevertheless, Rich's main thesis, that Bush and Co. systematically manipulated the media in order to sell the Iraq war to the American public and thereby maintain power to 1) continue to give handouts in the form of tax breaks to the uber-wealthy and 2) satisfy the neocons in the inside clamoring to assert American authority abroad unilaterally in the Middle East to secure Israel, is awfully hard to dispute. My fellow Americans, we've been duped and played for fools! And, if the most recent midterm elections were any indication, we know it and (allow me my brief moment of optimism, here) won't take it anymore!
          Notes: hardcover, 1st edition
          Rating: 5.5/10 - Staunch Bush supporters (are there any rational ones left at this point?) are gonna hatehateHATE it from the get-go, and those already convinced will find their eyes drooping, but if you're at all unsure of what has happened in the United States since the dawn of the 21st century, read this book and be enlightened.

Sacks, Oliver. The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat and Other Clinical Tales. 1985. New York: Touchstone, 2006.
          Summary: Eminent neurologist Dr. Oliver Sacks recounts over twenty case studies of patients suffering from some truly bizarre perceptual and intellectual defects.
          Comments: Though this classic that was on my high school Psychology teacher's list of recommended reading, I had never even picked a copy up until just the other day when I saw an attractive hardcover edition on the Borders bargain bookshelf. Needless to say, this book, filled with medical, neurological, and psychological jargon, is not light reading, and I was deeply irritated to note that Sacks often referenced cases that he would not cover until a much later chapter. Nevertheless, a casual reader will still find it accessible and wholly relevant even two decades later, and the stories are instantly captivating. (Now I know where the creators of House got some of their material--most notably the elderly woman with neurosyphilis who finds her sexual desires reawakened.) I particularly enjoyed the explication of proprioception (body-sense) and of the idiot savant twins' mathematical genius for they delve deeply and speculatively into the parts of our consciousness that we rarely stop to consider.
          However, I emphatically DID NOT enjoy Sacks' taste for moralizing spirituality. I'm not, for example, interested in hearing about how some--but not all--mentally handicapped patients have become "de-souled." A neurologist indirectly positing an anatomical/physiological site for the soul? And whenever there's anything he can't explain, we must fall back on supernatural epistemologies? Oh, as if! (Pardon me while I roll my eyes.) While he may think it humanizes his writing, all it does for me is undermine his authority as an expert in his field. Besides, his judgment in these sorts of manners is utterly tasteless; there is the recurring implication throughout the book that those patients who are still spiritual beings are somehow better in an absolute sense than those who are wholly unconscious of their plight and not suffering. He even takes the time to distinguish between to different men with the same ailment! I'm sorry, but it is not Sacks' place as a doctor to make these sorts of judgments. Leave the metaphysical to the clergy, okay?
          Notes: hardcover, special sales edition, 1st printing; originally published in 1970
          Rating: 7/10 - Infuriating intrusions of religion in what is ostensibly a book about psychology aside, you'll find no better introduction to the human brain's bio-mechanical complexities, wonders, and mysteries.

Spark, Muriel. The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, The Girls of Slender Means, The Driver's Seat, The Only Problem: Four Novels. New York: Everyman's Library, 2004.
-The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie- (1961)
          Summary: Unorthodox girl's school teacher "in her prime" Miss Jean Brodie cultivates a special "set" of girls that she hopes to make extraordinary. Ultimately, however, she is betrayed by Sandy, one of her set, and the school uses her Fascist leanings in order to justify firing her.
          Comments: A deftly-crafted novel so understated in substance and style that it failed to leave much of an impression. Still, Miss Brodie's ambitions are compelling even as they become ethically troublesome; she believes that she has omnipotent control over her "set" and even hopes that one of them will become a proxy of sorts to net the married man that she cannot have. And, then, of course, there's the fascism. She's obviously a proponent of the "superman" (superwoman!) theory of human social development, and, as it turns out, a girl dies because she encourages her to act on incendiary politics. It's at this revelation that Sandy feels justified in betraying Miss Brodie, yet what fame she achieves later in life is due to the teacher.
          All of this is told almost in Homeric oral style, with character traits repeated over and over, and some passages repeated verbatim. Chronology is also fluid, and the story has a meter as opposed to a timeline. The effect, theoretically, is to make these rather humble happenings a classical, epic quality that impresses their gravity on the reader--but I found myself unmoved.
-The Girls of Slender Means- (1963)
          Summary: The May of Teck Club for girls of slender means seems an oasis of culture and femininity in the wake of WWII, but it's an illusion that cannot stand up to tragedy when an unexploded bomb suddenly wreaks destruction on the Club. After wannabe anarchist Nicholas witnesses his lover Selina steal a dress that the girls share in the chaos and the elocution mistress sacrifice her life for the others, he goes to Haiti on a religious mission and is killed.
          Comments: To be perfectly honest, I'm not a big fan of these seemingly mannered novels; they just don't speak to me, even when the characters are, as in this case, actually acutely impoverished. Indeed, the intention of the story is to show that, even within a seemingly frivolous girls' world, there are both profound heartlessness and heroism standing side-by-side. Aspiring intellectual and weight-watcher Jane is the most memorable bit, though, and as this sort of character she seems to exist in the book mostly for her own sake for the most part. However, like those of Sandy in The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, her conversations with other characters after the fact provide the framing. Only for people who like reading about women who seem to have lots of time on their hands and have lots of time on their hands themselves.
-The Driver's Seat- (1970)
          Summary: Lise goes south for a vacation, looking for the right man--to kill her. She actually meets the right one, previously convicted for attempted murder, on the plane, but he avoids her, and she is left to explore the city with an elderly woman who turns out to be his aunt before finally confronting him and convincing him to do the deed according to her specifications.
          Comments: Again, the omniscient narrator of this short novel plays with chronology; as Lise lives out her last day alive, the story at times pauses to interject how brief encounters become the subject of police scrutiny. Which is ironic, given that we never learn exactly why she wants to die or, for that matter, even what her nationality is! Am I missing something somewhere? Does this novel even have a reason for existing in the first place?
          I was less pleased by the implications, however--that women brutally raped and stabbed to death late at night in parks are literally asking for it. Good grief. What kind of message is THAT supposed to be? The first thing we see her doing is buying appropriately zanny clothing! Given the ambiguous tone, I'm not even certain anything is supposed to be taken in seriousness or not. But, even as satire, it fails abysmally to hit the right chord with me.
-The Only Problem- (1984)
          Summary: The wealthy Harvey Gotham, obsessed with the Book of Job and the "only problem" of why God makes bad things happen to good people has a disagreement with his wife, who leaves him, and shacks up with his sister-in-law Ruth and hiw wife's daughter by another man, Clara. And then he is thrust into the limelight when he finds out that Effie is allegedly involved in a terrorist organization that has murdered a police officer. Indeed she was, she dies in a shoot-out, and then Harvey moves on with his life and lives happily ever after.
          Comments: Color me unimpressed for a fourth time. Stylistically speaking, this novel couldn't be more different from Spark's previous endeavors; the prose here is straightforward and unadorned and the chronology linear. While there are different points of view presented throughout, they are not crucial to the understanding of the story. Most of the substance involves the rather unusual but ultimately banal interpersonal relationships of the main characters. And, naturally, Harvey's life and that of Job's in the Bible are meant to mirror each other, but no solutions to "the only problem" are forthcoming. What a waste of time. It wasn't even bad enough for me to genuinely hate it.
          Notes: hardcover, Everyman's Library US edition
          Rating: 4.5, 4, 3, 5/10 - Obviously, there are a lot of people out there who believe that Muriel Spark is an amazing writer who deserves to go down in history as one of the greatest...but I'm not one of them.

Stephenson, Neal. Snow Crash. 1992. New York: Bantam Spectra, 1993.
          Summary: Hacker Hiro Protagonist, along with his newfound partner, the Kourier Y.T., stops a dastardly rich guy from spreading a virus that makes people vulnerable to mind control. Along the way, they must outsmart the Aleut harpooner Raven, who wants revenge on the United States.
          Comments: Well, well, well. Finally, a writer who does cyberpunk better than William Gibson!!! And why, you ask, is Neal Stephenson better than William Gibson? Three words: HE IS FUNNY. Things like the Deliverator (think pizza delivery guy + Blade Runner) and the Rat Things (supersonic android dogs) made what would otherwise have been a self-indulgent, bloated, adolescent male wish-fulfillment edition of The Da Vinci Code tolerable.
          'Cause, to be perfectly honest, there was a lot to dislike about this novel. The whole conflation of linguistics, Judeo-Christian tradition, and computer programming essentially makes hackers, at least if you take Stephenson at face value, the modern-day equivalent of the Messiah. Oh, PLEASE. In my world, at least, hacking is fundamentally DESTRUCTIVE behavior. I think the author is mixing up hackers with programmers. But regardless, I think their importance has been greatly exaggerated, and nuking a couple of million of their brains is not going to lead to the downfall of society as we know it.
          I was also not thrilled with the racial and ethnic stereotypes. Pretty much every culture the average American male who came of age during the Baby Boom thinks is cool is represented with stereotypical, even fetishistic, detail--black (hip-hop), Japanese (technocracy and samurai), Italian Mafia (The Godfather, baby), Eskimo (Me versus the SEA!). Yet whitebread America and Europe is nowhere in sight, save maybe for Y.T.'s mother. Despite the reconciliation of sorts that occurs between Hiro and Raven at the very end of the novel, I found myself horrified and repulsed over and over and over again. For, while much here is satirical, bigotry is only guilt-free entertainment for bigots--and guilt was not ever the point here. "Coolness" was. Reminds me of the blonde-haired, blue-eyed classmate who insisted that she is Cherokee. Puh-leeze. One of the criteria for membership in a minority group is that it is imposed, not chosen. Sorry, but this novel's world is fantasy, and the fantasy is offensive. A real Eskimo's life--heck, a real inner-city black man's life--is a hell of a lot less glamorous.
          Still, we've got an impressively prescient work of science fiction on our hands. A lot of the framework of the world, particularly the politics, still rings very true fifteen years later. Interestingly, William Gibson's Pattern Recognition is Snow Crash lite with all of its discussions of the viral spread of information, but Gibson was just writing about the present. Stephenson instead connects the supposedly arcane ancient past with the present/near-future. Humans were living robots once until the Hebrews saved us, and we can be again the government-corporate alliance has their way. Ohhhhkay. Sure, neurolinguistic hacking's never going to happen, and the Metaverse probably won't, either (there's a lot more to workable VR than just an IMAX helmet), but within the context of the story itself, it all weaves together seamlessly into a tapestry that's pretty fun to contemplate.
          Notes: mass market paperback, 4th printing, out of print; trade paperback edition available
          Rating: 6.5/10 - Lots of action, lots of talking heads, and lots of pure entertainment. As long as you remember not to take the scenery too seriously, the ride is plenty worth it.

*originally posted on caseybrienza
About this Entry
Rose
Jan. 1st, 2007 @ 02:08 am Comics Reviews from December 2006*
Kim, MiKyung. 11th Cat. Vol. 2. Trans. SukHee Ryu and Audra Furuichi. Seoul: ICE Kunion, 2006.
          Summary: Rika's shadowed past is revealed with the discovery that her memory of her father, the great wizard Arthur, has been erased. However, a book that she has found by chance in the dark prince's library turns out to be the key to her intended inheritance. Along with her "Uncle" and Nomi, she soon finds herself sucked into the world of the book, but that world has already been corrupted by the Sword Master of Black Iron...
          Comments: I have been interested in this title since seeing it on the shelves in Korea (and being given some free merchandise), but my experience with the first ICE Kunion volume was decidedly less than enticing. Really cute art, totally blah story. You know the drill. Still, I decided to give this apparent Harry Potter and Chobits crossover another chance...and, to my utter shock, it got at least 100% better. An intriguing series of mysteries involving multiple characters and a little bit of angst to bellie the cuteness make all the difference in the world, I suppose. Unfortunately, given this series' meager volume count, I worry that any momentum the storyline has built up in the second volume is sure to fizzle out quickly. (This problem, perhaps due to a lack of editorial control to rein in the ADHD excesses of the manhwaga, plagues a wealth of manhwa titles.) Nonetheless, it's redeemed itself for now, and I will continue reading to see what transpires.
          Notes: A5 paperback, 1st American edition, 1st printing; first published in Korea in 2003
          Rating: 5/10 - Moe artwork a la CLAMP and Koge Donbo of the highest caliber is sure to attract a crossover male audience to what is not otherwise a particularly sunjeong OR sonyeon storyline.

Miura, Kentaro. Berserk. Vol. 13. Trans. Duane Johnson. Milwaukie: Dark Horse Manga and Digital Manga Publishing, 2006.
          Summary: One by one, the members of the Band of the Hawk are devoured by demons, and a helpless Guts is forced to watch as a Griffith, now resurrected as the fifth member of the Godhand, rapes Casca. But before the two can be destroyed utterly, the Skull Knight rescues them. Guts awakens to discover that Casca, traumatized, has reverted to an infantile state and that he has been marked for sacrifice.
          Comments: Holy eroguro rape scene!!! Man, they just don't do those like they used to, now do they? (You may think that the ginorme censorship sticker pasted smack on the middle of the cover is just annoying and silly, but let me assure you that, this time, we've got a beautiful example of truth in advertising on our hands here.) And, yes, we've got every standard eromanga angle represented. However, lest you worry yourself that this is merely another case of beautiful woman being exploited by gross beasties for the sole benefit of a vast contingent of oversexed but frustrated misanthropic male readers, I will also assure you that the scene is pivotal plot material AND has tremendous emotional weight. Unlike the works of Maeda Toshio, that often combine eroguro with tasteless levity (as if humor deflects the social trespass of drawing a young girl being raped by a monster), Miura's Berserk boasts a scene that is a RAPE scene first and foremost--Guts literally saws off his own arm trying to save Casca, and the otherwise strong-willed Casca's in a permanent state of nervous breakdown afterwards--and it underlines the magnitude of Griffith's transformation into Evil Incarnate and betrayal of his friends. Should the reader dare get his rocks off, he's confronted with the enormity of the deed depicted two chapters later.
          And, of course, Griffith/Femto stares Guts down the entire time he's doing it. (Cue the sound of yaoi fans drooling.) Talk about hero, villain, and girl caught in the middle! Normally, the hero and the villain fight over the girl, but, in this case, the villain wants the hero for himself (whether sexually or platonically is immaterial--so use your imagination). All throughout the series, the girl worships the villain; he only starts wanting her when she takes the hero's primary loyalty/devotion away from him. Rant all you like about stereotypical "homosexual threats," but this sort of plot framework is quite daring and unusual for a seinen manga series.
          Notes: B6 paperback, 1st American edition, 1st printing; first published in Japan in 1997
          Rating: 8.5/10 - The conclusion to the Eclipse story arc. Stunning and simply NOT to be missed.

Miura, Kentaro. Berserk. Vol. 14. Trans. Duane Johnson. Milwaukie: Dark Horse Manga and Digital Manga Publishing, 2006.
          Summary: Now wielding a sword capable of slaying dragons in one hand and a cannon embedded in the artificial one, Guts heads off to seek vengeance. In his travels he rescues a young girl whose village, as it turns out, is plagued by evil elves who have been kidnapping children. Also includes an early one-shot submission created during Miura's college years.
          Comments: And now, after the extended flashback of the Golden Age arc, we're back to where the much earlier Black Swordsman arc left off...and plodding right along with your standard manga plot filler. Three battles, one damsel in lots of distress, and no real story development. Oh yeah, except Guts levels up his equipment. *rolls eyes* Which hardly counts.
          Perhaps the most interesting aspect of this volume is the prototype story at the end. Though the artwork is perhaps a bit less assured (or just more sketchy in its execution and style) and the mythology more primitive (instead of the complexities of the Godhand and the Idea of Evil, there's some evil God named "Vuana"), even at this early a stage, most of the key components to the series are already in place. Oddly enough, the weakest point of the entire chapter is the appearance of Guts himself. I'm glad he loses the eye patch since he's a warrior, not a pirate, but that non-stop pout is absolutely and unintentionally hilarious--and TOTALLY wrong for an otherwise deadly serious story. Puck is more than enough comic relief. Too much, in fact. One of the reasons I liked the Golden Age arc so much was because Puck WASN'T in it! Annoying little flying pest...
          Notes: B6 paperback, 1st American edition, 1st printing; first published in Japan in 1997
          Rating: 5/10 - This volume sure as heck ain't gonna win over new fans on its own merit, but, fortunately, the series is a lot more than the sum of its parts.

Ha, SiHyun. Comic. Vol. 1. Trans. HyeYoung Im, J. Torres and Eric Kim. Seoul: ICE Kunion, 2006.
          Summary: High school student Alice Song has won third place in Cake Magazine's contest, which means that she's gonna have the chance to reunite with her beloved junior high teacher who has since become an editor at Sigongsa...and meet a popular sonyeon manhwa creator who turns out to be her age. Sparks fly and personalities clash with the charismatic but incorrigible Patrick Kang--is it to be hate or love?
          Comments: Not bad all around, all things considered. Ha Shi-hyeon's artwork is heavily influenced by that of Won Su-yeon (and an obvious homage to her appears early on in the story to give a short speech at the Cake contest award ceremony), but this is the Won Su-yeon of Full House, not Let Dai. So don't expect anything radical; we've got your standard sunjeong manhwa plot with a spunky heroine, the (older) man she loves but is never ever going to have, and her destined prince who, at the outset, is ready to make her life miserable. It's one saving grace is its insight into the Korean manhwa publishing industry, an unusual, if narcissistic, staging ground. I'm definitely going to keep following this series for now, if only to see if it ever goes anywhere.
          Notes: A5 paperback, 1st American edition, 1st printing; first published in Korea in 2001
          Rating: 5/10 - A solid sunjeong title that offers both standard romantic wish-fulfillment and a glimpse into Korean manhwa creation.

Doha. The Great Catsby. Vol. 1. Trans. Soyoung Jung. Jersey City: NETCOMICS, 2006.
          Summary: Loser catboy Catsby has just lost Persu, the love of his life, to an older cat. He is despondent, but his dog friend Houndu tries to cheer him up, and Catsby attempts to rebound by registering with a matchmaker--who pairs him with a surprisingly nice catgirl.
          Comments: For those of you who have noticed that this webcomic turned graphic novel series has been winning awards and recognition, first in Korea and now the US, a caveat: THIS IS NOT MANHWA. Presuming, of course, that you define "manhwa" as the Korean version of that distinctive set of visual narrative language and conventions developed in Japan that the layperson calls "manga." So if, like mine, you're shtick is "manga" and not avant garde comic books usually shelved in bookstores under the catch-all "graphic novel" category, you're going to be surprised and possibly annoyed. Doha has developed--or, rather, translated--a visual narrative language more common to film (if you're a Miyazaki fan, the languid pace, bright colors, and visceral charisma of the characters' expression will feel slavishly derivative hauntingly familiar)--and reduced it to a series of novel layouts of frames panels.
          In fact, the story would've done better as an animation...except THERE IS NO STORY TO SPEAK OF. Or, rather, there is, but it's heedlessly nihilistic and approaching moronic: Guy loves girl. Guy loses girl to older guy. Guy finds out his best friend has been sleeping with girl the entire time. Guy dumps new girlfriend and takes back now-pregnant (by best friend) girl, anyway. Plus gratuitous fanservice in the form of a cat with balloon breasts. Atmospheric, maybe, but wholly meaningless. Unless you're along for the predictably human emotional rollercoaster ride. *yawns* Oh, and I just spoiled you for the entire series. Deal with it. As you can see, it has absolutely NOTHING to do with the F. Scott Fitzgerald classic whose title it puns...save the pun in the title. Rather, it's in the "I'm a loser male who hasn't grown up even though I'm an adult hear me roar!" tradition. Fun, fun, fun. Doha needs to stop trying and start illustrating other peoples' scripts.
          And, to make matters even worse, the NETCOMICS translation is a veritable trainwreck. When it comes to Asian languages with such fundamentally different syntaxes and narrative conventions like Japanese and Korean, a literal translation, which is, lamentably what this series has (if we use our terminology generously), is no translation at all. The story's nuance, aural personality--and even actual meaning in a bunch of really irritating places--is lost entirely in unforgivably sloppy adaptation--and the casual American reader won't even know it because the narrative is obscure in the first place! For the mindless entertainment that most manga is, this sort of sloppiness is not so much of a tragedy, but when the creator aspired to highly-controlled Art(tm), the effect is like spraypainting graffiti over the Mona Lisa. Suffice it to say that when it comes to production incompetence, I could point a number of very specific fingers, but I will refrain from doing so. (Nice people, wrong line of work. You know the drill.)
          Anyway, for godssakes, don't run out and BUY this unfortunate release. The first volume retails for $17.99, and subsequent volumes get more bloated and significantly more expensive. It's available free online at the NETCOMICS site, so if you're sure you can't live without it, read it there and save your hard-earned money for some other truly great storyline that has been blessed with an equally great adaptation. There are a ton of choices out there. Take your pick.
          Notes: ~A5 paperback, 1st US edition, 1st printing; first published in Korea in 2005
          Rating: 3.5/10 - The most overrated comic you've never heard of by a young artist who strives for profundity but lacks the life experience to achieve little more than banal obscurity.

Amano, Shiro. Kingdom Hearts: The Complete Series. Los Angeles: TOKYOPOP, 2006.
          Summary: The young Sora and his friends Riku and Kairi plan to sail away from their island home in search of adventure, but they are suddenly separated under mysterious circumstances, and Sora is determined to reunite with them. Unfortunately, destiny gets in the way--our hero receives the magical Keyblade and is enjoined, accompanied by Donald and Goofy, who are searching for King Mickey, to save the various kingdoms of their universe from the destructive Heartless. He does just that, and along the way discovers that Kairi has lost her heart, Riku has gone over to the dark side, and that the creator of the Heartless Ansem has taken over Riku's body. Of course, Sora defeats Ansem and saves Kairi, but now he must continue his quest to locate the redeemed Riku and the still-missing King Mickey.
          Comments: Okay, confession time. I haven't played videogames since I was a teenager, and I think I probably had my peak around the fourth grade. However, I've always loved video RPGs, particularly the Final Fantasy franchise. So, even though game-spinoff manga don't generally merit a second glance as far as I'm concerned, I made an exception for Kingdom Hearts...and I'll start by saying this: I would've LOVED it back in the fourth grade!
          Now, some cultural purists MIGHT think perhaps that anything by Squaresoft crossed with anything by Disney is a sure recipe for disaster, but I was really amazed by how readily the two styles blend together...perhaps because this sort of animation-inspired artwork requires a fundamental suspension of disbelief, anyway. Amano Shiro deftly captures the stylistic elements of both as the heroes jump from world to world and relive most of the major Disney animated classics in recent memory while advancing an overarching plot that boasts themes universal to the Squaresoft FF franchise (the betrayal of a "brother," the super-special, magical heroine in distress, the ally who turns out to be an enemy, etc.). Believe it or not, it works. Really well. Never mind that the gimmick is waaaay more interesting than the story itself.
          I don't know how true to the original game this is, but at times the subplots seemed a bit stiff, arbitrary, and lifeless. Still, I nevertheless enjoyed the reinterpretations of longtime favorites such as Aladdin, The Little Mermaid, Alice in Wonderland, and Peter Pan, almost in spite of myself. Thankfully, the translation (uncredited) is readable and believable and effectively captures the distinctive, Disney-fied voices of the company's most famous characters--the manga would've been unbearable otherwise.
          But, lamentably, TOKYOPOP did not stay true to the high production values that graced the Enterbrain Japanese editions; the slipcase is a flimsy, card-stock joke, and Kingdom Hearts is the only manga series I can think of off-hand whose US editions are cheaper than the originals...and I don't personally think it does anybody any favors. The paper quality is a tragedy, and the lovely wrap-around covers merely taunt me with what could have been. I would've have loved to see the color pages left intact, particularly for the fourth volume's Winnie the Pooh side story, dammit!
          Notes: four ~B6 paperbacks in cardboard slipcase, later printings; first published in Japan from 2003 to 2005
          Rating: 5/10 - Good, (relatively) clean fun for kids that adults, if they're so inclined, can enjoy, too. You know...just like Disney movies and some videogames.

Tsuchiya, Garon and Minegishi Nobuaki. Old Boy. Vol. 3. Trans. Kumar Sivasubramanian. Milwaukie: Dark Horse Manga, 2006.
          Summary: The enemy proves that he knows of Goro's girlfriend. Goro, refusing to be manipulated, tosses away the cell phone he received and visits a Yakuza-run boxing gym in order to find Saijo, the thug who took the money from the man who wanted Goro locked up. To dissuade him from making friends with mobsters, however, Goro's enemy sends him a woman who leads him to Saijo, who proves not to know anything. Fortunately, the woman has information, and Goro fucks it out of her--he must remember his teen years.
          Comments: I've wanted to read the manga since I saw Park Chan-Wook's award-winning, cinematic adaptation back in 2004. Unfortunately, it was out of print at the time, and I was thrilled when I heard that Dark Horse had licensed the manga and couldn't wait to read it. Alas, I'm starting to think that I'm wasting my time. *sighs* For the first two volumes, it was ALMOST worth it as I saw shots from the film mirrored in the frames of the manga, but by the third volume we've pretty much given up on original and intriguing and instead fallen back on those tried and true seinen manga cliches. Goro, who has never boxed in his life, knocks out a professional boxer solely on the strength of his TV-watching. Oh, give me a break. It's every couch potato's fantasy AND the sort of "hands-on experience not required," moronic ideation that one often encounters in tournament manga when the mangaka can't think of a better explanation for the protagonist's victory. And THEN we have the femme fatale that the protagonist must screw in order to advance to the next stage. This sort of thing started in genkiga manga, but I can see how it evolved into the dating sim craze. *double sigh*
          Since I'm nearly halfway through the series, I'll probably finish it off--if only to compare it to the film--but for those who haven't started, I'd advise you not to. Stick with the film, and you'll get unforgettable, disturbing beauty instead of the sort of trash that gets recycled into toilet paper. It was out of print for a reason, you know. In fact, it all just makes me respect Park Chan-Wook even more...that he did THAT with THIS...?! Amazing.
          Notes: B6 paperback, 1st American edition, 1st printing; first published in Japan in 1997
          Rating: 4.5/10 - The film was art. The manga is trash hardly worth the paper it was printed on.

Neculai, A. and O. Laila, eds. Rush: Issue #00. DramaQueen, 2006.
          Summary: This pilot volume of the bimonthly anthology features the introductory chapters of four all-new (non-schooldays romance) BL serials: "Night and Day" by Akira Atsushi, "Children of Bones" by Theresa Zysk, "Master!" by Lara Yokoshima, and "Roulette" by Tina Anderson and Laura "Zel" Carboni.
          Comments: My first thought, after pulling this book from the mailing envelope, was DOUJINSHI! Yes indeedy, it looks, despite the ISBN, way more like a doujinshi than a graphic novel, tankoubon, or manga zasshi, and there's a diamond-in-the-rough quality to it as well that screams independent publication. Talent to burn, sloppy editing, and all that. (Tran, I've got great respect for you and and DramaQueen, but if stuff like "affraid" gets through, proofreading just isn't your destined line of work.) Actually, despite the fact that one is BL and the other yuri, Rush bears remarkable similarity to the Yuri Monogatari anthologies.
          As for the contents themselves, well, it's a mixed bag. Akira Atsushi's artwork is gritty and gorgeously realistic and reminds me of Stay Tasuko...but it's all wrong for a lighthearted BL version of Yamatonadeshiko Shichihenge. Sorry, but THAT *points to Jin* is just not a convincing otaku. Still, like the premise. ^_^ Laura Carboni's artwork is likewise quite lovely and by far the most individual of any of the artists represented in the anthology, but for now I'm reserving judgment on "Roulette" because, while the characters definitely have style to burn, Tina Anderson's story hasn't really taken them anywhere yet to focus my interest on more than angsty Mafia eyecandy. My least favorite story, far and away, was "Master!" I'm glad that Lara Yokoshima likes man-dogs a la Inu mo Arukeba, Japanese onmyouji, and other assorted popular manga subjects (me too), but inserting them all into the same 48-page serial and randomly shuffling the deck just doesn't win points in my book--and I don't care how "authentically" Japanese your artwork looks. However, far and away my favorite story was, surprisingly, the story I read last: Theresa Zysk's "Children of Bones." Though her artwork is the least visually stunning (and has that "I draw yaoi doujinshi" look to it...umm, Hikaru no Go!/Fullmetal Alchemist fan...?), her story was quite delightful. An intriguing but not overly oblique paramilitary takeover backdrop and a quick but unsentimental introduction to the boys-in-question. Substantial enough to be satisfying but open-ended enough to whet my appetite. This is the story that, for now, is going to make me want to come back to the Rush anthologies. However, I think both "Night and Day" and "Roulette" may yet prove to be most entertaining as well, so, for now, I'm going to play the eternal optimist and wait patiently for more.
          Notes: A5 paperback, 1st edition, 1st printing
          Rating: 5/10 - Though this seems to be a promising anthology series, if you're not a die-hard BL fan (in which case of course you probably already have it), I'd wait for a few more issues to come out and see how things develop before buying up and/or subscribing.

Friedman, Erica, ed. Yuri Monogatari. Vol. 4. ALC Publishing, 2006.
          Summary: An anthology of nine yuri-themed one-shots and short strips by writers and artists from around the world.
          Comments: Though of course one must always expect a multi-author, small press anthology to boast contents that differ widely in quality, the sheer variation of this book on every level is absolutely dizzying. At its absolute worst, we have virtually meaningless (unless you think cute art is meaning enough) shorts like "Ichigo Hime" by Akiko Morishima that aren't worth even the minimal number of pages they consume in the anthology and interesting vignettes like "Tales of Destruction" by Beth Malone that are wholly done in by clumsy art and page layouts. Then there are the stories that evince tremendous--and most likely youthful--enthusiasm but are amateur in every respect and whose creators would never have been given the time of day elsewhere at another publisher. Right in the middle of it all, literally and figuratively, is "Cog" by Althea Keaton, retreading the overworn Android as Metaphor for Oppressed Minority Group dystopian sci-fi story. Neither her artwork nor her storyline truly match the initial ambition of the theme, but at least she hits upon an emotionally poignant moment when her human character cannot overcome her prejudices. Of quality, but likely to be underappreciated by American audiences, are the collection of four-panel slice-of-life strips by Rica Takashima. A technique and aesthetic made famous in Japan by Machiko Hasegawa's Sazae-san, it has no equivalent in the US and is often regarded as overly insipid.
          And finally, there are "Kissing the Petals" by Tomomi Nakasora and "Happiness" by Kristina K. Yuri fans already know that the Yuri Monogatari series is a must-have on their own bookshelves, but these two stories make this volume worth checking out to any comic and/or manga connoisseurs. Nakasora gives her ladies manga a stylish lesbian flair and a graceful, traditionally Japanese undertone of unspoken tragedy. Meanwhile, Kristina K., an under-recognized talent anchoring the anthology series since at least the second volume, returns with a ghost story tinged with elegant magic realism that reminds me surprisingly of avant-garde mangaka Yuko Tsuno. (If you don't know who SHE is, check her out, too.) Both of these stories are well-worth the price of entry to any highbrow reader and are the sort of thing we in the US would never in a million years have had the chance to see if it weren't for ALC Publishing.
          Overall, though, I feel that Yuri Monogatari continues to lack genuine coherency. The self-proclaimed yuri theme just isn't enough! Quality and style, in particular, vary far too much. (Even the quality of the image reproduction seems to differ at random spots, with some pages clear and others pixelated. What the...?!) Stories like "Bittersweet Melody" just do not belong in the same book as stories like "More Rica 'tte Kanji!?"...and in the end the admixture does everyone a huge disservice. First of all, the painful inexperience of some creators unfairly reflects negatively on all. But even more importantly, are the manga fans who read stuff like Happy Mania going to read Crayon Shin-chan, too? Probably not. Moreover, the anthology at times tries to bridge the gap between Japanese manga and indie Western comics--which I think is an attempt that is destined to be DOA for the foreseeable future. So why do we assume those interested in yuri to be more monolithic? Any who try browsing the book (which came to me shrink-wrapped, but we all know how long that DOESN'T last in bookstores) aren't going to to be able to see what might appeal to them amidst all the stuff that obviously doesn't. The anthology paradoxically excludes new readership by casting its net too widely.
          Notes: A5 paperback, 1st edition, 1st printing
          Rating: 5.5/10 - A couple of luminaries here are sure to wow the discriminating reader, and this is indeed their best yet, but we've yet to see all the yuri genre--or ALC Publishing--has to offer.

*originally posted on caseybrienza
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Rose
Dec. 1st, 2006 @ 11:32 pm Book Reviews from November 2006
Brown, Rita Mae. Rubyfruit Jungle. 1973. New York: Bantam, 1977.
          Summary: Adopted daughter of an impoverished, conservative Pennsylvania family that relocates to Florida, Molly Bolt is a independent-minded, intelligent young person who soon discovers that she is attracted to women. Estranged from her family, determined to make her own way, and refusing to be tied down to any one man OR woman, she forges a path for herself through high school, college in Gainsville, and part-time film school/full-time employment--only to discover that a glass ceiling will prevent her from advancing in the film industry.
          Comments: Why is lesbian fiction so preoccupied with headstrong, working-class tomboys? The novel struck me as a kind of Bastard Out of Carolina lite...but then, it's is quite a bit earlier, so maybe Rita Mae Brown's the one who started it all. To be honest, I've never been much of a fan of memoirs or semi-autobiographical novels, and gay/lesbian literature literally overflows with the stuff BECAUSE it helps to both legitimize and homogenize the subculture (or the "homosexual experience," if we must be strictly PC).
          Still, I wish Brown could've kept some of the inevitable excesses of self-representation (read: self-idealization) in check. Molly is the victimized intellectual and only female character in the novel who doesn't sell out in some way or another...and everything thinks she's irresistibly gorgeous to boot! Moreover, she believes monogamy and marriage are inherently retrogressive, which as far as I'm concerned is mere dated, hippie-era bullshit, not progressive, liberal politics. Meanwhile, despite her desire to make her own way to the top, she loses all respect from me for all the borderline date-raping that she indulges in. I thought her simultaneous fling with Polina AND Polina's underaged daughter was especially reprehensible.
          Nonetheless, the novel is an entertaining, easy read with at least a little to recommend for it, even if, like me, you read it somewhat oppositionally. Some of the antics of Molly and her friends are hilarious--I loved the bit about how they brought in onions so that they could cry along with their classics teacher. What a great idea! Wish I'd had the opportunity to try something like that. But, overall, this novel struck me as terribly overrated, a classic not for its literary merit per se but for the way it so stridently reinforces the alleged moral superiority of its out lesbian readership.
          Notes: mass market paperback, 38th printing
          Rating: 5/10 - Though it is rightly required reading for anyone interested in GBLT fiction, don't expect it to be love at first sight unless you already agree with the author's worldview.

Frankfurt, Harry G. On Bullshit. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2005.
          Summary: Philosopher Harry G. Frankfurt develops a theory for bullshit--what it is, what purpose it serves, and, most importantly of all, what it really means to use it in lieu of lying.
          Comments: Those who don't know any better believe that liberal academics are the biggest bullshit artists of all. Enter Harry G. Frankfurt to prove them all wrong. This tersely-written little treatise reads like the academically-rigorous version of Colbert's "truthiness." Whereas the former is all about falsities that perhaps are not even known to be false tailored specifically to reinforce the speaker's unrealistic worldview, Frankfurt's "bullshit" is all about someone who believe that truth is wholly unknowable but continues to make assertive statements anyway. However, he notes that total despair that there can ever be a reliable source of objective reality leads to a particularly disturbing sort of bullshit: "Rather than seeking primarily to arrive at accurate representations of a common world, the individual turns toward trying to provide honest representations of himself. Convinced that reality has no inherent nature, which he might hope to identify as the truth about things, he devotes himself to being true to his own nature. It is as though he decides that since it makes no sense to try to be true to the facts, he must therefore try instead to be true to himself (65-66)." Sure sounds like a variation of Bush's "Trust me; I'm the decider" proclamations to me.
          Though Frankfurt shies away from suggesting that there is more bullshit now than in the past, I believe that such a position is quite arguable. Paradoxically, the more scientists learn about the material world, the less the layperson understands. Yet the layperson must somehow cope with those scientific breakthroughs every day whenever he turns on his car, goes to the doctor, or reads the newspaper. The more there is to know about the world and how it works, the less a person is going to have the time or the means to learn it all. Moreover, ideas change so rapidly and technology develops so quickly. The world feels unknowable, so we bullshit instead. Windows XP or Windows Infinity, we're still the same essential person, right? Wouldn't you rather believe in the essential immutablity of a person? Umm...sorry. But no. (Too bad a lot of other people don't reach the same conclusion. Dude, some things are NOT a matter of opinion!) And here, irrational politics be born.
          Notes: hardcover, 1st edition, 9th printing
          Rating: 6/10 - A lightning-fast, accessible read that should have its readers stopping to think for at least a few minutes after the book is put away. I'm amazed that it's sold so well (never mind the eye-catching title), but perhaps it was just the right historical moment.

Frankfurt, Harry G. On Truth. New York: Knopf, 2006.
          Summary: Philosopher Harry G. Frankfurt defends his position with regards to the importance of truth first mentioned in his previously published essay, On Bullshit. Though primarily defending truth on utilitarian grounds, Frankfurt also suggests that it is integral to our notion of selfhood.
          Comments: Though the pseudo-metallic gold binding is quite eye-catching, don't expect any glamorous The Matrix-like ruminations on the possibility of absolute knowledge or how to go about finding it. Harry G. Frankfurt, famous overnight for his provocatively titled On Bullshit, thinks that sort of line of intellectual inquiry is, pun intended, pure bullshit and a waste of time. Rather, he argues that the very foundations of society and human relationships are premised on provable examples of the common sense notion of truth, and that anyone (I can just see liberal philosophy minions pointing fingers at the Bush administration here) who denies its importance is a grave threat to society.
          Actually, despite outlying digressions like Shakespearean lying lovers in Chapter VIII or, to a lesser extent, humanity and its self-defining rationality in Chapter V, I liked this essay even more than its prequel. There are no swear-word-in-title gimmicks to sell this serious work of philosophy intelligently written to the layperson. This time around, Frankfurt's view of the world is abundantly clear--he has no time whatsoever for relativism or postmodernism, for example. And, while I personally enjoy the whimsy of postmodernism in a literary context, the utter disillusionment with the world that its point of view encourages is not salubrious, and Frankfurt is utterly correct in decrying it. These may be uncertain times, but there are basic things of which we can be sure, and we should not abstain from action just because someone is trying to bullshit or lie to us.
          Notes: hardcover, 1st edition, 1st printing
          Rating: 6.5/10 - A profoundly important and timely essay that reminds us that not everything is a matter of opinion. Thank you for leading the charge.

Greene, Harlan. The German Officer's Boy. Madison: Terrace Books, 2005.
          Summary: Based on true events. In November of 1938, Polish Jew Herschel Grynszpan, desperate to save his family, enters the German embassy in Paris and mistakenly fires on his clandestine lover, the minor Nazi official Ernst vom Rath. The man's death at the hands of a Jew becomes rich grist for the propaganda mill and becomes a proximate cause for the genocide of the Holocaust.
          Comments: Star-crossed romance between a Jewish boy and a Nazi over a decade older on the eve of World War II. In the hands of another writer, this sort of plot could easily descend into the realm of Beyond Bad Taste, but Harlan Greene, the gay son of parents who survived the Holocaust who himself survived the AIDS pandemic that wiped out so many of his peers, manages no worse than drippy melodrama. Fortunately, the characters of Herschel and Ernst themselves are more believable than their idyllic relationship (Who believes in love at first sight, anyway?), and their twin struggles as closeted gay men is far more immediate and poignant than the grim historical realities of that tumultuous time period. Otherwise, everything and everyone else seemed prototypical--even stereotypical--and do not particularly challenge the assumptions of the reader. Ironically, both the Jews and the Nazis agreed on one thing--the homosexuals amongst them were repulsive.
          Greene's writing has matured considerably since the early 90's, and, though this novel bounces between matters of historical record, fictionalized interpolation, and multiple points of view in decidedly unpredictable, unorganized intervals, the narrative does not lag as it did in his earlier What the Dead Remember. Moreover, and far more importantly, the author's project is clear-sighted and well thought-out ahead of time. He does not, as other authors do, merely equate the Holocaust to the AIDS epidemic in some nebulous way; instead, he shows how inextricably prejudice against both Jews and homosexuals were during that period and how tragedy for one group was tragedy for the other. While imprisoned in a concentration camp, Herschel sees two lifelong lovers that had once inspired him to the possibility of true love transformed into living skeletons--if hatred knows no boundaries, then tolerance must be equally magnanimous. Otherwise, we're all hurt in the end.
          Notes: hardcover, 1st edition, 1st printing
          Rating: 5.5/10 - An important bit of recent history remade into a homoerotic melodrama. Admirable in its attempt...but there's probably a bit of wishful thinking involved.

Woolf, Virginia. Orlando: A Biography. 1928. New York: Harcourt, 1973.
          Summary: Though ostensibly a mere thirty-six years old, Orlando has lived over three centuries and changed abruptly from man to woman. In the course of her long life, she travels the world and adjusts to the realities and aspirations of each time period, experimenting and learning about both love and literature.
          Comments: I generally do not research a book prior to reading it unless I have some specific reason for believing that I should do so. In the case of Orlando, rumored to be the most accessible Virginia Woolf novel, none presented themselves. So, imagine my dismay when, intending to read the book as a treatment of gender ambiguity and bisexual desire, I instead found a book more interested in "trans-genre" than transgender, mixing novel genres such as romance and fantasy into a "biographical" frame. Now, I'm not a fan of biographies in general, but what was even worse was that this book was oftentimes barely that; constant digressions about English nobility, the conceits of writers, and specificities of time, place, and era merely bored me and went to show that Woolf was a far better essay writer than she ever was novelist.
          Anyway, lest my impression of the Orlando character forever settle into viewing him/her as a transparent excuse for the "Everyman" (and woman!) that allows the author to address every single semi-related topic that tickles her intellect between the space of two covers, I decided to do some research. Well, turns out (for those of us who didn't know) that Orlando is actually a fictionalized representation of poet Vita Sackville-West, a woman with whom Woolf was infatuated when she wrote the book. Other characters are based upon personages in the life of Sackville-West, as well, most notably Princess Sasha, who was modeled on ex-lover Violet Trefusis. Since homosexual relations at the time of Woolf's life were illegal and persecuted, Orlando's mysterious gender switch (making her male at the time of the affair) was a convenient conceit that allowed the story to be told under a guise of heterosexuality. Which explains in abundance why the implications of gender-switching and any investigation of gender-based stereotypes and assumptions were examined only in a depressingly cursory fashion.
          Common sense tells us that trying to persuade the rest of the world to see a loved one in the same beatific light that we do is doomed to failure, and, sure enough, Orlando does not convince me to care a whit about Vita Sackville-West. Likewise, it's near half a century too late to be your standard roman à clef scandal sheet, and people are more likely to recognize the name of the author than the real name of her subject. Woolf's primary project in writing this book is near-totally lost on modern readers. I therefore argue that this novel does not persist with the luster it once wore.
          Notes: trade paperback, later printing
          Rating: 5/10 - If you know the historical context of its writing, it may prove vaguely intriguing. Otherwise, I hope you love reading about rich nobles with waaaaaay too much time on their hands.
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Rose
Dec. 1st, 2006 @ 11:31 pm Comics Reviews from November 2006
Akamatsu, Ken. Negima! Magister Negi Magi. Vol. 1. Trans. Hajime Honda, Peter David, and Kathleen O'Shea David. New York: Del Rey, 2004.
          Summary: Ten-year-old wizard-in-training Negi Springfield is assigned to teach English at an all-girls' middle school in Japan. Unfortunately, he develops a love-hate relationship with Asuna, one of his students with whom he ends up rooming, right from day one...and she knows his secret!
          Comments: I know I'm probably going to lose what piddly blogging street cred I have, but I must admit that, to my utter shock, I enjoyed reading this manga. In the wake of the global Harry Potter craze, wizard and witch stories have sprouted up in the manga industry like weeds, but you gotta give this series credit for being what it is (fanservice, baby, FANSERVICE) with conviction. A class of 31 girls means more cleavage, panty shots, and shapely legs than you can shake a stick at, yet Akamatsu's artwork is lighthearted, soft, and appealing--and belies its naughtiness with a charmingly innocent exterior. (Negi is especially adorable, and I love Asuna's take-no-prisoners attitude!) Plus, thanks the the standard army of assistants, there's plenty of artistic detail to keep the eye distracted.
          Translation errors in earlier editions aside, the English adaptation here is one of the best that I've ever seen from Del Rey. Which leads me to believe that titles like Negima! are where their hearts are at. (^^; But, hey...could be worse. A lot worse. And, though it breaks no genuinely new ground whatsoever (perhaps in part due to editorial control exerted on the mangaka, who at least hoped to do something besides harems), this sort of stuff never gets old--particularly if you're a fan.
          Notes: ~B6 paperback, 1st edition, 10th printing; first published in Japan in 2003
          Rating: 5.5/10 - Lighthearted, nonstop fanboy fun...but fun is fun, after all, and manga readers who go into this at least a bit open-minded should find SOMETHING to like here.

Ikezawa, Satomi. Guru Guru Pon-Chan. Vol. 2. Trans. Douglas Varenas. New York: Del Rey, 2005.
          Summary: Though Ponta has resolved to give up on Mirai, things don't go quite as she planned. Yuka decides to step aside, and her beloved golden lab and Mirai start dating, much to Ponta's delight, naturally. And much to transfer student Go Fujinaga's horror, who wrongly falls in love with Ponta in human form and believes that Mirai is an asshole who mistreats his dog. After that, Ponta breaks (what they think is) an expensive vase and ends up unknowingly taking a job as a teen prostitute to help Mirai pay for it.
          Comments: Hands down my favorite Del Rey title...and not because of the artist or genre! Which is clichèd mainstream shoujo manga in all respects, naturally. Ponta is the prototypical shoujo protagonist: She's outgoing, unbearably cute, kinda stupid, unswervingly loyal to her friends, and insatiable when it comes to food. What makes her more than just another Miaka from Fushigi Yuugi is that she's also A DOG, and dogs really are just like that. Whether stroke of genius or a mere fluke, Ikezawa Satomi found the perfect way to write yet another dumb shoujo manga in a way that seems fresh and fascinating.
          Not to mention almost unbearably funny. I found myself laughing aloud on numerous occasions; Ponta's run-ins with the pound and a head-sized vase were highlights of the volume. Also, Mirai's recurring concern that dating Ponta is a step in the direction of bestiality had me howling.
          Though cats are popular in manga (catgirls are practically a motif all on their own), not that many mangaka draw dogs, and those that do often get it wrong. Obviously, few mangaka have room to keep dogs as pets, but Ikezawa is an exception to the rule. She has two Labrador Retrievers, and her apparent keen powers of observation when it comes to her own pets means that her depiction of Ponta in dog form is always undeniably spot on, even when taking the cartoony drawing style into consideration. A treat for everyone, Guru Guru Pon-Chan is an especial one for dog lovers. (Of which there are MANY in the United States. What a savvy license!)
          Notes: ~B6 paperback, 1st American edition, 1st printing; first published in Japan in 1998
          Rating: 9/10 - You don't need to be one to enjoy this manga series, but dog lovers are sure to fall head-over-heels in love at first read.

Jeon, JinSeok, and SeungHee Han. One Thousand and One Nights. Vol. 1. Trans. HyeYoung Im and J. Torres. Seoul: ICE Kunion, 2005.
          Summary: Originally titled Cheonil Yahwa. To save the life of his beloved sister Dunya from the bloodthirsty Sultan who is bitter over his wife's betrayal of him, Sehara disguises himself as a woman. Naturally, the Sultan discovers the ruse and has Sehara imprisoned, but from his jail cell, Sehara tells him a story he learned from his studies of the East about a queen who refuses to love...
          Comments: I nearly died when I found out that that manhwa had been licensed; Han Seung-hui draws so much like one of my all-time favorite Japanese mangaka Kunieda Saika/Sakai Kunie, and they both have a taste for homoeroticism in common to boot! Luckily, she's been paired to a skillful writer who fluidly merges the "alien" Arab world with a more familiar (to Korean readers, at least) East Asian one. One Thousand and One Nights is everything I "picture-read" and more--a series boasting gorgeous, atmospheric stories (one per volume) within an ongoing frame story guaranteed to titillate all the BL fangirls out there.
          Profoundly disappointing, however, is what horrors ICE Kunion wreaked on the American release. What the f*ck is up with the graphic design, anyway? Where did the silvery Muslim stylings embroidering the cover art go? And what's with the lurid font used for the title!? (Don't tell me they got the rights to the series but not the cover design...) Even worse, the picture quality of the interior pages is seriously inferior to the Korean originals. It's all too dark; a lot of Han Seung-hui's lovely artistic detail disappears. Why bother with a bigger trim size if the picture quality is gonna be bad, anyway??? (Oh, waitaminute--that was because Kurt Hassler told you your books would stand out better on the shelves that way. Never mind.) At least we have the color pages from the first volume intact combined with a translation that is generally pleasant and readable. Thank goodness for small blessings.
          Notes: A5 paperback, 1st American edition, 1st printing; first published in Korea in 2004
          Rating: 8/10 - Elegant, intelligent, exotic...and sexy. For those who love quality, this is THE ICE Kunion title to watch.

Kim, Young Hee. MASCA. Vol. 1. Trans. Bochan Kim. New York: CPM Manhwa, 2004.
          Summary: Asarella, apprentice to the venerable archmage Eliwho, descends into hell to confront the Devil of Sibilla...and ends up with the Devil head-over-heels in love with her!
          Comments: This Seimaden clone is quite a contradiction in terms; on one hand, it has breathtaking fantasy-laced artwork and heart-stopping bishounen to rival CLAMP classic RG Veda, yet, on the other, it's just another wish-fulfillment "perfecter-than-thou heroine" shoujo manga. Much of the incongruity stems from simple (yet, perhaps on the basis of such a polished final product, shocking) fact that this is the manhwaga's very first ongoing professional endeavor. As such, you see plenty of false starts and dragging of narrative feet while the author falls pathetically back on lowbrow humor. In fact, the fifth chapter should probably come second, not last, in the volume. The story never really attempts to build any momentum at all...save for some some shared homoerotic(?) history between Eliwho and the Devils of Sibilla and Rakne.
          Which, alas, comes to naught in the first volume, and only in later volumes and side stories does CPM's blatant choice of cover art (NOT, I might add, anything close to the original Korean edition) become truth in advertising. Though the English adaptation is quite readable, CPM's production values are, as always, abominable--anyone who has seen the gorgeous A5+ sized Korean editions will scream TRAVESTY! Of course, CPM didn't know what they had in a license like MASCA and pissed away any opportunity they had to market their manhwa right. If you want to read the subsequent eleven volumes, I suggest bugging NETCOMICS. (Won Su-yeon is currently gearing up for a legal fray with CPM to pry their sticky fingers off of Full House, and they've already lost a couple of manhwa licenses to NETCOMICS outright.) Anyway, trust me when I say that Asarella's tale gets better from here on out...but at least we got one volume in English. That's waaaay better than nothing, especially if, like mine, your standards when it comes to quality control for licensed manga and manhwa is still depressingly low.
          Notes: ~B6 paperback, 1st American edition, 1st printing; first published in Korea in 1998
          Rating: 5.5/10 - A bare-chested, long-locked bishounen extravaganza. If that sentence makes you drool, the artwork of this incredible series will have you enthralled for hours.

Lee, YunHee and Kara. Angel Diary. Vol. 1. Trans. HyeYoung Im and J. Torres. Seoul: ICE Kunion, 2005.
          Summary: Originally titled Cheonhaenggi. The only Princess of Heaven, Dong-Young, has fled to Earth in order to escape an arranged marriage to the King of Hell...and disguised herself as a high school boy. Now, the Four Guardians have been sent to reclaim her, though thankfully at least two are already on her side. But Dong-Young's got problems of her own; she's a magnet for spirits, and her classmate Bi-Wal's true identity has been hitting on her mercilessly.
          Comments: This is ICE Kunion's bestselling title--and are we surprised? Hell, no! It's popular for the same reasons that Fruits Basket and Hana-Kimi are popular--it's tongue-in-cheek, gender-bending, uber-cutsie, a little perverted...and, most importantly of all, it doesn't tax the brain cells in the least. Plus, the artwork is super-adorable and highly Japanesed a la Sugisaki Yukiru. Fortunately, the plotting is a bit more cohesive than the manhwagas' previous breakout hit Demon Diary, and the ongoing (appallingly transparent) mystery of Bi-Wal has its foundations laid pretty early on.
          Oh, and I find that I must whine about ICE Kunion's choice of the title "Angel Diary." As far as I can tell, the original Korean title, which written entirely in hanja (Chinese characters), means roughly "Heaven's Travelogue." What's up with the change? Besides some pathetic, misguided attempt to connect it to TOKYOPOP's release--when there IS no connection as far as I can tell besides the identical authors. In fact, the titles sound SO similar that the choice seems downright counterproductive to me. As per usual, ICE Kunion's production values suck, and their cover design looks like it was done on PowerPoint with the WordArt function (though in all honesty Sigongsa's original isn't really any better), but their translation is pleasantly readable and entertaining...given what there is the work with in the first place.
          Notes: A5 paperback, 1st American edition, 1st printing; first published in Korea in 2002
          Rating: 4.5/10 - Perfect for the 13-year-old shoujo manga fangirl or for anyone who needs some wholly unchallenging, brain-rotting entertainment. Why do I find myself unable to look away...?

Miura, Kentaro. Berserk. Vol. 12. Trans. Duane Johnson. Milwaukie: Dark Horse Manga and Digital Manga Publishing, 2006.
          Summary: Griffith's permanent, lifelong frailty has been fully revealed to the Band of the Hawk, but even still he cannot rest. In a twist of fate, he is reunited with the Crimson Behelit and opens a gate to another world, dragging Guts, Casca, and the rest of the Hawks into it with him. Once there, Griffith chooses to become a demon king--the fifth member of the Godhand--and the lifeblood of all of his allies will be his baptism...
          Comments: Now that the overlong, drawn out, (mostly) filler hackfest involving the demonic ape-like leader of the Black Dog Knights is out of the way, Miura Kentarou is back to developing the overarching PLOT. And what a plot it is--Griffith sacrifices all of his friends to death at the hands of monstrous evil in exchange for power because he realizes that he must if he is to realize his ambitions. Whatta cruel world the author envisions. Naturally, the fangirls get one last throwaway "Guts is my one and only" moment from Griffith as he at last spells out how the friendship the two shared was the only thing that made him forget his ambition. Note how, in most books, the object of this sort of sentiment is usually a woman and NOT a muscle-bound lunkhead. Miura, however, having planned it all ahead knows that Griffith is the primary antagonist to Guts' protagonist and transforms the antagonist's usual desire to be the protagonist himself into desire to HAVE the protagonist for himself. A fascinating variation of the homoerotic tension between the hero and his rival in shounen manga.
          This is the first of the Berserk American editions to feature Dark Horse's new sound-effects translation policy--subtitling in tiny little boxes. I'm not sure I like it, since Miura's amazing artwork speaks best without words OR sound effects. The effect, at least for a work drawn at such a high level, tends to be extremely awkward, and it compounds the persistent adaptation difficulties that the series suffers from. The translation itself is fine, but this is a world inspired by The Lord of the Rings, D&D RPGs, and their ilk; I dunno exactly how the inhabitants of this cruelly primitive, Europeanized world should talk, but it ain't like that, sorry. (I should note at this point that we also have this same translator sans rewriter to thank--or blame--for a number of DMP's BL novels.)
          Anyway, I've never figured out how Dark Horse justifies their high list prices for their flimsy books that sport entire lines of text snipped off at the top. Especially when those books sell quite well for manga. Even so, they have one series that I simply can't live without. (Which one, you ask? This one. Duh.) Oh, never mind...maybe that's how they justify it.
          Notes: B6 paperback, 1st American edition, 1st printing; first published in Japan in 1996
          Rating: 8.5/10 - Brutal and beautiful, the Eclipse story arc is undoubtedly the one that defines Berserk to its fans.

Won, Sooyeon. Let Dai. Vol. 1. Trans. Jane Choi. Jersey City: NETCOMICS, 2006.
          Summary: After rescuing a girl who turns out to be his girlfriend's elder sister from gang violence, the gentle Jaehee garners the attention of the cruel but charismatic young thug Dai. The mutual attraction between the two boys soon becomes irresistible, and Jaehee finds himself falling headlong into Dai's sinister yet oddly liberating world. However, when Dai refuses to save Jaehee's one-time girlfriend Eunhyung from gang rape at the hands of his flunkies, Jaehee realizes that he cannot forgive Dai and leaves him.
          Comments: Though I was dying for the chance to read this series after seeing it in Korea, I was underwhelmed by CPM's release of Won Su-yeon's previous major title Full House, which subsequently dampened my enthusiasm for the rest of her work. Only recently did I have the courage (spurred by necessity) to pick up Let Dai--and I sincerely regret that I did not do so sooner! Its intensity is rivaled only by Banana Fish, with which it has both gang violence and homoeroticism in common. Yet, unlike Yoshida Akimi and her unelegant, almost shounen stylings, Won Su-yeon's artwork is a sunjeong extravaganza. In fact, the juxtaposition of pastel cover artwork and tender, ingenuous-looking motifs with the twin themes of enraged, youthful rebellion against mainstream society and forbidden/homosexual romance makes this gripping tale even more unnerving, if possible. Moreoever, each and every one of the large cast of characters is distinctive and fascinating...though given the large volume count, it wouldn't surprise me if Dai's stubbornness and Jaehee's waffling quickly becomes tiresome. (Make no mistake: Despite the rather unfortunate choice of cover art made by the author for the volume, this qualifies as a boy's love title in the US; it's all about boys who love--and lose--each other.)
          Interestingly, this book is an excellent example of the difference between a good translation and a good adaptation. Of all of the early NETCOMICS releases, Let Dai Vol. 1 boasts the most natural, fluid English text (provided you can ignore the occasional typo). However, there are a few places where entire sentences from the Korean text are missing or where the translation is misleading. 'Course, you wouldn't know that unless you'd compared it line-by-line with the original, and it in no way interferes with a reader's visceral enjoyment of the book. (The manhwaga is not one of the most meticulous of writers, anyway, and there are lines in this story that flat-out don't make sense, period.) Still, if it matters to you, hold out for the second printing. But either way, you'll be getting an awesome manhwa that you simply can't afford to miss.
          Notes: B6 paperback, 1st American edition, 1st printing; first published in Korea in 1995
          Rating: 8.5/10 - An unforgettable emotional rollercoaster ride. If you start following one new manga/manhwa title this year, seriously consider making this one.
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Rose
Dec. 1st, 2006 @ 11:20 pm Book Reviews from October 2006
Burch, Christian. The Manny Files. New York: Atheneum, 2006.
Summary: The Dalinger's eccentric new manny (that's "male nanny") is a hit with Keats but not with his elder sister Lulu. But the manny, who is there for the death of their grandmother and various other family crises and triumphs, wins over everyone in the end--including Uncle Max.
Comments: Originally titled "The Year of the Coconut" while in production...but obviously the title was changed to spoof The Nanny Diaries. And, quite frankly, this children's novel can use all the gimmicky help it can get, for even a title change isn't enough to redeem it. Though the male nanny premise had great potential, I found myself agreeing with Lulu throughout most of the story; the manny, whose name we find out at the end is Matthew, is insufferable in his flamboyant pranks, and a modicum of compassion would've convinced him, I'm sure, to tone it down a bit. Even worse is the narrator and protagonist of the story, Keats, who has a great future as a pompous, flaming opera queen. A good part of the book is mere filler, and it doesn't convince me to like Keats any more. Any mature reader knows that, were he not labeled by his classmates as the little sissy/wimp/nerd, that he would have great potential to be just as ruthless a bully as his archenemy Craig--his inner life is remarkably mean-spirited (ESPECIALLY for such a young age). So, yeah. Underdog triumphs, has his way in every respect, and lives happily ever after. Never mind that his life as an upper-middle class white boy is awfully good to start with. Standard wish-fulfillment tripe. If you must read a book about an unappealing gay protagonist on his way to adulthood, read The Secret Fruit of Peter Paddington. Or, if it's for your kids, give 'em Shoujo Kakumei Utena (the TV series) or even the Lemony Snicket books instead.
Notes: hardcover, 1st edition
Rating: 4/10 - An insipid and utter waste of time, money, and promising premise. Burch should try his hand at adult novels so as to avoid all the structural cliches.

Chatwin, Bruce. On the Black Hill. New York: Viking, 1983. (First UK Edition: 1982)
Summary: Welsh twin brothers Lewis and Benjamin Jones live out their entire lives on their family farm, The Vision.
Comments: One of those really lovely novels in which nothing really happens yet, at the same time, EVERYTHING does. The novel is exquisitely evocative of the landscape, but even for someone like myself, who has never been to Wales and has not lived through much of the time period described (though time DOES seem to stand still there), the story is perfectly accessible. (Thankfully, none of the characters talk that much; the dialect is a bit opaque and use of pronouns strikingly non-standard and inconsistent.) the novel's scope is at once narrow and specific yet sweeping in its ambitions to document life on The Vision and its environs. However, the relationship between the twins is undoubtedly the most interesting aspect of this novel; Lewis is obviously heterosexual and yearns to marry and live a "normal" life, whereas Benjamin is homosexual and sublimates his desire into single-minded, almost incestuous devotion for his brother. Though much of the story involves suffering and squalor, it's such a pleasure at the end to see the twins take flight in an airplane--and, at least for that moment, life being made worth it all.
Notes: hardcover, 1st American edition, out-of-print
Rating: 6.5/10 - A lovely novel that shouts in whispers.

Cheever, John. Oh What a Paradise It Seems. New York: Knopf, 1982.
Summary: Lemuel Sears, a middle-aged man having issues with his sexuality, recruits an environmentalist in an effort to stop the systematic dumping and pollution of Beasley's Pond. But it isn't until organized crime has the environmentalist killed, and horrified housewife Betsy threatens to keep poisoning people until the dumping stops is the pond saved.
Comments: Cheever is a much better short story writer than he is novelist, and it shows especially strongly in this slim novel, which is actually a slew of loosely-connected digressions and narrowly-focused observations of specific moments in time. (Though at least it didn't ramble as much as Falconer. The overarching narrative conceit--especially when it deigns to tell you what is used to be like--doesn't quite work, and the conclusion, that those specific moments can be connected to both the past and the future and elevated to the sublime, strikes me as forced and insipid. Of the two main characters, Betsy's suppressed rage and dissatisfaction came alive for me, but Sears' sexual obsessions and latent homosexuality seemed to be a bit too one-note...perhaps it was all too close to Cheever himself for him to look too closely at the character. Incidentally, Sears overcomes his homosexual liaison and goes back to the pretty (but unstable) woman; that's neither here nor there.
Notes: hardcover, 1st edition, out-of-print; trade paperback edition available
Rating: 5.5/10 - Great for Cheever fans, but if you're looking for a diverting, thought-provoking read, head elsewhere.

Coetzee, J. M. Disgrace. 1999. New York: Penguin, 2005.
Summary: Having resigned in the wake of an affair with a student, Professor David Lurie visits his daughter on her farm. But when Lucy is gang-raped by three black men and impregnated, he is forced to come to terms with both his own principles and the tense race relations of South Africa.
Comments: By far the most accessible of any Coetzee novel that I've read so far in that the plotting and prose are straightforward and the background knowledge required (that whites used to oppress blacks in South Africa and now it's accountability time) is minimal. It works on EVERY level, from the personal to the national. On one hand, Byron fan Lurie must come to terms with his own beloved daughter being raped after he has cheerfully and unrepentantly exploited the beloved daughter of another man. Yet, on another, this novel is a deliciously ironic turnaround--Lucy finds herself vulnerable and helpless out in the country and must submit to the mercies of the one semi-sympathetic black man (whose brother-in-law was among those who raped her) around. Taken this way, not just the good professor but the entire country is in disgrace, humbling and abjecting itself before history. I also loved the little details; Coetzee's characterization of dogs and of Lurie's community service at the animal shelter as he carts bodies away, for example. A wonderful book that offers no easy, pat answers. Ambiguity suits Coetzee very well.
Notes: trade paperback, Penguin Essential Edition, 1st printing
Rating: 8/10 - An absolute must-read...even if oversexed (borderline pedophile), middle-aged white male protagonists aren't your thing.

Ekuni, Kaori. Twinkle Twinkle. Trans. Emi Shimokawa. New York: Vertical, 2003. (Original Japanese Edition: 1991)
Summary: Originally titled Pika Pika Hikaru. A mentally unstable, alcoholic woman and a gay man enter into an arranged marriage...but it turns out to be anything but a union of convenience, and the two must negotiate the genuine affection and concern that they feel with each other.
Comments: Good God, woman, could you be anymore screwed up!? Not that, on the balance, I liked Ekuni's characterization of her picture-perfect, endlessly patient gay man any better. THAT was just totally unrealistic. Nobody's really that saintly--especially in their own heads. Sorry. Actually, in spite of the whole "I" novel format (which, a bit unusually, alternates narrators), what you end up with is Shoko befriending her husband Mutsuki's boyfriend Kon (with whom he is monogamous) and ultimately forming a non-traditional familial threesome of sorts--with a baby possible for the future. These sorts of stories were quite popular awhile back; Michael Cunningham's A Home at the End of the World, which was published only a year earlier than Ekuni's debut, comes to mind in particular. However, unlike Cunningham, Ekuni thinks that it could be workable. And I'm just not convinced...even though arranged marriages with gay men are much coveted among certain circles of Japanese women. (Probably this novel's fault, at least in part.) About the only thing I really enjoyed while reading this novel was Shoko's transference of her need express her affection to her plant and goldfish.
Notes: hardcover, 1st American edition
Rating: 4.5/10 - An only passable translation coupled with a "realistic" novel that requires more suspension of disbelief than is reasonable does not reading pleasure make.

Fforde, Jasper. The Big Over Easy. 2005. New York: Penguin, 2006.
Summary: Nursery Crime Series #1. Humpty Dumpty has fallen off his wall to is death, and it's up to Jack Spratt and the rest of the ragtag Nursery Crime Division of Reading to figure out whodunnit. And, though a lot of people wanted the egg poached, it turns out to be a mad geneticist who secretly fertilizes Humpty's egg and hatches him.
Comments: As offbeat as The Eyre Affair but significantly better written, this series seems, to me at least, to be better place to begin with Fforde's "literary" mysteries. Unlike his debut, however, the world of Nursery Crime has some serious things about it that need to be explained, yet aren't--namely, why all of these creatures from folklore, mythology, and nursery rhyme are suddenly REAL. Even Jack (of Giant-Killer and Beanstalk fame) is one...and perhaps his assistant Mary Mary is, as well (whose characterization AS A WOMAN is every bit as lousy as Thursday Next's). The way in which all of the detectives are encouraged to turn real cases of crime into narratives for mass public consumption in pulpish magazines such as Amazing Crime Stories struck me as a sly jab at the world's obsession of late with reality television--after all, entertainment and reality don't always coincide in the best of ways. One thing that REALLY bothered me about the story, though: No WAY is Humpty Dumpty a convincing Don Juan. Sorry, but it just doesn't work.
Notes: trade paperback, 1st printing
Rating: 5.5/10 - If you can't stand mystery books, you won't be able to stand this novel, either--and even the weird world won't fix things.

Greene, Harlan. What the Dead Remember. New York: Dutton, 1991.
Summary: During his childhood summers on the beaches of Charleston, the unnamed narrator yearns to join the company of the cool boys in town but instead befriends the retarded Stevie. Now, as an adult, he returns to the city of his childhood and renews his friendship with Stevie as the spectre of AIDS threatens the gay community there. On one fateful night of a hurricane, the narrator makes a terrible choice and ends up sleeping with a handsome man who turns out to be one of the "cool boys" in his youth who infects him with HIV while Stevie, left alone, runs of and drowns himself while searching for Atlantis.
Comments: Wow, talk about serious passion, morality, AND an axe to grind with the gay community. Obviously, the narrator's not the most altruistic guy ever to walk the planet; he yearns for acceptance from his peers (which he largely fails to acquire throughout his life) and takes care of Stevie at least in part because he feels that he is winning some sort of cosmic approval. And, indeed, if you believe in these sorts of things, the cosmos does indeed punish the narrator severely (Contracting HIV from that particular encounter? Are we really to believe the narrator in this case?) for shirking in his duty to Stevie in favor of the demands of lust. All the "cool" crowd ever did for him was condemn him to an unpleasant and untimely death. How lovely. Obviously, he deserves to die. *rolls eyes* Likewise, all HE does for his friends is ignore them when they need him or encourage them into marriages with totally unscrupulous dudes that are completely wrong for them but happen to give him a nice twinge below the belt. Even so, the novel is deliciously atmospheric, roiling with shame about the present and the past that transcends mere straight vs. gay...and you can forget that the otherwise tightly-woven narrative slackens occasionally.
Notes: hardcover, 1st edition, signed by the author, out-of-print
Rating: 7.5/10 - Though flawed in places, at its best it is magnificent and utterly unforgettable.

Isherwood, Christopher. The Berlin Novels. London: Minerva, 1992.
-Mr Norris Changes Trains- (1935)
Summary: American title is The Last of Mr. Norris. While traveling to Berlin on the eve of WWII, Englishman William Bradshaw befriends the oddly mysterious Mr. Arthur Norris on the train--who turns out to be involved in all sorts of illicit activities, most notably the brokering of confidential and classified information.
Comments: On hindsight, I rather think that this novella should have appeared second, not first--the only character besides William himself that really comes alive or is even particularly explained is title character Arthur Norris himself. (Though I did on occasion feel sorry for the homosexual baron dreaming of Pacific island idylls.) Who, I might add, is both fascinating and funny. I had a good chuckle when William first stumbles onto Arthur indulging in his S&M recreations. His many connections is high society, business, politics, and crime offer a fascinating point of entry into Isherwood's incisive portrayal of Berlin and its many conflicts. Anyway, a most enjoyable--and extremely EASY (I was surprised)--read with a touch of the thriller/mystery genre to keep the reader interested, right from the first chapter.
-Goodbye to Berlin- (1939)
Summary: A series of episodic, semi-autobiographical fragments detailing the life of the author himself living in pre-Hitler Berlin and teaching English while, ostensibly at least, working on his writing. During his four years there, he meets many colorful characters, including his landlady, aspiring entertainer Sally Bowles, and the Nowak and Landauer families.
Comments: Of Isherwood's two aborted attempts to write an epic novel about his experiences in Berlin, this is where the recurring principles of both novels are explained and introduced. However, as it was compiled from incomplete work, what results is fragmented and a bit confusing chronologically. The Sally Bowles subplot provided the most immediate interest for me--she struck me as way ahead of her time...the sort of woman who might show up in novels of the 60's or 70's, not the 30's! (They did green nail polish back then? Geez, that's daring even 75 years later. ^^; ) The tense political climate of Germany during that period is even more openly addressed, though by the end I thought Isherwood rushed his depiction of the Nazi takeover a bit too much; it read more like a historical overview than a novel. Still, Isherwood evinces well-tuned powers of observation, and the particular attitudes and behaviors of the people he writes about more often than not demonstrate something about the larger culture of the period.
Notes: trade paperback, 2nd printing
Rating: 6.5, 6.5/10 - A compelling work that, in a relatively small number of pages, seems to touch on virtually every imaginable "serious" topic plaguing modern life.

Jourdan, Eric. Wicked Angels. Trans. Thomas J. D. Armbrecht. Binghamton: Southern Tier Editions, 2006. (Original French Edition: 1955)
Summary: Teenaged cousins Pierre and Gerard fall head-over-heels into a sadomasochistic romance that culminates in Gerard beating Pierre to death and then killing himself afterward.
Comments: This novel's checkered history includes thirty years of censorship in France, but, quite frankly, the effect of it nowadays is more flowery than lurid. The combination of Kaze to Ki no Uta and The Story of O had me rolling my eyes inbetween gawping at how graphic the descriptions of underaged sex are, which included occasional anachronistic (maybe?) porn vocabulary, most notably "cum." So, yeah. Insane, violent, passionate love that would be censured by society--if society bothered to notice, that is--to exquisitely beautiful to have a prosaic happy ending...oh, PLEASE. Yeah, shounen ai fans should LOVE this novel. Too bad, though, that the story doesn't stand on its own particularly well outside of its position as historical artifact and conversation piece...which is why Haworth Press published it, and not a more prestigious university press or, God forbid, a mainstream publisher. Pierre and Gerard are all but identical narrators, and if it weren't for the fact that they offered slightly different interpretations of the same shared experiences, I wouldn't have been able to tell their stories apart at all. Homosexuality as the ultimate tragic narcissism. What a concept. And thank God it's over with.
Notes: hardcover, exclusive BCE; publisher's trade paperback edition available
Rating: 4.5/10 - Only if it's up your alley; otherwise, you'll be wanting to kick it to the curb in under ten pages.

Snicket, Lemony. The End. New York: HarperCollins, 2006.
Summary: Book the Thirteenth of A Series of Unfortunate Events. With illustrations by Brett Helquist. The Baudelaire children are shipwrecked on a castaway island with Count Olaf and eventually with Kit Snicket, who dies giving birth to a daughter whom the children name Beatrice, after their mother.
Comments: Well, that explains the two Beatrices in The Beatrice Letters, doesn't it? And I guess I was right about the "author" being in love with the children's mother, after all. Quite a lot of other stuff is left ambiguous, however--like, did Count Olaf really kill the Baudelaire parents? He comes close to denying it at the end, but of course we'll never know for sure since he dies. Unless Daniel Handler decides to write a prequel. Or a sequel. *groans* I could see that happening. The way the final novel seeks to frame existence, as stories that intertwine endlessly with no beginning or end so that you can never be entirely certain about what side you're on, is surprisingly complex, and its perspective on existence, that bad things always happen, no matter how you try to stop them, if only you're alive, is incredibly fatalistic. The whole gloom and doom style of the novels is a keenly manipulative case of wagging the dog, but Snicket's world, ultimately, is one in shades of gray--one should never be too quick to judge or condemn even your enemies because, if you look closely enough, you'll start to see yourself in them. It's a pleasant change from the usual escapist, unrealistic children's fare of epic battles between Good(tm) and Evil(tm) a la Star Wars and Harry Potter. Oh, and I only understood about a third of Sunny's literary allusions. Makes me feel stupid, but at least it keeps the adults on their toes.
Notes: hardcover, 1st edition
Rating: 5.5/10 - If you've made it this far, why stop now? Nevermind what the author says.

Leroux, Gaston. The Phantom of the Opera. 1911.
Summary: The Paris opera house is being haunted by an "opera ghost," and youthful soprano Christine Daaé is being visited by an "Angel of Music." Turns out that both are in actuality a brilliant but deformed man named Erik living in the catacombs below. By the end, Erik's passion for Christine is such that hs is prepared to destroy the opera house and everyone in it if she refuses to marry him. Ultimately, she does acquiesce, but Erik is so overcome with the compassion she evinces for him that he lets her and her lover Raoul, the Vicomte de Chagny, go free.
Comments: The translator of the edition I read is, apparently, anonymous, but whoever it was, the person was definitely British and probably more or less contemporary to Leroux. In any case, I'm most reminded of Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes stories; the "author" himself, Raoul, the Persian, and other characters within the tale itself play amateur detective throughout the story, and the novel itself is structured like a piece of investigative journalism. There is a rigorous sense of realism to it despite the gothic elements, and the way in which it starts with supernatural events that are systematically revealed to be wholly explainable (if odd) recalls The Hound of the Baskervilles. Of course, what makes Leroux's popular work more than just another detective novel is the love triangle between Christine, Raoul, and Erik (obviously the aspect of the story that those who have adapted it for stage and screen like to focus on)--how apt that there's a passionate melodrama going on in a theater! Plus, you really feel sorry for Erik, who is a genius with the emotional intelligence and impulse control of a six-year-old. It's obvious that what he really wants is a mother out of Christine.
Notes: hardcover, B&N Collector's Library edition
Rating: 6/10 - Ages suprisingly well for a near-century old piece of pop fiction.

Pratchett, Terry. Hogfather. New York: HarperPrism, 1996.
Summary: Discworld series #20. Mysterious beings known as the Auditors seek to destroy humanity by destroying their faith--starting with the Hogfather. It's up to Death to take his place and up to Death's granddaughter who's doing the Auditor's dirty work and put a stop to him.
Comments: Who else would make Death such a fundamentally naive yet utterly likable personage? Death's inevitably futile quest to take up a profession that does not involve him being almost universally hated, which began in Mort continues unabated--heck, Pratchett even ratchets up the stakes this time around--in this satirical, Christmas holiday-themed novel. As such, though some of the subplots were amusing (the Hex computer and the Oh God of Hangovers were highlights), as I've never been a big fan of frequent scene changes in novels, most struck me as more tiresome than anything else, and the meat was of course Death in his newfound role of Santa Claus *coughs* I mean the HOGFATHER. I loved his literal-minded attempts to alleviate human suffering, and his purchase of the rocking horse at the very end of the novel for Albert was simply priceless. Oh, as I have now officially skipped around in the series A LOT, I had no idea who Susan was at first, but at least I got the general gist eventually.
Notes: hardcover, BCE; publisher's mass market paperback edition available
Rating: 6/10 - A funny, ironic read with a heart of gold at the center. Perfect Christmas reading, though it can be appreciated in any season.

Winterson, Jeanette. Written on the Body. New York: Knopf, 1993. (Original UK Edition: 1992)
Summary: The unnamed, unsexed narrator falls in love with Louise, who is dying of leukemia. Believing that only Louise's brilliant but uncharming oncologist husband can save her, s/he agrees to separate him/herself completely from Louise...and then regrets that choice severely.
Comments: Sexing the Cherry was actually halfway decent, but this novel was about three dozen steps backward. Okay, so, bisexual protagonist leaves long-term, committed relationship for the burning flames of True Love(tm). Which we all know won't last. 'Cause it never does. People like that get no respect from me; I felt like I was reading a reprise of Hanif Kureishi's Intimacy, and I hated both novels about equally. Even the prose itself was less exciting than some of Winterson's other endeavors, and that little anatomy lesson/obsessive prose poem just ruined the rest of the story for me. Ugh. I'm sorry, but some 180+ pages of angsting about how to best love another person--when, in reality, it's all about ME ME ME!--simply try my patience. It's manipulative, and it turns people like Louise into mere objects. The author does, evidently, have a lot more growing up (at least emotionally) to do, and the approach of middle age seems to be reawakening infantile tendencies.
Notes: hardcover, 1st American edition, out-of-print; trade paperback edition available
Rating: 3/10 - About the only thing written on this body is an emphatic thumbs DOWN.
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Rose