Monday, June 17, 2019

Girls in Their Married Bliss by Edna O'Brien (Book Review)

The newest edition
Girls in Their Married Bliss (on it's own) = 6/10
The Country Girls Trilogy + Epilogue = 9/10

Girls in Their Married Bliss by Edna O'Brien is the third in her classic trilogy: "The Country Girls." Originally written in the 1960s, my edition came with a new epilogue written in the 1980s and wow, what a difference that addition made.

I absolutely loved the first book, "The Country Girls" and I really liked the second book "The Lonely Girl" although it was fairly depressing (you can find my reviews HERE and HERE). What I didn't see coming, but maybe can now in retrospect, is just how sad and miserable and, dark and strange the final book would be.

When I finished Girls in Their Married Bliss I was initially very disappointed with the writing, the plot, the character changes, just about everything. But when I read the epilogue, it tied the third novel in with the prior two in a way that dramatically changed how I thought of the first two and made the three work together in a much more haunting way, a way that shows the terrible destiny that our main character, Kate, was almost bound to from birth. However, I won't give away the epilogue's content because it is so vital, but if you do chose to read this book, please find a version with that epilogue.

When we left off at the end of The Lonely Girl, Kate, our young woman and mid-century Irish main character, had left her dour, older, quietly-cruel boyfriend Eugene and was going to finally, we thought, embark on a path of liberation - school, work, and a self-determined life.

The edition I read
That makes the first chapter of "Girls in Their Married Bliss" so jarring. Unlike the prior two books which are told in first person from Kate's perspective, the third novel is told in first person from her friend Baba's perspective or in third person on chapters more dedicated to Kate. This has the effect of depersonalizing and slightly distancing us from Kate. However, when considering the epilogue, this must have been a conscious choice of the author to tie the writing in stylistically to Kate's deteriorating (and distancing) mental state; but more on that to come.

Baba, our narrator this time around, was never a nice person, not when growing up with Kate, not at their convent school, and not when they moved out on their own to live together and find jobs. But so much, if not most, of this third book is Baba's story, at approximately age 25. It is about her marriage, her choices, and what an ugly life she is leading. It is hard not to judge Baba who comes across as spoiled but also crass and mean. She cheats on her husband, who is also a horrible man, but it isn't cheating out of love. But she isn't just mean due to cheating. She isn't nice to Kate (at least when speaking about her) and she just isn't very likable. To have her as the main narrator and so much of the third book, and focused on her life, was not what I expected, nor a very pleasant story (although well written as the author's works always are - just different).

So what of Kate then? In the opening chapter, Baba catches us up quickly on Kate's last few years, a jump in time forward from the prior novel. Kate has returned to Eugene, giving up her schooling and any possibility of career, and has settled down as a housewife, married to him, and now with a son together, age 5. I had been reading these three novels as a straight-forward feminist work, thinking of Kate as the one who would break through the patriarchy and establish her own agency in a rousing feel-good conclusion. However, I needed to reevaluate these novels instead as a feminist critique on all the ways structures and society were still holding women down, even mid-century. There would be no hurrah at the end as she showed them what women could really do. It seems that Kate and Baba were always meant to suffer in order to hold a mirror up to the world.

We begin to sense that Kate is not well. She had always been sort of middle-of-the-road. That was likable, she wasn't some perfect person being oppressed, she was a real girl in the real world. She could be silly and stupid and insightful and rash and whiny and dependent and exasperating all in turns. But over the course of this novel, her mental health clearly deteriorates as her life continues its muddy trek downward. Compounding her internal struggles, she begins flirtation with another man and Eugene goes cold and passive aggressive, meanly so. Ultimately it is so psychologically abusive that Kate leaves him to keep what shred of sanity she has. The novel focuses on the impact of that separation, Kate's attempts to live on her own, stay a good mother and see her son, and her own widely vacillating emotions.

By the ending of this novel, Kate has suffered a near total collapse in every way. This is hardly the heroic feminist icon I thought she would be when first reading the initial novel. Instead, this is a bleak and harsh look at the very real lives that so many women probably lead, tied down by their parents, their society, their class, and the burdens and scars they bear as a result. I won't give away the ending, but it is not a resolution. For that, you need the epilogue, and it won't be the resolution you were seeking.

However, it is a resolution that helps to situate this third novel in with the first two in a much more Gothic arc for Kate, one that now has a scary echo of her mother's own tragic life. Did Edna O'Brien know about that parallel with her mother when she wrote the first novel, or did it evolve naturally, as the only possible conclusion, from their shared psychic DNA? Who knows, but while it isn't uplifting, it is a fairly amazing bit of writing. And that makes this third novel not a novel on its own, but really ACT 3 of a much larger cycle. The trilogy and epilogue must be read as a single novel to see Edna O'Brien's true brilliance as a writer.

As an important aside, given the current climate in the United States right now (2019), there is a section in this novel that needs to be discussed. CONTENT WARNING - home abortion discussion to follow, skip the rest of this paragraph if you don't want to read about it. At one point, Baba becomes pregnant by the man she is cheating on her husband with. In desperation she solicits Kate to help her with a home abortion, abortion being illegal in Ireland at the time. The description of the methods and experience is so vivid and disturbing that it should be required reading by anyone who is seeking to end legal abortions. Because women have always needed abortions, and have every right to their body's autonomy, they will find a way. If legal abortion is ended, it will not end abortions, but instead drive them underground and cause nothing but more suffering and death. Those who proclaim to value life are not valuing the woman's life and her body by making abortion illegal. Like so many women throughout history, Baba endures unimaginable physical pain during the attempt. In this case, for all the horrors of their attempted abortion, it doesn't work. Baba now must also bear a child she doesn't want, to a man she'll never see again, while living with a physically abusive husband who knows it cannot possibly be his child. This is not respect for all life, this is another example of the bleak picture of women's lives in modern society that is the crux of Edna O'Brien's three novels. In some ways, this is the truly penultimate scene of the trilogy. For this IS a feminist novel, one determined to expose the quietly lived yet totally unacceptable "normal" that are Kate and Baba's lives - lives so many women can probably see themselves in.

Back to the review specifically. In her decisions to return to Eugene, marry him, cheat on him, and leave him, Kate has undermined any hope of getting out from under the psychological torture of Eugene. He haunts her like a living ghost. Her mental condition deteriorates as she loses everything, and yet her collapse is told in a slightly impersonal, detached manner. This wasn't a pleasant read. And yet, it wasn't supposed to be. This final novel plus the epilogue was Edna O'Brien tearing away any remaining pleasant veneer from the lives of Kate and Baba and women in general. Make no mistake, this trilogy is a tragedy and the payoff is the epilogue which will reward the reader with a true understanding of what the author intended as the inevitability of Kate's journey into adulthood.

Do yourself a favor, when you read this, read all three novels plus the epilogue as if it is one single novel. It will make more sense that way. It will be more meaningful that way. I broke it up with months in between each novel, and I think I lost some of the author's intended emotional arc when I did that.  On it's own, "Girls in Their Married Bliss" doesn't quite work, but as part of the entire trilogy, as simply the third act of a greater story, it is indispensable. On it's own then, it's just a 6/10, but the total trilogy is a strong, incredible, and still prescient 9/10. You can get all four parts on Amazon in a single edition: https://www.amazon.com/Country-Girls-Epilogue-Married-Classics/dp/0374537356

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Friday, June 14, 2019

I Married My Best Friend to Shut My Parents Up was less problematic than expected (Manga Review)

Kodama Naoko
I Married My Best Friend to Shut My Parents Up - 6/10

I purchased "I Married My Best Friend to Shut My Parents Up" (by Kodama Naoko, published by Seven Seas) with mild trepidation. With a title like that and the premise that two women fake a marriage then really fall in love, I was skeptical that it would handle a gay relationship with any validity. Surprisingly, it wasn't bad, and actually had a few solid moments.

As premises go, this one is pretty flimsy. Two young woman (Morimoto and Hana), who have known each other since high-school, decide to fake being married in order to get Morimoto's parents to stop setting her up with various eligible men. With that, there were  three possibilities for handling this that came into my head:

1) This manga might just be a male-centric lesbian fantasy - ie, put two women in the same room long enough and they'll get it on, or

2) This manga might be a silly, light yuri fantasy - ie, put two women in the same room long enough and they'll fall sweetly in love, or

3) This might actually be a story about a genuinely gay couple with meaningful backstories that makes the shaky premise make emotional and logical sense even with the forgone conclusion that they will fall in love and live happily ever after.

Much to my surprise, it's closest to number 3! Thank goodness. I have no desire to read any that are in category number 1 but a bunch of so-called yuri manga being published in English seem to be leaning in that direction. On the other hand, much of the rest of yuri being published in English seems to be in category number 2. Sometimes that can be enjoyable, but it isn't usually very emotionally sound, nor realistic, nor deep, nor moving.

Thankfully, "I Married My Best Friend" is closer to being an actual LGBT manga than a yuri manga, maybe a bit like an LGBT josei comedy (if I had to really label it). Yes it is about two women, but they are adults (about time), one of whom is openly gay, and they actually talk about discrimination (briefly at least), how people will take it if Morimoto comes out, etc...it actually touches (albeit minimally) on the complexities of gay life that are essentially absent from most yuri (I'm looking at you "Kiss & White Lily For My Dearest Girl" - not that that's necessarily bad).

Getting down to brass tacks, Morimoto, the one who reluctantly agrees to the marriage charade to get her parents off her back, is given several flashbacks to high-school and college where her ambivalence about the boys and men she is dating helps situate the possibility that she hasn't realized her sexual orientation with just enough believability to make the conclusion feel okay. (Wow, that was a long sentence)

Hana, her friend, came out in high-school, has dated other women (one of whom we meet), and has long-standing ulterior motives for suggesting the fake marriage (ie, she's always crushed on Morimoto). While not the most in-depth back stories, given that the main story is only three chapters long and thus must move briskly from setup to the inevitable conclusion, this is enough history to make the premise and resolution plausible(ish).

In these three brisk chapters, we see the evolution of Morimoto's feelings for Hana, we also get some interactions with Morimoto's angry parents, and a pretty sweet blossoming of Morimoto both at work, standing up to her parents and defending Hana, and with Hana herself. There is actual character growth! Who knew?

Further helping this story is that there is no sex, nothing dirty, and while there is visual service in the form of big chests and cleavage shots, there really isn't any from a narrative standpoint. This is basically a sweet story about two women falling in love and one coming to terms with her long-simmering but un-realized sexual orientation. It's not delicate writing, it's also pretty predictable, but it was still enjoyable in a simplistic way, and it was actually kind of sweet. It thankfully treats a lesbian couple with dignity and not as service for male voyeurs.

The art is pretty simple in a modern manga style. The backgrounds are barely there at all, there isn't a lot of complex screen tone usage either. It definitely has the overall visual style of a comedy manga, which it more or less is (call it a rom-com). The art is competent enough and works perfectly fine for the simple story. In addition to the main three chapters, there is an unrelated side story that is pretty middling and a couple 4-koma pages at the end.

To be honest, I almost expected the worst, especially given some of the other one-shot's that I've read recently and hated. But, while this wasn't profoundly deep reading, it was pleasant, sweet, and had some legitimate LGBT representation rather than being the pure angelic fantasies of so much yuri manga or service for the male crowd. While I wasn't overwhelmed, I did like it. It gets a solid 6/10 (it would be higher if the art was more detailed and emotional and had less breasts).

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Wednesday, June 12, 2019

All My Darling Daughters - catching up with a classic (manga review)

Fumi Yoshinaga
All My Darling Daughters - 8/10

I came across All My Darling Daughters (by Fumi Yoshinaga) in a list of top josei manga. It is a single volume that tells interrelated stories about a woman, her friends, her mother, and other relatives. Published in English in 2010 by Viz, it remains a powerful set of stories. I am so glad to add another quality josei volume to my collection. As far as I can tell, they are too few and far between in English. As always, please let me know your favorite, legally published in English, josei (or shoujo or yuri) titles because I'm always looking for more!

The first story concerns a young woman, living at home with her mom. Her father passed away when she was young and out of nowhere, her mother has just remained someone younger than her own adult daughter! These three people form the backbone for all the stories in the volume and all three are wonderfully, and fully, realized people. They have faults and good qualities, unique personalities, back stories, motivations, and they grow and change. To do all this with these three, plus the other characters, in a single volume, is simply incredible writing.

Because each short story stands on its own, I won't talk too much about them so as not to spoil the joy of reading them. Other than that there is the above trio, the various stories focus on the daughter's boyfriend, the step-fathers friend, an aunt, a grandmother, and a few others who populate this beautiful collection. We get an almost arranged marriage, a seemingly desperate young woman who turns out not to be, a seemingly strong women who somehow falls behind, lost opportunities, childhood trauma, and above all: complicated, imperfect, and unresolved feelings. You know, messy feelings, like we all have. We don't get pretty bows tied up at the end of each story, these are snapshots and we know that their lives will continue evolving beyond the pages. All My Darling Daughters is a collection of stories that reveals some of the multitude of complexities of various women's lives and presents them all without judgment.

The art is relatively simple, with fairly minimal backgrounds, and a somewhat angular use of line. There isn't much complex use of screen tones, just some simple blacks and grays. But the art is still appealing and serves the story well. It isn't standout on its own, but doesn't get in the way, and that's fine given the high quality of the writing.

I'm so glad I picked this up (even if it's 9 years after publication). If you love josei, and really want a well written collection of lightly intertwined short stories about adult women, this is definitely the volume for you. All My Darling Daughters by Fumi Yoshinaga - 8/10.

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Monday, June 10, 2019

After the Rain volume 4 (manga review)

Akira x Kondo
After the Rain vol. 4 - 8/10

After the Rain continues its slow, delicate, low-stakes story in volume 4 (Vertical Comics). Like the volumes before it, very little happens (at least of consequence), but one can sense the subtle shifts in the characters under the surface narrative. It also continues to suggest that the romantic plot is hardly the point of the series at all (and that's a good thing).

Quick catch up: Akira is the injured star of the track team, who has refused physical therapy to heal after surgery and given up running. She works at a diner and has fallen for the slightly balding middle aged divorce manager. He is a former writer with a young son. Even though she has expressed her feelings for him, nothing is happening, and propriety remains between them. This could all be icky, but it isn't, because of the extremely sensitive writing of Mayazuki-sensei.

In volume 4, Akira is showing more and more outward feelings about track. At one point she tries to throw out her track spikes, but ultimately tells her mom not to. She and her friend (and track mate) Haruka continue their awkward meetings, unable to say the things they need to say to each other. Akira even visits an up-and-coming "rival" at another school (and by visit, it's in typical Akira fashion which means she stands, says nothing, then leaves!). Kondo, too shows his conflict about writing, this time mirrored through comments and interactions with his novelist friend. There is a birthday party for Yuto (his young son), co-planned by Akira and Kondo, there is more work on the Christmas scarves, and even a little tension between Akira and Kondo as he becomes more and more uncomfortable around her.

Lots of little things happen, but as with the other volumes in this series, it is the unsaid feelings expressed through subtle changes in facial expression that show so much under the surface. Nothing is ever said, it's just people going through the day doing what they can to move forward in the face of life's roadblocks. Akira and Kondo continue to be a very similar pair, but while Akira still says she has feelings for him, and Kondo begins to think he might have feelings for her, I just can't shake the sense that they will never get together (that's good) and instead slowly get back on track with their true loves, track and writing, respectively.

The subtlety of storytelling, the slow moments, the wistful lost-in-thought expressions, exemplified in this volume as Akira and Haruka both reflect on Akira's former love of running, the way the wind sounded in her ears, are beautifully drawn. The art, while not realistic, is also not cute. Its long forms, telling eyes, and perfect pacing complement the writing exquisitely. The backgrounds have care taken, there is good use of shading and screen tones, and each character is uniquely portrayed. The art manages to be both simple and revealing at the same time. Just like the writing.

If you've liked this series so far, this is a great volume, even though there are really no specific plot developments worth belaboring. It continues the slow steady march of time, slow slight growth in the characters, and just enough progress to suggest where things are going.

I for one am loving this series and hope it continues in the same fashion and allows each of our lead characters to grow organically. I love how nothing has been forced in this series, and no matter where they go (together or apart) as long as it happens at its own pace, rather than through overt plotting, I'll continue to be happy. This volume gets an 8/10 (it's somewhat a time-passing volume, with no real developments, so that's why it isn't higher, but for what it is, it's excellent).

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Thursday, June 6, 2019

Ao Haru Ride Volume 5 is nearly perfect (manga review)

Kou x Futaba
Ao Haru Ride Vol. 5 - 9/10

Ao Haru Ride (Viz/Shojo Beat) continues to be one of the greatest shoujo manga series I have ever read. Volume 5 exemplifies that trend and hits all the marks - romance, emotions, will-they-won't-they, the feels (oh the feels!). I can't stress enough how much you need to read this series if you are a fan of thoughtful highschool romance.

We left off with things warming up between Futaba and Kou. Yuri has confessed to Kou and Kou turned her down. Futaba and Yuri agreed not to let their mutual affection for Kou get in the way of their friendship.

In this volume, Futaba and Kou make plans to go the festival, the same one they weren't able to attend during middle school when Kou mysteriously disappeared. Unfortunately, something comes up and Kou backs out. Unlike last time, at least he lets Futaba know. Despite her sadness and frustration, she's determined not to get down.

Complicating things, the new boy on the scene, Toma, briefly introduced a few volumes back, clearly has his sights set on Futaba, who seems ignorant to his gentle flirtations. Kou, on the other hand, is very aware of this new boy, yet can't seem to take the next step with Futaba. We begin to understand why when he shares that he has been supporting a mysterious friend who also lost a parent recently and doesn't feel he can give Futaba his all yet.

This volume really shines with the growth that both Futaba and Kou are experiencing. Futaba was determined to be herself rather than trying to live up to others fake expectations for her or down to her own thoughts about herself. She shows her classic stubborn resolve, what makes her so appealing to Kou and so appealing as our heroine.

Kou is desperately trying to dig himself out of the deep depression following the death of his mom, for whom he was the sole caretaker during her illness. Futaba doesn't get mired in the fits and starts with Kou, and Kou shows more emotional resilience than he has at any other time in the series, yet is still somewhat trapped in his feelings. These are not static characters, but real, living, changing people. Such good writing.

We also get so many "almost" moments between them in this volume, where things are so close, but the past traumas just aren't resolved enough to free Kou; and Futaba can't quite find the timing to tell Kou how she really feels. The way Sakisaka-sensei writes their inner feelings, their outward dialogue and actions, and depicts their emotions through her effortless art, is such a joy to read and has such vitality without devolving to pathos, drama, or sensationalism.

As always the art is extraordinary. Beautiful lines, beautiful character drawings, strong sense of anatomy, great use of shading and screen tones, detailed background without being distracting from the characters. This mirrors beautiful writing with fully realized people. People who are kind but have been through things, are teens and still confused by life, all imperfect, but all nice people. This isn't a manga of plot and big reveals and enemies or villains. It is the reality of people growing, changing, hurting, healing, and finding each other. The art and writing are perfectly in sync.

I know I seem like I'm gushing, but that's because I am. If you've read this blog long enough, you know I won't pull punches when I don't like something. Ao Haru Ride is really that good and Volume 5 is nearly perfect.

Why didn't I give it a "ten" then? What would make it better, if everything is as great as I say? When I asked myself that, the only thing I could think of was how amazing it would be if they were both girls! (LOL, there's my bias showing through) But I do wonder why I can't find a yuri manga of this depth, delicacy, honesty, and normality? Are they out there and just not in English*? Please let me know any suggestions you might have. That being said, not every story can be two girls, so it's really not a criticism of Ao Haru Ride at all! >_<

In truth, I can't really find any fault or imperfection in this volume, and yet, I also don't quite feel like I can give it a perfect score. As amazing as this volume is, it just feels too early in the series to go a full ten. So for no other reason than propriety (and what a lame reason that is!), I'm giving this volume a 9/10. But so far the series itself is going to get a perfect rating if it can keep this quality up (and I'm betting it can)! Do yourself a favor and buy this manga!

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*UPDATE 6/7/19 - obviously there are the landmark series Sweet Blue Flowers (Aoi Hana) and Maria Watches Over Us (Maria-sama ga Miteru). I'm just greedy and want more like those!

Monday, June 3, 2019

Futaribeya - A Room For Two - Volume 1 (manga review)

Futaribeya Vol. 1 - 6.5/10 or 9/10 YMMV ¯\_(ツ)_/¯
Sakurako x Kasumi

This will be a simple review for a simple story. If you love comedy moe 4-koma manga, then Futaribeya (Tokyo Pop) is likely to top your list of best series this year. If you tend to like deeper stories and more complex emotional ranges, then you might find this lacking in depth (as in totally). For what it is, it is well done.

Volume 1 is the story of two high-school 1st years, Sakurako Kawawa and Kasumi Yamabuki, who share a room in the local boarding house near their school. Sakurako is very good at school without trying, loves to cook, is dependable, but easygoing. Kasumi is drop-dead gorgeous but doesn't care at all, bad at school, always cold, and always hungry. The volume covers much of their first year, what they eat, where they shop, how they sleep, and many other random assorted moments. 

As is the norm for most 4-koma, this is a gag manga. Each "strip" ends with some sort of humorous moment, mostly silly, sweet, cute, or goofy. But all very very light. There is no service to speak of (which is great). It's basically two nice teens going about their day, but doing so in a cutely funny way. Like I said, if this is your thing, then this is really well done!

I tend to want more depth in my manga, even in comedy ones, and so I don't typically read 4-koma which by its very structure doesn't lead to much depth. I had similar feelings reading Futaribeya as I did reading Tomo-chan Is a Girl! It was cute, but not really my thing. 

However, I did find myself still interested in these two girls' lives even though it isn't the style I most enjoy. Those who know me well know that I LOVE the Sakura Trick anime (even though I don't normally like moe and it has WAYYYYY too much and totally unnecessary service). I haven't read the manga its based on, so I wonder if Futaribeya would similarly benefit from the expanded storytelling power of anime? (Yes, I am a feminist and yes I still love Sakura Trick, it's called cognitive dissonance folks! But I also think it would be defensible if anyone wanted to talk about it.)

The art in Futaribeya is well done for this style, with more attention to detail and shading than is typical of many 4-koma. A bit too much of the time, the characters are drawn superdeformed for emotional (read: "silly") emphasis. But when Yukiko-sensei goes into normal (but still moe) mode, they really show their artistic ability. It may be moe, but it's well done. 

Now, for the big question. Is this a yuri manga? Wikipedia says it is. But I'm thinking, not really. At least for volume 1, we only get the very slightest moments of possibly maybe hints that something might somewhere in the distant future become maybe yuri-ish. But the truth is, any yuri that exists, exists only in your mind (or some of the extra images between chapters) because there isn't anything textual to suggest it (except maybe there is...like when Sakurako gets a bit jealous of her younger sister's attention on Kasumi). There certainly isn't even the slightest bit of overt relationship beyond normal friendship though. But we'll have to see. It certainly could go the yuri direction or it might just stay where it is and let people read into it or "ship" the characters if they want.

Do you like moe teen girl light comedy with no service (sort of like K-On! but without that anime's TOTAL AMAZINGNESS)? If so, this is well done, a strong 9/10. If you like shoujo/josei manga with any substance, nuance, emotional depth, or realism then you'll find this wanting (it's also considered a seinen manga). However there is something to the characters that might make you come back for more, so it gets a 6.5/10 for fans of more intricate stories. You make up your own mind, you know yourself better than I do! As for me, I will probably keep buying it, but it won't be first on my limited expense list each week.


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Saturday, June 1, 2019

Essence of the Heart Sutra (Book Review-ish)

Dalai Lama and Geshe Thupten Jinpa
When I read Buddhist sutras and commentaries, they are mostly Mahayana. And of those, an increasing number fall in the category of the Perfection of Wisdom (Prajnaparamita) sutras. Perhaps the most meaningful of all to me was the "Large Sutra on Perfect of Wisdom" translated by Edward Conze.

After much searching for the "right" copy of the Heart Sutra, perhaps one of the most famous of all sutras, and part of the Prajnaparamita cannon, I settled on a copy that includes a discourse and commentary by the current Dalai Lama, "Essence of the Heart Sutra."

As with all sutras, there are frequently versions in Sanskrit, Tibetan, and Chinese, and while all similar, not all necessarily agree exactly. From that, I only speak English, so I need a further translation. This makes the choice of which version I buy all the more important - which language tradition did it start from and how is it being translated into English?

For while the Buddha, himself, has made clear that the words in the sutras should not be mistaken for the actual Dharma, they are part of the pathway that people use to bring their understanding closer to the Dharma. Hence, a translation can ease that understanding or obscure it. I am proud to say that the English translation of the Heart Sutra by Geshe Thupten Jinpa used in this volume, "Essence of the Heart Sutra - The Dalai Lama's Heart of Wisdom Teachings", is extraordinary. Also delightful was the Dalai Lama's commentary. Not only was it profoundly revealing of this text's meaning, but it rang with his voice, even through the English translation of his original writing.

I'll leave reading this extraordinary, and very readable, book to you for the full understanding which I could never hope to convey. But as a starting point for those who may not be familiar with the perfection of wisdom (prajnaparamita), it is considered the deepest level of understanding the Dharma. The perfection of wisdom is expounded in many sutras, often referred to by their line numbers, some supremely long. The Heart Sutra, is one of the shortest of them, and yet contains the full perfection of wisdom in its several short paragraphs. "Essence of the Heart Sutra" also provides a history of the schools of Buddhism, the central tenets of Buddhism, and the place of the perfection of wisdom in all that (as explained by the Dalai Lama). It then includes the full text of the Heart Sutra as translated from the Tibetan by Thupten Jinpa (who also translated the Dalai Lama's portions of the book), and then the Dalai Lama's exposition and commentary on the sutra.

The perfection of wisdom holds dear two key beliefs, the first is in the emptiness of intrinsic (absolute, inherent) existence. The second is in the profound path of the boddhisatva, who is pursuing the Dharma, by means of the perfection of wisdom, for the benefit of all sentient beings to help all sentient beings achieve full understanding of the Dharma themselves.

Here's my best quick attempt to unpack that: Emptiness of intrinsic existence is often mistakenly taken to mean that nothing really exists. That couldn't be further from the truth the Buddha is expounding. Instead, the two truths doctrine explains there is a conventional reality, the reality that we taste, touch, smell etc... where things come and go, are born and die, break and are made, etc... But there is also a second reality, the "ultimate" reality. And in that ultimate reality, there is no intrinsic existence. Things and sensations and thoughts and ways of being "exist" only in relation and dependence on each other. Nothing came into being out of nowhere and nothing ceased with an absolute end to its existence. This is the culmination of understanding dependent origination at its deepest levels.

The principle of emptiness here is about recognizing that there is no everlasting, unchangeable, "essence" of a thing or feeling of thought. The Buddha is saying that there is no inherent existence, no intrinsic existence of a thing independent of anything else. Another way of saying this, is that somethings "own-being" is emptiness/no-self (or lack of inherent existence). When we come to accept the intrinsic emptiness of all things in ultimate reality and see that emptiness at the same time we touch and feel and think in conventional reality, then we can truly experience the Dharma. Early in our practice, a person may be able to accept the emptiness of intrinsic existence at one point (say, during meditation) but then when they notice something (perhaps touch their own skin as they shift position) they lose the ability to hold both thoughts simultaneously. And yet, holding those two thoughts simultaneously is only the beginning, we must work to end the cognitive dissonance between ultimate and conventional reality see how they are one and the same, not two truths, but a single truth. But please don't take this explanation from me. This of course, is only my fabulously mangled summary of a beautiful level of wisdom. That's why you are supposed to read these sutras and commentaries!

In the Dalai Lama's writing in "Essence of the Heart Sutra," he begins by working through the schools and beliefs of Buddhism, ultimately finding a path of reconciliation between them and a warning not to judge others by which school they work through. His heart and kindness, his magnanimity shines through so clearly in embracing all parts of Buddhism but also all other faiths. This section also serves as a pretty good primer on the basics of the first two turnings of the wheel of dharma. However, no brief introduction, as this is, should be seen as sufficient.

I would say the same thing about his commentary on the sutra itself. Having read the Large Sutra and some of the middle length Prajnaparamita sutras, the Dalai Lama's commentary here was perfect and valuable. I could read it and compare and contrast against the thousands of other pages I had read. Had this been my first foray into the Prajnaparamita, I think I would have liked it and recognized its significance, but not necessarily understood it well given that it doesn't spend time going into much depth. However, this short commentary would likely have started me on the journey just fine if it was my introduction. And as an introduction, he does a marvelous job. Basically, either read this to further your knowledge and thinking about the Prajnaparamita (perfection of wisdom) because the Dalai Lama has some key nuance in his commentary, or use it to start down a deeper exploration of other texts that you can compare and contrast with his nuance here. The order in which you read these is really inconsequential.

Either way you go at this, at any point in your studies and thinking, this is a profound sutra, beautiful really, as well as a clear, well written, and lovely commentary. As the Buddha also said, you cannot read or learn or think to arrive at the Dharma, the Dharma is a lived experience. The more you surround yourself with it whether through reading the sutra or commentaries, or just puzzling over it in your own life, acting on it where you can, then the more you will begin to be the Dharma - realize your buddha-nature (Tathagatagharba), and develop, live, and cultivate your bodhicitta.

At first I wanted to give you the entirety of Thupten Jinpa's Heart Sutra Translation because for me, it was far more beautiful, far clearer, and far more meaningful than others I have found. However, I also really want you to buy this book. So I will leave you with just the middle passages, the ones that expound the "essence" (pun intended) of the prajnaparamita as contained in the Heart Sutra, to whet your appetite:

When this had been said, the holy Avalokiteshvara, the bodhisattva, the great being, spoke to the venerable Shariputra and said, "Shariputra, any noble son or noble daughter who so wishes to engage in the practices of the profound perfection of wisdom should clearly see this way: they should see perfectly that even the five aggregates are empty of intrinsic existence. Form is emptiness, emptiness is form; emptiness is not other than form, form too is not other than emptiness. Likewise, feelings, perceptions, mental formations, and consciousness are all empty. Therefore Shariputra, all phenomena are emptiness; they are without defining characteristics; they are not born, they do not cease, they are not defiled, they are not undefiled; they are not deficient, and they are not complete. 

"Therefore, Shariputra, in emptiness there is no form, no feelings, no perceptions, no mental formations, and no consciousness. There is no eye, no ear, no nose, no tongue, no body, and no mind. There is no form, no sound, no smell, no taste, no texture, and no mental objects. There is no eye-element, and so on up to no mind-element including up to no element of mental consciousness. There is no ignorance, there is no extinction of ignorance, and so on up to no aging and death and no extinction of aging and death. Likewise, there is no suffering, origin, cessation, or path; there is no wisdom, no attainment, and even no non-attainment.

Please, no matter where you are in your studies, or even if you have no interest in Buddhism at all, no matter what your faith, no matter who you are, buy yourself a copy of "Essence of the Heart Sutra" by the Dalai Lama.

tadyatha gate gate paragate parasamgate bodhi svaha!

Wednesday, May 29, 2019

Akiko Higashimura
"Blank Canvas: My So-Called Artist's Journey" Volume 1 (Seven Seas) is the beginning of Akiko Higashimura's autobiographical series. As is my general policy when reviewing autobiographies, I won't be giving this a numeric rating. It just feels rude to rate someone's actual life. That being said, I really enjoyed this volume and can't wait for the next.

The story itself is quite simple. Akiko is in high-school, terrible at school, horrible grades, and she doesn't care because she fancies herself a brilliant artist and bound for art college. That is, until she finds out she isn't as good as she thinks she is. It starts with taking classes at a small local studio run by a militantly aggressive teacher who actually takes very good care of his students, just in his own mean way. He prods and pushes them to excellence but also shows a deceptive sweet spot for when they are truly suffering. He is their anchor and their buoy.

Akiko is certain she will succeed on recommendation to the college of her choice, but doesn't get in. She ultimately must do the traditional route of multiple auditions. Traveling to small college after small school to find someplace that will accept her. She just wants to be a manga artist, she knows she's great, so why is it so hard for everyone else to notice?

And that is the real beauty of this story. Akiko is so full of herself. That the now-adult Higashimura-sensei is willing to present herself as so brazenly unlikable (but not actually unlikable at all) is wonderful. And yet, I can't help but wonder if the story isn't really about her as much as it is about her art teacher. There are multiple times where Higashimura-sensei talks to this art teacher as if he no longer is around. We also get the sense that the adult Higashimura-sensei might be living in the house that was his art studio during her teen years. Something makes me think this will have a melancholy turn at some point. I can't wait to see how Akiko grows up from being a self-assured brat and into the successful and brilliant Higashimura-sensei.

The art is great as you'd expect from her. Clear character designs with a lot of expression. No one is perfectly perfect, they all feel like real people. The backgrounds are detailed, the use of screen tones and various grays add a lot of depth. The style has realism without being too realistic. And overall, there is just so much emotion and energy on every page.

If you are a fan of Higashimura-sensei's work, or love a story about a bratty art-student, or just want a good manga, then "Blank Canvas: My So-Called Artist's Journey" volume 1 is a great place to start. It was an entertaining read with the promise of more depth to come.

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Monday, May 27, 2019

Booksmart is absolutely adorable (Movie Review)

Kaitlyn Dever Beanie Feldstein
Booksmart - 8/10

I don't review movies often on this site, but "Booksmart" was so adorable and has a really well-done lesbian lead character so I couldn't resist. All you really need to know is that this film is absolutely adorable, and even if not quite perfect, it's well worth watching.

The movie is about Molly and Amy, two studious, awkward high school seniors about to graduate who face the realization that while they spent their entire high school careers studying to get into great colleges, many of their peers managed to balance studying and fun and still get into great colleges. Right there we see what separates this film from other typical teen comedies, and especially the "we're geeks who squandered our time and now we must leave in a blaze of redemptive glory" type movies. For while it is that second one, it consistently delivers welcome messages along the way - queer acceptance (nonchalance really), active consent, and no visible peer pressure to drink or do drugs (although there is a little of both in the film).

The plot follows Molly and Amy, who aren't exactly popular, as they attempt to make their way to a giant house party on the night before graduation. The goal is for Amy to finally tell her feelings to the girl (Ryan) she likes, and maybe hook up along the way. For Molly, it's mostly about having people see a more complete side to her, but also a little about her crush on the popular boy too.

Molly and Amy's dialogue, actions, and general awkwardness are exactly like real teens. They reminded me so much of my teen daughter and her friends. Unlike most media with teens who don't act anything like true teens, these two come off very authentic (for a comedy movie that is). Because in real life, even the popular kids are still awkward teens, the way they move in their still growing bodies, the way they speak somewhere between childhood and adulthood, and this movie nails it for the two leads. Sadly, it doesn't totally hold true for the side characters who are mostly played for stereotypes (and all seem much older than 18), but at least the stereotypes are so well written (and the actors seem to be having a lot of fun with them) that it's excusable.

I love the queer representation in this film. Having an out lesbian lead character where the film isn't about coming out is awesome. Unlike "Love Simon" which was okay, but not great, this film normalizes being queer. In addition to Amy, there are at least several other likely queer characters, and even though it isn't made explicit, having at least 3 queer characters is starting the process of eliminating tokenism. Also, actor Austin Crute absolutely crushes his scene playing some sort of Norma Desmond/Carol Channing over-the-hill 1920s actress in a murder mystery themed party they end up at (he pretty much kills every scene he's in). The writing is just so sharp, and manages to be funny without ever making fun of any category or group of people.

Some of the other great things in this film:
1) Active consent - although it occasionally feels forced, the film explicitly advocates for active consent (usually in a funny way) at least three times. Even if it is a bit obvious, I'd rather my kids get obvious affirmation on consent than other things that are usually in teen films. Way to go!
2) There are so many subtly funny lines. Punchlines that had me giggling even if most in the audience thought were just throwaways. There are also so many honest scenes and moments. There is a scene where Molly and Amy are watching something inappropriate on their phone and the subtly different ways each character reacts is a testament to the acting and also the truth of where each is at - its comedy without being broad or mean.
3) The actress who plays Gigi steals nearly every scene she is in. She's a recurring gag that really works. The actress sells it so well.
4) There was an absolutely perfect joke about coming out. It went more or less like this:
     Ryan (the girl Amy likes): "I always wished you'd come out."
     Amy: "Oh, uh, I did, like in 10th grade."
     Ryan: "No, I meant on the weekend to hang out."
It was done with some simplicity, like, "duh Amy, we all know your gay, no big deal." And was both funny and sweet at the same time.

However, despite my raves so far. The film isn't quite perfect. Here are some things I wished had been tightened up:
1) Some early scenes drag - the film could have used another pass at editing, especially the first act where some scenes just went on too long, or might have been able to be left out. In fact, cutting 10 minutes out of the film would have helped its pacing overall.
2) While most of the writing is SOOOOO good, there were a few moments, a few scenes, where it just went a little too "teen movie" for my taste and broke from the sincere (but funny) realism of the majority of the film.
3) The vomit gag. This really really should have been cut out. There's actually another perfect spot (pun intended for those who have seen the film) that could have been used instead to end the scene between Amy and Hope instead of needing a gross-out joke. This was one of the few times where I felt like the writing let the film's otherwise consistent over-achievement down.
4) Molly, one of our two leads, wasn't given enough background. I think there's more there that I would have liked to see explored. There is a hint that maybe her parents aren't around. They aren't in the film, she lives in a weird apartment complex, and no one is home to greet her after she gets back from the party. But I didn't totally know her motivation, and although they set up her character well early on, she isn't actually given as much growth as it might seem (although the actress nails what she has to work with).
5) There was a teacher hooking up with a student - AND THIS IS NEVER OKAY - no matter that the student was held back and is 20. This demeans teachers, it teaches kids the wrong thing about adults and people they should trust, and just served ABSOLUTELY NO NARRATIVE PURPOSE in the story. It also undermined a really great character in the teacher. She had some great lines and this hurt.
6) Which brings me to diversity. This film was better than some, with a black student, a black teacher, a probably bi-racial student (or two), a latinix student, an Asian student, the gay and queer students. But in truth, we had two white leads, and it seemed like very little diversity in the extras that filled out the scenes. Sadly, it was the funny black teacher who was the one that slept with a student. Now, it's not that I needed her to be lionized either, it just sucked that they gave her such a shitty moment. Also, let's get some disability and neuro-diversity in a film too while we're at it (if I'm being greedy, that is).

Now that feels like a whole lot of problems. But the truth is that 95% of the film was great, with some areas where it could have been slightly improved. Nothing is perfect, but the writing is so strong, the lead actresses are amazing, the queer rep is great, the comedy so kindly funny, and just the whole thing had this adorably charming quality to it. It wasn't trying to be "Superbad" even though everyone compares it to that (I'm a huge Michael Cera fan, and that's actually one of my least favorite of his films). Booksmart proved that comedy can be kind and still funny and that teen coming-of-age comedies don't have to be gross-out, drunken, make-out fests (because really, very little in high-school is actually ever like that). I highly recommend seeing this film. I'm 39 and enjoyed it, I bet teens will too. Booksmart gets an 8/10.

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Friday, May 24, 2019

Kiss & White Lily for my Dearest Girl Volume 9 is one of the best in the series (Manga Review)

Asuka x Mikaze
Kiss & White Lily for My Dearest Girl vol. 9 - 8/10

Kiss & White Lily has been a slightly up and down series for me. I really love the main couple, and most of their story has been well done. It's been hit or miss for each side couple with each volume though. However, volume 9 is one of the strongest yet with very well constructed and told stories for both of the couples. It's also making me eagerly await the final volume with the resolution (hopefully) to the burning question for our main couple.

The side couple this time is Asuka and Mikaze who meet while cosplaying as some sort of magical girl duo. Asuka has repeated a year due to a sports injury and turned to cosplaying to fill the void in her life. Mikaze is then at least two years younger. They have quite different personalities, and it is the exploration of those personalities and their own expectations for themselves that pervades this story. They aren't easy on themselves even while being supportive of each other.

The story actually starts the reader off just after Asuka breaks Mikaze's heart and leaves her in the future, and then backing up to when they met. Thankfully the story chooses to advance beyond the breakup as they both continue growing, even when (temporarily) apart. It was a well written story with two well conceived characters whose emotional journeys are firmly grounded in the storytelling (and...SPOILER...we do get a happy ever after).

Our main couple, Ayaka and Yurine, are at a very different point in their arc. Ayaka, always number two to her "rival" Yurine, finally beats her and is number one again in the school. With this, Yurine reminds Ayaka of what she needs to do - confront her mother. We finally get this long needed confrontation between Ayaka and her harsh, expectant mother and its handling is superb here. Canno-sensei rises above the cliches of the genre to give us a true moment (I won't spoil it because it's so well written).

What this moment does for Ayaka frees her but also messes with her at the same time, prompting some real progress in her relationship with Yurine. Yurine, true to form, is slightly clueless about Ayaka's mood afterwards. However, she too takes some important steps forward.

Again, I don't want to spoil all the good stuff, because there is a lot of it in this volume. But both couples have some great lines, some great kisses, some great moments. We get well written scenes, we get emotionally honest and real writing. Canno-sensei really did some of her (jeez, I'm assuming Canno is a her, but I don't really know honestly) best work in this. Other than the volume with Ayaka and Yurine on the beach at night, this might be some of the strongest writing in the series.

The art continues to be good overall, but the character's body postures are still stiff. However the use of deep blacks (often with a white outline) as well as shades of gray and screen tones are well done, the characters are mostly very recognizable (although by now there are so freakin' many of them that I can't really remember all their back stories as they pop up in the main story).

So Kiss & White Lily for My Dearest Girl volume 9 is well done all around, one of the best so far in the series, and seems to be setting up a very fulfilling climax in volume 10 (what I believe is the final volume of the series). If you've been enjoying this series so far, definitely read volume 9, and if you've never read the series, it seems that it's going to end strong, so now's a good time to get caught up before the final volume comes out. I'm giving this volume an 8/10.

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Wednesday, May 22, 2019

Provenance is a ridiculous true-crime art caper at its best (Book Review)

Laney Salisbury Aly Sujo
Provenance (Penguin Books) - 8.5/10

I love paintings, and I love art forgery! There is something magical about learning to copy another artist's style and creating something new like theirs. Now, I'd never condone swindling someone by passing a forgery off as the real deal. It's more that I love the idea of getting into the artist's head enough to really learn their techniques - to see through their eyes while mastering their technical gifts.

So in addition to viewing the paintings and reading about the artists I love, I also spend a fair amount of time reading about famous art forgers and forgery circles. But never, in a million years would I have conceived of the scope of forgery and the intricate nature of the crime contained in "Provenance" a true-crime non-fiction book by Laney Salisbury and Aly Sujo (Penguin Books).

"Provenance" is a detailed, but fluidly told account of one of the largest and most complex forgery cases in world history. It is also the story of one supremely strange and intriguing man, John Drewe, the screw-loose mastermind of this elaborate scheme. The authors bring a reporters eye and a storytellers heart to this true crime book. Even if art history and art forgery aren't interesting to you, their writing style and research have created a fast-paced, engaging, and fascinating book.

John Drewe claims to be a physicist consulting with the British government, including some of its covert branches and foreign governments. He also has claimed to be just about everything else imaginable. But he is also strange, boastful, manic, convoluted, rampantly creative with his narratives, and seemingly has convinced himself of each of his lies. What he isn't however, is a painter.

Instead, in the midst of whatever other lies Drewe is currently engaged in, he stumbles onto the once-and-failed painter John Myatt. Myatt is now divorced, raising his two children, and working as a part time art teacher struggling to make ends meet. Drewe convinces Myatt of Drewe's self-proclaimed awesomeness, Myatt feels as though Drewe is taking him under his wing and looks up to Drewe as a mentor of sorts. Recognizing Myatt's talent, Drewe commissions him to make some paintings "in the style of..." Drewe is able to sell these and splits the funds with Myatt who desperately needs the money.

Over time, and despite a growing awareness of what is really going on, Myatt finds himself falling in love with his new success as a painter, even if it isn't his own original vision being sold. When Drewe invites him to the unveiling of two works in a major museum, Myatt finally has to come to grips with the fact Drewe has been passing of his works as the real deals. There in the museum, are two Myatt fakes being received as if they were the originals.

But this is only the very beginning of Drewe and Myatt's deceptions. Myatt would remain the painter throughout, challenging and pushing himself to ever greater heights of artistry culminating in about 240 fakes. Drewe would push to ever greater depths of deceit to sell these fakes. The story spans continents, multiple museums, galleries, artists foundations, appraisers, libraries and investigators all told with stunning clarity and empathy.

What was most upsetting to me about this crime, and was consequently Drewe's biggest innovation, is from where the book draws its title. There are few ways to sell a major artist's unknown work (as the forgeries were trying to present themselves) without a proper provenance. Provenance is the history that records the paintings creation through its chain of ownership up to the present. Along with scientific analysis and a trained eye, provenance is the third leg of the art appraisal world. It is essential to have good provenance to sell an unknown painting by a major artist at auction.

Where Drewe was succeeding with minor (and some major) art galleries relying on their eyes alone, it was the major works - whether with the large auction houses, major collectors, or museums - that required impeccable provenance. Something no fake could ever have. But Drewe found a way.

Like Myattt would forge paintings, Drewe would forge provenance. By using his growing renown as an art dealer to worm his way unfettered into various museum libraries and archives, Drewe would actually insert forged documents into the archives then request copies of them which would then bear the stamps from the institutions, thus validating the fake documents as if they were the real things. He would insert photos into gallery logs from the '60s stored in these archives, he would make faked exhibition catalogs from 100 year old exhibitions inserting Myatt's paintings into these exhibitions despite their having been painted only weeks before. He wrote letters in peoples names, he made his own stamps bearing a monastery's logo, and he edited log books amongst many tricks.

This was both brilliant, and supremely evil, and really riled me up. Fake paintings are one thing (and the stupid people who didn't do the scientific analysis that would have easily spotted them as fakes). But Drewe, by corrupting the archives, was actually rewriting history. Now Myatt's fake paintings looked as though they genuinely existed. The very places art historians and researchers trust as having unimpeachable evidence - the museum libraries and archives - were now filled with Drewe's lies, forever altering "objective" history. That is what made me so mad. Even after the enter charade was exposed, and museums did their best to clean the archives, there are still countless forged documents yet to be found (along with dozens of Myatt's paintings still in circulation).

By the third act, our criminal investigators are hot on the trail, Drewe might be involved in a murder, and Myatt is doing everything he can to get out and away from Drewe and back into an honorable life. The scenes of the police finally arriving at Myatt's home are heartbreaking. He is allowed to get his children on to their school bus before being arrested. He helps them uncover all he has done, ultimately turning star witness against Drewe. Myatt proves sympathetic as a struggling father with previously unrealized talent who got caught up by a master manipulator, a manipulator who rarely even paid Myatt his fair share of their earnings.

The book does a brilliant job tying all the stories, interviews, and lose ends together into a highly readable narrative. It blends direct quotes with pieced together journalism. It is told from each major character's point of view, at least as much as one can get into Drewe's head. It is incredible how many people in the art world were willing to speak to the authors to flesh out the full story.

Ultimately Drewe, Myatt, and others would face justice for their acts, but the damage done to history, the purchasers who still own fakes that have yet to be unmasked, and the undermining of the sacred processes of art-vetting (or the exposure of that process as a fraud in and of itself) leave us with an unsettling feeling that there was no true resolution to this decade long scam.

Provenance is crime caper of epic proportions, beautifully told, true to life, and thoroughly researched. It is well written and a fascinating, emotional read. I highly recommend this book regardless of whether you have a thing for art forgery or not. It is a strong 8.5/10.

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Monday, May 20, 2019

Maiden Railways - short love stories on trains (Manga Review)

Asumiko Nakamura
Maiden Railways - 7/10

I don't know where I came across "Maiden Railways" to think to add it to my Amazon wish list, it might have even just been a recommendation by Amazon. All I knew going in was that it was something about romance and trains and maybe yuri stories. And in the end, that's more or less what it was, a collection of several romance-ish stories, in a handsomely printed volume, with uniquely pretty art. Not bad actually.

The first story is about a young female pickpocket getting caught up with a feuding couple on a train. It's got some cute moments, but the couple really just needs a good therapist to teach them how to talk to each other, and a less meddlesome brother-in-law. It's not really a believable story, and I'm a little creeped out at the suggestion that the brother-in-law and the pick-pocket might end up together, she seems too young for that, but overall, it is mildly entertaining if a bit silly.

The second story is a more high-school romance story, or more properly put, its about what probably happens after every high-school romance series ends. This is the story of a young lady on the day of graduation (I think) or maybe just the day she moves away (to Germany - do Japanese parents really go overseas for work as much as they do in manga?). She has broken up with her high-school boyfriend because she has always secretly loved another boy and is going to confess, even though she is going away. It's definitely romantic and a little sentimental. And even though I liked it, I must say that it feels like unburdening yourself at someone else's expense to confess on the day you are moving away.

The third and fourth stories are connected. This is really the closest to yuri that the volume gets and it's unclear exactly where it's going. In the first story, one character has lost her girlfriend who is now marrying a man, and the other character has to turn down a female friend who has confessed to her. But somehow, these two characters end up together despite what seems like a big age difference and also that character two doesn't seem to necessarily be into girls romantically. This story takes place on a rail platform, almost exclusively.

The second of their stories concerns the older one watching the younger one in her school baseball game, and it's just a little quick story. Still unclear if they are actually together or hanging out as friends, but something about the pairing doesn't feel right (it's mostly the age difference).

The fifth story is about another married couple who needs to learn how to communicate, but the underlying cause of their mis-communication is an old model-railway that the community now tends after its original owner passes away. It's got a few nice moments, but also a bit unrealistic in how the characters act.

The sixth story was my favorite, and I won't spoil the twist ending for you, but it involves two women, worried about their relationships, with some interesting connections that come about through their conversation one night on the rail platform.

The final story adds an element that slightly ties together all the other stories around the life of a station attendant. It is a slight and minor story.

The mangaka, Asumiko Nakamura, must either love trains or have wanted to really study them, because the technical detail of the lines, the trains themselves, some of the history, the stations, etc... is evident in the writing and art. The art itself is relatively simple, but it has a loose, languid geometry to it that separates it from other styles. At least this isn't cookie cutter art. It's also not cute or moe, thank god. I would overall describe this as a josei genre set of stories and the art appropriately supports that. It isn't really detailed art, there isn't much screen tone use, the backgrounds are almost non-existent, but it works overall.

This is also the first release by the manga publisher Denpa that I have purchased. It is well constructed with fold around thick glossy color covers and the quality of the interior paper is quite high. I like that the interior paper has good tooth as well as not being stark white, but also clearly above the average quality of tankobon paper. I don't like the stark white of some high end releases, I like the more newspapery coloring with the black and white art. Here, we have high quality paper that is just a touch grayed, so it's perfect.

I like that Maiden Railways is a self-contained volume, that overall (other than age gaps) it isn't very problematic (oh, there is one panty shot, crap), that it focuses on women's points of view, that it's josei and not shoujo so the characters are older and the experiences aren't all in high-school. The art is okay, at least it's lines are quite different than other mangakas. I didn't feel particularly moved by the stories, but they were pleasant. And I think that's how I would sum up the whole volume, pleasant, but not amazing. I'm going to give this a perfectly nice 7/10.

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Friday, May 17, 2019

Laura Jane Grace's Memoir "Tranny" is a powerful and essential read (Book Review)

Laura Jane Grace
"Tranny: Confessions of Punk Rock's Most Infamous Anarchist Sellout," the memoir by Against Me! singer Laura Jane Grace, is a powerful depiction of life in a band and her struggles to recognize and then accept herself as a transgender woman. As is my practice for all memoirs and autobiographies, I will not be offering a numeric score nor a critical review. How could I ever judge someone's life? Instead, please accept when I tell you that this is a fast paced, well-written, eye-opening, and impactful memoir covering more than 15 years of Laura's life from teen to coming out with the crazy band stuff in the middle!

As I am working through my own transition and slowly coming out, I've been searching for people (in real life and in books) to learn from and find mirrors in. I was familiar with Against Me! from my days in the music industry. Although anarchist punk isn't really what I listen to, several of my clients were heavily influenced by them and were big fans, so I knew they were important. Several years ago, I cheered from afar as Laura Jane Grace came out to the world as a transgender woman. I had no idea what her life had been like, how sad, crippling, and dangerous her journey was.

Starting life as the child of a military father, Laura (who does not shy away from using her deadname while telling her story, but I feel uncomfortable using here so I will go by her chosen name) bounced from town to town, including a long stay in Italy. It was there that her parents separated and she was ultimately raised by her single mom back in Florida. There was no one like her there, it was a conservative swamp away from anything that could bring joy. It was a land of bullying, disenfranchisement, and targeting by police. It was there that Laura put her band together.

Against Me! started as a true DIY indie punk band (not even with a real drum kit!), hell-bent on leading a life in line with its anarchist beliefs. The memoir chronicles their rise to fame, the hatred of old fans when they released an album on a major label, the fights, the drugs (OMG the drugs!), the drinking, the changes in the lineup, the loves, and the losses. It does so in vivid, stark, and forthright passages. Laura admits just how messed up and unpleasant she was. She presents with total honesty and self-reflection of her own role in so many destroyed relationships.

However, during her entire life, going back to a young child, she was aware that there was something different inside and over time experienced harsher and harsher dysphoria. Many times in her life she could not fight the urges to present as a woman, if only in private. On and off, rejecting it, hiding it, denying it, fighting against it, this struggle for acceptance seems intimately woven into the other (often poor) choices she made in life, particularly the high level of drug use, a form of self medication possibly.

The memoir ends with her coming out and losing her wife as a result. It also depicts the horrible double bind that being famous and coming out puts on a trans person, who then must conform anew to what society expects from a transgender person. Rather than allowing Laura the freedom to experiment and explore in safety, she was forced to wear this new persona just as she had worn her old gender: in a way that matched other's expectations. How absolutely crushing that she wasn't given the space she needed at the time.

Perhaps though, the passages that most upset me were her discussion of the process of accessing hormone replacement therapy (HRT). She describes in several painful scenes the barriers put up by psychotherapists and endocrinologists, the acts she had to put on to convince them, and the lack of autonomy they provided her back. It is an absolute travesty that trans health-care is not more accessible and less insistent upon playing stereotypes. Many endocrinologists require that people have "lived" as their new gender for a year before starting hormones. However, what else have they been living their whole lives? They may have been expressing a different gender, but they were always living as whomever they were, even if they hadn't realized it yet or chosen to publicly express it. The requirement to be wearing a wig and a dress, as Laura was made to do, just to convince someone else of your gender is unconscionable.

It's hard to tell exactly, but by the end of the memoir, it appears that Laura is settling into her continued transition and the new realities as well as a new era for her music. The whole book is interesting, fast-paced, vividly described and a window into a complex and nearly tragic life. Whether you are looking to understand one person's journey as a trans women or a lover of popular music and curious about the inner workings of the industry, this memoir succeeds. As a combination of both, it is excellent.

While I didn't find as many direct parallels into my own journey with Laura's story as I have with others, there are so many powerful and eye-opening moments that I am so glad I read it. This is a must-read.

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Wednesday, May 15, 2019

Our Dreams at Dusk Volume 1 - an important LGBTQ manga (Manga Review)

Yuhki Kamatani
Normally I give a numeric score as part of my reviews. However, for some things like memoirs and autobiographical graphic novels, it is simply not appropriate for me to "judge" someone's life. While Our Dreams at Dusk Volume 1 (Seven Seas) is a work of fiction, given the importance of accurate depictions and representations of LGBTQ teens in media of all types, I am also disinclined to give a numeric score here out of respect for this important series. I am simply glad that there is a manga addressing this community in a sensitive and realistic fashion, hopeful that it will provide one more mirror for those looking for validation and affirmation as well as serving as one more piece of normalizing the LGBTQ experience.

That being said, had Our Dreams at Dusk vol. 1 been trashy, poorly written, poorly illustrated, problematic, etc... I would have no compunction about tearing into it. So thankfully, I am glad to say that it lived up to its billing as a critical piece of LGBTQ representation and storytelling. Many manga that features LGBTQ characters fall into genres or tropes where the true social ramifications of being queer are not really addressed. Most yuri for instance tends to place no burden or stigma on women in relationships, and yet society clearly still marginalizes them, excludes them, and makes it outright dangerous at times to be out. There seem to be only a few titles that tackle the true complexities experienced by LGBTQ individuals, and Our Dreams at Dusk volume 1 appears to be a solid and needed bit of quality representation.

We meet Tasuku Kaname as students in his school are teasing him and alleging that he is gay. Unwilling to out himself, he denies it. This is the fiercely horrifying position that many LGBTQ individuals who are not out face on a regular basis: a) lie about who they are to prevent ostracization and being forced to come out ahead of schedule which means they are denying their own identity or b) confirm it before they are ready to be out - thus being outed by someone else. Tasuku has that impossible choice to make, and refutes that he is gay.

While contemplating attempting suicide, an all too real outcome of this sort of social and societal stigma and bigotry, Tasuku believes that someone next to him has just done the same by jumping out a window. (If you need help, please call the national suicide prevention hotline at 1-800-273-8255). Worried, he goes in search of her and to let people know what he saw.

He stumbles into a "drop in center" where other guests explain that this mysterious young woman is named "Someone-san" and that's how she goes out for a walk, so she's just fine. Over the course of the volume, he has interactions with the mysterious Someone-san who helps him begin to unpack his feelings (even though she refuses to actually tell him anything, at least he's talking out loud about things) as well as meeting others in the drop-in center, some of whom are also members of the LGBTQ community.

The drop-in center was established by a non-profit that restores crumbling historical homes in the area. Tasuku starts volunteering with this work, meeting a young woman who is married to another young woman. These two women are at different places in their own comfort with being out and their process helps Tasuku also begin to face himself.

In all, this is a volume that accurately depicts many of the confusions, questions, fears, stigmas, and complications that LGBTQ youth face. It also depicts some healthy role models and does so in a story that has some intrigue and mystery. The writing is solid as is the pacing. The art has a nice, clear, crispness to it and there is plenty of detail in the art without being hyper-detailed. From what I can tell in this one volume, it seems like it will live up to what I heard about it (from its original Japanese release) as well as my hopes and expectations for a truly emotionally valid and relevant LGBTQ teen journey.

I would highly recommend you check out this volume and I am very excited for the rest of the series. I think this could be a very important series for many youth (and adults).

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National suicide prevention hotline: 1-800-273-8255

Monday, May 13, 2019

Kaguya-sama: Love is War has moments within its mediocrity (Anime Review)

Kaguya-sama: Love is War - 5.5/10

People on Crunchyroll seem to really like "Kaguya-sama: Love is War" with 92% giving it 5 stars as of the time of writing this review. I, however, was really luke-warm on it. It had moments of brilliance and even some laugh-out-loud episodes but those were few between some totally boring episodes and some problematic structures and messages.

Based on a manga, the series is about the four members of the student council at a rich-kids school. Primarily, it is about the vice-president, Kaguya, and the president, Shirogane. At first, we know that they probably actually are in love with each other but they are unaware of their own feelings. Instead, they seem to have a fierce rivalry of refusing to be perceived as the weak one. Over time, they both realize that they are in love with the other, and then it becomes more about fear of rejection and fear of making the first move. All this is done as broad comedy and wrapped in the idea that one or the other must "win" each day's "battle."

And that's where the show really didn't work for me. The first episode is actually the worst with making love seem like a win-lose proposition, that people who share feelings are weak, etc... it just reinforced awful misconceptions about what it truly means to care for another person. And unlike "Special A" which has wonderfully fun and light (in tone) competition between two idiots who clearly love each other and are just blissfully unaware, but kind to each other, this show has an overall twisted streak that is not pleasant.

Thankfully, after the first few episodes, it does become kinder. We never get much background on the two characters, although by the end of the series we start getting some insight into Kaguya's painful life of rejection by her father. As the two leads start acknowledging their own feelings, we get some sweetness and likability.

Sadly, the majority of the series takes place in the student council office. So between the basic setup of several short segments per episode of the two leads refusing to actually have a meaningful conversation and all taking place in the same setting, it does get boring and repetitive.

Episodes 7-12 of the 12 episode show are mostly really boring. Where episodes 3-6 start to give us some more interest, I felt the second half of the series was just more of the same, episode after episode. Except for the second half of episode 7 which had me laughing so hard at the ridiculous middle-school level jokes about a wiener. It was handled so perfectly that it was actually, genuinely funny in a yes-it's-sophomoric-but-we've-all-had-that-time-in-our-life sort of way.

The first few episodes were problematic with the messages about relationships they were sending, the last half of the series was boring, and in the middle? Well, there were some kind moments, some funny moments, and some sweet moments. However, the best part of the series was another student council member, Fujiwara, who ends up stealing pretty much every scene she's in.

She's presented as a combination of a ditz and a shrewd observer of humanity with an amazing comedic streak and some real brilliance. It starts with a dance number at the end of the third episode, continues through her amazing decision to rap during a game, and her working as a love detective. Every scene she's in, she steals.

(enjoy this very silly song/dance)


Sadly, that's not enough to save the show. We also have some minor service, mostly related to Fujiwara's big breasts and and another scene with Kaguya's servant in the bath. Coupled with the problematic setup that relationships are a battle, the boring last half of the series, the limited location scope, and the lack of character backgrounds, it's just not great.

There are moments of genuine levity and sweetness, but those are so few and far between boring repetitive setups and problematic statements. Eventually the show reveals that it doesn't actually believe it's own conceit about love being a battle and the characters do start to change and open up, which is good, I just wish it was more interesting in the process.

The voice acting is great, especially Kaguya who goes between the cold, upper-crust voice and a squeaky, whiny voice when she's not holding herself together. The animation however, is pretty bad. It's rigid, simple, and dull with fairly bad colors. The student council room, where 90% of the show takes place, is all browns and dim lighting. It's just not an attractive show visually.

It has a few moments, but overall, it wasn't very good. I'm giving it a 5.5/10 because its mostly boring and repetitive. Probably skip this one.

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