Manga Review: Showa: A History of Japan 1953-1989

Manga Review: Showa: A History of Japan 1953-1989 by Shigeru Mizuki

This is the final volume of Shigeru Mizuki’s history of Japan and his personal life during the Showa Era.  It mixes events that affected the entire country with stories of his struggles as a man and an artist.

Showa: A History of Japan 1953-1989

As noted in the introduction by Frederik L. Schodt, this volume covers more time than the previous three put together.  It covers Japan’s transition from a militarized country reeling from utter defeat, to a nation that was all about business.  Many of the events covered will be new to American readers (though manga and anime fans may see the roots of certain storylines in real life happenings.)

The book also chronicles the long years of poverty Mizuki endured as he struggled to earn a living as an artist.  Again, this is a warts and all portrayal, so we learn that his arranged marriage was by no means a love match, but something his parents insisted on.  Even when Mizuki finally makes it big with a hit manga, he learns that success is its own trap.  Now that people want his product, he has to keep putting it out on strict deadlines bang bang bang.

I learned a lot.  For example, while it’s been retrofitted into many historical dramas, kidnapping for ransom was a new crime in 1963, made possible by rising prosperity meaning rich people had enough cash to pay ransom.  The “paradox of prosperity” is discussed:  As rising prosperity made the inside of people’s houses more comfortable, the associated pollution made the outside of their houses less comfortable.

As Mizuki’s personal star rose, he had to take on assistants to help him produce all the work he was now obligated to put out.  Some of these assistants, like Ryoichi Ikegami, went on to become famous manga creators in their own right.  Others…did not.  A subplot in one chapter has an assistant vainly attempt to get his original work published to impress a potential marriage partner.

A couple of chapters are dedicated to daydreams Mizuki had, one where he takes a vacation to the afterlife, and another where he contemplates a company that facilitates extra-marital affairs (and admits that his long-suffering wife might also appreciate the idea.)  In real life, he reconnects with the New Guinea natives that had befriended him decades before.

The volume ends with a completely transformed Japan, and Mizuki’s wish that while the future is yet unwritten, the new generations will learn from the mistakes and suffering of the past.  Mizuki lived on into the second decade of the 21st Century, still working up until the end.

Once again, the primary narrator is Nezumi Otoko (Rat Man), and we meet the real life person who inspired his personality.  One chapter is instead narrated by a traditional storyteller who mentored Mizuki for a while.  Readers who are unused to manga conventions may find the art shifts uncomfortable.

In addition to the standard footnotes and endnotes, this volume ends with a number of color plates that demonstrate Mizuki’s art at its most detailed.  this is great stuff.

There’s some uncomfortable bits, including rape, cannibalism and suicide.  There’s also some toilet humor (which at one point turns dramatic.)

Like the other volumes in the series, a must have for manga and anime fans who want to know more about Japan’s recent history.  It would also be good for more general history students seeking a new viewpoint.  Highly recommended.

Book Review: Rayla 2212

Book Review: Rayla 2212 by Ytasha L. Womack

It is the year 2212, and the once utopian Planet Hope has fallen under the dictatorship of The Dirk.  Rayla Illmatic, aka Rayla Redfeather, daughter of a missing astronaut, has joined the resistance.  When rebel leader Carcine, who Rayla likes a lot, disappears on a mission to find mystic/scientist Moulan Shakur, she must take up the quest.  It is Rayla’s destiny to find the missing astronauts scattered in Earth’s past, and restore the balance of her world.  Or is it?

Rayla 2212

This is the first science fiction novel by Afrofuturist Ytasha Womack; it is set in a future where “race” as it is currently understood is no longer a relevant concept, but carrying forward the vitality of African-American culture and its African roots.  This is more revolutionary than it should be, due to inertia making straight white middle-class American men the default protagonists of most SF.  Notably, when the story goes back to 20th Century Earth, racism is mentioned but isn’t at all a focus in that section.

The primary “big idea” is that linear space-time is a social construct.  Properly-trained people of sufficient mental strength can teleport to where/when they choose.  However, Planet Hope’s society began to unravel when all the astronauts with this training failed to come back from a mission; Rayla’s father reappeared momentarily some time later, but just as quickly vanished again.  Moulan, who came up with the training, enlists Rayla’s help in relocating the lost.

However, we learn that Moulan is keeping secrets from Rayla, as is Rayla’s new partner Delta Blue.  Rayla’s memories have been tampered with more than once, and the people she meets warn her against each other while withholding information our heroine thinks might be important.  She also notes that her “destiny” never seems to be anything she actually wants to do with her life.

I’m reminded of the New Wave speculative fiction of the 1970s, both because of the multiple layers of deception and fluid nature of reality (is Rayla participating in the past or is she shaping it?), and in the “experimental” feel of the writing.  There are quotes, most relevant, interrupting the narrative from time to time, as well as soundtrack recommendations–this tapers off as the book progresses.  Despite the non-linear nature of space-time in the story, the narrative itself is mostly linear with some flashbacks.

This edition of the book was self-published, and there are multiple spellchecker typos and misplaced quotation marks.  I also found the ending rather muddled and arbitrary; perhaps this is to allow for the sequel, conveniently titled Rayla 2213.  There’s some on-page non-explicit sex.

This book would be of most interest to readers wanting to sample Afrofuturism, or looking for a protagonist who’s not the standard SF model.

Magazine Review: Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine July 2016

Magazine Review: Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine July 2016 edited by Janet Hutchings

Frederick Dannay, who along with Manfred B. Lee wrote the Ellery Queen mystery stories, was asked by Mercury Press to be the editor of a new magazine that would print a higher class of detective stories than the general run of pulps, with the first issue of EQMM coming out in 1941.  At first it was a reprint magazine, featuring classic tales by writers like Agatha Christie and Cornell Woolrich.  But by the seventh issue, new stories began to appear, and one, “The Bow Street Runner” by Samuel Duff, was that author’s first professional sale.

Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine July 2016

Over the years, Mr. Dannay sought out new writers to appear in “The Department of First Stories”, many of whom went on to great success.  His successors have carried on that tradition, and as part of the magazine’s 75th Anniversary celebration, the July issue #898 features new stories by authors who got their start in EQMM.

“The Staff of Asclepius” by Stephen Saylor features his Roman sleuth Gordianus the Finder.  This one is set in his youth, when Gordianus and a friend were on a trip to see the Seven Wonders of the World.  They winter in Rhodes, home of the fabled Colossus.  During their enforced idleness, Gordianus learns of a shipping magnate named Rhosander who has suffered several bouts of illness, then miraculously recovered due to wacky cures he dreamed of in the temple of the healing god.  Perhaps these episodes are the symptoms of some underlying illness…but they could also be slow poison.  The illustration has male rear nudity, which is germane to the story.

“Department of First Stories: A History” by Marvin Lachman reveals the material I cited at the beginning of this review, but in much, much more detail, including a list of some of the most famous writers to debut in the magazine and their accomplishments.

“The Granite Kitchen” by David Morrell is a monologue to a real estate agent by a woman selling her home.  She’s obsessed with making her homes just so, always moving on to a bigger project once she has it right.  And either she has the unluckiest bunch of family and friends I have ever seen, or….  Chilling.

“Blog Bytes” by Bill Crider is a regular column of mystery-related internet sites; this time focusing on fans of the Ellery Queen stories.

“The Jury Box” by Steve Steinbock is a more traditional book review column.  Among other works, this month it mentions several novels starring famous writers as the detectives, including A Riot Most Uncouth by Daniel Friedman, which I reviewed a while back.

“Get Them Out” by Nancy Pickard has a homeless man kicked out of a shelter for making a disturbance.  The new janitor at an apartment building offers him a place to sleep in the basement, but his motives may not be altruistic.  Ends on an ambiguous note.

“Black Monday” by John H. Sherman is a first story.  Howard, a lab technician at a hospital, has been having problems with alcohol and painkiller addiction, and has missing time.  His dreams of swimming have gone dark, and he can’t remember what he did last night.

“The Red Tattoo” by Percy Spurlark Parker is a noirish tale featuring Las Vegas private eye Trevor Oaks.  He’s hired to find a man’s missing identical twin; the only clue is that the twin was seen in LV with a woman who had a red tattoo.

“The Hangman” by David Dean is the story of a cops-and-robbers game gone south, and the years later sequel.  Depressing.

“Flight” by Trina Corey is set in a nursing home during the Vietnam War era (I suspect to avoid easy fixes by technology.)  Rachel is crippled by multiple sclerosis, unable to speak or write.  Perhaps that’s why a murderer has taken to coming into her room at night to gloat, knowing that she can’t tell anyone.  But Rachel still has her mind, and there’s a young nurse that hasn’t lost her ability to care yet, and maybe there’s a way to stop the killer.

“The Man from Away” by Brendan DuBois takes place in New Hampshire and Boston.  People tell Amos Wilson he’s too gullible, that his estranged wife is a gold digger he’s better off without.  But when she is accidentally killed by tourists who then vanish, Amos feels obligated to do something about it.  He may be long-suffering, but he’s not stupid.  Satisfying.

“Consuming Passion” by Martin Edwards is about two old friends, one a master chef, the other a restaurant critic, having dinner together.  It does not end well.

“The Peter Rabbit Killers” by Laura Benedict closes out the issue with a little girl whose mother has an obsession with cleanliness, and a neighbor girl who is bullying and not at all clean.   Another creepy tale.

Overall, a strong issue with many fine stories.  I liked “Flight” the best, while “Black Monday” and “The Hangman” were less well done.  This issue is certainly worth picking up while the anniversary celebration is still on.

Anime Review: Young Black Jack

Anime Review: Young Black Jack

Black Jack was a manga series by Osamu Tezuka, about a renegade doctor who performs miraculous feats of medicine, but demands outrageous fees.  (Unless he decides to do it for free or a token.)  As Dr. Tezuka was an actual M.D. before he chucked it to become a full-time artist, the series was remarkably realistic in its depiction of anatomy and medical techniques–except when he made stuff up for dramatic purposes.   It explored themes of life and death, and medical ethics.  It’s had several animated adaptations.

Young Black Jack

Fairly recently, there was an authorized prequel made, Young Black Jack, set in the 1960s when Hazama Kurou (his birth name) was still an idealistic medical student.  The anime version is currently streaming on the Crunchyroll website.

The 1960s setting allows the show to bring in social topics that were relevant then.  There are plots dealing with student riots, the Vietnam War, the Civil Rights movement in the United States, and corruption in the medical establishment (this last a recurring issue in the original Black Jack series.)  Time and again, Hazama exceeds his authority to perform medical miracles; sometimes voluntarily, sometimes not so much so.

This series is notable for bringing in bits from other Tezuka works, such as the nerve gas MW, which was central to the MW manga.  Most striking of these transplants is Dr. Hyakki.  In the Tezuka manga Dororo, Hyakkimaru was a swordsman whose body parts had been taken by demons, and replaced by artificial parts with hidden weapons.  As he defeated the demons, he got his original body parts back, becoming more “human.”  In this series, Dr. Hyakki is a surgeon whose limbs were lost in a car accident, and must rely on prostheses.  He begins his own battle with “demons” once he learns that it wasn’t an accident.

There’s some period racism and sexism, more sensitive viewers might find the depictions of wounds and disease distressing.  Others might disagree with the political viewpoint of the Vietnam War episodes.

The acting is good, and there are some lovely sequences.  (The surgeries themselves tend to be abstracted.)  Recommended to fans of medical drama shows and Tezuka fans.

Magazine Review: The Blueroad Reader: Stardust and Fate

Magazine Review: The Blueroad Reader: Stardust and Fate edited by John Gaterud

Yes, this is yet another literary magazine; I picked up a bunch inexpensively at the book fair.  This one seems to take its title from Jack Kerouac’s writing; this first issue was published in 2007.

Blueroad Reader: Stardust and Fate

The index is unusual for this kind of magazine.  Rather than a linear index, or arranged by subject or type of literature, it’s by author.  It also doesn’t distinguish between fiction and non-fiction–while some pieces sound more fictional than others, you will need to make up your own mind.

Insert my usual comments about modern poetry here.  The most interesting ones for me are “Postcards to Mike” by Ed McManis, a set of verses describing a school trip to Europe, the small disasters and odd moments of traveling with students.

A couple of the pieces are very much written in 2006, and feel dated now with their jabs at the Bush administration.  Deserved jabs, but still.  “Letter from Iceland” by Bill Holm and “Letter from London” by Donna R. Casella are both most interesting as time capsules, I think.

Best of the prose pieces from my point of view was “O Mary, Where Art Thou?” by Suzanne Lillian Bunkers.  It’s an examination of the various appearances of Mary, mother of Jesus, with an emphasis on the sites that the author has personally visited.  One of the qualifications for authenticating a visit by Mary, it turns out, is conformity with Catholic doctrine.  If your vision of Mary has her advocating ordination of women, you’re out of luck officially.

Overall, the theme is of road trips and journeys.  Many of the pieces are sad or bittersweet; others are nostalgic.  I do not know if any further volumes were published by Blueroad Press.

As with other literary magazines I’ve reviewed, it seems decent if this kind of literature is your thing.

Book Review: What We Won

Book Review: What We Won by Bruce Riedel

Disclaimer:  I received this book as a Goodreads giveaway on the premise that I would review it.

What We Won

The Soviet Union’s invasion of Afghanistan (1979-1989) was a turning point in history.  It was often called the “Russian Vietnam” as the Soviet troops found themselves mired in battle with an enemy that had little structure, struck without warning and enjoyed strong local support. The war drained men and material with little to show for it, and displeasure with the conflict helped bring about changes in the Soviet government that led to the end of the U.S.S.R.

The United States government, working through the CIA, primarily influenced the war by partnering with the Pakistani government to funnel arms and intelligence to the mujahedin who were fighting to free their country from Communism.  The author, a former CIA agent, explains who the major players in the war were, what they hoped to accomplish and the outcomes.  He shows why this operation worked so well, in contrast to other covert operations such as the infamously botched Iran-Contra deal.  In addition, there is some compare and contrast of the Soviet invasion and the current Afghanistan conflict.

There are holes in the story, of course.  Several key figures died even before the end of the war,  and many others never wrote down their stories.  Much of the details of covert actions are still classified by the various governments, and thus off-limits for public consumption.  But the author has managed to get quite a bit of new information, including access to Jimmy Carter’s diary of the time.  (Since President Carter wrote his memoir while the U.S. aid to the mujahedin was still a secret, his part in setting it up wasn’t in there.)

It begins with a brief history lesson on the many previous foreign invasions of Afghanistan, primarily by the British.  Then there’s an examination of the Communist government of Afghanistan, which was fatally divided against itself from the beginning.  It introduced much-needed reforms, but, well, Communists, which didn’t sit well with the large groups of strongly religious citizens.  When the Communists proved unable to keep from killing each other, let alone control the insurgencies, the Soviets decided to roll in with their tanks, thinking it would be just like Hungary or Czechoslovakia.  It wasn’t.

In addition to starting a land war in Asia, the Soviets had three leaders in a row whose health was failing, and a developing problem in Poland that kept them from moving sufficient troops and weapons down into Afghanistan.   In addition, it was the first time the U.S.S.R.’s troops had seen serious combat in decades, and they just weren’t up to speed.

Meanwhile, the Pakistani government was rightfully concerned that if the Soviets took over Afghanistan, they might well be next.  Especially if Russia could talk their other hostile neighbor India into helping.  So they were all too ready to arm the freedom fighters, directly delivering the aid and training provided by funds from America and Saudi Arabia.  However, they had very strong ideas about what kind of mujahedin they wanted to support, and their favoritism helped sow the seeds of discord after the war.

Which leads us to the Arab volunteers who came to Afghanistan to fight alongside their Muslim brothers in a jihad against the foreign and officially atheist invaders.  At the time, they were only interested in throwing out people who had come uninvited and unwanted.  Even Osama bin Laden almost certainly had no clue that in twenty years’ time he’d come to think that crashing airplanes into civilians was a good idea.  It’s emphasized that the Arab volunteers had no direct contact with the CIA or other American forces.

The closing section looks at why this particular operation was so successful for the U.S., what happened to the people of Afghanistan after the world turned its eyes away. and how we ended up in the Afghanistan mess we have today.

There are no maps or illustrations, but there are extensive endnotes and an index.  The writing is a bit dry but informative, and the writer’s biases don’t get in the way.  Recommended for those who wonder what’s up with Afghanistan, and fans of the movie Charlie Wilson’s War

Book Review: Death of a King: The Real Story of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s Final Year

Book Review: Death of a King: The Real Story of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s Final Year by Tavis Smiley with David Ritz

Disclaimer:  I received this book as a Goodreads giveaway on the premise that I would review it.  My copy was an advanced reading copy, and the final product (due out September 2014) will have some changes, including a full index.

Death of a King

This book covers the last year of Dr. Martin Luther King’s life, from April 4, 1967 to April 4, 1968.  It focuses strongly on Dr. King’s state of mind and thoughts as the year progresses (based on his own words and the memories of his friends and family), with a few digressions to important past events.  As a way to make it feel more personal, the writers refer to him as “Doc,” the nickname his friends called him.

It was a tumultuous year, and not a high point in Dr. King’s life.  It opens with his speech coming out publicly against the Vietnam War, still a deeply unpopular position at the time.  He also worked to widen his civil rights focus to concentrate on the problem of systemic poverty, which cost him support among his followers who felt he should stick to racial issues.  In addition, he was being challenged by younger black leaders who favored the threat (and actual use if necessary) of violence to get their way.

According to this book, during this time Dr. King struggled with issues of depression, his marital infidelity, ill health and private moments when alcohol caused him to lose control of his temper.  But the dark night of the soul was not his only concern, and it talks of his preaching, of his willingness to reach out to his critics and enemies to learn their viewpoints, and of his desire to serve.

Towards the end of the book, it creates a refrain with the end of each chapter leading towards Memphis.  That city’s callous attitude towards its sanitation workers, which had led to the entirely preventable death of two of them, had become intolerable, and led to a strike.   Dr. King was there to elevate the strike into the national spotlight, and to help bring the city to the negotiating table.  But instead, he was assassinated.

This is by no means a complete biography, nor is it meant to be.  Younger readers, or those reading about Dr. King for the first time, will want to read a more general biography first.  That said, the book strongly evokes a particular time in American history, and an important figure in that history.  Snippets of favorite songs and Dr. King’s famous speeches set the tone.

The writing style is intimate, but easy to follow, and moves along quickly.

Recommended to those who want to know more about Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., the late 1960s, and the Civil Rights movement.  Parents should be aware that due to its subject matter, some racist language is used in quotes.

Book Review: Insurrections of the Mind

Book Review: Insurrections of the Mind edited by Franklin Foer

Disclaimer:  I received this book through a Goodreads giveaway on the premise that I would review it.  The copy I read was an uncorrected proof, and changes will be made in the final edition.  (Specifically, a second introduction by Leon Wieseltier–an index may also be forthcoming.)

Insurrections of the Mind

The New Republic magazine has its centenary anniversary this year, so a collected volume of some of the many interesting articles that ran in the magazine is an expected celebration.  For many years, the New Republic (so named because there was already a Republic magazine at the time) has been the home of many of the leading voices of liberal political philosophy.  But in addition to politics, it covers art and cultural events as well.

After an introduction which explains the history of the magazine, its ups and downs (Stephen Glass is cited as a mistake, and his writing is not represented), the remainder of the book is essays grouped by decade.  From “The Duty of Harsh Criticism” by Rebecca West to “The Idea of Ideas” by Leon Wieseltier, this book is jam-packed with thought-provoking work.

I especially liked the afore-mentioned Rebecca West piece (I am a reviewer, after all), “Progress and Poverty” by Edmund Wilson, which contrasts the opening of the Empire State Building with a ruined man’s suicide,”Politics and the English Language” by George Orwell, in which you can see some of the ideas that went into 1984, and”Here Comes the Groom: A (Conservative) Case for Gay Marriage” by Andrew Sullivan, which is what it sounds like.

Not every writer represented here saw the future clearly–some of them guessed very wrong about the issues and people they wrote about.  But all of them are worth at least checking out.

“But Scott,” you say, “I am not a liberal.  What is there for me in such a book?”  I recommend the essays “The Corruption of Liberalism” by Lewis Mumford, “The Liberal’s Dilemma” by Daniel P. Moynihan and “The Great Carter Mystery” by Arthur Schlesinger, Jr.  Liberals are not above raking each other over the coals, after all.

The book is due on shelves by the end of September 2014.  i recommend it to former readers of the New Republic (current readers should already be aware of it), 20th Century history students, the politically-minded, and those who enjoy a good essay.

Book Review: Good Advice from Bad People

Book Review: Good Advice from Bad People: Selected Wisdom from Murderers, Stock Swindlers and Lance Armstrong by Zac Bissonnette

Disclaimer:  I received this book from a Goodreads giveaway on the premise that I would review it.

Good Advice from Bad People

People love to give advice.  Maxims, moral pronouncements, proverbs and detailed instructions on how other people should live their lives drop from people’s lips like pearls and diamonds (or toads and snakes, if we don’t like the advice.)  Some folks even make a living out of it!

But often what advisers do is not what they say to do.  This is a collection of advice snippets from famous people that for the most part didn’t follow their own sayings.   Some are presumably good people who cracked under pressure, others are hypocrites who have a higher standards for others than themselves, and not a few are just plain con artists who used pious phrases while not meaning a word of it.

The people cited in this short volume are mostly contemporary, with a few dips back as far as the Vietnam era.  They’re overwhelmingly male, something the author talks about a bit, but from across the political spectrum.  The quotations are selected to either be the opposite of what they did in real life, or to have an ironic twist of phrase.

Most of the names will be familiar to anyone who’s paid attention in the last twenty years (Bernie Madoff, for example), but others may surprise you, or even be someone you once respected.  The closing has a list of signs that a person might soon be joining the ranks of exposed hypocrites.

There are a number of black and white photographs, and a small bibliography of works the author has mined the quotes from.

As a humor book, it would make a good gift for people who enjoy self-help books and people who favor schadenfreude.

“But where can wisdom be found?
Where does understanding dwell?
No mortal comprehends its worth;
it cannot be found in the land of the living.”–
Job 28:12-13

Book Review: Koko

Book Review: Koko by Peter Straub

Koko

Four Vietnam veterans, among the very few remaining from their old unit, meet at the Vietnam War Memorial’s dedication.  One of them has noticed a series of murders that indicate another member of their unit is alive and a serial killer.  He convinces the others to go searching for Koko.  What they don’t realize is that Koko is also searching for them.

This is a meandering thriller by the author of Ghost Story.  Much of the story is spent chasing false leads, and it’s not for nothing that the nominal leader of the group, Harry Beevers, is known as the “Lost Boss.”  Indeed, his bad decisions make much of the storyline possible.

There are some very good bits–I was moved by the scenes at the Memorial, and there’s some great descriptions of the various places the characters visit.  Most of the protagonists are broken one way or another, and their conflicting interpretations of events help keep up the interest.

TRIGGER WARNINGS for rape, child abuse and sexualized violence.  Also, while the author is pretty even-handed, many of the characters indulge in period racism, sexism, homophobic slurs and transphobic slurs.  There’s also a Manic Pixie Dream Girl subplot, which I know annoys some people.  Milwaukee residents may find the depiction of their city rather insulting.

Some of the characters from this book show up in a kind of sequel, which I am told is better.  If you’re a thriller fan, and you run across this used, get it, it’s worth one read at least.

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