Tuesday, February 26, 2019

You Think It, I'll Say It by Curtis Sittenfeld (Book Review)

Curtis SittenfeldI deeply deeply love "Prep" by Curtis Sittenfeld. I really really liked "American Wife." But I've felt very indifferent about her other three books ("Man of My Dreams," "Eligible," and "Sisterland"). They weren't bad by any stretch, but they didn't have the magic of both content and prose that the other two works had.

I went into Ms. Sittenfeld's short story collection, "You Think It, I'll Say It," hopeful that it would have the magic of "Prep." Unfortunately, with only a one small exception, it was more like her other works: fine, but not "for the ages."

I'm not a huge fan of short stories overall, they just have never done much for me. I like to get the depth of a character over time as they change, and by their very nature, short stories typically operate in an abbreviated time-frame. But putting that aside, there is the quality of prose to evaluate and whether there is any emotional connection formed with the reader.

For the most part, I found the prose good but not great, and experienced very little that drew me in to the characters. Many of them weren't very likable or even necessarily relatable. Many seemed like cliched sketches and not actual flesh and blood people, as if each was designed to fulfill the point of the story.

The plots were largely about young and middle-aged women, mostly from middle-class or upper-middle-class backgrounds, exploring jealousy, sexuality, infidelity, regrets, and even some political sentiments; these are all rich and important things to explore. However, there wasn't much new added to the discourse by these stories, no insights. Also, the politics felt tacked on, almost a need by the author to explicitly repudiate President Trump (and believe me, I'm all for repudiating him) simply because the book was published and set in the current time period. Yet, it felt jarring and out of place against the more personal sentiments of the stories.

And so sadly, very little of the plot or character exploration felt new or insightful. Sometimes new isn't needed, sometimes a book can cover the same old ground but create deep emotional resonance with a reader: "Yes, that's me, I felt like that too!" But these stories simply did not do that for me. I can't speak to what others may take away from them, but they felt very by-the-numbers, with predictable outcomes and no real insight into the human condition. With one exception. One very amazing exception.

The third story, "Vox Clamantis in Deserto," tells of two college students, one visiting the hometown of the other. Given that it's a short story, I can't tell you much more, because the plot is brief but important. But the middle of this story is Ms. Sittenfeld at her finest. For a few pages, at the height of the action, the prose sings, the emotions are real, the experience vivid, the connections to our own lives pulled taught.

Interestingly, there are similarities in the plot to "Prep" and I can't discount the impact that those years (teens/college) had in my own life, so there is the very real possibility that I'm responding to "Vox Clamantis in Deserto" in ways others might not. But I am sure that those middle pages, the chief encounter between the young woman and her friend's boyfriend, are written at another level compared to the rest of this collection. The prose there is lucid and visceral in a way the rest of the collection (and even the rest of that story) simply isn't.

However, Ms. Sittenfeld tries to make something out of this story and concludes it in a relatively perfunctory way that ends up reducing and diminishing the power of those few pages in the middle. The wrap-up is indicative of the way all the stories end, with a nice neat bow, almost a lesson, and in that conclusion, we lose the intimacy of the chief experience within the story.

But oh, what a few wonderful pages she gave us. It shows what she is capable of, and given that she has sustained that for entire novels, I will continue to be an avid reader of hers. Even at her most run-of-the-mill, Ms. Sittenfeld's writing is a nice read. But when the magic creeps in, she shows the talent to be remembered. At the very least, she has given us an all-time classic in "Prep." I'll keep holding out hope for another work of that sustained brilliance.

Sadly, "You Think It, I'll Say It" is not that book. While perfectly pleasant, it gets a 6.5/10. Readable, some people might really connect, but overall the prose is adequate, the stories predictable and hardly revealing. Yet there is the middle few pages of "Vox Clamantis in Deserto" which almost single-handedly justifies reading the entire book.


Sunday, February 24, 2019

Hatsu Haru volume 5 might be one of the strongest so far (Manga Review)

Riko Takanashi Kai Ichinose
Hatsu Haru is becoming one of my favorite series. Volume 5 (Yen Press) continues the strong shoujo story of Kai (the former playboy) and Riko (his childhood frenemy).

Volume 5 picks up with Kai giving up on Riko due to her not understanding his confessions and his belief that she and his friend Taka are in love. Kai knows what a great guy Taka is and believes he can care for Riko. Their friend Ayumi hatches a plan to prove to Kai that Taka and Riko are not together.

During this same time, Riko is confronting her own strange feelings that Kai is going back to his playboy ways and giving up on the girl of his dreams (which she doesn't realize is her). When Taka questions why she's taking it so personally, it starts her spinning, leading to some wonderful comedic moments with her.

No matter Kai's seeming determination to give up on Riko, he just can't shake it, and in fact, when she falls ill due to exhaustion, he goes into hero mode in several ways. This is also evident when he checks up on her during the wedding of her long-time crush and pseudo-older-brother, Suwa. The intense emotions both of them are experiencing come to a head at the wedding...but I won't spoil it for you!

The pacing of the volume is fairly quick (injuries, weddings, beach, school, etc...), but the writing is clear. We still get most of the volume from Kai's perspective, but thankfully we do get some more time with Riko and her experiences. If there were any weakness in the series, it's that it is a bit focused on Kai's perspective. I'd love to see more of a 50/50 balance with Riko's perspective. Minor complaint though.

The art continues to be very strong, with clear character designs. I love the way Fujisawa-sensei does eyes, particularly Riko's. It's somewhat unique and I love it! The screentone use is wonderful, the backgrounds have tons of detail, and the art is overall crisp and inviting.

While in many ways the series is a by-the-numbers opposites attract/childhood friends get together story, it continues to be so well written, with such likable characters, and quality writing/art, that it is simply a joy to read. Sometimes you want a series that gives you exactly what you want, and this is it. A perfect, sweet, funny, high-school romance.

Volume 5 is one of the strongest in a very strong series. I'm giving it an 8/10 because it packs so many wonderful moments in throughout. I'm delighted with this series!


Monday, February 18, 2019

Kase-san and Cherry Blossoms (volume 5) - a much awaited next step (Manga Review)

Kase and Yamada
Finally, a Kase-san volume that came out after I started this blog of reviews. It's been so hard not talking about this series but chronologically, the prior volumes had already come out by the time I was ready to talk about them. With the publication of Kase-san and Cherry Blossoms (essentially volume 5 in the series, published by Seven Seas), I get to gush about one of my favorite couples.

Kase-san and Cherry Blossoms picks up with Yamada studying for entrance exams, and a flashback to her pre-couple days with Kase. The rest of the volume covers the entrance exam and moving to start college. I'm super excited that this series is going beyond high-school romance. To be honest, I hope it continues into their adult lives as well!

The volume is filled with lots of smiles, tears, cute looks, really really sweet kisses, and...oh, I can't reveal it...but OMG...a big step for the couple. Like the volumes before it. This isn't about drama, or really much plot at all. It's just more stories about two people that we like who really really like each other in the simplest, sweetest ways possible.

One of the things that I think has made this series stand out, and survive despite changes in its publication history, is that it perfectly balances its cute/sweetness and likable characters without giving in to the lustful or salacious moments (the fan service, if you will). Let's compare Hiromi Takashima's work in the Kase-san series with Milk Morinaga's work to highlight the difference. I really like a lot of Milk Morinaga's work (I'm probably one of the few who think "Secret of the Princess" is her best). But, often, her series have some pretty risque moments, especially considering they are about underage girls. The art leaves little to be imagined in those series' most intimate moments.

But with Kase-san, Takashima-sensei, takes the best elements of sweetness and then gives the two lead characters such lovability, that you get so lost in their twinkliness (god this is a terribly written review! >_< ) that you couldn't ask for anything more. In fact, to add any real fan-service would detract so much from the wholesomeness (much better word choice, Jaime!). Sometimes, you need something that reminds you of sunshine, and that's the Kase-san series. This is no criticism of other series, just a highlight of one thing that makes Kase-san unique. It is pure, but pure in a totally unrealistically cute way (sort of like Hello Kitty, really).

This also isn't the self-serious type of yuri, exemplified in the anime Maria Watches Over Us (which BTW is my favorite series of all time, so also not a complaint). That series does have cuteness and sweetness, but in a much more realistic (you're laughing at me for this) depiction - it is more contained in individual personalities than in it's total world-view. In Kase-san, there is never any doubt of their love for each other, never a hint there will be any drama, just waiting for the next way they will get Yamada to blubberingly cry out her love for Kase or Kase blushingly suggesting something slightly lewd to Yamada which Yamada completely, naively, doesn't get which makes Kase sigh in relief as she is always just as nervous about moving forward as her girlfriend is comfortable in Kase's presence. Yamada and Kase are just two rays of sunshine lighting up the pages, which is sometimes exactly what you need.

As with the prior volumes, Volume 5 (Kase-san and Cherry Blossoms) is just as refreshingly simple and lovely as they all have been. The art is consistent, with a good variation in line thickness, decent (but not profound) use of screentones, clear character design, great emotional expression, a mix of standard and comedic character depictions, and clear action. It's a great 8/10. Being as perfect as it is, for what it set out to do, I can't shake the feeling I should be rating it higher. But maybe I'm slightly taking for granted just how hard it is to be this sunny, this consistently.


Saturday, February 16, 2019

My Solo Exchange Diary volume 2 leads Nagata Kabi to new insights (Manga Sort-of-Review)

My Lesbian Experience with Loneliness is one of the greatest manga/graphic-novels of all time. It was a profound reading experience and I recommend it to everyone.

My Solo Exchange Diary (published by Seven Seas) is the two volume sort-of-sequel to MLEWL. Volume 2 came out this week and I devoured it. However, unlike my normal reviews which are actual critical reviews, I feel that doing a critical review of a work that is part memoir, part personal recovery process, and mostly focused on the devastating impact of mental health would be rude.

So instead, this will be a discussion of volume 2, but please know from the onset just how much I support Kabi-sensei in her personal and artistic journey and as a personal sufferer of extreme mental health challenges (and the parent to a child with the same, and a child of a parent with the same) this is a very powerful story on that level as well.

Where MLEWL was split between mental health and sexual awakening and coming-out, My Solo Exchange Diary volumes 1 and 2 were largely focused on Kabi-sensei's mental health challenges (and essentially exclusively so in volume 2) as she works to emerge into the new found light following the publication of MLEWL. Volume 2 of My Solo Exchange Diary is told in the same minimal, sketchy, doodley art in pink and black ink. It is also episodic in a way that MLEWL wasn't.

Two central, but interrelated experiences dominate the story: Kabi-sensei's work to reconcile and rebuild her relationship with her family and her several inpatient hospitalizations for mental health. One of the most powerful moments comes when Kabi-sensei realizes that all the anger and hate she had for her family (vivid in MLEWL) was completely misplaced. She recognizes her inability to receive the love they were always giving and begins to take it all in. Through this, she begins to spend more time at her parents house and less time in her new apartment.

Sadly, her blooming relationship with her family also plays at least a part in her downward spiral which leads to the hospitalizations. She regresses to a degree, but also starts to see how she's been a burden to her family and perhaps more critically, how she has directly hurt them with her actions and with the way she framed their story in MLEWL.

We get several instances of self harm in this volume mixed with a birthday party and time with a friend. We see Kabi-sensei at work and struggling to find creative voice amongst her debilitating mental health. Her accidental solo visit with a grandmother is one of the smallest but most beautiful moments in the volume. She also dives further into her alcohol abuse, which appears as a form of self-medication, and leads to some really pitiful moments such as waking up repeatedly in a bed she has wet due to being so inebriated. What it must have taken Kabi-sensei to share so much tragedy and pain and to reflect so much on herself in these three books. Volume 2 is filled with so many moments of profound growth amongst its pain.

By the end of volume 2, Kabi-sensei finds herself out of the hospital, trying to get through each day by doing something for someone else (rather than being so locked in her own head), and questioning how she is portraying people in this very volume prior to publication. While not ending with any real resolution (because there is no resolution in an ongoing life), there is a satisfactory conclusive feel that still leaves the door open for Kabi-sensei to develop future memoirs should she desire to.

If you loved My Lesbian Experience with Loneliness, then you will want to follow Kabi-sensei in My Solo Exchange Diary. But if you haven't read either, please go back and read MLEWL. That is essential reading.

My Solo Exchange Diary works as a slightly more subdued continuation without the gripping immediacy and stunning originality of the earlier work. I pray for Kabi-sensei, and am grateful for what these three books have given me. Seeing her journey in print, both as a gay woman discovering herself in adulthood and as someone suffering from debilitating mental health challenges, has helped me to feel less alone, more understood, and hopeful that through her work that society itself can begin to have a place for all of us.


Tuesday, February 12, 2019

Ao Haru Ride v.3 - amazing like the first two volumes (Manga Review)

Yoshioka Futaba
Ao Haru Ride volume 3 (Shojo Beat/Viz) continues the strong start to the series from the first two volumes. Futaba finally acknowledges her feelings for Kou - the current Kou - and no longer pines for the lost Kou from middle-school. However, since Yuri confided in Futaba that she too likes Kou, Futaba must decide whether to stop pursuing him or tell Yuri of her feelings as well.

This sets up the central drama and character growth of the third volume. This is skillfully handled and we get a beautiful middle ground between this interaction between Futaba and Yuri being no big deal and being a huge overly-dramatized situation (what would have happened in most series). Instead, Sakisaka-sensei's deftness for writing nuanced characters and emotionally-sensitive moments comes through so powerfully in this volume.

Not only is the Futuba/Yuri storyline done with delicacy, intimacy, and a touch of sadness, we also start to get greater glimpses into Kou and Shoko (a side character). With Kou, we see him struggling to want to connect, whether it is with Futaba, or with Kaminato (who comes to his defense in a scene that confirms his good-guy qualities). Kou even opens up a bit to Futaba and others, making some significant statements that reveal an inner sadness momentarily before he waves them off as jokes. Also, like the last volume, Kou comes tantalizingly close to acting on what we hope are brewing feelings for Futaba, before ultimately refusing to allow himself to go down that path.

With Shoko, a side story gives us some of her background, but we also see her true (kind) character in the moments after Futaba finally tells Yuri about her feelings for Kou. Without giving anything away, the awareness, empathy, and skill with which Shoko supports both her friends is incredibly touching and well written.

I know I'm gushing, but the truth is, this series so far represents everything I love about the best shoujo. The characters are nuanced, the writing is emotionally astute, the story is complex without being overly-dramatic or using unrealistic situations to create movement. It is one of the best written series out there.

More than great writing, great characters, and a great story so far (as if that isn't enough), it also has extraordinarily beautiful art. The characters are so well defined, the lines are precise but soft, and (my favorite thing of all) there is gorgeous and complex use of screen tones that adds so much depth and grace to each panel. To see an example of this, just look at the intro drawing of Yuri from Chapter 11. The gray screentone around the stars, the way it blends into the shadowing of her left eye, the layers of circular screens at the bottom. And every page is like this!
Ao Haru Ride v3

Really, I don't know what else to tell you. Do you like shoujo manga? Do you like really well written manga? Do you like well written characters, emotionally intelligent writing, plot driven by subtle every-day things? Do you like great art? Do you breathe? If you answered "yes" to any of those, then you will love Ao Haru Ride v. 3. This volume, given how many incredible yet delicate moments there are in each chapter, gets a 9/10! If you've read any of my other manga or anime reviews, you know I don't give a score like that out lightly. This is a must-read series.


Sunday, February 10, 2019

Now Loading...! fails to compile (Manga Review)

Takagi x Kaori
I am delighted with the boom in yuri manga, and delighted that we're getting some self-contained single volume releases in the US. I'm also pleased with the increased availability of yuri manga about adult women (see After Hours). However, "Now Loading...!" (Seven Seas) is about as boring and non-descript as you can get. So while it hearkens to a good overall trend, it is probably a volume worth skipping.

This self-contained five-chapter story is about a young woman, Takagi, who joins a video game company. She meets her boss and Senpai: Kaori. Kaori develops feelings for Takagi, kisses her, they finish their game successfully, and they get together. That's it. Not really a spoiler because it's a self-contained yuri so of course they would get together. With stories like these, it's the journey that matters.

Sadly, that's where "Now Loading...!" fails completely. No characters are explored in any depth. There is no real emotional arc for anyone. There is no real insight into why the characters fall for each other. They are incredibly bland characters with no rich lives, feelings, thoughts, or actions. The story itself, about a game design and launch is both superficial and somewhat insincere in its depiction of how the industry works.

So let's be honest. This story reads like some editor said: "'New Game!' was amazing. What if we made it into a yuri? Who would be interested in doing that?" And they found some mangaka to just spit it out. In fact, their understanding of the game industry seems like it came exclusively from watching "New Game!" in that so much of it mirrors that anime/manga exactly but doesn't even have that series' minimal level of industry complexity or understanding (as simplistic as even that series is).

Further, while "New Game!" was funny, cute, charming, etc..."Now Loading...!" (notice the similarity of the title presentation - likely an artifact of US marketing?) is just so bland. The art is really really mediocre. It's neither cute nor realistic. I think it's trying to be cute-ish, but it fails. It's also very simple with minimal backgrounds, no real screen tones (other than for basic shades of gray), etc...

The writing isn't funny either even though it tries to be. The pacing is strange, chunky, and fast. The setups for jokes fail when they are even there. And the romance, what little there is, is so random and not at all how real people work, that it fails to inspire any emotional resonance. It's just a very, very mediocre endeavor.

I was excited by an adult yuri self-contained story. I'm so glad it's out there and I hope it portends to more to come. But, "Now Loading...!" was a disappointment. It gets a 5/10 because while there is nothing really problematic, there is nothing to recommend it either. The romance is underwhelming, the art and writing are very bland, the story is superficial and not interesting. Just watch "New Game!" and ship Aoba and Ko in your head instead.


Sunday, February 3, 2019

Rascal Does Not Dream of Bunny Girl Senpai season end review (Anime Review)

Sakuta x Mai
This pretty much sums up the problems with the series. Average guy, way too many beautiful girls, and he's the one that can solve all their problems. It had potential, and a great female lead that was underutilized, but ultimately got boring and redundant.
I reviewed the first half of the terribly named "Rascal Does Not Dream of Bunny Girl Senpai" here, so this is my follow-up on the second half of the first (only?) season. Despite its name, the first few episodes were surprisingly good. However, in that first half of the season were two story arcs. The first one, while pretty good, was followed by a disappointingly redundant second arc and less time with the burgeoning relationship between our two leads, Sakuta and Mai. Much like that disappointing second arc from the first half of the season, the second half of the season was composed of two more disappointingly redundant arcs and a very unfulfilling conclusion. Basically, the show started off surprisingly decent and became boring pretty quickly.

The quick summary of the series: Sakuta and his sister, Kaede have both experienced puberty syndrome, a strange metaphysical set of experiences that have wrecked their lives. Sakuta living with huge scars across his chest and Kaede having been so traumatized by bullying that she can no longer leave the house, the mere thought of it bringing strange bruises all over her body.

The series starts with Sakuta in a library watching as a high-school girl in a bunny girl outfit strolls through the stacks, seemingly invisible to everyone else but him. Finally talking to her, she's surprised that anyone can see her. Turns out Mai is a former child star whom the world has literally forgotten. To prove this to herself, she dresses in that ostentatious outfit and still can't get attention. But Sakuta can see her. Thus starts their quest to make her visible again and through this, their relationship blooms.

The absolute best parts of the series are the interactions between Sakuta and Mai. She is confident and vulnerable at the same time, and her dialogue is so well written, as are his responses and complete devotion to her. They are a joy on screen together. However, after the first few episodes, now that she is seen again, she restarts her career and has little time for him, and little screen time at all. Instead, the final 3/4 of the series, including the specific two arcs reviewed here, are pretty much Sakuta addressing puberty syndrome in others. It's boring, it's the same basic stuff again and again, predictable, and without any of the joy that Sakuta and Mai bring when interacting with each other.

We get an arc where we are introduced to Mai's half sister and they switch bodies. So most of our time is either with someone who looks like Mai, but is actually her sister, or Mai but in her sister's body (which we don't get much time with anyway, as that time is spent in rehearsals for her sister's girl group). The natural conclusion to the body swap is for them to heal their emotional distance from each other. Duh.

The last arc has to do with Kaede, Sakuta's sister, an interestingly depicted character throughout who has a strange crush on her brother and may be meant more as sis-con service than anything else. However, we do get some greater insight into why she acts like this as her true story unfolds. I'm not going to give that away, as it has some value to it. But, when it all unfolds, we're left with a non-resolution that is both emotionally painful for Sakuta as well as the audience. There is a great sense of loss with this ending. That certainly has value, in that it did generate true emotion in me, but it was also somewhat against the tenor of the series. I wonder however, if this goes further in later volumes of the light novels on which the anime is based. Either way, it wasn't a satisfying ending for what was overall a light comedy series.

Further, we get more insight into the strange girl that Sakuta saw when he first went through puberty syndrome himself. That too is a strangely unsatisfactory explanation and does not in the least tie into or resolve the similarly named younger character, who is introduced in the middle of the series, stays with them for a few days, and then is promptly never to be seen in the series again. Poor writing? Who knows, maybe this goes further in the later light novels as well, but it's too many loose ends for me.

So aside from the relatively boring and predictable final half of the series, and too little time with Mai and Sakuta's relationship, there are other overall concerns with this series. Basically, the show has an average male lead who gets the beautiful and talented girl, and is surrounded by many other beautiful girls at all times. Sakuta is actually a nice guy, so it isn't that bad, but clearly this is meant to mostly appeal to boys/men.

But my biggest qualm is that it is another series in which the male has to come to the rescue and solve all the women's problems. Now, there is his friend Rio Futaba who helps him unravel many of the problems, but she's mostly a sounding board for useless pseudo-science jargon and he ultimatley has to help her too (in a strangely service-y story line). Ultimately it is Sakuta who solves things for all the girls in the series. I'm not really comfortable with that combination of nice but non-descript guy, gets all the girls, and solves all their problems.

This isn't a bad show, per se, but it is problematic and doesn't live up to its early potential. It also clearly cops aspects of "Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya" and "My Teen Romantic Comedy SNAFU" (or at least squarely fits into that genre but not nearly as good as those two), so if you liked those shows you'll like this. But what could be a wonderful romance between Sakuta and Mai is so under-represented with screen time, and the plots are so relatively predictable in their resolution, mixed with the male-dominant focus, that it was just overall underwhelming. What was a strong first few episodes became boring and perfunctory for the final 3/4 of the series. With that I'm giving it a watchable but cautious 6/10. I want to give it a lower score, but there are some redeeming qualities and it is watchable despite it's flaws and male-dominant value system.