Read Harder 2018

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Finishing up Read Harder 2018 (the lazy way)

Published December 27, 2018 by Iphis of Scyros

Right, so, mass post to cover everything that didn’t get its own review.  Several of these are last minute replacements to make up for much longer books I didn’t have time to read because that stupid YA book held me up so long that my class started and things picked up at work, and all that rubbish.  Also some of these I read before class started, but I didn’t get around to their reviews because the review of the lousy book also held me up.  (Because I suck.)

Anyway, for laziness’s sake, I’m going to go by their order on the challenge list, starting with Challenge #2, “A book of true crime,” which I am skipping over as I’m embarrassed that I own the darn thing.  It’s something I bought in the school bookstore (with my parents’ money) back in the ’90s, relating dumb things criminals had done.  It seemed harmless at the time, but looking at it for the first time in more than a decade, I see a lot about it that’s unsettling.

Moving on to Challenge #3, “A classic of genre fiction,” I went with this:

The short version is “good books, horrible edition.”  Seriously, this paperback “classics” edition from Barnes & Noble is so bad.  I mean, I guess it’s okay if you’re the type to ignore endnotes entirely, but I’m in the habit of reading them.  Which I had to get out of pretty quickly for this thing.  It was bad enough when it gave endnotes explaining things that no reader would likely need explained (what a brontosaurus or a griffin was, for example), but when it gave a note that was a freaking spoiler, that’s when I said “no, screw you, endnotes!”  Ugh.

Uh, yeah, that was not relevant.  Also — still in the irrelevant category — wtf is up with that cover image?  It’s a neat image, yes, but it has sod-all to do with the books.  The future visited by the time traveler has no high tech anything, let alone this 1950s fantasy of the high rise city of tomorrow.

Back to what’s relevant, I was amazed at how little there was in common between these two books and my expectations.  The Time Machine has more in common with the opening sequence of Time After Time than it does with either of the films adapting it that I’ve seen.  The book’s future is very different from what any movie has ever delivered, and honestly it’s not even something a movie can deliver unless it’s going to be a very uncomfortable and relatively short picture.  In the movies, the Eloi have not evolved much from humans, while the Morlocks have become hideous mole-monster-people.  In the book, both species have become physically entirely distinct from human beings.  Which is much more likely, really, but not so easy to film.

As to The Invisible Man, it’s very different from other books of its sort.  Not that I’ve read a huge number of them (are there even a huge number of them?) but I’ve read both Frankenstein and Dracula, two of the works that pioneered the rather disparate genre that would create the Universal Monsters. 😛  It’s much less intimate with the title character…or anyone else, for that matter, if I recall correctly.  (Ugh, trying to review a book I read in August or whenever is not so easy in December.  Especially considering I’m sick.)  It was a really interesting read, though.  As long as you’re not reading this edition.

Okay, moving on to the next unreviewed book on the list, Challenge #5, “A book set in or about one of the five BRICS countries.”

This is the sort of thing I wouldn’t have counted for Read Harder if I hadn’t run out of time.  “Rakonto” is the name of a project I backed on Kickstarter.  The idea of the project is that a group of teachers go to various countries and meet with groups of children who for one reason or another don’t get…okay, wait, rather than me trying to sum it up, I’m going to quote their campaign page instead:

Children love to tell stories.

However, in many places in the world, their creative voices are rarely heard or cultivated. Rakonto helps amplify the voices of these children by traveling to developing communities and implementing storytelling workshops that build on children’s natural potential to become storytellers.

In these workshops, we teach students the power of storytelling, challenging them to write their own original stories. In doing so…

  • We encourage students to take pride in their local heritage and to find their own voices
  • We empower students by sharing methods and tools for powerful expression, helping them grasp their potential as creative individuals
  • We help students imagine themselves as agents of positive social change

And it goes on from there about how there’s a global shortage of teachers, and how many children live in areas where they’re not getting the basic education that everyone should have the right to, etc.  They take the stories the children have told, illustrate one or more, and send them out to their supporters as books, with the proceeds from the books going to pay for more workshops in other countries, to keep the project going and encourage more children.

So, anyway, this one, The Power of an Idea, is by a tenth grader in India.  (Which is a bit older than I was expecting from their description, but…)  It’s about elderly homeless people and how to help them so they won’t be homeless anymore.  A bit naive around the edges, but very sweet, and definitely a different perspective than you get in America.

Moving on, Challenge #7, “A western.”  I had planned on borrowing a book from my father for this one, a steampunk western with all sorts of real people reinvented in steampunky ways, which I’m told is quite good.  But I didn’t have time anymore, so I went with

a single issue of a comic book I backed on Kickstarter.  (I am totally not a comic book person.  So why do I end up backing so many of them on Kickstarter?)  It’s about a bounty hunter named Veronica in 1885, who travels with La Meurte, who may or may not be real, but is most definitely her lover even if she isn’t real.  It’s short, being only an issue of a comic book rather than a full graphic novel, but it’s very interesting.  I’ll definitely be backing the later issues, too.  (Though only at the digital level.  I don’t want to try to keep track of flimsy little comic books.  I’ll go physical edition if they get collected into a book later on.)

Next, Challenge #9, “A book of colonial or postcolonial literature.”  I wanted to read Kim for this, because what could be more colonial than Kipling?  (Also, I bought an RPG based on it off itch.io a while back, and I wanted to read the book before I played the game.)  But I totally ran out of time.  So, in a measure of extreme cheapness and possible cheating, I’m counting one of the books I read for class.

I figure it counts as colonial/postcolonial because it starts out in Korea while it was under Japan’s colonial control, and then it’s postcolonial as we follow the family of displaced Koreans trying to live in Japan.  This is not a book I would ever have read on my own, and I can’t say that I enjoyed it.  It’s just totally not my thing.  The stuff in Korea was very interesting, and the early part of their time in Japan was also pretty good.  Near the end of WWII it totally lost me, though.  I can pinpoint the moment it happened, too:  when a long-gone character returned to the story suddenly to play the role of “perpetual plot device.”  It’s a generations long book which only really started to make sense to me after one of the children grew up and fell in love with the English novels he was studying, particularly Dickens.  Then I got it:  this is a love letter to and imitation of Dickens, with a Korean/Japanese veneer (and thankfully much less dense text).  As someone who gets annoyed with Dickens’ propensity for continual and over-the-top coincidences, this did not endear the book to me.

Additionally, the author’s research was inconsistent.  She did do a lot of research, but only into the major things like political movements, historical events, etc.  A lot of the details slid by.  I only noticed one particularly glaring one, late in the book, when we’re in 1968, and a three year old boy is soooo excited to go to the store and buy the latest “issue” of Tetsuwon Atom and then hurries home to watch the anime on TV.  Yeah, so that felt really, really wrong to me chronologically, so I looked that up.  Tetsuwon Atom (aka Astro Boy in the west) ended in 1968 with the death of the title character.  I don’t know when in the year that final chapter was published (and it would have been in a magazine, not in “issues” like an American comic; the collected volume likely wouldn’t have hit the shelves until the following year) but I seem to recall that scene being set in the fall, meaning it was probably already over, and given the way it ended, the father would probably have tried to discourage his little son’s attachment to the property.  But the son wouldn’t have said attachment anyway, because the anime went off the air in 1966, when the boy was about a year old.  It took me about a minute to look that up.  The author could have done the same.  And no, I don’t think she was using it for its recognizability factor, considering she was not only using its original Japanese title, but even going so far as to transliterate “Atom” as “Atomu,” as it’s actually spelled in Japanese.

So, long story short, when we discussed the book in class, the professor explained to us that there were a lot of minor errors all throughout the book, particularly in terms of when particular foods were available in Japan and what they were called at the time.  (I didn’t mention the anime thing, because I didn’t want to sound like the biggest otaku ever, but I’m sure she was aware of it.  She’s just more interested in food culture than pop culture.)

Now, do little things like that ruin a book?  Well, no, not to most people.  But as I said, I didn’t like it anyway, because of the whole melodramatic, recurring coincidence thing.  It’s just not my cup of tea.

And moving on to Challenge #24 (skipping over #20 to end with it) we have another class book, and this one feels even more like cheating.  That last challenge is “An assigned book you hated (or never finished).”  I didn’t hate it, but this is the last book we were assigned in that class, and I didn’t manage to finish it on time because I was too caught up in work and in research for my final paper.

This book is a sociological/anthropological study of Bethel, a service community on the island of Hokkaido which helps mental patients discharged from the hospital to live their lives outside the mental institution.  Most of the patients were, at first, schizophrenics, though that’s started to change in favor of emotional disturbances.  Anyway, it’s a very interesting book and written with very simple language, not a lot of technical terms from pyschology or anthropology.  It did need a better editing job, though; a lot of grammatical errors made it to the printed page.

Okay, so last one, Challenge #20, “A book with a cover you hate.”  And again this is kind of cheating, because this is something I would have read anyway.  But it does qualify, though in a different way than they likely meant.  My choice for this challenge is this:

I’m sure you’re looking at that gorgeous cover and wondering why in the world I hate it.  Well, let me tell you this:  if you have ever read any Black Butler and just haven’t gotten this far, or if you think you might want to read it in the future, then just stop right now.  Because I can’t explain why I hate this cover without completely spoiling the contents of this volume of the manga.

Okay, so if you don’t want to read further, hit the back button now!

Just gonna add a few more lines of buffer…

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Okay, hopefully that’s buffer enough.

So, the reason I hate this book’s cover is because Agni there is my second favorite character in the manga…

…and he is horribly, brutally killed in the first chapter of this volume.

And in a later chapter we see a shinigami completing the paperwork on collecting his soul, so it’s highly unlikely (if not outright impossible) that he’s going to be magically revived.

Worse still, I had already paid to read that horrible, horrible chapter.  Because the last volume ended with my favorite character, Prince Soma (Agni’s employer/dearest friend), with a gun to his head, and then a page with nothing but a sound effect of a gun being fired.  I knew there were ways to buy an officially translated version of new chapters within days of their release in Japan, and I couldn’t possibly wait to find out if Soma was okay, so I had looked around and found that comixology sold the chapters for $2.99 apiece.  I bought the relevant chapter and found that Soma only got shot in the hand, but the assailant proved himself unnaturally powerful and…

…I ended up crying so hard that I had to call my brother, hastily assure him that nothing was wrong, and then continue crying as I explained I needed to get out of the house for a while.  (The worst part is, I have a fair chunk of Black Butler merch in my house.  If things go as badly as I fear they might in the next volume, and Soma gets himself killed trying to avenge Agni by going after the wrong person, I don’t know what I’m going to do with it all, because I don’t think I’ll want to keep it.  Or even keep reading.)

Needless to say, when this volume was released and I saw what the cover image was, I was really pissed off that they had the gall to do this.  I mean, there have been characters on the cover of the volume in which they die before, but those were new characters who were only introduced in that arc.  Soma and Agni were introduced very early on, before the story arcs got so long, and they’ve been around for probably about seven or eight years now.  (I believe the manga recently celebrated its tenth year.)  As long as they’ve been around, they should have become effectively immortal.  I accept that in a supernatural manga where the title character is a literal demon, there are plenty of human casualties, even ones that you would want to have survive and join the permanent cast, but if the permanent cast are suddenly no longer so permanent…

Not to mention that the “evil twin” became a tired cliche decades ago.  I mean, I think in this case there’s still something supernatural going on (at the very least, he’s been raised from the dead) but that doesn’t change the stupidity of it; there better be something more complex and deeper going on than that.

And I could go on about this for ages, but I’ll stop because I doubt anyone cares.

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Abandoned Book Report: The Alchemyst

Published December 13, 2018 by Iphis of Scyros

Right, so I may have said before how part of the reason I was more or less stymied in my blogging was because of a book review post on one of my Read Harder choices.  And I have decided not to bother actually finishing the review.  Because a) why torture myself?  And b) I read it in like June and really don’t remember much.

Except that I hated it.  I remember that.

And that the author’s afterword about the real people who inspired the not-actually-the-hero (Nicholas Flamel) and the villain (Dr. John Dee) was way more interesting than the actual book.  (BTW, I was proud of myself, in the early pages, for identifying the latter figure just by his being called Dee.)

I’m including what little I had written (back in August) of the review, and summing up the rest with:  the teenage twins who were the leads were utterly boring, the girl had zero agency throughout the book (her magic was stronger, but the two times she used it to save the day were not her triumph, because in one case it was an accident, and in the other she was literally being controlled by someone else), and their parents were apparently con artists posing as archaeologists, because absolutely everything the twins said about their parents’ work was wrong and backwards.  (FYI, author of this awful book, archaeologists have a culture or region they specialize in, and they do not go gallivanting all over the freakin’ world excavating in every random culture they feel like.  They only work in the one they’ve specialized in.  Traveling the world to lecture or do a book tour, yes, but excavating any old ancient civ?  No.  Doesn’t happen.  Also, children do not need to have archaeologist parents to know who Bastet is.  I knew that from a very early age, because I read books.  And yes, parents who are not archaeologists do give their children books on world mythology.)

This was a young adult book, either about the same length as the first Harry Potter book, or a bit shorter.  But it took me a whole month to read it, because I had so much trouble forcing myself to endure it.

Also, using “Alchemyst” to refer to Flamel as an epithet in narration was really, really annoying.  “Olde English Shoppe” names notwithstanding, I don’t think anyone ever spelled the word alchemist that way.   And if they did, it was when English spelling was so loose that it probably would have been spelled five different ways in the same document.

Anyway, thanks to replacing some of my originally intended books with much, much shorter ones, I now only have one book left to go in Read Harder 2018 (if it weren’t for this stinkbomb, I would have finished back in the summer months, before my fall class started!), so once I’ve read that (and it’s a manga, so it won’t take long, once I force myself to start) I’m going to post a group book report on the rest of them.

And what follows is the small amount I wrote back in August.  Complete with the “note to self” material in brackets that I normally would delete as I replaced it with the proper text.

Part of the reason it’s taken me so long to post again after the last post is that this review is going to be really hard and frustrating to write.  In part because it’s now been like two months since I finished reading this book, and in part because I really don’t even want to think about it again.

This is my review for Read Harder 2018 Challenge #16, “The first book in a new-to-you YA or middle grade series.”

Where do I even start?

Well, at the very beginning, I guess.  Which, in this case, is when and why I bought this book.  I had recently finished writing my quasi-YA series about three young heroes who were all illegitimate offspring of heroes of the Trojan War.  (The boy being a genuine mythological figure, and the two girls being my own inventions.)  As I had ludicrous delusions of being able to polish the books up to a publishable state, I wanted to make sure they fit in with the basic YA crowd.  As such, I wanted to read some other first-in-a-series YA books before I started editing the first book.  And I saw this at the bookstore and thought it sounded interesting.

And as the back of the book pushed the title character, the immortal Nicholas Flamel, rather than the two utterly boring modern teenagers who were the actual leads, it did sound interesting.

[okay, for attacking their asinine claims about their parents’ discoveries, the archaeologists who accidentally discovered Homo floresiensis were Australian and Indonesian, not American, and they were looking for evidence of how humans migrated from Asia to Australia.  That is highly specified work which would not take just any random archaeologist who was used to working with fully developed cultures.]

Book Reports: Things I Wanted to Review During Pride Month

Published July 28, 2018 by Iphis of Scyros

Yeaahhhhhh, so the lengthy I-can’t-type thing has really caused book reviews to backlog.  Although actually the YA book took me so long to read that there aren’t as many as there might be, and I’ve been focusing on my backlog of manga and Kickstarter-backed graphic novels rather than reading, you know, real books since.  Partly because I wanted something different, and partly because I spent money on these things, so I’m darn well gonna read them!  I’m starting with the graphic novels, though, rather than the YA book.  I’ll get to that one next time.  But one of these manga volumes counts for Read Harder 2018 (actually, all of them could count for the same challenge), so we’ll start with that one.  (Also, I actually read some of them after June ended, but I figured I’d just put them in this post, because otherwise I might not post anything about them at all, and they all fit into the theme so nicely!)

The challenge in question is number 4, “A comic written and illustrated by the same person,” and the manga I’ve chosen for that slot is…

Yes, that title says “The Bride was a Boy.”  And no, it’s not about a same-sex marriage.  (Last I heard, those are still illegal in Japan.)  And yes, that is an accurate translation of the original Japanese title.  (As far as I can tell.)  This manga is a very cute memoir (of sorts) in manga form, in which the mangaka (graphic novel author, for those less otaku-ish readers) Chii explains how she was assigned the male gender at birth, but transitioned as an adult.  This is a rare case where I actually did read reviews first, and I do agree with them that the tale is quite simplified and lacking in drama, because if there were any objections among Chii’s family and friends, she chose not to tell us about it.  Thus while I feel their complaints of “unrealistic” are not necessarily correct (if it’s actually what happened in her case, then it by definition is realistic), but it’s definitely not representative of the typical experience of trans individuals, so far as I know.  (Which is admittedly not far, but given all the reports one hears, I think it safe to say that most do not have the easy acceptance Chii found among family and friends.)

The art throughout is pretty much exactly like what you see on the cover:  cute, but not terribly distinctive.  And that’s fine, because I don’t think this was intended to launch a manga career for Chii.  Rather, I would say that this was intended to be educational.  At the end of every chapter, Chii explains a term and/or clears up a misconception about trans individuals, and I think that was the real intention of the book, to spread more accurate awareness.  Some of the moments I found most interesting were the insights into what it’s like to be trans in Japan:  for example, before Chii transitioned on paper, but after she was living as a woman, she would have trouble getting some official business done, because the officials on the other side of the desk would look at the paperwork for a man and say that they needed to talk to the person in question.  (Which sounds really complex, but that’s because it’s hard to phrase it.  It was actually only a single panel…)  Or, in a less convoluted example, how reassignment surgery is necessary for trans individuals who want to get married, because of the above-mentioned ban on same-sex marriage.  (Um, rather for heterosexual trans individuals.  For gay or lesbian trans individuals, reassignment surgery would actually mean they couldn’t get married.  I don’t think Chii really went into that, but…logically, it follows, since in Japan they can’t transition on paper without the surgery.)

So, at the end of the day, it’s a sweet and charming little book with some educational content, some laughs, and a lot of warm fuzzies.

Now, changing gears and yet staying on the same subject, I want to talk about an anime.  (Yeah, I know, that’s not a book report in any way, but…well, it’s based on a manga!  I just haven’t read the manga; I’ve seen the anime.)

This is the promotional image on the Crunchyroll page for the anime Hourou Musuko, which translates as “Wandering Son.”  It’s really hard for me to get a bead on how to even discuss this, mostly in terms of pronouns.  (Something that isn’t an issue in Japanese, because the language doesn’t have pronouns like those in English.)  The protagonist of this anime is Nitori Shuichi, a boy in middle school.  That’s him on the image, the one in the wine-colored dress.  And here’s where my uncertainty about pronouns come in:  Shuichi feels he should be a girl — that he is one, rather — but he hasn’t transitioned, and only periodically wears dresses and a long wig.  So, should I be using “she” to reflect Shuichi’s self-perceived gender, or “he” to reflect the socially-perceived gender that has yet to be fully rejected in Shuichi’s behavior?  I’ve been using “he” because Shuichi hasn’t actually transitioned yet, but I’m not sure if that’s right.  (I welcome correction if I’m wrong.)  As you’d expect from someone only in middle school, Shuichi isn’t entirely sure about a lot of other aspects of his identity, particularly his sexual identity.  He has romantic interest in his best friend, Takatsuki Yoshino (the other kid in the picture above), a girl who hasn’t yet transitioned to being a boy, but he also shows interest in girls who do self-identify as female.  So Shuichi doesn’t seem quite sure if his ideal self is a straight, bi or lesbian trans woman.  And I think that makes him feel much more real, because how many people have themselves fully figured out at that age?  (I didn’t come to understand that I’m asexual until I was 40, for cryin’ out loud!)

Hourou Musuko is what’s known as a “slice of life” anime, following Shuichi and a few other students at his school as they go about their daily lives.  Unlike most of the “slice of life” anime I’ve seen, it’s quiet, subdued, and you feel like these could be real kids.  (Most of the “slice of life” anime I’ve seen have been more in the “zany comedy” neck of the woods…)  The show never telegraphs what’s going on in the heads of the characters — though Shuichi’s reasons for doing things are usually spelled out fairly well, as the lead — and although you can often figure out, or at least speculate, what motivates the other major characters, you’re never completely certain, as you wouldn’t be with real people.  For example, there’s a scene in the first episode when Shuichi’s sister says something so horrible to him that if it had been a movie and not the first episode of a television show, I would honestly have been afraid he would kill himself over it.  It was that bad, and his reaction to it was that powerful.  But it’s not that she hates him, and in later episodes she is sometimes tolerant and even sweet to him.  The other students in Shuichi’s class are the same way:  you can’t always guess how they’re going to react to something, but afterwards you see how it all fits together with their earlier behavior, and you get a better idea of who they really are.  And none of the students you get to know well are typical; there’s something that makes them each unique, and most of the ones we get to know well either are aware of being LGBTQ+ in some way, or are displaying signs that they probably are, even if they haven’t figured themselves out yet.  (Before anyone thinks there is something exceptionally unusual about Shuichi’s school, it should be noted that the characters we spend the most time with are only a handful of students out of a fairly large class.)

Overall, it’s a very subtle, very genuine-feeling look into the complicated lives of today’s youth in their early/mid- teens.  (The pace is definitely not fast, however.  Don’t expect a thrill ride.)

And, even though it’s the one I read most recently — and yet the oldest of the lot — we’re switching back to manga for

The title you might have trouble reading because of that script font is Claudine, the name of the lead.  The mangaka, Ikeda Riyoko, is that shaper of modern manga and anime responsible for the classic The Rose of Versailles.  (Which I shamefacedly must admit I still haven’t finished watching.  I went into it knowing how it ends (who didn’t, though?  Marie Antoinette is one of the major characters!) and then I got to the episode where Oscar weirdly decided that she was in love with a man who wasn’t Andre, and even wore a dress for him, and I was just like “What is the matter with you, woman?!” and had to set it aside for a while and then kind of forgot to go back.  *cough*  I’d been enjoying it up until then, though.)  It should not, therefore, surprise you to learn that Claudine was first published in Japan in 1978.  So, yes, they didn’t translate this until it was forty years old!

Why the 40 year delay, you might wonder.  (Or you might not, given the context in which I’m discussing it…)  Translating it right away was not going to happen, of course; manga was not being brought over to the US in the late ’70s, so far as I know.  (Then again, how would I know?  I was only three years old in 1978.)  Let me answer the question in a slightly round-about fashion.  The Rose of Versailles, for those who don’t know, is the story of Oscar Francois, the youngest daughter of a French noble who was so tired of having daughters that he named his last child while still in the womb, and didn’t change it to a girl’s name even after she wasn’t a boy.  And she lived up to having a man’s name, dressing as a boy, learning to ride and fight like a man, and even joining the royal guards (by special royal dispensation), where she was made bodyguard to the Dauphine-to-be as soon as she left Austria.  Although Oscar dresses as a man, she doesn’t self-identify as one (though everyone routinely mistakes her for one at first glance, and one woman fell for her so hard as to literally commit suicide) and her servant/friend/military-right-hand-man Andre Grandier is, of course, passionately in love with her.  So, it didn’t just shape shoujo melodrama for decades to come, but inspired both shoujo-ai/yuri and shounen-ai/yaoi, even though it doesn’t technically fall into either of those categories.  And if you have ever seen a zany comedy anime, you have probably seen Ikeda’s art style mimicked at some point or other, because it’s just that iconic.

With all that said, Claudine goes much further than The Rose of Versailles.  The narration is from a psychiatrist (or psychologist) in Paris, sometime in the first half of the 20th century, reminiscing on the life of Claudine de Montesse, who was first brought to him as a patient at just 10 years old…because at eight years old, Claudine had self-identified as a boy.  It’s not clear exactly when the action of the manga is taking place, but I’d say the finale is probably before the outbreak of World War I, since it’s never mentioned.  (But I don’t know how much weight we should put on details of timing; I don’t think exactly when it was taking place was a high priority in Ikeda’s thought process on this one.)

For the rest of this discussion, I’m going to do something for Claudine that the manga itself never does:  I’m going to use the proper pronouns for him.

Claudine is very much a proper gentleman, but not so proper that he’s overly concerned by the social standing of the women he falls in love with.  His case is an odd one when viewed from the modern perspective where society is starting to accept and understand trans individuals:  he dresses and acts like a man, views himself as a man, but never changes his name to “Claude” and when he goes off to college, he doesn’t tell his new acquaintances that he’s a man or try to live as one.  Looking at it in context of Europe at the time it’s set…honestly, I guarantee there are cases more or less exactly like Claudine’s, but I know there are also cases of trans men born in Claudine’s situation who simply moved to a new city (or even country) where they weren’t known, changed their name and never admitted to anyone that they were not biologically male.  Though the story provides several incidents that could “explain” why Claudine self-identified as a man, they’re not accepted as explanations by Claudine himself, and actually wouldn’t explain it even if being trans was something that could be (or even needed to be) “explained” in those kinds of terms.

The fact that a manga like this with a trans lead was written in 1978 is frankly astonishing, especially given that Japan is a bit behind the curve on LGBTQ+ issues.  (Though certain people in this country are trying to push us back to the freakin’ Middle Ages, but that’s not something I should go into detail about.)  Of course, there are down sides to this amazing manga.  Like a lot of LGBTQ+ stories written before the 21st century, it has a tragic ending.  (And that’s not much of a spoiler, because the narrator’s tone quickly makes you assume something terrible happened, not to mention that the back of the book describes it as “heart-wrenching.”)  Unfortunately, it’s a very believable one.  Melodramatic, but people in love (regardless of gender or sexual orientation) can be very melodramatic in real life.

It’s not a feel-good read, but the art is gorgeous, and the characters who weave their way in and out of Claudine’s story feel like they lead full lives off the page (well, some of them do), which is very impressive in such a remarkably short volume.  It’s a pity it’s not longer, because I think Claudine’s story could have easily filled several regular-size volumes of manga without feeling padded, while this is a single, very thin volume.  And if Ikeda hadn’t been writing it back in 1978, it probably would have been several volumes long.  But I doubt 1978’s manga market was willing to support such a revolutionary story over a long period of time.

This one, btw, could also qualify for Read Harder 2018 challege number 3, “A classic of genre fiction,” as manga hasn’t been around as long, so it doesn’t have to be as old to count as “classic.”  I’m not counting it for that challenge (I’m reading some H.G. Wells for that), but I think it would qualify.

So, from a landmark manga of incredible depth, complexity and beauty, let’s move to another landmark manga which lacks pretty much all of those qualities.

What you see above are the covers of the first six volumes of the manga Gravitation, one of the first really major shounen-ai/yaoi titles to be brought to the US.  When I picked them up used at the local anime store, I thought the manga was only six volumes long.  I’m still not sure if I want to track down the other six, or just say “to heck with it!”

Which isn’t to say that it’s bad, per se.  I mean, I was enjoying reading it.  But the characters are pretty one dimensional, they all look pretty much the same (I frequently said “wait, who is that?” sometimes in cases when the person in question was the hero’s best friend/bandmate, who’s been in the story from the very first chapter), and the plot is running at full tilt with no indication that the mangaka had any idea where she was actually going with it.  This is not the highly polished work of art that Claudine was, but it’s not really trying to be, either.

So, the plot of this one, as described on the back of the first volume, is roughly as follows:  Shindo Shuichi, high school senior and frontman of an amateur band, drops a sheet of his lyrics in the park one night, and they’re picked up by the handsome-but-aloof Yuki Eiri, who takes one look at them and pronounces them utter garbage.  After this encounter, Shuichi becomes obsessed with Yuki, entering into his gravitational field (hence the title), circling ever closer in his obsession.

Now, my understanding had been that Yuki was part of a competing band, and that as their bands played against each other over and over again, they grew closer and closer together until they became romantically entangled.  That could not be further from the case.  (Though it does come very close to describing something else I’ll be reviewing below…)

The actual case is that Yuki Eiri is a novelist who writes romance novels aimed at teenage girls/women in their twenties, and Shuichi basically hunts him down to demand an apology, which prompts more insults.  When Shuichi is fuming about that later, his best friend/bandmate tells him to just let it go, and says something about “it’s not like you’re in love with him or something” which somehow prompts Shuichi to realize that he is, in fact, in love with Yuki.  Even though he’s not gay.  (Or he never was before, anyway.)  Before the first volume is over, they’re already sleeping together, even though they both insist that they’re straight.  (I think, given that they’re sleeping together, they have to realistically be considered bisexual, but…hey, I’m not the one who wrote it.)

It goes all over the place from there.  Shuichi’s band getting a big break, competition against other bands, risks of discovery, and (of course!) basic romantic melodrama.  Throughout all of this, Shuichi is a crybaby, a moron, and rattles back and forth between melodrama, manic happiness, hysterical tears, and extreme passion like a pinball on speed.  (If you’ve seen or read Sailor Moon, imagine Usagi magnified about ten times, and that’s Shuichi in a nutshell.)  Yuki, on the other hand, has only one setting:  sullen.  He’s even sullen about having sex.  (Uh, what?)  Volume 6 introduced a new character who seemed to be a bit of a sadist, or maybe even a proto-yandere, which might lead to interesting places, but I’m still not sure it’s worth hunting down the other six volumes.  (And I can’t just hunt down the anime, because according to Wikipedia, it only covers volumes 1-7.)

The main thing I wanted to say about this is that it’s a weird mix.  On the one hand, Shuichi is very much the distillation of the problem that plagues a lot of yaoi (and shounen-ai, but less so there):  as the passive partner in the relationship (the uke in yaoi terminology), he is presented with many feminine/feminizing mannerisms.  On the other hand, he isn’t the typical feminine uke:  most of the female characters are tougher and more mature than he is, and pretty much every other character in the manga (including Yuki) considers him a freak, so he’s certainly not embodying the usual “a passive gay man is a girl in a male body” that is such a problem not only in yaoi/shounen-ai fiction, but also some fanfiction written by non-Japanese women.  I think what perplexes me most about it is that I’m not quite sure what the goal was here.  If it was just to write a funny manga about the “wacky” lead singer in a band falling for a grumpy and withdrawn writer, what was the point of them both being men?  It’s not as though the people around them react realistically when they learn about their relationship.  If the romance between two attractive men was supposed to be titillating to the (almost entirely) female target audience, then why make Shuichi behave like such a weirdo?  He spends more time in SD “I’m being an idiot” mode than in standard “see, I’m a good-looking guy, too” mode.  I knew it wasn’t going to be proper representation in any way, but I still find myself baffled as I try to suss out exactly what it really is.

Okay, since I teased it already, let’s change gears dramatically, and take a hop across the Pacific Ocean for…

This is one of those Kickstarter-backed graphic novels I mentioned.  (I keep on backing them, even though it takes me a long time to get around to reading them…but no, I’m not going to start reviewing all of them.  Just some of them.)  Band vs Band Comix is the collected edition of a webcomic by Kathleen Jacques.  (The webcomic version is here.)  Sadly, this is one of the ones I backed before I broke my iPad, so I backed for the .pdf version instead of the physical, which meant I was trying to read it on my phone, which was really hard to do.  *cough*  Anyway, the plot here is similar to what I thought the plot of Gravitation was:  two rival bands, the sugary Candy Hearts and the goth Sourballs, are always running into each other, playing against each other in competitions, etc.  The lead singers, Honey Hart and Turpentine, slowly draw closer as the story continues, and the audience sees that they’re made for each other long before they do.  (Isn’t that always the way?)  It’s got a lot of LGBTQ+ representation–lesbian (obviously), gay, bi, and trans, just among the primary cast–and it’s both sweet and really funny.  A lot of the art has a very retro feel (’50s and early ’60s for the Candy Hearts, and more of an ’80s feel for the Sourballs) and it does really unusual things with the color that bring out the slight surreality of the setting.  The only complaint I can think of (aside from how hard it is to read on a phone, lol) is that the setting is so utopian that it makes the real world seem even worse than it actually is:  despite the mid-century aesthetics on display, the only homophobia I can think of anywhere in both volumes combined is in some flashbacks to one character’s childhood.  (Maybe I’ve just forgotten, but I think that was really the only example.)  I’m not saying I think they ought to encounter hate (outside of the understandable distaste engendered by Turpentine’s behavior (like stealing other bands’ awards, for example)), just that its so paradisaical that when you stop reading and step back into reality you’re like “oh, right…all that horrible stuff still exists…”

Okay, actually, I do have a different, much bigger complaint:  based on the Kickstarter page, it took four years to accumulate the material in Volume 2.  That puts Volume 3 a long way off!  (I mean, okay, yeah, I could just read it online as each page goes up, but…)  At least there should be another Kickstarter to reprint Volume 1, though, so hopefully I can snag physical copies of both volumes then…

And back across the Pacific for one last manga, also with a very retro visual style…

If anyone reading this is as familiar with anime as I am, they’re probably having loads of early Takahashi Rumiko flashbacks looking at that cover art.  And that is absolutely what the art is like:  I could easily imagine Ranma running past this school in training (or Ryoga wandering into the building, lost as usual).  I honestly spent most of the manga assuming that the art style was a conscious decision to show that it was taking place in the late ’80s/early ’90s, especially when someone talked about “running out of film,” but then later on someone else was using a digital camera, so I guess it’s actually supposed to be modern after all.  (Cell phones are referenced once, but never appear.)

Anyway, chronological setting aside, Go For It, Nakamura! is about as far removed from Gravitation as you can get, despite a few similarities in the starting place.  Okay, actually, there’s really only the one similarity.  And it’s not that similar.

Let me start over.

Nakamura Okuto, our hapless hero, is an introverted student who’s head-over-heels in love with his classmate, Hirose Aiki, one of the most outgoing and popular boys in the class.  Nakamura already knew he was gay before he met Hirose, but he’s never been involved with anyone, and is not out to anyone.  He wants desperately to actually meet Hirose (yes, they’ve never even spoken when the manga starts), but is terrified of screwing up and making the object of his affection hate him.

A lot of the gags are the kind of thing you might have seen in straight romantic comedy manga/anime, most of them with little to no change from their straight counterparts.  What sets Go For It, Nakamura! apart in this, however, is the fact that Hirose, apart from a pretty, mildly feminine face, is in no way feminized; his behavior is typically masculine.  Likewise, there’s nothing feminine about Nakamura (aside from his attempts to get dating tips from shounen-ai manga), so what we have here is a romcom between two teenage boys who actually act like teenage boys.  (Well, the manga definition of acting like teenage boys.)  Also, a lot of the ways Nakamura screws up are new takes on classic potential gaffes.  (Like, how many romcom leads can you think of who are so into octopi that they have a pet octopus in their bedroom?)

From the mangaka’s afterword pages, it seems that this was being used as a page-filler in a manga magazine when it didn’t quite fill its usual length.  That being the case, though the story does progress from chapter to chapter, each one is also designed to be a stopping place of sorts, which prevents any massive dramatic events, but also means that there could conceivably be another volume someday.  (Or not.  I don’t know.)


Whew!  That was ridiculously long!  (And I’ve been working on it on-and-off for like ten days….in part because I’ve been dedicating most of my writing time to Camp NaNo, of course…)

Future book reviews will be the usual “one book per post” format, naturally.  (In addition to that YA book, I’ve almost finished the classic of genre fiction, too.)  And I plan to have a “future of this blog” post soon, as I’ve come to a decision I want to share, and had an idea I wanted to toss out there.

Book Report: As You Wish

Published May 13, 2018 by Iphis of Scyros

I’ve been meaning to read this since the first time I saw it on bookstore shelves, possibly as much as four years ago.  (Not sure if it was the hardback or paperback I first saw.)  This book was selected to meet Challenge #12 “A celebrity memoir.”

The acid test of a memoir like this (that is to say, one narrating only the events during the filming of a particular movie, as opposed to an actor’s whole career, or what-have-you), I think, is if it changes the way you watch the movie afterwards.  So, when I sat down to start my evening’s Internetting (ack), I popped The Princess Bride into the DVD player.  (I thought I had the Blu-ray, but evidently I haven’t upgraded yet.  Or I can’t find the new copy.  Given what this place is like, that’s very possible.)  Thus, I’m only starting to write with a little over an hour to go before midnight, because I can’t multi-task like I used to, and the better the movie, the harder it is to ignore.

So, in short, no, it didn’t change the way I watch the movie; I still love it to pieces.

But let’s back up and try to go about this the way I planned, because I have limited time before I’ll be impinging on the grand(?) return of Missing Letter Mondays.  The 1980s produced a number of live-action fantasy films that are loosely called “family,” in that they’re kid-safe (even kid-friendly), but which have become classics because they’re also entertaining for adults.  In alphabetical order (because I no longer have time enough to look up order of release, though I think I know which ones came out when, but I’d hate to get it wrong), there are The Dark CrystalLabyrinthThe Neverending Story, and The Princess Bride.  And I’m pretty sure there are actually more; those are just the ones that I’ve watched so many times that I pretty much know them by heart.  I mean, I couldn’t recite their whole script to you on demand, but if you’ve read the book of Ready Player One, I could do with all four of those movies what Wade was able to do with War Games.  (I get why they changed that, but it’s also kind of a shame; the one in the book was a much harder challenge to complete, even if it wasn’t as hard to get what you were supposed to do.)  Easily.

Naturally, therefore, the idea of reading what it was like to film The Princess Bride, as it was experienced by the leading man himself, sounded like the perfect experience.  And while it maybe wasn’t “perfect” (that’s actually a pretty tall order!), it was definitely entertaining.

It could have gone terribly wrong, though.  There are movies out there where the behind-the-scenes story is that everyone on set hated each other, and every moment they weren’t filming, the leads were an inch away from killing each other.  (Though I suspect in most of those cases that animosity bleeds through onto the screen…)

Thankfully, however, The Princess Bride was one of those blessed films where everyone got along fantastically (even if some of the actors were convinced that they were about to be fired at any second), and he has nothing bad to say about anyone involved:  even the off-camera people who often go unmentioned are praised for their hard work, skill and dedication.  (Okay, that’s not entirely true.  There was one catering company that was decidedly not praised.)

Don’t let that make you think it’s boring, or some kind of kiss-up situation, though.  It’s very entertaining, because a lot of funny people worked on the movie, and he relates a lot of anecdotes about things they did on and off camera (or the hybrid of on and off camera that is outtakes, which were obviously extensive for Billy Crystal’s 3 minute scene, which took a whopping three days to film, in part because of cast and crew laughing at his ad libs and wrecking the take), and it all feels decidedly genuine.

He also talks about the work that went into creating the fantastic duel between Inigo and the Man in Black, as well as how various stunts and effects were achieved.  Which isn’t the disillusioning thing that it would be in some other movies (for example, do we really want to think about the (actually pretty obvious) way Hoggle gets around the set?) because the effects are minimal (mostly just the R.O.U.S.) and it’s pretty easy to tell in the final film when it’s a stunt person and when it’s one of the cast.  But you can’t tell by watching just how many times a stunt had to be performed, or what the name of the stunt person was (yeah, it’s in the end credits, but there’s that awful song over them) and so on.

In the early part of the book, he talks about how difficult it was to get the movie made, how many other directors had tried and failed to get it going before Rob Reiner got his hands on the script.  And there are some mind-boggling prospective actors mentioned (either attached to failed earlier films, or people talked to but never seriously considered) that are really, well, inconceivable!

Oh, speaking of which, at the beginning, he mentions how many of the lines from The Princess Bride are frequently quoted by fans, and while “Inconceivable!” was of course one of them, he didn’t mention “You keep using that word.  I do not think it means what you think it means.”  Which I always thought was just as popular a quote.  (If it isn’t, it certainly should be!)

The book isn’t a one-man show, though.  In addition to the introduction listed on the front, there are also frequent quotes throughout the book, presented at the side of the page in boxes, from the rest of the surviving cast, as well as Reiner, William Goldman, and the producer.  Their additional perspectives definitely add a lot to the experience.

So, all in all, I obviously enjoyed reading this.  Probably most fans would.  (I expect it would be largely uninteresting to those who have never seen the movie, though.  Unless they’re great fans of Andre the Giant, in which case they would surely have seen it, so…yeah, I’m not sure where I was going with that.  It’s getting late; I’m losing coherence.)

One more thing:  there are a few photos throughout the book, but most of the pictures are in a photo section in the center.  In that section is included a shot of the gathered cast (along with the director and the writer) who were in attendance at a 25th anniversary screening at a film festival, which was directly why he decided to write this memoir, as he had wanted to share even more of his memories than there had been time for in the question and answer session.  Looking at that picture (from 2012), I was really stunned at just how long it had been since I had seen any photos of any of the male cast.  I mean, the last picture I’d seen of most of them has to have been at least ten years old.  (And then there’s Robin Wright, who I’ve seen much more recent pictures of, because she was in Wonder Woman.  Which, jarringly enough, I’m planning on watching tomorrow night, because I need to revisit it before I write my fix-it fic for it.)  Random, yes, but there you have it.

Okay, so once again, I have failed to write anything like a coherent review.  (*sigh*)

I’m not sure which challenge I want to try next, so the next book I’m going to read isn’t actually going to be part of the challenge.  Because I’m feeling ambivalent, and it’s newly arrived and I wanna read it.

Book Report: The Grey Witch

Published April 29, 2018 by Iphis of Scyros

So, today I’m bringing you the report on my selection for Challenge #19, “A book of genre fiction in translation.”

Firstly, that graphic I got off Goodreads isn’t accurate.  There’s no white on the cover; everything white you see there is also black.  And everything that isn’t black is gold, and the black is, well, I’m not sure if it’s real leather or pleather, but it’s something leather-like, at any rate.  This is a very spiffy edition, and it’s certainly been a long time coming:  it missed being a 30th anniversary edition by a few weeks.  (It released in December of last year.  Had it come out in January, it would have been a 30th anniversary edition.)

Those of you with even a passing acquaintance with anime — older anime, anyway — are probably familiar with the name Lodoss War. but for those who aren’t, let me explain that this book spawned a massive franchise, with many more novels, lots of manga (graphic novel) adaptations and spin-offs, and two anime series, one an OVA (direct-to-video, limited episode) and one on television.  Oh, yeah, and the Crystania movie (blehh), and the Rune Soldier Louie TV anime.  And a number of video games, of which I think only the Dreamcast game ever came over to this country.  (It was a bit clunky, but a pretty decent game.  Even if the best part, to me, was watching the anti-hero laugh after his goblin minions obeyed when he ordered them to drop dead.) Record of Lodoss War is something of a cultural institution in Japan (at least in pop culture terms), and has had a profound influence on all the fantasy that followed in its wake.  It also, according to the afterword, apparently invented the “light novel” almost single-handedly.

The best way to sum up the genre of Lodoss War is Lord of the Rings by way of Dungeons & Dragons.  Quite literally, actually, as Record of Lodoss War started out as life as a tabletop RPG session, which the author fleshed out and novelized into this book.  (According to the afterword, written for a now-five-year-old Japanese edition, all the further novels came from Mizuno alone, rather than from further RPG sessions.)  In some ways, the Lord of the Rings influence is extremely obvious (like the dwarf being named Ghim and hating elves), and in other ways, there isn’t much Tolkien influence at all:  thieves (aside from Bilbo Baggins) don’t play much of a role in Middle Earth, but Wood is an important part of the story, and there is nothing anywhere in Tolkien’s work that is anything like Karla the Grey Witch.  (Not that I’m aware of, anyway.)

Read the rest of this entry →

Book Report: The Serpent and the Rainbow

Published April 22, 2018 by Iphis of Scyros

I teased a bit about this book earlier this week, so I’ll try to get right down into it, but there’s a lot to say here!  This was fulfilling Challenge #14, “A book of social science.”  On the assumption that anthropology counts as a social science.  Because if it doesn’t, then something is broken.

This is a classic of cultural anthropology (though the author’s area of specialty is more ethnobotany) from the mid-1980s.  It starts out in the early ’80s, when a more senior researcher calls the author, Wade Davis, into his office and tells him about the surprising case of Clairvius Narcisse, who was found wandering in a small town in Haiti nearly twenty years after his death.

Yup, the man sickened and died — in a hospital staffed with “Western”-trained doctors — and was buried in 1962.  And yet there he was alive, and reporting that he could remember being buried, and then being dug up and made into a zombi slave for years.  (Davis uses the spelling “zombi” instead of “zombie” and “vodoun” instead of “voodoo,” at least in part to avoid the goofy images associated with those more familiar spellings…though he doesn’t outright say that’s the reason.)  All the necessary precautions had been taken to assure that the Narcisse of the 1980s was the same one who was declared dead in 1962 (I’m assuming, since it wasn’t mentioned, that they didn’t have any pre-burial fingerprints for the man).  Although reports of such things had been floating about for decades, this time there was solid proof that someone had been declared dead and then turned up very much alive.  There was also a woman for whom the same proof was available.

Long story short, Davis was given funding to go to Haiti and investigate these cases, because they had come to suspect that these zombis had been created by the use of a drug that made them seem dead (this is literally compared to the drug Juliet took to convince her family she had died) and an antidote that was then administered to revive them after they were dug up again.  Such a drug would be invaluable for use in, for example, inducing suspended animation in astronauts about to begin an interplanetary (or interstellar!) flight, so Davis went to learn the secret of the drug.

This book is the story of what he learned about vodoun, Haiti, and the social forces binding the two.  I won’t tell you the conclusions he came to, except to say that their initial suspicions were quite naive.

I dog-eared so many pages in this book that I can’t possibly share all of them with you…so I’m just going to try to find the ones that support what I want to say.

First, his depiction of what Haiti is — of what the Haiti he saw was — is one of the most fascinating aspects of the book; rather, Haiti was the main “character” of the book, not the narrator-author-anthropologist.

The Haiti described by Davis is vibrant, lively, and full of a spiritual warmth that has been lacking in the few other accounts I’ve read of visits there.  (I think Roxanne Gay mentioned visiting Haiti, where her parents were born, but the description was largely focused on the jarring presence of opulence side by side with the most abject poverty.  Something I’ve read recently did, anyway…)  Some of that may be due to the fact that this book was written in the ’80s, and Haiti has been hard-hit in the last ten years or so by natural disasters.  But I think some of it has a very different explanation.

In the chapter where Davis goes into distressing detail about Haitian history, starting back in the days of the French colony of Saint Domingue (which actually treated its slaves even worse than the American South did!) he moves on past nationhood into the scholarly study of Haiti and vodoun.  And he talks about how in the 1930s, Zora Neale Hurston traveled to Haiti to produce an anthropological study of Haitian vodoun.  (I hadn’t realized she was an anthropologist — and student of Franz Boas! — as well as being an author.)  Before he tells us about what she learned in Haiti, he tells us about what the world’s (and especially America’s) perception of Haiti was at the time:

For some time American and European foreign correspondents had indulged their readers’ perverse infatuation with what was known as the Black Republic, serving it up garnished with every conceivable figment of their imaginations.  For Americans, in particular, Haiti was like having a little bit of Africa next door, something dark and foreboding, sensual and terribly naughty.  Popular books of the day, with such charming titles as Cannibal Cousins and Black Bagdad, cast the entire nation as a caricature, an impoverished land of throbbing drums ruled by pretentious buffoons and populated by swamp doctors, licentious women, and children bred for the cauldron.  Most of these travelogues would have been soon forgotten had it not been for the peculiar and by no means accidental timing of their publication.  Until the first of this genre appeared in 1880 — Spenser St. John’s The Black Republic, with its infamous account of a cannibalistic “Congo Bean Stew” — most books that dealt with vodoun had simply emphasized its role in the slave uprising.  But these new and sensational books, packed with references to cult objects such as voodoo dolls that didn’t even exist, served a specific political purpose.  It was no coincidence that many of them appeared during the years of the American occupation (1915-1934), and that every Marine above the rank of captain seemed to manage to land a publishing contract.  There were many of these books, and each one conveyed an important message to the American public — any country where such abominations took place could find its salvation only through military occupation.

I think the image created by those books has still not fully been wiped away, especially if the words of certain excessively loud individuals in modern day are any indication.

More people should read this book to get an idea of the real Haiti.  Well, the real Haiti of the 1980s.  (I’d love to see a follow-up now, to find out what was the same and what was different.)

One of the most evocative images of Haiti actually came during one of Davis’s returns to America.  He brought with him “a kaleidoscopic Haitian suitcase constructed from surplus soft drink cans.”  On getting back to his office at Harvard, he had this to say about it:

It was amusing to look at that colorful case so symbolic of an entire nation.  Haiti, it is said, is the place to discover how much can be done with little  Tires are turned into shoes, tin cans into trombones, mud and thatch into lovely, elegant cottages.  Material goods being so scarce, the Haitian adorns his world with imagination.

On a similar note, after returning to Haiti and going to a hounfour (a place where a houngan (vodoun practitioner) practices, in this case acting to heal some very desperately ill people).  Unasked, the patients shared their food with Davis, despite that they likely realized that as a foreign blanc, he had far more money than they ever would:

It was not surprising to see such sickness in the hounfour, which is, after all, a center of healing.  But to encounter such generosity and kindness in the midst of such scarcity was to realize the full measure of the Haitian peasant.

The role of vodoun in Haiti he summed up beautifully here:

Yet images alone cannot begin to express the cohesion of the peasant society; this, like a psychic education, must come in symbols, in invisible tones sensed and felt as much as observed.  For in this country of survivors and spirits, the living and the dead, it is religion that provides the essential bond.  Vodoun is not an isolated cult; it is a complex mystical worldview, a system of beliefs concerning the relationship between man, nature, and the supernatural forces of the universe  It fuses the unknown to the known, creates order out of chaos, renders the mysterious intelligible.  Vodoun cannot be abstracted from the day-to-day lives of the believers.  In Haiti, as in Africa, there is no separation between the sacred and the secular, between the holy and the profane, between the material and the spiritual.  Every dance, every song, every action is but a particle of the whole, each gesture a prayer for the survival of the entier community.

Another passage that really set me thinking was this one:

Perhaps our biggest choice came four centuries ago when we began to breed scientists.  This was not something our ancestors aimed for.  It was a result of historical circumstances that produced a particular way of thinking that was not necessarily better than what had come before, only different.  Every society, including our own, is moved by a fundamental quest for unity; a struggle to create order out of perceived disorder, integrity in the face of diversity, consistency in the face of anomaly.  This vital urge to render coherent and intelligible models of the universe is at the root of all religion, philosophy, and, of course, science.  What distinguishes scientific thinking from that of traditional and, as it often turns out, nonliterate cultures is the tendency of the latter to seek the shortest possible means to achieve total understanding of their world.  The vodoun society, for example, spins a web of belief that is all-inclusive, that generates an illusion of total comprehension.  No matter how an outsider might view it, for the individual member of that society the illusion holds, not because of coercive force, but simply because for him there is no other way.  And what’s more, the belief system works; it gives meaning to the universe.

Scientific thinking is quite the opposite.  We explicitly deny such comprehensive visions, and instead deliberately divide our world, our perceptions, and our confusion into however many particles are necessary to achieve understanding according to the rules of our logic.  We set things apart from each other, and then what we cannot explain we dismiss with euphemisms.  For example, we could ask why a tree fell over in a storm and killed a pedestrian.  The scientist might suggest that the trunk was rotten and the velocity of the wind was higher than usual.  But when pressed to explain why it happened at the instant when the individual passed, we would undoubtedly hear words such as chance, coincidence, and fate; terms which, in and of themselves, are quite meaningless but which conveniently leave the issue open.  For the vodounist, each detail in that progression of events would have a total, immediate, and satisfactory explanation within the parameters of his belief system.

For us to doubt the conclusions of the vodounist is expected, but it is nevertheless presumptuous.  For one, their system works, at least for them.  What’s more, for most of us our basis for accepting the models and theories of our scientists is no more solid or objective than that of the vodounist who accepts the metaphysical theology of the houngan.  Few laymen know or even care to know the principles that guide science; we accept the results on faith, and like the peasant we simply defer to the accredited experts of the tradition.  Yet we scientists work under the constraints of our own illusions.  We assume that somehow we shall be able to divide the universe into enough infinitesimally small pieces, that somehow even according to our own rules we shall be able to comprehend these, and critically we assume that these particles, though extracted from the whole, will render meaningful conclusions about the totality.

I feel like this tells me so much about what’s wrong with the world today:  our culture has subdivided itself into mini-cultures with their own incompatible worldviews, and we’re all unable to look past them to find common ground.

Also I keep wondering about that example with the tree.  What would a scientist say about why it happened to fall just when someone was passing by?  Particularly someone like Neil DeGrasse Tyson, who doesn’t like to fall back on words like “coincidence.”

To close out this disjointed quote-fest (there not being much here other than quotes), I should probably point out that since this was written in the 1980s, certain aspects of it are not very politically correct.  (Like, for example, the references to “peasants.”)  But it’s very clear throughout just how much Davis admired and respected the culture that he had spent so long researching and becoming a part of.  It’s a fascinating read…though the chapter about pre-revolutionary Haiti does require a strong stomach in a couple of places.

Book Report: Witches Abroad

Published March 29, 2018 by Iphis of Scyros

This time, I’ve tackled challenged Challenge #23, “A book with a female protagonist over the age of 60.”  Of course, as soon as I thought about that challenge for even a moment, I knew there was only one protagonist to look to for this challenge:  Granny Weatherwax.

Yes, that is truly the cover of the copy I read.  (Meaning it would also have counted for Challenge #20, “A book with a cover you hate.”)  When you borrow a book from your father, you usually end up with an old edition.

Aaaaanyway, the book technically has three protagonists:  the three witches Granny Weatherwax, Nanny Ogg and Magrat Garlick.  Although Magrat (the only one who isn’t an old crone) is a bit at the center of the story, Granny Weatherwax is still the most important of them, though why in the world this cover has fused her with Nanny Ogg I cannot imagine.  (Seriously, she’s wearing Nanny’s red boots and Nanny’s cat Greebo is sitting on her head, but that’s definitely supposed to be Granny.  And the one in the back with the mirror is the villainess, so…yeah, lousy cover.)

So, what’s the book about?  Well, it starts out with Death.  Who, on the Disc, SPEAKS IN ALL CAPITAL LETTERS.  In this particular instance, Death has come for Desiderata Hollow, a witch who’s also a fairy godmother.  Wait, no, actually, that’s not where it starts.  Where it starts is

This is the Discworld, which travels through space on the back of four elephants which themselves stand on the shell of Great A’Tuin, the sky turtle.

Things on the Discworld are both like and unlike things on other, more likely worlds.  For example, Genua, the home of Desiderata’s goddaughter Ella Saturday (nicknamed Embers, or Emberella for not-short, because of the meager fire she cooks over), at first seems to be based on a Renaissance Italian city-state (any of them will do), until you get there and discover that yes, it’s rather like a Renaissance Italian city-state, but it’s also definitely like New Orleans.  (It might also be part of the inspiration for the land of Far Far Away in Shrek 2, but I can’t be sure of that.)

And what brings our witches three to Genua?  Well, when Death escorts Desiderata off the Disc, she leaves her magic wand (and job as fairy godmother) to Magrat, and specifically orders Magrat not to allow Granny Weatherwax and Nanny Ogg to accompany her to Genua, because she knows that’s the only way to ensure that all three of them go.  Because, of course, something is afoot in Genua, which requires the witches three to set it right.  Though they have quite a few adventures in foreign parts on the way there.  (They rarely leave the Ramtop Mountains…and only Nanny Ogg has even the slightest grasp of foreign languages…and it’s very slight…)

There’s more to it than that, of course, but that gives you a good idea of the premise.

And what’s the book like?

Well, it’s a Discworld book.  So it’s clever, funny, and well-written.  I’m not sure what else to say, y’know?

Except this:  I suddenly noticed at one point that Pratchett almost never used any dialog tag other than “said.”  I mean, he even used “said” when “asked” would typically be the tag of choice.  That flummoxed me a bit.  (The “said” instead of “asked” part, I mean.)  The advice people often give about said being invisible is both true and wrong:  you don’t notice it until you happen to notice that it’s the only thing being used, and then you can’t stop noticing it.  Just an odd observation.


Well, it’s not much of a report, I realize, but…well, among other things, I still have a lot of work to do for next week.  I’ve only written two of my April A-to-Z posts so far, and since I’ll also be doing Camp NaNo’s April session, I need to have a lot more of a headstart than that!

Oh, but I have decided on (and even started) the next challenge I’ll take for Read Harder:  it’ll be Challenge #14, “A book of social science.”  It just felt so fitting after this.  (For reasons that will make sense after I finish it and post about it.)

Book Report: Roxane Gay

Published March 20, 2018 by Iphis of Scyros

Okay, this one is for Challenge 22 “An essay anthology.”  And I put the author’s name in the title of the post rather than the title of the book, because I don’t want anyone misinterpreting based on the title of the book…

Honestly, I first picked it up off the shelf because I wanted to know what the title meant:  was it equating being a feminist with being bad, or was it the author saying she was bad at being a feminist?  Thankfully, it’s (basically) the latter.   (Well, duh; I wouldn’t have bought it if it had been the former!)  She explains in the Introduction:

I openly embrace the label of bad feminist.  I do so because I am flawed and human.  I am not terribly well versed in feminist history.  I am not as well read in key feminist texts as I would like to be.  I have certain…interests and personality traits and opinions that may not fall in line with mainstream feminism, but I am still a feminist.  I cannot tell you how freeing it has been to accept this about myself.

The essays in this book cover a range of subjects — literally spanning from the lightest of topics, like Sweet Valley High books, Twilight/Fifty Shades of Gray and competitive Scrabble to the very weighty topics of oppression and social injustice of several sorts — but there’s a very good flow between them, and she starts you out with the light stuff, getting you used to her style before launching into the more serious subject matter.  Many of the essays are on a subject that was mentioned briefly in the essay before it (or possibly the one before that).  There’s a humor that runs constantly through the book, but it’s a very mournful humor in some cases,  combating the worst that society has to offer.  Ironically(?), right after an essay in which she was talking about how she wasn’t sure that trigger warnings actually did any good, she stumbled onto one of my triggers:  the explosion of the space shuttle Challenger.  Like most people in my generation, I remember exactly where I was when that happened (watching it in school, like most others my age), and like many other grade school students, at the time I wanted to grow up to be an astronaut.  (It wasn’t actually that disaster that changed my mind on that.  It was more not actually liking math and science much.)  I think it must have affected me more deeply than most, though, because I can’t see a recording of a space shuttle launch without my mind’s eye replaying the Challenger for me instead of letting me see what’s actually in front of me.  Though I like the ill-timed movie Space Camp that came out so soon after the disaster, I can’t watch the part where their space shuttle takes off.

*clears throat*

Sorry, wandered off topic.

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Book Report: Destiny, NY

Published March 9, 2018 by Iphis of Scyros

Though I now wish I hadn’t (for reasons I’ll get to at the end of the post), I decided to make Challenge #18, “A comic that isn’t published by Marvel, DC, or Image,” into the next challenge I tackled.  And as I have, for some reason that is inexplicable to me (as a self-described non-comic-book-person), backed a surprising number of graphic novels on Kickstarter, I had several to choose from already lying about my hard drive, waiting to be read.  (Yeah, I tend to go for the non-physical tier on them.  Because I lose things.  And my house is too cluttered already.)

I went with this one:

I chose this one in large part because the Kickstarter I backed was actually for Volume Two, and I figured I probably ought to read Volume One before Volume Two comes out.  Here’s the description off the back of the book (er, final page of the .pdf?):

Adulting is hard.  Adulting when you used to be a magical girl is way, way harder.

Set in a version of New York City where magic is a real and accepted part of life, Logan McBride struggles to find purpose.  She was the subject of an incredible prophecy when she was a child, but fulfilled her foretold destiny when she was just thirteen.  Now in her twenties, Logan navigates through graduate school for Prophecy Kids while searching for her place in a world that tells her sheʼs already finished.

Mostly, I’d say this is a very apt description of the book, with one significant discrepancy:  Logan was not a magical girl by the definition I am accustomed to.  Maybe to non-anime folks, the definition of “magical girl” is a bit more loose, but to the anime/manga crowd, a magical girl typically has a transformation of some sort whenever she’s going to use magic (not necessarily a magical transformation), often (if not always) has a talking animal companion, usually has several very identifiable (and marketable) accessories that feature prominently in her story, generally is having to lead a double life as she hides her magical life from her family and friends, and typically takes a long time fighting monsters of the week before facing off against the big bad.  There are exceptions (Cardcaptor Sakura has neither monsters nor a villain), but for the most part, the formula is as I just described.  Whatever Logan would properly be described as, “magical girl” is not what I would pick, though it is technically accurate, as she was a thirteen year old girl when she completed her prophecy, and she did so magically.  (Sparkler has a property that’s actually a former magical girl trying to get on with her life that I’m very much looking forward to reading…if I ever get the back issues I pledged for.  *grumble*grumble*)

Anyway, that aside, here’s what I feel I can tell you about Volume One of Destiny, NY, without spoiling too much.  Logan (the blonde) is going through a period of personal turmoil (in large part caused by her ex-fiancee not unfriending her before posting engagement photos on Facebook) when she meets Lilith (the redhead), and, as you’d expect, sparks rather fly.  Only Lilith has some very vicious enemies who aren’t afraid of playing very dirty…

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Book Report: Origins

Published March 8, 2018 by Iphis of Scyros

Whew, finally finished reading this one!  Took me almost two weeks, and just in the nick of the time, as it’s due back at the library today!  (Important note, of course, is that I’m actually writing this last night.)  Anyway, I started reading this in February, wanting to pick something that seemed appropriate for Black History Month but not really coming up with anything that really grabbed me.

Then I had a brilliant idea.  (As Mr. Smee would say, lightning struck my brain.)  Challenge #6 is “A book about nature.”  Something is “nature” if it is natural, that is, not made by humanity.  Space is natural, therefore it is nature.  And Neil DeGrasse Tyson is African-American as well as one of the most awesome people currently living, so one of his books on space would both answer the challenge and be appropriate February reading.  Therefore…

Of the ones available at the county library system, this seemed like the one that was the best combination of being “about nature” and being interesting without being too difficult for someone like myself without any particular scientific background knowledge.  (Introductory biology and chemistry were a looooooong time ago…)  The one that actually sounded like the read I’d most enjoy, unfortunately, was ruled out right off the bat, because it was about the history of man’s fascination with/attempts to pursue spaceflight.  (Or something like that.)

Anyway, in one respect, my casual use of Goodreads to select a book steered me wrong on this one.  Specifically, I didn’t look too closely where it talked about the publication date.  I saw the date 2014 and thought “oh, nice, it’s pretty recent,” without noticing that right below that it said “originally published in 2004”.  And, of course, the library’s copy was a first edition.  So it was a bit out of date, which was particularly noticeable when it was talking about a space probe that had just reached Saturn’s moon Titan, but its pictures hadn’t arrived back yet.  (Thankfully, I was able to look up the results on Wikipedia.)

All that aside, let me get back to the subject of the book itself, setting aside the datedness of some of the material (which would be much less dated in the second edition from ten years later).  The purpose of this book is to outline everything currently known and theorized about the entire history of the universe, from its beginnings to the present day, and to do so in a way that laymen can read and understand it.  The authors aren’t coy about admitting that there are things science still hasn’t figured out yet, most of those things centering around, well, origins:  the origin of the universe (yes, the Big Bang was a thing, but why and what came before it?) and the origin of life being the two biggest question marks.

So, do they achieve what they set out to do?  The answer is both a big “yes” and also a moderately loud “no.”

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