January 14, 2017 § 2 Comments
First published in the English as a limited comic series in 2010
Published as a collected edition in 2011
The first thing that caught my eye about this graphic novel, was that it was an Eisner Award winner, and also that Craig Thompson, author of Blankets and Habibi, had written an Introduction for it. Being a fan of Thompson, I decided to give this graphic novel a try.
What surprised me about the Introduction, which in hindsight, should have been quite obvious, is that it’s not “written” but illustrated instead. The page had all the markings of Thompson—intricate patterns and a daydream-like style that sucks you in without you even noticing it.
The book asks you simple questions: What was the best day of your life? What is the most unforgettable moment, a memory you will cherish for the rest of your days? When did your life take a sudden turn? How have you lived?
These are pretty deep questions, things we don’t like to dwell on, that we prefer to just quietly keep in the back of our heads, blocking it from coming up with every other mundane thing there is to think about. But these thoughts push through, every once in a while, and more often than not, at the most inopportune times.
The book starts with our protagonist at the age of 32. He is stuck in a rut. He is a writer, but not one as accomplished as his dad, which builds a certain kind of envy and jealousy that can only exist between two people so close to each other. He hasn’t published, but at 32, is it too late for him to start? Has life created long tendrils that are constantly pulling him down and holding him in place, instead of letting him spread his wings and fly?
That sparked something in me, myself having just turned 30 a few months back. Is the big 3-0 a sign that there are some things that are simply too late for me to try? Are certain things out of my reach, simply because “life” has happened? But then again, what is life, but a collection of days that I spend breathing, thinking, and doing? Does age bind me? And should I let it?
There was one panel that stood out the most:
How often do we start conversations with friends and family, acquaintances and strangers, with the question: “So, what do you do?” How have we become a society so obsessed about how someone else makes a living? Why is it that our job positions have so much power in determining where in the social ladder we stand?
This panel gave me much to think about. Since I started working, I’ve done many different types of work. They don’t always link back to each other, and my full CV would cause most potential employers to shy away from me. I’ve recently started to find my niche, in writing and editing, but somehow, when I think of myself, I feel like I’m both a writer, and not.
This has given me much grief, especially during family gatherings or when I’m meeting new people. I dread having to explain what I do for a living. What is my job? Do I even have a job? And if I don’t, then what do I do?
But, really, does it matter whether I have a job or not? Should your opinion of me be formed simply from what my non-existent namecard says? Will you not take the time to get to know me on a more personal level? Is that not more satisfying?
Is there a day in your life that you remember so clearly, it could have been yesterday? Have you experienced a moment, or many moments, that you know changed something in you forever?
January 9, 2017 § 2 Comments
First published in the French in 2003
Translated into the English by Helge Dascher in 2005
There’s very little that I know about North Korea. And I never found myself interested in finding out much more about this “authoritarian” country. Then, about a couple of months ago, I watched a Korean TV drama, Descendants of the Sun, which had a very small side story involving a North Korean soldier and peace talks between the North and South. That intrigued me a little, because I knew nothing about the reunification attempts, but it also frustrated me to know that there’s so much to learn!
Then, by pure chance, I came across a book by Ryu Murakami, From the Fatherland, With Love. In that book, there was a significantly bigger North Korean appearance, and again my interested was piqued. I knew then that I was keen to learn about this country that had so far eluded itself from me.
So, by no coincidence, I picked up this graphic novel at the local library. I wanted to see what a foreigner might see in this evasive country. What else can he show me about it that I have not read or gleaned from the Murakami book, and that I have not seen or felt in the Korean drama series? I was thirsty for more.
The graphic novel does read like a journal of sorts—he writes about what he encounters, his benign work days, the Friday nights that offer him a sense of what the rest of the world might be up to in this country that cuts itself off from everyone.
Truth be told, though, I was a little underwhelmed. Much like the Osamu Tezuka book, I felt like this one presented more facts than it did tell a story. Perhaps it was meant to be this way; a simple illustrated recollection of the things he saw and experienced, limited as they were, as foreigners in a country that mandated translators and guides to follow you around. Perhaps the lack of story is not his doing, but entirely in the way the country presented itself to him—there is no room to meander.
This is the first book of his that I’ve read, so I don’t really know. But judging from this book alone, I don’t feel an immediate need to rush for his next.
January 5, 2017 § 4 Comments
First published in the Japanese in 1992
Translated into the English by Frederik L. Schodt in 2016
Being a huge fan of manga, I’ve known for some time now that Osamu Tezuka is considered the “god” of manga, especially in the land of manga, Japan. Despite this, very little is known of the man outside of his own country. That doesn’t stop me from feeling somewhat ashamed that I don’t know more of his work, but then again, because I don’t know the Japanese language (yet!), I’m very dependent on work that has been translated into English. That it has taken so many years for this tome of a biography to be finally translated and published for the English-speaking world is yet another indication of how late we are in appreciating the master of manga.
Aptly written in the form of a manga biography, it starts from when Osamu Tezuka was a very young child, ending only at his death, when he was 60 years old. And his life was indeed full of manga, anime and film. Right from the start, it seems that Tezuka has never had any other dream—all he wanted to do was make manga and anime.
There were loads of mini nuggets of information and trivia within the pages that I found very interesting. At the same time, the zeal and tenacity at which Tezuka insisted on accomplishing his almost impossible goals has left a strange feeling in me. He never wasted any time, never gave up, never left the path that he believed so strongly that he was meant to be on. As I read the book, I found myself constantly reflecting on how I’ve been working on achieving my own goals, if I had even half the kind of devotion that he had.
As I reached the last quarter of the book, I started to realise that this volume was somewhat different from the kind of manga that I’ve gotten used to. Perhaps it was Ban’s intention to draw a manga that best reflected Tezuka’s style, which is, of course, quite “old-fashioned”. Perhaps, also, because it was originally drawn way back in the early 90s, which could explain how different it is from the manga of today. So in a way, I felt like this book was a little less organic in its style and presentation.
The story itself was also a little dry. All the little details were there, of course. How he went about rushing deadlines and how his country and the world was changing. But the whole book was more of a recollection of information, more than a telling of a story. There were countless points in the book where I had hoped I could get more information, or more elaboration, or even just a little more illumination, but Ban kept to the main frame of the story, which was a little disappointing to me.
Still, it’s a book much worth reading, especially for those who are manga fans, or even just fans of Japanese culture.
It’s a great book to start the year with. I’m hoping some of that passion will rub off on me.
December 28, 2016 § Leave a comment
First published in the Japanese in 2005
Translated into the English by Ralph McCarthy, Ginny Tapley Takemori and Charles De Wolf in 2013
I’ve stayed well away from Ryū Murakami for a long while now. Though I can’t really remember the story or plot of the first of his books I read, Almost Transparent Blue, which incidentally was also his first novel, I vividly remember how disturbed I felt. I even remember saying that I wouldn’t read another book by this “other Murakami”. Simply way too far outside my comfort zone.
That was in 2009.
I’ve since found myself wondering if I would find it quite different today. After all, 7 years is a long time. So much has changed since then.
Maybe that’s why I dared to venture a second chance with him this time round. It was a really short visit to the library, and I was really only looking around for graphic novels. I took a sneak peek at the “M” shelves to see if there was any Mishima lying around, and ended up bringing From the Fatherland, With Love home instead.
It was daunting right from the start. There is a list of “Prominent Characters” featured in the book that runs almost 6 pages long. I took a look at that and immediately thought, boy, I’m in trouble. I don’t read many family sagas because I almost always can’t remember who is who; and the extensive list just cemented my belief that I was in for an uphill battle with this book.
Two prologues in, and I was hooked. Granted, I did have to constantly turn back to that list of characters to see who was who, but further along into the book, that no longer felt like a chore. In fact, that list was as much a part of the book as any other.
The story is set in a 2011 Japan that we don’t know. It’s a bleak time, everything that can go wrong for the island nation has gone wrong, and to make matters even worse, a group of North Korean army “rebels” have taken over Fukuoka. We are given glimpses and perspectives from every angle possible: the Japanese national government, the Fukuoka local government, the invading North Korean rebels, a homeless man, a bartender, the local media, the doctors in the hospital opposite the North Korean rebels’ HQ, a group of misfits whose base is nearby.
It’s all over the place. There are so many characters involved, I initially thought it impossible to get into the story. I need my characters built strong and solid; they are how I relate to the story. But despite myself, I did connect. I connected with all of them. I especially felt a certain kinship with the group of misfits. They had this way of thinking about the world, and society, that just hit a nerve.
Human beings had the freedom and potential to do anything whatsoever; that was what made them so scary.
At the same time, though the entire book was set in such a depressing time for the nation, there were many moments of pure humour. It’s like how we are sometimes able to see the ridiculousness around us, and just laugh in spite of ourselves. That’s the kind of feeling that this book exuded—just feel the feelings, admit them, face up to them, and you’ll be all right.
Why didn’t people just raise their hands and ask if they could use the toilet? Not to ask and to wet yourself, then blame the nasty guerrillas, seemed ludicrous.
One of the things that really stood out for me through this book, was how “individualistic” it was. Everyone in the book was his/her own person. They belonged to their groups—the Koryos, the misfits, the government—but they also didn’t belong. They were themselves. They had their own thoughts and memories and reasons. That felt important to me, and steadily became more important the deeper I went into the story.
It’s not an easy book to talk about, because there were so many things happening at the same time, so many elements working together to create the complex tapestry that is this story. But it’s definitely one brilliant piece of work.
Took me seven years to revisit this man’s work. But then again, it’s never too late. In fact, it may be that this is just perfect timing.
December 5, 2016 § Leave a comment
First published in the Japanese, 2005-2006
《ソァニン》, 2 volumes (complete)
My brother has been on my case about this manga for a long time now. He read it online almost half a year ago, and said I should do the same. But I’ve got this thing about reading “books” from a screen—I don’t like it. The occasional articles and Facebook stuff, sure. But in my head, I just haven’t gotten to that place I need to be to fully enjoy a book that’s got light glaring back at me.
So when we found this book, 2 volumes in one, in the library that day (I’m in New Zealand at the moment, by the way, which explains why I was able to find this book), we knew we had to bring it home. And I have to say, my brother has got good taste in manga.
The story is really so simple. It’s about this young girl who’s tired of working at an office, and decides to quit. She lives with her boyfriend who does part-time design work but whose real dreams involve singing in a band. In essence, it’s about how these two go through life, how they make decisions, and how they cope with the pressures presented to them in the real world.
Their problems are not our problems. But in some way, we all have our own problems with the real world—it’s nothing like how we imagined it would be when we were still so young and free and naive. We’ve all had those dreams; dreams of making it big and living just how we want to without a care in the world; of not conforming to the norm and going all out for the things we love most. We look at society and we believe so deeply that we won’t be one of those who give up on dreams just to survive. We’ll more than survive; we’ll realise our dreams. We’ll never sell our souls.
We struggle with it, once we reach the real world. Some of us meet with a little less resistance, some of us fold on the get-go. Some of us almost kill ourselves trying not to give in, and some of us, very few of us, make it all the way to the end.
For me, that’s what Solanin was about. When there’s something you love so much, but the real world is telling you that you can’t love it anymore, what do you do?
December 2, 2016 § 2 Comments
First published in the English in 2005
I have this very odd tendency of bringing onto the plane some very thick books to read. I think about the 10-hour flight from Kuala Lumpur to Auckland, and I imagine myself buried nose-deep in a thick book that I’ll finish by the time the plane hits the ground again. It’s never gone that way before, and yet this time, I still find myself carrying extra weight in my backpack as I board the plane.
Still, I had many thick books to choose from, all of them sitting on my shelves. I decided to go with this one about a week before I left because it was screaming at me. Extremely loudly.
The only thing I knew about this book was that it was set in a post-9/11 New York. I didn’t know that it came in the form of a child’s narrative. If I had known, I probably wouldn’t have picked it up. I don’t usually do well with young narrators, so I was quite apprehensive about it. After all, I was stranded in a metal bird in mid-air, with no other book to read.
I was, I’m glad to say, pleasantly surprised.
The narrative was, though a little choppy at times, simple enough to follow and understand. I wouldn’t exactly describe Oskar, the nine-year-old narrator, as a particularly gullible or naive boy, so that part worked for me. It seemed to be as somewhat believable that he was forced to grow up, to face his demons, after the 9/11 incident in which his father died. And if that’s why he ended up sounding a little too mature at times, I could buy into it.
The way the story was told, with one-sentence pages and full-page photos, was also a welcome break to the usual steady beat and pacing of a book. I think those worked well in this case, giving me some space in between the narrative.
At the same time, the in-between spaces felt necessary. It was like if they weren’t there, I would have zoned out of the text, of the narrative. And that’s where I felt the book sort of fell a little bit apart.
It was interesting enough for me to finish the book, and in good time, too. But it didn’t really “move” me, or reach me in a place I want books to reach. There’s a kind of touch that some books and stories have that just get you, and this book didn’t have that.
It was maybe just a little loud, and a little close. Not quite enough.
November 25, 2016 § 2 Comments
First published in the English in 2009
It took me about a month to finish reading this book, despite it not being an extremely chunky book. Given my normal reading speed, I should have been done with it in a week, give or take a few days. But this one took me a month. Why?
First, I did not feel any sense of guilt when I put it on the kitchen table and didn’t touch it for several days. I would then put it into my bag and carry it with me everywhere without actually taking it out of the bag to read. Following that, I would move the book onto my work desk, and still, I could happily look at the cover, and the bookmark peeking at me.
There was no sense of urgency to actually finish the book.
And I loved it.
The Anthologist is about a man, a poet of sorts, if he will allow us that, who’s putting together an anthology of rhyming poems. And like in most, if not all, anthologies, he needs to write an introduction. And he’s stuck.
So instead of writing that introduction, he’s chosen to talk to us. He tells us why it’s so difficult to get started with the introduction-writing, and how much he has already suffered through before starting this conversation. But of course, before he can really dig deep into the real reason behind his procrastination, he tangents off and tells us about the woman that he loves who used to live with him but no longer does because he couldn’t get the introduction written. And you know that it’s not the only tangent he will go off on.
He rambles on about the types of poems there are, and the ridiculous names they’re given. He goes as far as to make up songs for some of the poems he uses as examples to make his point, and that piano-playing young girl in me just wanted to sing and tap along with him. He says poems are like songs, and why shouldn’t they be, and so they should be sung.
Baker has a way of describing things, of talking about certain feelings that make the most benign things seem funny. There’s this one phrase in the book that very adequately described how I felt when I got a toothache and had to withstand a few days of pain before I could go and get my toothache fixed with a root canal procedure. I had some writing work to do at the time.
And I knew that I was going to be fine, but that I might not be able to type for a while, which would give me a reprieve on writing my introduction. A great whimpery happiness passed through me like clear urine.
And there were just too many times when his observations were simply too hilarious.
I looked at the USB cables dangling there, and I laughed pityingly at them, and I thought, Whoever designed the connector of the USB cable was a man who despised the human race, because you can’t tell which way to turn it and you waste minutes of your tiny day, crouched, grunting, trying the half-blocked connector one way and the next.
I don’t know how much it would mean to anyone else to know that I thought this was a very comfortable book. Not comforting, mind you, but comfortable. It was like a plush sofa-chair that had just the right amount of cushion and sturdiness. Sometimes, the ramblings even felt like they were happening inside my head, and it seemed to belong just there.
Reading this book was like sitting alone, having a warm cup of coffee on a cool morning.
On poetry and writing:
If everybody was silent for a year—if we could just stop this endless forward stumbling progress—wouldn’t we all be better people? I think probably so. I think that the lack of poetry, the absence of poetry, the yearning to have something new, would be the best thing that could happen to our art.
It turns out that helping is the main thing. If you feel that you have a use, if you think your writing furthers life or truth in some way, then you keep writing. But if that feeling stops, you have to find something else to do. Or die, I guess.
What does it mean to be a great poet? It means that you wrote one or two great poems. Or great parts of poems. That’s all it means. Don’t try to picture the waste or it will alarm you. […] Out of hundreds or poems two or three are really good. Maybe four or five. Six tops. All the middling poems they write are necessary to form a raised mulch bed or nest for the great poems and to prove to the world that they labored diligently and in good faith for some years at their calling. in other words, they can’t just dash off one or two great poems and thens top. That doesn’t work. Nobody will give them the “great poet” label if they write just two great poems and nothing else. Even if they’re the greatest poems ever. But it’s perfectly okay, in fact it’s typical, if ninety-five percent of the poems they write aren’t great. Because they never are.
In fact the letter may be better than any poem she wrote, though she wrote some good ones. But we wouldn’t be interested in reading the letter unless she’d written the poems. So once again it’s terrible confusing. You need the art in order to love the life.
When I look at the lives of the poets, I understand what’s wrong with me. They were willing to make the sacrifices that I’m not willing to make. They were so tortured, so messed up.
And the difficulty is that sometimes it’s hard to tell the truth because you think that the truth is too personal, or to boring, to tell. Or both. And sometimes it’s hard to tell the truth because the truth is hard to see, because it exists in a misty, gray non-space between two strongly charged falsehoods that sound true but aren’t.
Isn’t crying a good thing? Why would we want to give pills to people so they don’t weep? When you read a great line in a poem, what’s the first thing you do? You can’t help it. Crying is a good thing.