Thursday, April 28, 2011

World War II stories are hard to write well, as this one shows all too clearly

I don’t often get stuck in the middle of a book that I just can’t stand. I can usually shift them out a mile away, and then avoid them like the plague. But when a plurality of the people I know started reading Sarah’s Key by Tatiana de Rosnay, I ignored all those signs that it wouldn’t be worth reading and I gave it a try.

I should have listened to my gut.

Sarah’s Key is the intertwining stories of a modern American women whose marriage to a French man and the skeleton’s in their closets, and the story of a Jewish girl and her family who lived in the same house during WWII.

What follows could have been a compelling story if I didn’t find the current day characters to be so repelantantly stereotypical. You have the American women who is self centered and knows nothing of history out-side of the US. You have her French husband and family, who are condescending and nationalistic, and have no problem pretending that the less pretty in their past never happened. And of course she has a young daughter who is wise beyond her years that she looks to for support during her trying times.

I will admit that the chapters from the past are quite well written. But that’s the point: she can write as a young girl who has seen too much and and grown up too fast, but she can’t use that same voice with the modern day, spoiled daughter of our main charcter. It just sounds wrong coming from her.

So beyond atrocious pacing, unpleasant stereotypeing, and unsympathetic charactors, what do you have? You have a WWII holocaust story with an interesting setting that I haven’t seen before, but it’s absolutely not worth reading the rest to get to it.

Highs: The past story is engaging and heartbreaking that might have made a decent story on its own

Lows: The entire storyline that takes place during the present, along with the poor quality of writing and unlikable main character

Verdict: Pass

Further Reading: Maus, Diary of Anne Frank, Town of Evening Calm, Country of Cherry Blossoms

Monday, April 25, 2011

Manga Monday: Meet the Red Ribbon Army

Last time, in Dragon Ball VizBig 1

We've met Goku, our pint-sized, monkey-tailed adventurer, and now he's entered the “Strongest Man in the World” competition. He's been training with his new pal Krillin under the tutelage of the hermit Muten Roshi. And who's this Jackie Chun guy anyways? He looks kinda familiar...

The great thing about Dragon Ball, as well as anything else written by Akira Toriyama, is that you know what you're getting when you pick up his books. This is shonen at its best. Strong little boy fights bad guys and monsters, and occasionally saves the world in the process.

That's not to say that this book is by any means generic. This is the book series that helped to form the genre. The characters are well thought out, each with their own backstory. Even the characters that are destined to only be around for a short while have their own motivations. Even one of the tournament participants is there for the prize money to bring water back to their village dying of drought. And the Red Ribbon Army is hilarious to watch, with layer upon layer of assassins and other baddies working for them, as well as conflict on the highest levels. This is what happens when a group of chaotic neutral and chaotic evil people try to work together.

But still, at its heart, this is still a book about a boy and his cloud, adventuring through the world, defeating bad guys and saving the day. Even when it looks like all is lost and one of the good guys goes down, there's always a way to make it right, if everyone works together.

Highs: The final round of the Budokai Tenkaichi tournament

Lows: In traditional shonen fashion, quite a few pages of fighting, which can just be skimmed through to get back to the story

Verdict: It's exactly what you expect, with the addition of a lot of heart

Further Reading: Dragon Ball VizBig Volume 3, One Piece

Monday, April 18, 2011

Manga Monday: A martial arts dojo where literally ANYTHING goes

It must be hard to be a dojo leader and only have had daughters.  Eventually, he’ll need to find an appropriate boy to take over the leadership of the dojo, and then he has the unenviable job of convincing one of his daughters to marry him.

Of course, it doesn’t help when the boy and his father show up as a girl and her panda.

And when the youngest girl Akane goes to bathe with her, and finds that she’s turned into a he?  Still not helping.

Welcome to the Musabetsu Kakutō Ryū Tendo Dojo (Anything Goes Martial Arts Tendo Dojo of Indiscriminant Grappling) and Ranma 1/2 Volume 1 Soun Tendo may not have been blessed with any boys, but he does have three beautiful daughters. He even believes that he has found the perfect husband for one of them, when he hears of Ranma Satome. He and his father have been training in China for the last while, though. And while they were there, they fell into cursed springs, and now whenever they are splashed with cold water, they take on the form of the being that drowned there.

So Ranma mainly wants to not become a girl anymore, but there is not much that he can do in town about that, so he might as well start up at the local high school with Akane.

Akane herself is the most eligible bachelorette in school.  Every morning, she has to fight her way through the throngs of guys trying to ask her out.  Of course, now that guys see her with Ranma, they aren’t too fond of him either.

We also get to meet Ryoga Hibiki for the first time.  Accidently slighted by Ranma several times in their last high school, he is now questing to defeat Ranma in battle.  Unfortunately, his sense of direction is so bad that he gets lost for days just getting across town to where they are supposed to fight.

As always, with the first volume in a series, quite a bit of this book is introduction to the characters and other back story elements.  Because contrary to the premise, the story mainly takes place in common times with little magical elements, most of the world works as one would expect it to.

Besides the pesky body-switching problem the Satome men have, this is the epitome of the the common day dojo and high school manga.  If written today it might not be given so much credit since it’s such a common genre now.  But the reason it’s as common is because authors like Rumiko Takahashi created stories such as these.  An iconic manga, this helped form several genres while providing a hilarious story and memorable characters.

Highs: Dr. Tofu Ono and his unfortunate nearsightedness

Lows: The boys battling for Akane is a little unnecessary

Verdict: A classic manga that sets up the series well

Further Reading:  Dragon Ball VizBig 1, Rurouni Kenshin

Thursday, April 14, 2011

An outspoken, brazen girl grows up during the Islamic Revolution

Many memoir writers are not terribly good at really being honest with the reader. While writing a memoir should be a reflective exercise, oftentimes the writer simply justifies past actions, rather than admitting when those actions were wrong.

Marjane Satrapi is brutally honest about herself, and this is what helps make The Complete Persepolis an interesting, and important, read.

Marjane was born into a very interesting time and place. Raised in Iran during the Iran/Iraq war, even as a young girl she has had strong opinions and convictions that didn't always match up with the popular opinion. In the first story, when she is now required to wear a veil in the newly conservative school, she needs to come to a decision on her own about what is right and wrong with her relationship to God. While throughout her life how her relationship with God changes and grows, the relationship is always there.

Being an outspoken opinionated female in any Muslim country is a perilous prospect. When the country the girl is in is undergoing a fundamentalist revolution, the situation becomes more dire. In fact, as Marjane becomes older and even more rebellious, her parents arrange for her to live in France. While there, she rebels even more strenuously, even going so far as to move to Amsterdam for a short time.

One of the most painful scenes in the book shows when Marjane points out a random, innocent man on the street to divert the attention of the police off of herself. She absolutely deserves the shaming she receives from her mother when she returned home. In the way of most young adults, she really didn’t think of the consequences her actions might have on that man and his family. It would have been very easy for Satrapi to leave this event out, but putting the story in helps to show the growth and maturity Marjane gains later in the story.

It would be very easy for Marjane to justify her rebellion and bad choices on anything from the Islamic Revolution to bad parenting. However, Marjane takes full responsibility for her decisions. This changes the book from the story of a spoiled, bratty child and young adult, to the story of a woman who looks back at her life with a more experience eye, and has learned from both the good and bad choices she has made.

Persepolis also has a special place in literature as one of the first biographical graphic novel to get both critical and popular acclaim in the US. While the WW II stories Maus and Maus II came out well before Persepolis, the story of Persepolis got more mainstream media attention upon release due to its subject matter, as well as a considerable publisher push and movie tie-in. For many pop lit and book club reader Persepolis was probably the first “comic book” they have read in decades. If the surge in graphic novel memoirs as well as nonfiction graphic novels in general is any indication, Persepolis must have made a good impression.

Highs: Little Marjane's conversations with God

Lows: Watching Marjane rebel against what she still knew was wrong in France and Amsterdam

Verdict: A painfully honest look at the life of an upper-class women during the Islamic Revolution

Futher Reading: The Complete Maus, Pyongyang

Monday, April 11, 2011

Manga Monday: Why is it that no one seems to get a reward that they actually want when they do something good?

In the anime movie Whisper of the Heart, there is a scene where we meet a grey cat statue wearing a tuxedo. Later on, the main character Shizuku writes a story featuring this cat, named Baron von Gikkingen. Baron The Cat Returns, by Aoi Hiiragi is that story.

On the way home from school one day, Haru uses her friend's lacrosse stick to save the life of a cat about to be run over by a delivery truck. When she runs up to the kitty to make sure that he's all right, he not only bows in thanks but also promises to show his gratitude at a later date, as he is pressed for time.

Unfortunately, the crown prince of the Kingdom of Cats and his father the King have a very distinctive, very cat-like way of showing their appreciation. After a very strange day of cat-presents such as wafting catnip and cases of canned mice, Haru is kidnapped to the Kingdom of Cats, where she is slowly transformed into a cat herself, and finds her betrothed to Prince Lune.

Thankfully, before she is taken, she manages to make a few friends that could help her. A voice leads her to Baron Humbert von Gikkigen, as well as Muta, a rather fat, piggy-looking white cat. The Baron lives in the world of objects with souls. If an object is created or owned by someone who pours the hopes and dreams into it, it eventually develops a soul of its own, and that aspect lives slightly out of sync with the rest of the world, in the world of objects with souls.

She has a few allies already in the Kingdom of Cats as well. Not surprisingly, Prince Lune has his own preference as to who he wishes to marry. And this female kitty has a connection back to Haru as well.

This is very much a children's fairy tale in the same vein as Alice in Wonderland or Kiki's Delivery Service. Besides the standard morals of doing what's right, there really isn't anything to learn or a deeper meaning to the story. It targets the same audience as Whisper of the Heart, but with a much lighter tone. Still, as long as that's what the reader wants out of the book, it's a very nice read.

Highs: Haru meeting Lune's girlfriend

Lows: The edition that I have, instead of translating sound effects in panel has a list of them in the back of the book. In a book where many panels only have sound effects instead of dialog, this becomes very frustrating

Verdict: Worth reading when in the mood for a light, fluffy fairy tale

Further Reading: Castle in the Sky, Alice in Wonderland