Sunday, January 31, 2010

Preparing for metaphorical winter

One last post, and then I promise I'll quit for the night - I have to, I've got to go to work in a few hours.

I knew it was only a matter of time, but I had still sort of been hoping it would never happen - my university is having budget problems, which means that my library is having budget problems. Currently there is no talk of layoffs, although I wouldn't rule out reductions in our hours that result in corresponding reductions in pay. We'll see. Just in case, I'd like to build up my cushion even more each month than I already do. That means that, for now, I need to stop, or at least drastically scale back, all that happy spending on luxuries like books, anime, movies, and music (my Moribito purchase happened before we started getting near daily "depressing budget news" emails, by the way).

That doesn't mean I won't still have plenty of things to write about on this blog - I've got tons of anime I haven't watched yet, both in my personal collection and online, I've got lots of books in my TBR pile (a good chunk of it is strange laundry room reject stuff, but that should hopefully make them even more fun to write about), the local movie theater is still dirt cheap (I'm not so afraid of layoffs that paying $2.75 to see a movie, even as much as once a week, worries me), and there hasn't been any talk of ending or even reducing our ILL service. With all of that, I doubt I'll run out of blogging fodder any time soon. Probably the only person who will notice any changes is me, because I'll be going through withdrawal after having gotten used to a really nice luxuries budget.

A couple Moribito-related comments

First, if you plan on buying Moribito (the complete series) from Walmart (and perhaps other retailers?), a little warning: as far as I can tell, the "production art booklet" mentioned on the back of the DVD case is not included. I thought that my copy was just missing the booklet, so I went back and talked to Customer Service. An employee there opened up another copy, and that one also had no booklet, despite what the back of the case said. I'm currently trying to decide if it's worth the effort to contact Anime Works. On the one hand, I'm lazy. On the other hand, when I pay for something that says it includes something and then it doesn't, I'd like a chance to get that missing thing, if possible.

Second, while in the Customer Service department, I had a conversation about anime with one of the Walmart employees. She told me that she had watched a little of Moribito and hadn't really liked it - she prefers "newer" anime, like Bleach. I just nodded, since there is little point in arguing with someone in Customer Services about something like this, but I couldn't help but think, "Isn't Moribito newer than Bleach?" True, Bleach is still ongoing and Moribito ended almost two and a half years ago, but Bleach first started airing in 2004, while Moribito first started airing in 2007. I like Bleach better than Moribito, too, but not because of some mistaken assumption that Bleach is "newer."

Still, it was nice to actually meet another anime fan in person, especially one who's closer to my age. I can only hope that more of them come out of the woodwork once all the anime- and manga-inspired live action movies start coming out in theaters.

Saturday, January 30, 2010

Black Butler (anime TV series), not yet licensed

I'm not including a picture with this because it's not something I bought - bad me, I watched it online. However, if it's ever licensed, I do plan on buying it. What can I say, I really liked Sebastian. Plus, it'd be nice to watch this show in decently translated form. I've seen a lot of really good fansubs over the years, and quite of a few of the episodes of this show that I saw did not qualify as good fansubs. In a few cases the subtitles were almost unreadable, either because they were so small or because they used "creative" fonts. The subtitles for half the episodes I saw could've used someone with a good knowledge of the English language (or maybe Japanese, since I'm not completely certain where the problem began) editing them - I'm not just talking about spelling and grammar mistakes, I'm talking about awkward and incomprehensible wording. In some cases, I was able to figure out what a more elegant translation might have been, but in other cases all I could do was sit there and wonder what the characters were saying. Certain aspects of the last few episodes might have been less confusing if I had either been able to understand the supposedly English subtitles or the Japanese dialogue.

There are several spoilers in this post, mostly in the synopsis section, but, even so, I don't reveal everything. Plus, there's some stuff you just have to see to get the full effect. The whole thing with what was done to Ciel's parents and the Queen will be sticking with me for a long time. Ick.

Synopsis:

This show is set in Victorian England. Some time ago (months? years? I'm not sure), Ciel Phantomhive's parents were killed. Their bodies (body?) were burned up in a fire. Ciel was taken by a group of religious fanatics of some sort, but he managed to escape them by making a pact with a demon, who Ciel chose to call "Sebastian." Sebastian vows to protect Ciel, act as his perfect butler, and fulfill his wish to catch and kill his parents' murderer(s). In return, after Ciel's wish is fulfilled, Sebastian will be allowed to eat Ciel's soul.

Now that his father is dead, 12-year-old Ciel is the Earl of Phantomhive. He takes care of the family business (a toy factory) and serves as the Queen's dog, looking into and taking care of unusual problems for her. For instance, he investigates a town where people who don't obey the town rules turn up dead, supposedly mauled by some sort of spectral/demon dog. In another episode, he looks into the disappearances of young girls - and gets a lot of incentive to find the person responsible when his fiancee also goes missing. Well, I say that Ciel investigates things, but Sebastian does quite a bit as well. Whenever Ciel gets into trouble, he doesn't worry, because he knows that Sebastian will save him in order to protect what will one day belong to him.

Ciel's mansion has a strange cast of servants, nearly all of whom have a couple things in common - they're good in a fight and extremely loyal to Ciel and Sebastian. Aside from that, they suck as servants. Meirin, the maid, is extremely clumsy and can't seem to serve anything without tripping - her problem is probably her huge glasses, which she cherishes because Ciel gave them to her. In a fight, with her glasses off, Meirin is a lethal sniper whose only failing (if you want to call it that) is that she's too soft-hearted and couldn't kill a target who was playing with his young son. Bard, the cook who can't seem to make anything edible because he keeps trying to cook with dynamite, is an amazing soldier with a sixth sense that helps him survive dangerous situations, including one that could have been averted if his commanding officer had only listened to him. Finny, the sweet, bird-loving gardener, is so strong that he's more likely to accidentally rip a tree out of the ground than prune it. He used to be held captive by scientists who performed experiments on him that made him super strong. Tanaka is the only servant who knew Ciel before the events that took his parents' lives. Tanaka spends most of his time gently laughing to himself and drinking tea, but, when he pulls himself together, he's highly organized and knowledgeable.

Ciel's various investigations cause him to cross paths with shinigami (death gods), including a flamboyant red-haired one named Grell who would absolutely love to kiss Sebastian (with tongue) and maybe have his babies, never mind that they're both male. Sebastian is unamused, especially since Grell's adoration does not cause him to stop trying to shred Sebastian to bits with his chainsaw. Ciel also meets an angel who is obsessed with ridding the world of filth. He learns that this angel took his parents' bodies and sewed pieces of them together into one being, as a way of "purifying" them. What burned up in the fire was the abomination his parents had become.

Ciel now thinks he knows who Sebastian has to kill in order for his wish to be fulfilled, but there's more to it than Ciel realizes. It turns out that the Queen herself, as well as someone close to the Queen, is also responsible for his parents' deaths. Will Ciel be able to order Sebastian to kill the Queen, the one he has served so faithfully? As Ciel's determination wavers, so does Sebastian's desire to continue to serve as his butler. Eventually, Ciel finds himself alone, left to ponder how much he really wants revenge, how he wants to live his life, and what he really thinks is important. The answer he finally arrives at, as London is slowly engulfed in flames, causes Sebastian to return to his side. Sebastian fights the last being alive who is responsible for Ciel's parents' deaths and, by reverting to his true form (only shown in bits and pieces), is able to kill that being. His wish fulfilled, Ciel allows Sebastian to take his soul and his life (or so I assume, since the last episode ends while Sebastian is in the process of doing this), even though he knows that his death will probably upset his fiancee and his servants (if his servants are even still alive...).

There is also a one-episode OVA in which Ciel puts Sebastian in charge of making a charity play for children a success. The play is Hamlet, and Sebastian assigns the different parts to various characters from the show - Ciel, for instance, is Hamlet.

Commentary:

Much of the early humor in the show stems from Sebastian's over-the-top perfection. As long as Ciel orders him to do something, there is nothing he can't do, even if it seems physically impossible. He can save Ciel from murderous kidnappers in time (or, almost in time) to fix dinner, he can make award-winning curry (yes, there is a curry-making episode), and he can make a hell hound obey his commands. Ciel's servants' over-the-top mistakes are another source of humor, as are certain minor characters. My favorite minor character is probably Grell. Any episode with Grell in it was guaranteed to be one I would enjoy.

If you think the series sounds great and like something you'd enjoy, that's nice, but a word of warning first. This series has some shota aspects, although it never ventures into pornographic territory. Anything between Sebastian and Ciel is only implied - I'm pretty sure their relationship is only limited to master (Ciel) and deeply loyal servant (Sebastian). The thing is, Sebastian oozes constant sexiness, which means his conversations with Ciel have a tendency to feel intimate and often flirty. Plus, certain scenes are set up to make them look like something they're not. There's two main ones that come to mind. In one, Ciel is bent over with a flushed and pained expression. His shoulders are bare, which could mean that he's naked, or it could just mean that he has no shirt on. You might think, "oh my god, what's Sebastian doing to him?" - and then it's revealed that the scene is perfectly innocent and Sebastian is only dressing his master for their newest mission.

Episode 16 has another scene that is a bit off-putting. I have no problems with sexy shots of Sebastian, but sexy shots of Ciel are a bit...disturbing. In this episode, there's a scene right at the beginning where Ciel is taking a bath while discussing business with Sebastian. Eventually, he stands up, with the view from behind him making it clear that he's naked (no butt cheeks, but almost). As if that wasn't bad enough, then the view switches so that we're seeing Ciel's face...and the camera pans down his body a bit, fading into the next scene just before his genitals are shown (this may partly have been to show the seal on his side, but, if that's the case, it wouldn't have been necessary to pan down, a shot from the right distance away would've worked just as well).

In addition to those two scenes, there's plenty of instances of Sebastian practically fawning all over Ciel, fond looks (on Sebastian's part), face touching (again on Sebastian's part), etc. Ciel's, what, 12? If you don't mind that or can at least overlook it, then, by all means, watch this show if the rest of it sounds interesting to you.

Oh, that reminds me. Remember how I said that Sebastian oozes sexiness? Well, that results in actual sex in one instance - he seduces a nun at a cult and they have sex, although nothing much is shown, and it's more amusing than anything. That particular episode also hints at pedophilia on the part of the founder of the cult. Although I still have problems wrapping my brain around the idea that Sebastian can have sex (no matter how sexy he happens to be, I never expected anything to ever come of it), and the hints of pedophilia were disturbing, I had a happy moment during that episode when Grell got to cuddle up with Sebastian at the church. Sebastian didn't encourage him, but he didn't push him away, either. Oh, fangirl squeal.

In the earlier episodes of the show, Ciel seems very intelligent and almost adult in his maturity. He still has some vulnerabilities, but he covers them up as best he can and acts as much like a tiny, arrogant adult as possible. When Sebastian leaves him near the end of the series, however, he becomes pretty much useless. Even though he had shown, in earlier episodes, that he was capable of analyzing and handling murders and other crimes, without Sebastian he suddenly becomes too stupid to realize that, if he hands a guy a bag of money, the guy is going to try to rip him off. By that point of the series, I had come to sort of like Ciel (despite his annoying arrogance, his vulnerabilities and the revelations about his past made me feel sympathy for him), so I worried about how he would be able to manage on his own. I kept expecting Sebastian to show up and rescue him, and, at the same time, I kept wanting to yell at Ciel for not knowing how to handle anything on his own. I know, I know, with a servant like Sebastian, he would never have needed to learn how to take care of practical matters, but that didn't stop me from becoming annoyed with him.

Overall, I liked this show - but that doesn't mean I'd recommend it to lots of people, and that doesn't mean it'd come anywhere close to making it onto my personal "Top 10 Anime" list. Its various revelations were often bizarre, repulsive, and disturbing. However, thankfully, all that stuff came near the end of the series (or season, if what I heard about there being a second season in the works is true). By that time, I had come to like the characters, even if only on a superficial level, and I wanted to find out how things would turn out for everyone. I loved the humor, particularly when Sebastian and all of Ciel's other servants were together, or when Grell and Sebastian were together. Also, being very much an embarrassingly shallow fangirl, I liked Sebastian. I probably would've watched the series just for the whole "sexy demon butler" thing - all the rest was just icing on the cake.

The end of the show/season has a very "final" feel to it, so it's hard to imagine what a second season might look like, if there is, indeed, going to be one. If you find yourself wanting more after watching this season, however, there's also an OVA episode you might want to see. It has some of the weirdest stuff ever - a dog treat commercial featuring Pluto in human form, Hamlet done with just about all the non-villainous characters in the show (with Ranmao as seaweed), and a brief reimagining of the show set in the present day, at a sushi bar (Kuro-sushi). Bizarre.

Now for the watch-alike and read-alike suggestions. I had absolutely no problem coming up with things and probably could have listed more. The whole master-servant relationship thing is really popular in anime and manga.

Watch-alikes and Read-alikes:
  • Loveless (anime TV series); Loveless (manga) by Yun Kouga - Twelve-year-old Ritsuka's life isn't very normal - his older brother died not too long ago, his mother is physically abusive, and a strange 19-year-old man named Soubi has shown up, claiming to have known his brother. Soubi says he is Ritsuka's Fighter, while Ritsuka is a Sacrifice. Ritsuka slowly comes to understand what this means, as he learns to battle other Fighter-Sacrifice pairs who may be able to lead him to knowledge about his brother's death. This is another show featuring a potentially inappropriate relationship between a man and a boy. Those who'd like something else with a master-servant relationship and a sexy male main character might want to try this.
  • Emma (manga) by Kaoru Mori; Emma: A Victorian Romance (anime TV series), continues with Emma: A Victorian Romance Second Act (anime TV series) - The story is set in Victorian England. Emma is a maid and William is a member of the gentry. The two fall in love, but how can they have a future when their class differences keep pulling them apart? This series takes place in nearly the same time period as Black Butler and even includes some of the same locations, like the Crystal Palace. If Black Butler's setting interested you and you'd like something with a bit more historical accuracy and don't mind if it has an entirely different feel, you might want to try this.
  • Hayate the Combat Butler (manga) by Kenjirou Hata; Hayate the Combat Butler (anime TV series); plus an OVA and another TV series - When Hayate's parents run up a huge debt, they decide to pay it off by selling him to the yakuza. Not particularly wanting to have his organs harvested for the black market, Hayate escapes and comes across a rich girl named Nagi. He decides to kidnap her for ransom money, but Nagi misunderstands him and thinks he has confessed his love to her. In the end, she finds out his situation, feels sorry for him, and pays off his parents' debt - however, Hayate must now be her butler for as long as it takes to repay the debt. Those who'd like something with butlers and humor might want to try this, particularly if you thought Black Butler was way too dark in tone.
  • Godchild (manga) by Kaori Yuki - This series is set in 19th century England and stars Cain Hargreaves, the son of a wealthy count. After the untimely death of his father, Cain assumes the role of the head of the Hargreaves family, a noble family with a dark past. With the help of Riff, his faithful manservant, and Mary Weather, his beloved 10-year-old half sister, he investigates mysterious crimes. Those who'd like something similar to Black Butler in tone (the dark bits, not the humorous ones), with mysteries and a similar "icy young aristocrat, faithful servant" relationship, might want to try this.
  • Blood+ (anime TV series) - Although most humans don't know it, humankind and Chiropterans, monsters that feed on the blood of the living, are at war. An organization known as the Red Shield tracks down Chiropterans and exterminates them. Saya believes she is an ordinary high school girl until she comes upon several Chiropterans at school one day and is encouraged to fight them by a mysterious man named Hagi (sometimes spelled Haji, which I prefer) who claims to be her Chevalier. Saya, who had had no memory of her life beyond the past year, begins to re-discover her past and her role in the fight against Chiropterans. Unfortunately, her formerly peaceful and idyllic family life is gradually destroyed beyond repair. Those who'd like another series with a master-servant relationship that has occasional romantic undertones might want to try this.
  • Artemis Fowl (book) by Eoin Colfer - Artemis Fowl is a ruthless 12-year-old criminal mastermind. He decides to steal gold from the fairyfolk by kidnapping one of their own and holding her for ransom. What he didn't count on was that his kidnap victim, Captain Holly Short of the LEPrecon (Lower Elements Police Reconnaisance) unit, would be so much trouble. Those who'd like something else starring a smart, coldly intelligent child with an amazing bulter/bodyguard and emotional vulnerabilities where his parents are concerned might want to try this.
  • Chrono Crusade (manga) by Daisuke Moriyama; Chrono Crusade (anime TV series) - Rosette is a nun who is part of a special demon extermination squad. As a child, she made a contract with the demon Chrono, allowing him to borrow her life energy in order to use his demon powers to their fullest extent. Together, Chrono and Rosette try to get Rosette's brother back from the demon Aion, an old friend and nemesis of Chrono's. If you like the "eventually fatal deal with a demon" aspect, you might want to try this. This series, like Black Butler, also features some humor and a historical time period (the 1920s).

Sunday, January 24, 2010

How to Get Suspended and Influence People (book) by Adam Selzer

(A little related fun: check out the Gallery of Regrettable Food, which features recipes of the sort Leon is forced to endure. The 7-Up Dressing is, for me, the most gag worthy.)

I decided to read this one after reading this post at Bookshelves of Doom. The article it links to, about an Idaho mother who finds this book offensive and believes it should be completely removed from her public library, not just moved from the children's area to the YA section, is still available. The list of reasons why this book is offensive includes the nudity on its cover (top right, a Picasso-like nude with a black bars over her breasts - titillating, eh?), the cursing on and in the book (the back says "You don't have to be smart to be a smart-ass. But it helps."), and its topic. The woman's 4-year-old had picked it off a shelf in the juvenile area of the public library, and the woman didn't recoil in horror until after the book had been checked out and she brought it home. No, the book probably isn't appropriate for a 4-year-old, but that should have been easy enough to figure out before it was checked out. I could imagine it being moved to the YA section, which the library director suggested, but I agree with the director that it doesn't rate complete removal from the library. Boy, if stuff like this gets people up in arms, I'm really impressed with those few public libraries that have titles from Yaoi Press in their collections. Or maybe no one's noticed those yet?

Anyway, I read the book, because it's fun knowing more about what makes other people angry. I was not horribly offended by it. I don't think I enjoyed it as much as the Bookshelves of Doom writer, though.

Synopsis:

Leon is in his last year of middle school. He does his best to make sure no one finds out how weird his parents are - he loves them, but they're just so embarrassing in so many ways. They're food disaster enthusiasts, for one thing. They buy old cookbooks, things with titles like 100 meal ideas for Spam or Cooking with Ketchup, make the worst meals they can find, and make fun of the results. Leon's father is obsessively anti-Thomas Edison, so much so that Leon's middle name is Noside, "Edison" spelled backwards. Leon's father is an inventor, but none of his inventions work, and most of them are things that already exist anyway.

Leon is in the "gifted pool" (gift and talented class) at his school, along with a girl who loves communism, a guy who likes fire, a guy who writes dirty sonnets on bathroom walls, and Anna, Leon's best friend and super-secret crush, whose parents are, in Leon's opinion, much cooler than his own. Mrs. Smollet, who's in charge of the gifted pool, thinks they're all a bunch of delinquents who probably need to be expelled.

When Leon's class is given an assignment to make educational videos intended to be shown to 6th and 7th graders, Leon picks sex ed as his topic, thinking that the topic would allow him to legitimately include lots of nudity. He decides that he wants to make an avant garde (by which he means "makes no sense") sex education film that lets middle schoolers know that the things they feel and do, like masturbation and going through puberty, are completely normal. Leon's film ends up including lots of stills of famous paintings that feature nudity, sometimes with close-ups of certain areas (I bet you can guess which areas), with a kissing scene (planned to be supplied by two of Leon's friends, but eventually supplied by Leon and Anna), an explosion, and a voiceover of poetry explaining that things like puberty and masturbation are normal.

Mrs. Smollet decides to complain about the film, and Leon is suspended. It's not long before the whole school finds out that Leon has been suspended, and why, and teachers and other students start rallying around him. Even Leon and Anna's parents support Leon and his film. In the end, Leon gets to finish his film (although it won't officially be shown to 6th and 7th grade classes), and everyone who wants to see his film, which, by now, is everyone, does get to see it. Leon, who feared that his father would want him to become an accountant like him, is pleasantly surprised when he mentions his idea of studying film making and his father is supportive. All in all, Leon's last year of middle school ends pretty well.

Commentary:

I know, this synopsis is pretty short compared to what I usually write, but, really, not much goes on in this book. The main stuff I left out are the descriptions of Leon hanging out with his friends, Leon's parents' attempts at food disasters, and Leon helping his father with his newest inventions, which include novelty matches that light themselves when you clap.

On the one hand, the descriptions of Leon hanging out with his friends struck home with me, because they felt very realistic to me. I'll admit it, I was in what could be considered "gifted and talented" classes since elementary school. For the longest time, what that really meant was that I and the other kids in those classes got to do fun stuff that the other kids didn't get to do, like cutting up cow's brains. Supposedly we learned things from those activities, but I can't remember what it is we learned. Leon's gifted pool seems mainly intended to keep the "gifted" students (i.e., potential time bombs the school doesn't quite know how to handle) separate from the regular students. Mrs. Smollet occasionally gives them things to do, but mostly she just has them do crossword puzzles.

As I know from personal experience, "gifted" classes can attract a pretty odd bunch, and that certainly seems to be the case with the gifted pool. I, too, had a communism fan in my classes. One thing that Selzer hit on the nose is that, when you keep a group of bored "gifted" kids together for a few years, they'll come up with all kinds of crazy stuff to entertain themselves, and they'll do it as a pack. Leon and his friends try to shock Mrs. Smollet by claiming they're Satanists, by choosing terrible poetry when she asks them to pick good poetry, etc. For the most part, it's little stuff, until the educational video assignment. Pretty much the whole gifted pool is involved in Leon's film to one extent or another, although Leon's the only one who really gets in trouble for it.

I really liked the book's message about censorship (and I find it amusing that a book partly about censorship has been challenged). While I don't think Leon's movie would have taught the 6th and 7th graders all that much, it only toed the line of outrageousness. All the nudity came from famous paintings, which anyone could see just by flipping through artbooks or going to a museum. Oh, there was also a naked CPR dummy, but it only existed from the belly up (Mrs. Smollet tried to claim that the film showed the dummy masturbating, but, as Leon says, the dummy has no crotch). Yes, the voiceover talks about masturbation, but it's not the most offensive thing that could have come up in a sex ed video. Mrs. Smollet was being unreasonable and everyone in the book eventually figured that out. As happens in real life, the attempted censorship made Leon's film the most widely seen film out of all the ones made by his class. Didn't I say that the main reason I was reading this book in the first place was because of the attempt to have it removed from a public library?

While I liked its message, I thought the book was kind of...slow. A good chunk of the beginning is just Leon and his friends or Leon and his family doing things together. It's nice to read about, but it seemed to take a long time before Leon even began working on his film, and the attempted censorship of it took even longer. The book is more than two thirds over when Leon is suspended. When I first got this book, I kind of figured that Leon's film would take up more of the book than it did. Leon and Anna's game of "what do they have?" didn't really interest me. Then again, if Leon's film had taken up more of the book, I might've been even more bored, since his film didn't really interest me, either.

Overall, it was an ok book. It wasn't quite what I thought it would be, though.

Read-alikes:
  • The Gallery of Regrettable Food (non-fiction book) by James Lileks - If you thought Leon's parents' kitchen creations sounded hilarious and enjoyed Leon's descriptions of them, you'll love this book. All manner of horrors from American cookbooks from the 1940s-70s are highlighted and commented upon. Eww.
  • Evolution, Me & Other Freaks of Nature (book) by Robin Brande - A YA book. Its protagonist, 14-year-old Mena, is ostracized by her church, friends, and parents for taking a stand against an effort to reform a supposedly gay classmate. There's even more drama when her high school science class begins learning about evolution. Those who liked the controversial aspects of Selzer's book and enjoyed Leon's willingness to stand up for his film and its messages might want to try this.
  • How Not to be Popular (book) by Jennifer Ziegler - Another YA book. Maggie's hippie parents don't like living in one place for long, so Maggie is constantly being uprooted. Maggie's tired of making friends only to lose them during yet another move, so she hatches a plan to become a social pariah at her newest school. She'll be so unpopular that no one will want to be friends with her, making her inevitable next move less painful. Of course, things don't work out the way Maggie intends them to. Those who liked How to Get Suspended...'s eccentric characters might want to try this.
  • Remake (book) by Connie Willis - In the near future, every movie that comes out of Hollywood is either a remake or a sequel, and every one of them digitally borrows scenery, props, and even actors and actresses from earlier movies. Tom's job involves finding things to borrow from other movies, as well as digitally altering original films (like Dumbo and Casablanca) to make them less offensive. Tom meets Alis, who wants to dance in the movies, really dance, not just have her face pasted on the body of the original dancer. He thinks her dream is impossible, until he starts seeing Alis in the movies he's editing. He becomes consumed by a need to find out how she's doing it. Did she really sell out, or is she traveling back in time to dance in the musicals when they were first filmed? Those who liked How to Get Suspended...'s censorship theme and parts about films and film making might want to try this. It's not a YA book, but, if I remember correctly, the only things it has that might be considered offensive are the parts Tom edits out of movies, some drug use, some talk about sex, and one non-detailed sex scene.

Browsing Fiction_L

I was searching the archives at Fiction_L, hoping to finish up a particularly difficult read-alike list. Sometimes I feel like reading some posts, just because the title and/or snippet sounds interesting. Here's a few from my searching:
  • YA vampire gymnasts from the 1980s
  • Dogs and librarians
  • Possibly objectionable YA book (I don't know what it is or what it's about, but suddenly I want to read it!)
  • YA book about evil reflection
  • Passive characters
  • Short story about reading newspapers and going insane
  • Seeking '50s "alien baby" story
  • Butchered book titles
  • Origami fiction
  • Romantic fiction for boys
  • Dean Koontz book about Marilyn Monroe
  • Precocious 9-year-old wants fantasy (I started having a knee-jerk annoyed reaction to the word "precocious" in Fiction_L post titles)
All that, and I still haven't been able to figure out any good read-alikes for the post I'm nearly ready to publish. Argh.

Also, unrelated, but it would be really nice if there were a way to "collapse" portions of Blogger's labels lists, both the list that post authors can see when they add labels to a post and the list readers see on the actual blog. I know I'm not the only one out there with a long list of labels.

Monday, January 18, 2010

Dexter by Design (book) by Jeff Lindsay

It seems like everyone must have been reading this book, because it took me months to get it via ILL. I started this series back when I was taking my reader's advisory class in my library science program - for one of my final projects, I read all the books in this series that were out at the time, figuring that, since the series had spawned a TV show, it'd be worth doing an "if you liked..." sheet for it. So, the series kind of gives me warm fuzzies for that reason. Unfortunately, this installment disappointed me a little. That's not to say I didn't enjoy it, I just didn't enjoy it as much as I thought I would. I think Dexter needs his claws sharpened.

Synopsis:

Now that Rita and Dexter are married, they're on their honeymoon in Paris. Rita loves it, Dexter is less than enthused. Dexter's main problem is that he can't indulge the Dark Passenger's urge to kill in Paris. For Dexter, the one bright spot during his honeymoon is an...unconventional art show he and Rita attend. The show, a performance piece called Jennifer's Leg, consists of several monitors, each showing a woman cleaning her own leg of flesh. Finally, all that's left is bare white bone from her knee to her ankle. At the end of the line of monitors, on display, is that leg, and the very woman everyone just saw on screen shows up to admire her own leg.

Back in Miami, it looks as though a serial killer has begun killing people for the main purpose of artfully arranging their bodies as some kind of gruesome anti-tourism display. Once the police finally get a potential lead, Dexter accompanies his sister, Deborah, as she looks into potential suspects. Unfortunately, Deborah seems to be having problems with Dexter right now, and Dexter's not quite sure what's up. Eventually it becomes clear to Dexter (as it has been to the reader, who would probably share Deborah's reaction in the same situation) that Deborah is having problems reconciling the brother she thought she knew with the serial killer she found out he is in the last book. Although she knows that their father helped somewhat to turn Dexter into the man he is today, and she knows why he did it, she's also a police officer, and, as a police officer, she should turn Dexter in. Feeling somewhat peeved with his sister, Dexter stays in the car rather than accompanying her when she goes to talk to another suspect - and watches as she is stabbed. Dexter disables the man who stabbed her, and Deborah is rushed to the hospital.

Her chances don't look good, and, when the man who stabbed her is released from custody, Dexter decides to bend a few of his rules and kill him, figuring that everyone will assume he left town. Unfortunately, Dexter learns that this man probably wasn't the one who stabbed his sister, but rather the lover of the man who did - in the heat of the moment, Dexter thought he saw only one man, when there were actually two. To make matters worse, although the man and his lover were responsible for the gruesome anti-tourism displays, they never killed anyone. They stole the bodies from the morgue. That means that Dexter didn't just bend his rules, Harry's rules, he broke them, killing a completely innocent man.

Dexter, being Dexter and somewhat lacking in all the proper emotions, isn't too terribly broken up by this. However, it seems that the lover of the man he killed is not happy with him. The bathroom in which Dexter killed the man had, unbeknownst to Dexter, a video camera in it, and the man's lover posts footage of the killing on YouTube. The only good thing, as far as Dexter is concerned, is that his face isn't shown, but anyone who knows him would still be able to recognize him. As things progress, the man's lover tries to kidnap Cody and Astor (and gets hurt in the process, thanks to the enthusiast efforts of the two serial killers-to-be) and threatens to expose Dexter. In an effort to prevent the guy's final, great big "expose Dexter" plan, Dexter and Kyle, Deborah's boyfriend, travel to Havana to stop him (Kyle doesn't know about the whole "expose Dexter" thing). While his plans do get put on hold, they don't actually manage to catch him.

Back in Miami, Dexter learns that the guy has kidnapped Rita. Deborah's current partner goes on ahead to help her, although he makes it clear that once this is done he and Dexter will need to have a talk - he saw the footage of Dexter on YouTube. Fortunately for Dexter, the killer takes care of his problem for him, and Deborah's partner is dead. Rita is freed, the kids are ok, Deborah is recovered, but subdued, and the killer is dead.

Commentary:

Considering how long I waited for this book, it was a bit of a letdown. Dexter seemed a bit slow in this one. While I still enjoyed Dexter's "voice" (I think this requires the same kind of mindset that allows one to enjoy very dark humor), he seemed to dissolve into slow stupidity every time things didn't exactly go his way. Even the kids seemed to get frustrated with him, and I can't help but wonder if Cody and Astor aren't going to do something gruesome while Dexter is off taking care of something else one day. Actually, I kind of think they're going to turn on him one day, if this keeps up - they'll see his confusion and stupidity as weaknesses and take him down.

By the way, if you're new to the series, or if you've only watched the TV series, Cody and Astor will probably throw you off. Unlike Cody and Astor in the TV series (or, at least, up to season 2, which is all I've seen so far), Cody and Astor in the book are messed up kids walking down the path of stereotypical future serial killers - Cody likes to kill things, and Astor likes to watch. Even those who pretty much like Dexter might be a bit uncomfortable with the kids. Considering his own childhood and nature, it's not surprising that Dexter's first instinct is to teach them the Harry Way - in a way, it's kind of sweet, I suppose. He recognizes himself in them and, since it's worked for him so far, he wants to teach them to behave the way he'd been taught. Of course, if he were a normal guy, and if Rita actually figured things out, both kids would be getting intensive therapy. Since he's not a normal guy, I can't help but wonder...will a future book really have a scene with the kids killing something? And will that be too far over the top?

Well, back to Dexter. Although the "anti-tourism displays" and Jennifer's Leg are all pretty gruesome, as far as Dexter goes, it's a fairly "tame" book - he only kills one guy. However, that one guy doesn't even fit Dexter's rules. It stunned Dexter a bit to think that he might've killed someone who wasn't guilty of killing anyone, but he also got over that pretty quickly - does that mean it'll be easier for him to break his rules in future books? If that's the case, will he still manage to be likable, or will he just be another serial killer? I can imagine the arguments with Cody and Astor (or maybe just Astor, if Cody's not in a talkative mood): "But why are we only allowed to kill bad people? You don't always do that..."

Wow, Cody and Astor are fun to write about. Well, moving on again. By the end of the book it looks like Deborah has decided not to turn Dexter in (although, if I remember right, she doesn't know that he killed a relatively innocent guy). I wonder if she's going to stick to that, or if, as she regains a little bit of her kick ass attitude, she'll decide she was wrong? I don't know, but I suppose I'll find out in the next book - even though this book wasn't as good as I'd hoped, I still want to find out what happens next.

If Deborah does decide to turn Dexter in, she might want to take a harder look at her boyfriend, too. Kyle was...confusing in this book. Or maybe just disturbing. On the one hand, he obviously loves Deborah very much. He does what he can to try to help her, even though all he can really do is bring in a doctor who doesn't seem to do very much, however impressed Kyle happens to be with him. Just when you think Kyle seems a little sad and maybe even silly, with his hook hand and childlike hope that all it will take is a certain doctor to make Deborah all better again, he and Dexter go on that trip to Havana. In Havana, Kyle does inept spy stuff - you'd think that'd make him look even sillier, but instead he just comes across as creepy. I especially found his little talk with Dexter, in which he offers to kill the guy they're looking for if Dexter feels he can't pull the trigger himself, to be especially disturbing.

One thing I continue to like about the books more than the TV series is that Dexter is so obviously not normal. In the TV series, you get the feeling that, as much as he says he doesn't have feelings, he really does. Dexter in the books absolutely does not react like a normal person, so much so that you kind of wonder how more people haven't noticed. It took him forever to figure out why Deborah was so upset with him, for instance (and, although I felt like shouting at him to be a little less dense, I still enjoyed getting to read about Dexter trying to act appropriately in the face of emotional reactions he didn't understand). You'd think that, with as much time as Rita spends around him, she'd realize he's not quite right. How did they talk about Jennifer's Leg? Then again, since Jennifer's Leg didn't seem to give her the nightmares it should have, maybe she's not quite right either.

About Jennifer's Leg - I'm pretty sure that's impossible. Jennifer would have passed out from the pain and shock before she could clean her leg of flesh. If she took drugs, she wouldn't have been able to do what she needed to do, or feel all the pain she seemed to want to feel. I really hope that this performance art stuff is all entirely the result of Lindsay's messed up brain, but I have the feeling that the artist metioned in the book (some guy who, if I remember right, cut his own penis off) was probably real. People can be amazingly messed up.

Overall, I think the first book is the best book in the series so far, but I'm still enjoying it enough to want to read whatever comes next. Here's hoping Dexter's more on top of things next time.

And now for some lazy read-alikes and watch-alikes, almost completely copied and pasted from my post about the second season of the TV series.

Read-alikes and Watch-alikes:
  • Dexter (live action TV series) - I wonder if more people watch the TV series and start reading the books after they realize the show is based on a book character, or if more people started the books and then moved on to the show? Anyway, if you like Dexter, you'll probably like the TV series - just be aware that the storylines don't always follow the books, particularly after the first season.
  • Whale Season (book) by N.M. Kelby - This black comedy set in fictional Whale Harbor, Florida begins with a poker game between a used-car dealer and a man who claims he’s Jesus and continues with the threat of grisly murder. “Jesus” is actually a Cuban-American doctor and serial killer who views murder as an act of mercy. Those who'd like another serial killer story with a sense of humor might want to try this.
  • Florida Roadkill (book) by Tim Dorsey - In this darkly funny novel, fifteen varied criminals make their way through Florida in order to get to a suitcase full of drug money. Lindsay fans may like the Florida setting, writing style, and Serge, a goofy serial killer.
  • The Silence of the Lambs (book) by Thomas Harris - In this thriller, Clarice Starling, a young FBI trainee, is trying to catch a serial killer and seeks the expert advice of the imprisoned Hannibal Lector, a pleasant and well-mannered sociopath. Like Dexter, Hannibal can get into the mind of a killer because he is one himself. I haven't actually seen the movie (this is one of those where I'm not really sure how many others besides myself know about the movie but have never seen it), but it might also be a good watch-alike.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

::whimper::

I can't believe it's been two weeks since my last post. Supposedly, this is the quieter time of the year for librarians at my library - unfortunately, this doesn't seem to be the case for me. I can barely catalog books fast enough for our Processing student workers. In addition, I'm trying to balance my regular work with weeding (which we're finally starting to do, maybe, if no one finds out that that the books they decided to weed have been "mysteriously" reshelved) and Second Life. My university is experimenting with a "Second Life presence" and the library doesn't want to potentially be left behind. I'm on the committee to make sure this doesn't happen, probably because I'm the youngest and newest librarian. So far, I'm annoyed with how difficult it is to do things that were usually easy to do in other virtual worlds I've tried.

Anyway, I've got to try to finish some more blog posts. As usual, I have plenty to write about, I just haven't finished anything. I watched the last of the first season of The Story of Saiunkoku a couple days ago, and I can't wait until pay day, when I can afford to buy the next (and final, I think) boxed set. When I first started this series, I figured it would be a historical-feeling romance, and then it surprised me by keeping what I figured would be the main romantic couple physically separate for most of the season. Plus, the guy was the one doing all the lovesick pining. Maybe I'll be good and write about this series next.

Friday, January 1, 2010

Sayonara Zetsubou Sensei (anime TV series) not yet licensed

(First post of the year, and first synopsis/commentary/read-alike/watch-alike post in almost a month! Woohoo! Happy New Year!)

I chose to title this post with the original Japanese title, rather than an English translation of the title (So Long, Mr. Despair, or however else it's been translated), because the manga, which has been licensed, uses the Japanese title.

This is a darkly humorous show with a glaze of perversion. I watched most of it in one day, and it's possible that my sanity was affected as a result.

Synopsis:

This show has no real plot. Nozomu Itoshiki, whose name, spelled horizontally, is Zetsubou, or "despair," is a teacher who feels great despair about everything. He would like nothing more than to quietly kill himself (although it's possible that this is a lie, since, whenever someone comes close to killing him, he shrieks "What if I had died!?"). Things never seem to work out, so instead he has to teach his classes. His despair even leaks into his lesson plans, such as they are. For example, instead of asking his students to list their three hopes for the future, he asks them to list three things they despair over. At the urgings of the school counselor, he visits with problem students and, despite himself, wins people over. For the most part, episodes center on classroom and school activities, such as criticism practice, a field trip preview, and a cultural festival. It's similar to what you'd see in any school anime, only more messed up. Many episodes focus on a particular student. One episode focuses on Itoshiki and his family, as Itoshiki tries to evade his family's tradition of marrying people off to the first person whose eyes they meet during a special marriage ritual.

I thought it might be helpful to list some (actually, most - the ones missing are ones whose names I didn't catch) of the students in Itoshiki's class. Imagine whole episodes about some of these people.
  • Kafuka Fuura - Cheerful to the point of blindness. If something does not fit her happy world view, she rewrites its existence in her mind until it becomes something she can comprehend.
  • Matoi Tsunetsuki - Obsessive about whoever she loves. Itoshiki becomes the object of her affection.
  • Kiri Komori - Hikikomori (incredibly socially withdrawn), with possibly a bit of a crush on Itoshiki. As the series progresses, she and the school counselor become uncomfortably close.
  • Kaere Kimura - Has multiple personalities, one of which is pathetically in love with Itoshiki (her Japanese personality) and the other which is combative and wants to sue everyone (her foreigner personality).
  • Maria Tarou Sekiutsu - An illegal immigrant student whom everyone mysteriously wants to protect. She loves everything about Japan, even the things that should not be loved.
  • Chie Arai - Not a student, but I thought I'd list her anyway. She's the counselor who puts up with Itoshiki's despair and suicide attempts and forces him to actually take care of his students.
  • Abiru Kobushi - Loves pulling animal tails and works at a zoo, which is why she gets mistaken for a victim of domestic violence.
  • Harumi Fujiyoshi - Obsessed with animal ears and a creator of doujinshi, yaoi in particular.
  • Meru Otonashi - Doesn't speak, but rather communicates solely through email via her cellphone, electronically abusing and insulting others even as she behaves gentle and shy in person.
  • Chiri Kitsu - A perfectionist.
  • Kagerou Usui - So easily forgotten that people overlook him even though he's standing right in front of them. Also, he is the unfortunate possessor of a comb over.
  • Ai Kaga - Has a guilt complex so severe that she is afraid her very existence causes others problems.
  • Mayo Mitama - Has mean eyes, which means that everyone believes she couldn't possibly be responsible for doing mean things, even when she does those things right in front of others.
Commentary:

I'm not really sure what to say about this series, except that I probably should not have watched it mostly in one day. The series is often very weird, but also often funny. Most of the characters have a single defining personality trait, from which the humor grows. If there were fewer characters, this would quickly get boring. There are so many characters that, if those personality traits weren't so over-the-top strange, it would be hard to remember any of them. As it is, the series manages to work. Happily, there are only 12 episodes, barely enough to introduce all the students and not enough for the series to get tiresome.

I should include a few warnings, though.

One, as I said in the synopsis, there isn't really a plot. Mostly, it's all about the characters, and whenever anything plot-like happens, it's really not all that important in the long-run. Itoshiki gets engaged to a creature made solely of eyeballs, but the engagement is invalid. Itoshiki is hit by a truck, but the accident is forgotten in the next episode. You get the idea. It's not like South Park's "you killed Kenny" gag, it's just that the characters and bringing up things to despair over was considered more important than anything that might possibly be called "plot." Mostly I didn't mind this, except near the end. When Itoshiki was hit by a truck at the end of episode 11, I expected that dealing with this event would be what wrapped the series up. I was mistaken - the final episode was just like other episodes, focusing on particular students, and the whole truck incident was forgotten.

Two, the series is a wee bit perverted. For instance, the opening credits, when they actually have pictures instead of just words, feature bondage scenes involving faceless school girls, probably all students in Itoshiki's class. Then there's the relationship between Kiri Komori and the school counselor - somebody (the director? the original series creator?) took great delight in implying an inappropriately close relationship between the two of them. Of course, there's also Kaere Kimura, the obligatory panty shot character.

One of the things about this series is that, although you can predict that Itoshiki's despair will probably somehow affect an episode's events, it's not easy predict how that will happen. Ditto with other characters' personalities. The usual cliched events happen, like a cultural festival, a hot springs trip, a field trip, and house cleaning, but the mix of strange personalities means that none of these events happen in the usual way. The cultural festival becomes an exercise in doing the minimum possible, the hot springs trip becomes a cleansing of characters' toxic personality traits, the field trip is only a preview (as in, "no sightseeing, this is only a preview!"), and the house cleaning is done by an obsessive perfectionist and almost ends in an accidental mass suicide.

I liked the series artwork, which at times reminded me of the pretty origami paper my sister sent me not too long ago, but, really, the animation is bare bones and doesn't pretend to be otherwise. If you don't notice, it's probably because the use of color in the series is often interesting and/or pretty. A few times, either the studio ran out of money and time for proper animation, or the animators decided to get creative, because they switched to characters drawn on bits of paper glued to popsickle sticks.

It might help to have some familiarity with Japanese culture and the cliches that often pop up in school anime and manga before viewing this series, or some things might come across as just strange, rather than strange and funny. One thing I don't think is necessary, but probably nice, is a familiarity with other anime and manga. This series makes tons of references to other works (including American ones, such as Alias, A Nightmare on Elm Street, and Scream). Here's a few of the references I was able to catch - I'm sure I didn't catch anywhere near all of them: Death Note, Black Jack, Black Butler, Hikaru no Go, Urusei Yatsura, and Loveless. Some jokes will make absolutely no sense, or will not register as jokes, if you don't know what series is being referenced, but there's so much else going on in the series that this probably doesn't matter. I'm just happy I was able to catch what I did.

Watch-alikes and Read-alikes:
  • Azumanga Daioh (anime TV series); Azumanga Daioh (manga) by Kiyohiko Azuma - This series chronicles the everyday lives of some high school students and their teachers. Like the students and adults in Sayonara Zetsubou Sensei, the characters in this series are often a bit strange. Those who'd like another character-focused school comedy might want to try this.
  • Love Hina (manga) by Ken Akamatsu; Love Hina (anime TV series) - When he was a child, Keitaro Urashima promised a girl that they would meet at Tokyo University. Now he's trying to pass the university's entrance exams so he can keep his promise and has failed two years in a row. Having no other place to go after his parents kick him out, he becomes the dorm manager for his grandmother's all-girls dormitory. Keitaro's not a bad guy, but his clumsiness gets him into trouble with the dorm's residents, including Naru Narusegawa, who, unbeknownst to Keitaro, may possibly be the girl he made a promise to as a child. This is another series with gags and plot (more plot than Sayonara Zetsubou Sensei) mostly dependent upon fanservice and its large cast of mainly female characters.
  • Welcome to the N.H.K. (manga) by Tatsuhiko Takimoto (original creator) and Kendi Oiwa (art); Welcome to the NHK (anime TV series) - Tatsuhiro Sato, a 22-year-old man, is a NEET (Not in Employment, Education, or Training) and incredibly socially withdrawn (hikikomori). He believes everything around him is a conspiracy, and he has this theory that there is a secret organization called the NHK that is trying to produce a hikikomori-filled world. He would like to break free from the NHK, but he's too afraid to go outdoors on his own. However, things change when he meets Misaki, a high school girl who invites him to become part of her "project," which she claims will cure him of his hikikomori ways. Those who'd like another dark comedy featuring characters with personality disorders and topics, such as suicide, usually treated in a more serious way.
  • FLCL (anime OVA) - Naota is a cynical 6th grade boy whose life becomes extremely strange and complicated when he finds himself having to deal with his older brother's 17-year-old girlfriend Mamimi, who seems to have adopted him as a replacement for his brother, and Haruko, a Vespa-riding crazy woman who hits him in the head with a guitar, causing a horn to begin growing out of his forehead. Those who'd like another series that includes fanservice and revels in its oddness and its lack of coherent plot might want to try this.
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