Monday, February 28, 2011

A Moment of Thankfulness

Sometimes the universe is kind enough to place things in your path, but you still have to do the work to get there. Unfortunately, arriving a half hour early to the Beastly screening wasn’t quite enough. The last person to get in was about ten people ahead of me.

So it was a bummed out T ride home. The train was packed so tight, I couldn’t even get out my book to read. I guess my day must have shown on my face, because this nice gentleman insisted that I take his seat, mistaking my disappointment for weariness. (Perhaps he wasn’t mistaken at all.) I refused at first, but he was persistent. It was all I could to do thank him as emotion welled up in my throat.

It was amazing he had noticed at all, much less done something. You see, there is a certain studied way of ignoring people that becomes ingrained in frequent transit riders. Everyone else in the car is invisible. Still, he saw me. He may never think about this again, but his small act of consideration was a balm.

After the gentleman got off, I saw a younger man graciously give up his seat to a middle-aged woman. I can’t help but think my stranger’s willingness to stand may have made this fellow’s feet a little lighter. That spark of good intentions and its chain reaction certainly made me more buoyant.

When I got home, I tucked into a leftover Oscar cupcake before cracking open Lucy, my laptop. Waiting in my inbox was a lovely email from a stranger letting me know about a book reviewing program. I had never interacted with her in any capacity before (this changes now—Hi, Jennifer!) but she took time out of her life to tell me about this opportunity. She had nothing to gain. The infinite capacity of human beings for kindness overwhelms me sometimes.

The universe can be cruel. Chance and odds and luck make suckers out of us all. We get wounded by “the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,“ and we forget how fortunate we are. We forget that the “wild winds of fortune” are often at our backs, propelling us forward even as they are buffeting us.

I may be rambling, but I’ll try and wrap things up by going on a complete tangent. There was a morale-boosting poster produced by the British government at the start of World War II. It was rediscovered in the last decade, so now the “Keep Calm and Carry On” slogan graces the houses of design-savvy and stressed folks alike. As with any trend, there have been waves of backlash (“I liked it before it was cool”) and parodies (“Keep Calm and Conjure a Patronus Charm”), some more clever than others. The spin I love best is simple, keeping in the spirit of the original: “Work Hard and Be Nice to People.” I intend to.

Sunday, February 27, 2011

Serendipity, Baked Goods-Style

Remember that time I wanted to see Beastly, the movie adapted from the book I just reviewed? Well, the universe sometimes listens to silly little wants, even if you can't count on it for the big things.

In advance of this evening's festivities, I walked into my favorite cupcake store to buy some Oscar-themed treats (ahem and ohmygosh) for my get-together. Thanks to my cupcake-acquiring accomplice's eagle eyes, I snagged a pair of free passes to an advance screening! A stack of them were just chilling on the counter, waiting to be given a good home.

Tomorrow night, I will be happily tucked into my theater bucket seat, watching two pretty actors fall in love...For free! All in all, not a bad way to spend a post-work Monday. (Will report back, of course, if anyone's interested.) Thanks, universe!

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Review: Alex Flinn's Beastly

Beastly takes one of my favorite stories and goes for the modern remake. The standard characters—the beast, the witch, the love interest, the staff—are in place, but things didn’t totally click for me. I suppose there’s only one thing to do in this kind of situation. MAKE A LIST!

The Top Five Things that Made Me Twitchy about Beastly:

1. Kyle/Adrian/The Beast spies on Lindy/The Beauty before she arrives with a magic mirror. (Really, I’m not sure how this spying nonsense keeps happening in YA. It’s not romantic. It’s creepy.) He fills her room with books, bought new from with his father’s credit card, because he already knows she loves to read. He doesn’t discover what will make her happy through interacting with her. It felt like cheating.

2. Lindy does not come of her own accord. Her drug-dealing father forces her to come, so it’s pretty much kidnapping/trafficking. (Also note that the father suggests giving over his daughter, not the Beast.) There’s no element of self-sacrifice.

3. Kyle/Adrian discovers a chat room for people transformed by magic, which may seem cute and current but is actually a smidge too clever/self-satisfied. “Mr. Anderson” runs the chat. The Little Mermaid, the Frog Prince, and the bear from “Snow White and Rose Red” make appearances. (I wouldn’t mind following up with “SilentMaid” though. She actually sticks to her myth and gets turned into seafoam. Tragic!)

4. Kyle is sixteen, but he develops a really anachronistic speech pattern when he’s around Lindy. Stiff, formal, and quite like the fairy tale Beast. Even when he lampshades it, the authorial choice doesn’t jibe with the internal logic of the story.

5. The reason why Lindy can’t return to Kyle/Adrian is because she lost his address and doesn’t remember what subway stop his house is near. Really? You expect me to believe a girl who grew up in New York can’t remember one measly subway stop that she saw from her window every day for months? Really?

Though I liked Will the blind tutor and Kendra the witch, I was never invested in the leads. That problem goes beyond my list-making capabilities. If I had loved the love story, I think I could have handled Issues 1-5. So, that’s all there is to it. Everyone gets their happily ever after in the end, but I just didn’t believe the journey.

(This may be the one case when the movie will be better than the book? Cross your fingers for me because I’m still going to rent it. <3 NPH.)

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Review: Ally Condie's Matched

It’s an especial pleasure to dive into a book that has been the subject of intense thought. When an author has really considered all the angles and intimately knows the inner worlds of her characters, it shows. This quality, to me, is what elevates Matched above standard dystopian fare. Though the pieces are familiar and the genre is bloated, Ally Condie has transcended the trite with a nuanced, engaging story relayed in beautiful prose.

The title refers to the ceremony in which a teenaged member of The Society is assigned a mate. (Ominous capital letters are a dystopian hallmark.) The pairing is impersonal and scientific, a completely regulated process. Every other important life decision—what to eat, what job to do, what to do with free time—is calculated in a similar way. We, as modern readers in a free-thinking society, are trained to shudder at words like “impersonal” and “scientific,” but in some respects, The Society doesn’t seem so bad. 

Matched is what I would call a “seductive dystopian.” Of course, a savvy reader knows that utopian societies are always false, but it seems pretty nice there. I bet no one in The Society has ever worried about their weight. They’ve never had their heart broken, never agonized over a text. They’ve never had to write a single cover letter or wonder what to do with their life. They don’t waste time. There’s no cancer, no violence, no other way. Worry and frustration are eliminated because uncertainty is off the table. (Citizens may be anxious about the big events, but after the outcome is announced, they know exactly what is necessary.) Science has proven that their given path is the best and most effective way. 

No one wants to live in the excess of Panem or the oppressive squalor of District 12. Meg Murray sees pretty quickly that Camazotz is a scary place. (Only now do I realize that this can be read as “comatose” with a long “o”.) Because there is so much good in The Society, it takes some time until the full picture is pieced together. (The moment when that happens for Cassia is so well done. The sense of disillusionment, of seeing beyond infallibility, mimics the same process teenagers go through with their parents.) Like in The Giver, the realization comes slowly, the creeping horror of a discovering a world where there’s no color. (In The Giver, it’s literal. Here, it’s metaphorical.) 

What caught me in particular about Cassia’s world was the idea of “The Hundred.” Only 100 of the “best” songs, poems, and paintings are available for public consumption. (I’m not sure if Condie was thinking about this at the time, but I saw echoes of the Voyager’s Golden Record, which I always found fascinating. What do you send/save? What would I send/save?) Since Matched is set in Earth’s dystopian future, some of the cultural references are familiar. For instance, Robert Frost’s “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening” is preserved but not his “The Road Not Taken.” With that one detail, Condie lets us know the list was censored and sanitized, optimized for control and conformity. So smart!

Creation beyond these works is not nurtured. In fact, it’s actively discouraged. No one in The Society knows how to write beyond typing in their tablets. (Ahem, Apple.) New movies are simple propaganda films. Since literacy, democracy of knowledge, and censorship are pet issues of mine, I was totally invested in these details. (The burning of books puts a fire in my belly.) Even small instances of creation and curiosity are taken away. If you don’t cook your own food, you never ask how things are grown or where they came from. You also never get to cook for someone.

In a highly regulated society, relationships and choice—the messy entanglements of life and the hard decisions that lead to personal growth—are what is sacrificed. When everything is calibrated, the possibility of beauty and the sublime, of intense pleasure in things that are not useful, is lost. However, many varieties of love and loyalty can blossom in a controlled environment. Ties to family, friends, and community are still very real. People in the book give the minutes of their lives to each other, as Cassia poetically notes. (I do love these characters and wish I had more space to talk about them.) Big choices may be taken out of their hands, but the thousands of little choices still define who they are.

I think the next book in the series (Crossed) will ramp up the discussion of free will and choice. I’m already counting the days until November.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Stick, Stack, Stuck

It seems counterintuitive, but I know I really like a book when it takes me a long time to write its review. The tyrannical portion of my brain, the part that loves to cross things off of to-do lists, insists that I update my blog in a timely fashion: “You finished the book, so it’s time to post. Find the theme! Analyze! Type! Repeat!” However, my creative mind could care less about a schedule. It forces me to sit with the story for a while, to bide my time until I find a point of access. As of this moment, I’m waiting for a few recent reads to unfold. I can’t wait for them to let me in, but I know I have to be patient.

Blog-wise, I’m struggling with depth and tone. (Am I funny? Lyrical? Indignant?) Bear with me and my growing pains. I’m still finding my voice.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Review: Maggie Stiefvater's Linger

Some books are inextricably tied to your reading experience. I fell into this one like a drowning person looking for air, searching for a sweet and satisfying escape. Instead, I asphyxiated. Silly me. I had forgotten the Second Book in a Trilogy Commandment: Thou shalt destroy what thou hast built.

Forget the victories of the initial adventure. Second books don’t care that you cheated death in a brutal arena. You just made things worse for yourself. You did something no one else can do? Cool, now people are hunting you. Second books don’t care that you found true love or saved the day or recovered a priceless artifact. You’re going to be trapped in a love triangle, discover that you helped the wrong side, or learn that something vital has been stolen from you. Perhaps all three at the same time. Things tend to get dark and twisty and complicated.

…Which is exactly what happens to Sam and Grace. All is not as it seems. I don’t want to give away a lot, but the mythology changes. I’m not sure if I love the switch from a natural cause (temperature) to a scientific explanation for shifting, but I’m down to see where it goes. How deep is the rabbit hole and why are there wolves at the bottom?

I appreciated seeing our main characters, the lovers we fell in love with, through the eyes of others. (Cole St. Clair and Isabel are intriguing new voices to add to the story, even if I am a little tired of the Bad Boy trope.) The glimpses of Sam and Grace’s hidden depths, ones that they may not yet understand or explain objectively, were subtle and reassuring. They’re evolving and so is their relationship.

As always, the prose is lovely. (Ditto cover art.) Everything had a frosty bite in Shiver, but there was a bit more heat here. (It was so odd to read warm, thawing words instead of cold.) The only thing that threw me was noticing the text was green! It was a tad disorienting to come back to the book after a break (not that I took many) and wait for the color to “fade” to black in my brain.

All in all, this book did what it was supposed to do. It mucked things up for the characters and will keep me waiting impatiently for Book 3: The Conclusion. The wait’s going to feel like Forever, har har.

Monday, February 14, 2011

Review: David Levithan's The Lover's Dictionary: A Novel

February has always been my favorite month. Yes, my birthday may have something to do with it, but the shortest month of the year has its own charms.

You see, February is an oasis. When Christmas is a memory and everyone is ready for the winter to be OVER ALREADY, warmth breaks through the cold and the bitter. Everything becomes flushed and heart-shaped. People get cozy, send flowers, hold hands. There’s candy and Cupids and cards and chocolate and cupcakes and cuteness and craving and creativity.

So the day has been commercialized. So you should be celebrating love year-round. So you may not have a significant other. So the holiday commemorates a beheaded saint. So what? Valentine’s Day lets you take a look at the people in your life and say “I care about you” however you want to say it. Grand gestures. Small murmurs of appreciation. As for me, well…I say “I love you” with books.

I’m celebrating Valentine’s Day and the week following it with books about love, and I’m kicking it off with The Lover’s Dictionary. It’s almost too beautiful for words, which seems kind of silly seeing how its backbone is vocabulary. (The concept is similar to A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers, a novel I enjoyed a few years back. However, TLD hits harder because its entries are so brief.) Maybe my own words can’t do it justice, but I can try:

Brevity (n.) The way a vignette can make you laugh and drop your stomach with recognition in the span of two sentences.

Captivated (adj.) Being so sure of how it will end but having your expectations thwarted and your emotions held hostage by surprise. See: brushing up against something extraordinary.

Ebullient (adj.) Pertaining to a heart that wells up when reading, esp. when appreciating thoughtful word choices and savoring playful turns of phrase.

Haphazard (adj.) How bits and pieces of a relationship, presented out of order, can give you such a full picture of two individuals.

Lyrical (adj.) Used to describe prose and placement that seems as effortless as a falling snowflake but has been polished to ice by a sharp editorial eye.

Pine (v.) To yearn for the best and worst parts of an old relationship as you’re reading. To want to share things they might enjoy but not know when or if or to what extent you can be friends again. To want to say I’m sorry and regret nothing.

Recognition (n.) The discovery that both flawed protagonists resemble you in a remarkable fashion.

Revelation (n.) What this book is.

I will be purchasing this book for myself as a Valentine’s Day gift. I suggest you do so as well.

Friday, February 11, 2011

Review: Francesca Lia Block's Weetzie Bat

This is going to be short, breezy review for a short, breezy book. Weetzie Bat is a shimmering little soap bubble of a story. I found it whimsical, but if you don’t think a title character who exclaims “lanky lizards!” and a paramour named My Secret Agent Lover Man are fun, this is probably not the book for you. 

Yes, it is as surreal and sunny and bohemian as those examples indicate. Weetzie and her gay boyfriend Dirk are hipsters ahead of their time, flapper and rat pack and beatnik and punk rock. They revel in the glamour of old Hollywood while taking joyrides and cruising in nightclubs. A genie intrudes briefly, turning the sparkling realism into magical realism, though the story is still very much about people. It tackles divorce, choosing your own family, AIDS, and love lost but not gone.

Weetzie Bat is also a love letter to the “jasmine-scented, jacaranda-purple, neon sparked city” of Los Angeles, which Block charmingly calls “Shangri-L.A.” The book, like the fictional version of the city, is filled with vibrant characters, run-on sentences, and gorgeous language. Please see:

“A kiss about apple pie a la mode with the vanilla creaminess melting in the pie heat. A kiss about chocolate, when you haven't eaten chocolate in a year. A kiss about palm trees speeding by, trailing pink clouds when you drive down the Strip sizzling with champagne.”

I’d definitely take this slinky novel out for a spin if you’ve read this far. It brightened up my winter and a dentist appointment. A bit of trivia: Block has a dog named “Vincent Van Go Go Boots.” That’s the cat’s pajamas.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Birthdays and Beginnings

I always say that birthdays are my favorite holiday. I love celebrating the people I love, making a day (or weekend) all about them. I know some people think birthdays are depressing or silly because their only purpose is to mark another year “survived,” but I don’t get it. Why not say “Yay! You made it!” after another trip around the sun? Why not bask unashamed in the warmth of friends and family?

In this unabashed spirit, I wanted to do something a little different to celebrate my 23rd orbit. (I don’t believe that I’m 23 at all. I still read like I’m 13 half of the time!) When I compose posts for this blog, I’m usually wearing my reading hat. I take apart plots and examine beautiful turns of phrase and gush about characters (oh my gosh, I cannot wait to write about Girl Parts), but I also have another hat I like to wear. A secret hat. A hat I can barely talk about above a whisper, one that I don’t even like to admit I own. You see, I’m also a…writer.

I love building plots and turning my own phrases, but it’s kind of embarrassing to say so. I mean, everyone’s a “writer” nowadays. (Please note use of ironic/self-conscious quotes.) But hey, it’s my birthday! I’m celebrating the birth of me, so why not celebrate the birth of some of my stories? 

Let’s talk about opening lines for a minute. My best ones, I’ve found, can’t be forced. I don’t labor endlessly over them. They spring forth unbidden, like Athena. The French have a term for love at first sight that j’adore: “un coup de foudre,” a shock of lightening. That is the creative process for me. A first line comes and strikes me with its electricity. Then, I have to write it to its end.

I want to take a look at two of my favorite first lines that I’ve written. Both of them served my stories in different ways, but they have the same essence to me, that “first love” feeling.  They introduced me to my characters, drawing the story out of them. They told me how to begin.

There was a dog outside the diner.

This sentence doesn’t seem like much at first glance. It’s simple, declarative. I kind of liked that about it when we first “met.” It was so unassuming. Little did I know that in this sentence was my ending. (I love when the beginnings of short stories contain the seeds of the end.) 

A little history: I wrote “OPEN, CLOSED” for a creative writing class. My professor, the insightful Michael Downing, gave us a prompt meant to create a character and a place: A nineteen-year-old girl with a five-year-old daughter works in a place that serves food. The back wall is mirrored, the front wall is windowed. There must be a dog. At the end of the story, she discovers the door of her house is open. 

For this exercise, my classmates had the girl’s lover come back, threatened her child, and even transported her to Tuscany. I wanted something quieter, a story where her old life intrudes on her new one. I set mine in the Texas panhandle, creating a diner during the heyday of Route 66. I had an older graduate from my protagonist’s high school stop into the diner, running from her own problems. The two strike up a tentative truce when Sandy offers her a place to stay.

I found my story, but I didn’t know how to end it. I thought Sandy would take this dog home, this abandoned pregnant thing that mirrored how she was left years ago, but it didn’t fit when I wrote it. The other option did: Sandy tries to take the dog home, but it won’t budge. The dog stays at the diner, at least for another day.

Something blue was the bride, puffed up in a new white dress, wearing old pearls handed down from her mother. In an attempt to distract herself from her mood, she pulled words out of her name. Margaret. It was a game she had played many times, but today only certain combinations of letters jumped out at her. Age, err, mar, mate, rage, tame, regr…No. She was missing an “e.”

“Something Borrowed” was a writer’s block story, something like “take an old adage and work your way around it.” My reluctant bride Margaret appeared with her cousin Theodore. I was pretty affected by the scene in Evening where a woman’s gay best friend proposes to her, and I used this idea to power my story. In a time when it wasn’t OK to openly love men or be an independent woman, it seemed like a perfect out for both of them. Ultimately, Margaret refuses Teddy’s proposal and goes through with her marriage, knowing their “arrangement” won’t fix things. Here’s the end:

From across the white expanse, Teddy offered Margaret his arm. She took one step, then another until she was close enough to thread her hand through the loop of his elbow. Mindful of those waiting, they processed out.

I have a whole Word document filled with opening lines, sentences filled with characters and possibilities. (One that always nudges me is “The color of hunger is purple,” but I’m not sure who it belongs to yet. I like the “bruise” connotations.) Right now, I’m stuck on one and it’s getting long, maybe book-length. I can’t know how it will end, but I do know that births, of stories and of people, are meant to be celebrated.

Monday, February 7, 2011

Review: Jackie Morse Kessler's Hunger

I may just have my crotchety old lady pants on, but I wasn’t on board with Hunger. The author seems like a really lovely person, and I get what she’s trying to do here. However, I think this book is a classic case of “awesome premise that falls short of its full potential.”

In her author’s note, Kessler mentions that she suffered from bulimia. “Write what you know” is trite, but she does an excellent job here, credibly portraying both anorexia and bulimia. (The instance where the two disorders intersect is arguably the book’s most powerful scene.) The tyrannical “Thin Voice” our emaciated heroine hears is absolutely terrifying. I’ve heard that voice before, and to see it taken to an extreme is a real-life horror story. For instance, there’s a gripping scene where anorexic Lisabeth watches her healthy boyfriend eat a plate of cheese fries. It made me really crave some French fries, but at the same time, I sort of never want to eat (much less look at) a French fry ever again. Yes! I was so with the protagonist there! What went wrong?

Where Kessler stumbles is the book’s hook: the four Horsemen. (Really, Horsemen and Horsewomen, as Rage is also female.) OK, so they’re the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. Cool. I’m more or less familiar with what they’re doing. (The Bible pretty much lays it out.) Thing is, Kessler is explicitly reimagining that mythology, and she needed to do the work! So many cool questions can be answered: What do they DO all the time? Why do they get chosen? How long do their appointments last? Do they die? Do they have goals? How do their powers work? Are they friends? Do they have office get-togethers where they get drunk and hang out?

I wanted more, especially of pocked-marked Pestilence. Kessler lets us nibble on an intriguing backstory and then sends him away forever! Speaking of forever, Death didn’t seem so sexy. He was supposed to be terrifying and sensual, but to me, he was trying a little too hard. Maybe it’s because I’m not partial to rock stars.* I also wanted more from Lisabeth’s boyfriend and Lisabeth’s former best friend. (The reason for their falling-out is that the best friend rightfully calls Lisabeth out on her eating disorder). Lisabeth’s bulimic friend Tammy was so vivid that I wanted the “good guys” to match up, to put up a good fight.

I’m not one to hold grunges against small books [sic: intentional funny], but authors have to be aware that the shorter length raises the stakes. The story has to be great to make up for the “missing” pages. (See When You Reach Me, which was 208 pages, fully-imagined, well-executed, and awesome.) Maybe if this book had a little more time to develop, it really could have been something. As it was, it seemed (excuse the pun) half-baked. The eating disorder storyline was good, though I can’t say it was amazing because I’ve already been spoiled by Wintergirls. The Four Horsemen is an original concept, but the execution fell flat. (The series will continue with at least one more book, which will feature a self-injurer as Wrath. I might have to read more to see if it improves.)

Again, my griping is not anything personal. My negative reviews are not a screed against the author or their family or everything they stand for. More often than not, my negative reviews spring from frustration at engaging with a book that is so close to succeeding! I want books to succeed and be brilliant! That’s why I want to go into publishing! Ah, well. I guess I’ll feed my old grumpyguts some muddy buddies that I made for the Superbowl.** (Whoo, football?)

*Rock stars, you ask? Well, Death appears in the form of Kurt Cobain. (He even sings a little too…IN KURT COBAIN’S VOICE.) Do kids these days even know who Kurt Cobain is? (Gosh, I am a cranky old lady.) I know Kessler can’t help that she hit one of my biggest writing pet peeves, but I hate, HATE when writers use references to “our world” as shorthand. (I’m actually so worked up about this that I want to devote a whole post to it.)

**This is half a joke. In the book, Lisa eats mud to fuel her powers.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Review: the Battle Royale manga series

I think there’s a certain stigma surrounding comic books: “They’re just for kids. Only nerds read them. Superheroes aren’t complicated.”* Luckily, this is changing with the rise of “nerd culture,” web comics, anime, darker movie franchise reboots, and graphic novels. Comics are beginning to be cool again, and manga is a big factor in that. Manga has complex storylines, is made for both genders, and can be just as enriching as novels. Its distinctive style has inspired tons of kids to try their hand at creating their own art, emulating their favorite artist or forging something new from a blend of techniques, and that’s terrific in my (comic) book.

That being said, I’ve never tackled an entire series of manga before. When I was younger, I casually consumed anime, mostly because it was the predominant style of Saturday morning cartoon. I grew up watching Sailor Moon and Pokemon and other Japanese exports on Cartoon Network, but I never made the leap from TV to print. Anime acquainted me with the “shorthand” of the genre—big sweatdrops, tiny figures (“chibis”), mushroom sighs, and the like—but reading manga was a unique experience. I’m not sure how the pages are flipped (because I was reading online), but like Hebrew, manga is read right to left.** I read all 15 volumes in a very short period of time. (FYI, this series is based on the novel Battle Royale written by Koushun Takami. The manga version was written by Koushun Takami and Masayuki Taguchi.)

Let me make this clear: This is not for kids, y’all. (It’s definitely for a mature YA or even adult audience.) The extreme graphic violence (some of which is highly sexualized) drunkenly walks a line between having a point and being gratuitous. It’s as twisted and sick as its premise: a televised game show that pits 40 unsuspecting high school students against each other in a death match. The gore is going to upset anyone with a sensitive stomach. For instance, someone’s eyeball is ripped out and crushed underfoot before the game even starts. No punches are pulled.

It may seem a little odd, but I read this series in the aftermath of the Arizona shooting, around the time I wrote this. The timing was indeed strange and perhaps “inappropriate” to some, but it was cathartic. Yes, almost everyone the reader grows attached to dies in some terrible manner. Yes, there’s some serious maiming and shooting and psychological terrorism. Ultimately though, the series was not glorifying death or violence. It was doing the opposite. Woven in with the violence were much-needed messages: Injustice can be beaten by banding together and relying on others. It isn’t enough just to survive if you survived without honor, and survival is made sweeter because of love, trust, and cooperation. Additionally, the series explores the depth and breadth of the human psyche, examining the wildly varied reactions to tragedy. It takes the good guys and the very bad guys seriously.

A few years back, I read the novel Battle Royale and did not get the same messages. The book was a slog, a relentless stream of death and destruction. I couldn’t keep track of the numerous characters, who were often referred to by their “numbers,” nor did I care to. I couldn’t imagine that many individual faces, so it was hard to feel for them when they died. The manga, by its very nature, broke down these barriers.

The artwork did the lion’s share of the work. I had read the book long enough ago that everything but the basic plot—game show, everyone dies except the hero—was a surprise. How people died was very real this time around, thanks to the visuals. Putting faces to the 40 students was essential in conjuring up both empathy and sympathy for them. A particular sock to the gut was the repetition of a yearbook page that replaced the faces of slain students with Xs. Besides shaking me from my previous apathy, the artwork added to the storytelling in an authentic way. Sometimes, the frames were realistic and suspenseful. Other times, the characters’ emotions colored the landscape or their classmates. I was often struck by an interesting angle or perspective. Through these images, I could easily see how certain characters saw others, how they viewed the world, and what they thought of themselves, no explanation necessary.

The format also helped to further my connection with the characters. The serialization allowed for a longer length with frequent chapter breaks, freeing the creators to expand backstories without losing tension. The focus was also broadened from the novel’s heroic trio to seven characters, five “heroes” and two “antiheroes.” Still, all of the characters got their moment, thanks to some strategic flashbacks. The pauses were always relevant, and though they stopped the action, they added immediacy. The more I learned about certain characters’ pasts, the more I wanted them to survive in the present. I knew they wouldn’t, and it was heartbreaking.

This story has been compared to The Hunger Games trilogy, and I do concede the point on premise alone. Would I recommend it to fans? I’m not sure. The novels mainly differ in how deeply you can interact with the characters. I found THG much stronger in that respect. As for the ability to handle the violence, it’s up to the individual. The manga is more visceral than either book. Imagining a horrific death is completely different from seeing it explicitly on a page. All the same, the manga was a great read. I was completely engrossed, and I think I came out better on the other side.

*Totally grinds my gears. Any art reflects the society it’s made in, and superheroes are no different. In fact, it’s fascinating to see America’s growth through its superheroes. Or France’s, for that matter.

**I know, I know! My bad. If it’s any consolation, I didn’t intend to read the whole thing when I started. I was referred to one scene from an article I was reading, but then I got curious.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Art, Movies, and a Purple Tollbooth

I was going to post some thoughts about the Battle Royale manga today, but I got distracted. There is something that is filling my heart with wild fuzzy joy, and yes, it does have something to do with books. One of my favorites, actually. Today, I stumbled across some concept art for The Phantom Tollbooth. (DISCLAIMER: Not for an actual movie, as far as I know.) 

For lovers of the book, the pictures speak for themselves: lush, whimsical, familiar, comforting as a warm blanket, and dazzlingly imaginative. I love, love, love this artwork.

Dictionopolis, the city of Books (A tree with pages for leaves!)

The number mines of Digitopolis (An otherworldly ant cave.)
A character sheet for Tock, the Watchdog. (I love the way his belly clock squishes when he sits. Very DalĂ­.)

There’s so much more on the artist’s blog: The Castle in the Air, the Humbug, the Doldrums, the Tollbooth itself. (Milo looks a little emo though.) From what I’ve seen, Lizzie Nichols is very talented, and I’ve enjoyed poking through some of her other projects as well. (Now that I’m nosing around the internet, I love this picture of Tock by Kim Hazel.)

I know I’m wading into sticky territory here, posting this. The books versus movies-made-from-books debate wages daily. There are many casualties, some infuriating, and my own feelings are complicated. (Sounds like a future blog post, no?) So I’ll narrow my scope. 

Art like this could do the book justice, but I’d still be antsy about a modern Phantom Tollbooth movie. (Honestly, I haven’t even seen the existing version.) It’s not that books themselves are so sacred that they should never, ever be touched by Hollywood. (Remember, I love musical covers and story retellings.) It’s just that my memories, the characters I hold in my head (the original illustrations!), for this particular book are so precious to me. It would need to be true. No gimmicks, no hip tricks. I’m also worried about the limitations of both animation and live action. (I really do need to do a separate post about this.) However, it looks like there is indeed a PT update in the works. I’ll be watching how it progresses closely, and I can only hope their creative team stumbles across these pictures first.