Monthly Archives: August 2011

From the Writer’s Almanac


Image via Wikipedia

Now I want to read some of Oshima’s manga.

Today is the 64th birthday of manga artist Yumiko Oshima (books by this author), who was born in Tochigi Prefecture, Japan, in 1947. She is a member of the Year 24 Flower Group, one of two Year 24 groups of women who are considered to have revolutionized shojo manga — comics for girls — and introduced many elements of the coming of age story in their work. Oshima and the other women of her group have brought to their art issues of philosophy, and sexuality and gender, and marked the first major entry of women artists into manga.

Oshima made her debut in 1968 with the surreal-feeling Paula’s Tearsand has continually produced manga on a nearly yearly basis up to her most recent project, which has been ongoing since 1996. In 1973 she wrote To Joker, an allegorical love triangle that includes a boy accidentally transformed into a girl, Strawberry Story in 1975, andBanana Bread no Pudding from 1977 to 1978.

From 1978 until 1987, Oshima serialized The Star of Cottonland in the shojo manga magazine LaLa. The story has since been collected in seven volumes. The Star of Cottonland tells of an abandoned kitten, Chibi-neko, who thinks she is human and speaks human words, although people can only hear her meow. She is drawn as a young girl with cat ears and a tail and believes that all humans were once kittens like her. Chibi-neko is found and cared for by a young man, and when she realizes that he loves a human girl, Chibi-neko wishes she could grow up and become the human she expects she will be. She runs away from home to seek a paradise called Cottonland, where it is said that dreams can come true.

In 1978, Oshima won the Kodansha Manga Award for The Star of Cottonland. In 1984, it was adapted to a full-length animated film that has been praised for its complex characterizations and gorgeous animation, as well as well as for going beyond a simple animal fable to become a philosophical story that explores psychological and emotional states, and functions as a metaphor for adolescence.

On a less contemplative note, the popularity of The Star of Cottonlandhelped make fashionable the Nekomimi, or catgirl, character, a young girl like Chibi-neko who has cat ears and sometimes a tail. The catgirl does not originate within shojo manga, but is rooted in the ancient Japanese folklore of ghosts and goblins, where cats are associated with the supernatural and demon cats can take on humanoid forms. In the ’80s, girls in manga began turning into cats and their real-life counter parts began wearing headbands with kitty ears to identify with and be like the Nekomimi. In May 2011, a Japanese company called Neurowear introduced their nekomimi headwear, which looks like any other headband with ears but has the distinction of also containing a brain wave sensor, so that their ears are the first to be controlled by the thoughts of the wearer, expressing concentration and attention by standing erect, and relaxation by falling down.

In 1997, Yumiko Oshima was diagnosed with and treated for ovarian cancer. She recovered and went on to create manga that shared her experiences with illness and recovery.

1 Comment

Posted by on August 31, 2011 in contemporary, fiction


Tags: ,

My Brother’s Keeper

Patricia McCormick’s My Brother’s Keeper isn’t as good as Sold. This novel’s hero Toby just wants life to return to normal and that’s not going to happen. The best he can hope for s that things get better. After his father left, his mother checked out emotionally and the family has no real adult at the helm. Toby’s older brother Jake is using drugs and hanging out with losers. His younger brother Eli is too young and dreamy to really get what’s going on in the family.

That leaves middle child Toby to hoist the world onto his shoulders and try to keep things normal. The only wise person in Toby’s world is Mr. D. the owner of a baseball memorabilia shop who gives Toby words of wisdom and a rare baseball card. The minute Toby got the card, I knew Jake would get it and sell it.

After the dad, who never shows up or calls, abandons the family, money troubles increase. Mom was catatonic for a spell and now works at a hair salon where she meets a new boyfriend. Her dating, which was clandestine at first, makes the mom seem very adolescent.

I felt sorry for Toby, but he was tackling an impossible problem. Obviously, he couldn’t and probably shouldn’t have covered for his brother for so long.


At the climax, mom’s on a date when Eli and Toby fight over the cat. Jake’s out with his druggy pals. Eli goes out to rescue the cat and guilt compels Toby to find Eli. He can’t and return home at 11 pm to find the police at his condo. The police found Eli dangerously close to the highway trying to get the cat and they also found Jake who’s in custody and destined for rehab.

In the real world when a parent goes out and the kids were in such situations, the police would be derelict not to take the kids to child protective services. They’d have to investigate the mother, but McCormick doesn’t go that route.

This slice of life novel doesn’t end with a bow, but it also doesn’t offer much hope. I bet Jake’s back on drugs and unless the new wealthy boyfriend marries mom, the other two boys don’t have much future ahead of them. I like McCormick’s style, but got sick of the narrator and wished there were more characters. Poor Toby has one friend that we don’t see enough of and there are no other relatives in his life. It’s depressing how isolated these people were on their own. Also there were no chapter breaks. I longed for some.

I’m reading about novel writing now and such books exhort writers to ensure that if you take the character at the end of the book and place him in a circumstance similar to his first problem at the beginning, he’ll behave very differently. I’m not sure Toby would despite anything he says. The plot does not follow conventions of featuring a hero who takes action or changes significantly. I expected Toby to come forward and alert the mom to what Jake was into. Now that wouldn’t happen in real life, but I wanted Toby to do something and that’s what the family needed.

I can see that McCormick wanted something edgy, but this just didn’t satisfy.

Comments Off on My Brother’s Keeper

Posted by on August 31, 2011 in teen lit, YA


Tags: , ,

Being Perfect

From the archives –

I grabbed this at the library and am so glad I didn’t buy it.

Being Perfect is an ultra-fast read. It also lacks insight. Quinlen states the obvious in a breezy fashion. A perfect graduation speech for a bad community college. There were a few perceptive quotations, but 20 minutes on the internet at say Quoteland would net the same.

Comments Off on Being Perfect

Posted by on August 27, 2011 in essay


The Waiting Land

My friend Adrienne mentioned Dervla Murphy as a great travel writer and I was looking for a good book on Nepal so I ordered her “The Waiting Land: A Spell in Nepal.”

I love her writing. She calls everything as she sees it, which makes for good travel writing if you ask me. In this book, Murphy travels to Nepal where she works in a Tibetan refugee camp. Her writing is funny, insightful and gutsy. As a traveler, she takes risks I wouldn’t, such as getting in the midst of a Nepali – Tibetan fracas and almost landing in jail. On her trek she fords icy rivers with water up to her neck — on more than one occasion. She sleeps on mud floors because well, Nepalis do and the mattresses probably have bed bugs anyway.

When I read this book, I felt I knew what it would be like to live and work in Nepal. I felt the people she met were like people any of us might really meet.

Here are a few passages to give you an idea of her writing:

My six months among the Tibetans in 1963 had shown me that many refugees do not deserve the haloes with which they have been presented by sentimental fundraisers in Europe or America. But by the time one had been disillusioned by Tibetans one has also been captivated by them; through unpleasant individuals and events may demolish the idealized version there remains an indestructible respect for the courage, humor and good manners that mark most Tibetan communities.

Before leaving India, early in 1964, I had determined to come back to the Tibetans as soon as possible. However, refugee situations can change quickly and by the spring of 1965 conditions in India had improved so much that nothing really useful remained to be done by an untrained volunteer, and I felt that i would be wrong to inflict on the Tibetans yet another aimless “Tibet-worshipper.” But then came an item of news from Nepal concerning recently-formed refugee camp in Pokhara Valley, where 500 Tibetans were living as family units in 120 tents with only one Western volunteer to help them. It was considered that here I would at least not be in the way, even if my limitations prevented me from achieving much, so on 5 April 1965 I flew from Dublin . . . to Nepal.

And so her journey began. The book is written in diary form and contains entry after entry of observations, insight all delivered with wit. Nepal is indeed different from the West. Here’s another random passage:

July 24

Many event which would be regarded as crises a home are witnessed with indifference here.  A few days ago I saw a man attacking his wife outside their house; as his rage increased he tried to pick up a heavy stone for quicker results, but his son, aged about twelve, struggled desperately to restrain him, and eventually the mother and the son were victorious. That afternoon I again went up the street and saw husband and wife sitting in their doorway amicably stripping corn cobs together.

Comments Off on The Waiting Land

Posted by on August 25, 2011 in classic, Travel Writing


Tags: , , , , , ,

From the Writers’ Almanac

Today is the birthday of Chinese poet Bei Dao born Zhao Zhenkai in Beijing in 1949. Bei Dao’s family was traditional and middle class, his father a professional administrator and his mother a doctor. And when Mao’s Cultural Revolution came in 1966, Bei Dao was initially an enthusiastic supporter and joined the Red Guard movement. But the boy soon become disillusioned, certain that the Mao revolution would only end in new forms of tyranny, and so was sent to the countryside for “re-education” through labor, the standard punishment for counter-revolutionaries, and lived a relatively isolated life that only added to his melancholy.

Bei Dao longed for new ways to express himself, some artistic manner that was unrestricted by the ideals of the Cultural Revolution, and he began experimenting with lyrical writing, free verse, oblique images and cryptic phrases — an extreme break from officially sanctioned literature. It was then, in the early 1970s, that he took the pseudonym by which he is known — Bei Dao, or “north island” — to express both his northern birth and solitary nature.

Bei Dao and a group of other writers following this new lyric style became known as the “Misty School,” writing the “poetry of shadows,” and taking up the voice of all who shared in their spiritual exile. His work began to earn recognition with pro-democracy protesters, and he took part in the 1976 Tiananmen demonstrations, during which his poem “The Answer” became something of an anthem for the dissidents, who chanted its lines as they marched:

I don’t believe the sky is blue;
I don’t believe in thunder’s echoes;
I don’t believe that dreams are false;
I don’t believe that death has no revenge.

Bei Dao wrote his first novella, Waves, and then in 1978 helped found China’s first unofficial literary magazine, Jintian, and managed to keep it running for two years before the government shut it down. He continued to write poetry that expressed the intimacies of love and friendship in a society where trusting another could be a matter of life or death, and won the Chinese National Award for poetry despite official disapproval of his progressive actions.

In 1988, Bei Dao wrote a petition and collected signatures, calling for the release of Chinese political prisoners and drawing the wrath of the authorities. The petition became the prelude to a large-scale human rights campaign that would come to a head in the Tiananmen Square Massacre in June of 1989. Although he was abroad during the demonstrations, protesters chanted Bei Dao’s poetry while congregating in the square, and he was forced to remain abroad, knowing he’d be arrested if he returned.

Now an exile, Bei Dao taught throughout Europe and the United States, relaunched the magazine Jinchian in Stockholm in 1990, was made an honorary member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters, and has been on the shortlist of candidates for the Nobel Prize in literature numerous times in recent years. Finally, in 2006, Bei Dao was allowed to return to China where he currently lives and teaches.

Comments Off on From the Writers’ Almanac

Posted by on August 19, 2011 in World Lit


Tags: , , , ,

G. B. Shaw’s Pygmalion

This month’s book club choice is Pygmalion, which I just finished. I think I read this play before. I have seen My Fair Lady and have enjoyed Arms and the Man and St. Joan, both written by Shaw.

This is one of the best plays my book club’s read this year. It’s funny without being too farcical or predictable. I loved that the two main characters both argue strongly and with equal heft. I’d forgotten that Higgins had the habit of swearing and a blind spot about it. The play makes for a fun, smart quick read.

To get some fresh cinematic input on this story, I got Americanizing Shelley from Netflix. It was so amateurish, I had to stop watching after a few minutes. The writing was poor and the production values low.


Posted by on August 19, 2011 in British Lit, classic, drama


Confucius Lives Next Door

To get more insight into the Confucian-influenced psyche, I read T. R. Reid’s Confucius Lives Next Door: What Living in the East Teaches Us About Living in the West. A reporter for The Washington Post Reid and his family lived in Japan for many years. His work took him throughout the region and he wanted to figure out just how Confucian philosophy influences Asians.

In some respects the title is quite literal. Reid learned heaps from his next door neighbor Matsuda san, who handled complaining about loud rock music emanating from Reid’s son’s room so differently from the American way. Rather than calling and yelling, Matsuda san knocked on Reid’s door, came in for tea, chatted about all sorts of inconsequential matters and then cleared his throat to introduce the meiwaku or trouble you’re causing those around you. We really don’t have a specific word for that, do we? Reid explains how other meiwaku’s have been handled in business and politics. He provides readers with facts they may not know about Confucius and how he strove to make communication more direct and social relations more balanced.

It is fascinating to read about how children in Japan are educated and how societies from Singapore to China in various ways infuse more moral good citizen messages throughout the environment. He acknowledges that the average American would find this rather hokey, but that many of us do wish for more consideration from those around us.

I did think he presented some statistics and facts on literacy and school achievement that were questionable. He’d never met an illiterate Japanese person, but I have. He reports that if one or two children in a class don’t meet the grade level standard, it’s an emergency in the faculty room, but from my time teaching in rural Japan, I’ll tell you that a lot of teachers don’t worry about failure since the society has a spot for underachievers. My students were from low status families. So I’d read parts with a grain of salt, but I do recommend reading it.

The book is very Japan-centered and I did expect more about at least Korea and China, which are covered, but so briefly. Each country takes on Confucius thought differently. I wished that could be examined. Also, it was written in the late 1990’s and seems a bit dated.

The book reveals a lot about Japanese business practice and social policy and makes it clear that many countries look at the US and think, “Okay, you are number one, economically and militarily, but you sure pay a high price for that in social costs. Your streets aren’t all that safe. Your prisons are overflowing. People fear losing their jobs. Your schools don’t teach students well.” (Yes, I think the Japanese literacy rate is under the 98% they report, but I bet it is higher than ours.)

When I finished, I felt eager to read the real thing. Looking forward to famed lines like:

Isn’t it a pleasure when you can make practical use of the things you have studied? Isn’t it a pleasure to have an old friend visit from afar? Isn’t it the sure sign of a gentleman, that he does not take offense when others fail to recognize his ability?

One thing Reid does that I liked is that he added an atogaki, a traditional afterword in Japanese books in which the author points out the weaknesses in his or her own thesis to make sure the cracks in the wall are acknowledged. The idea is that the author thinks s/he had built a good wall, but wants the readers to see the cracks too. Then everyone can see the problems and contribute to an improved thesis down the road. Quite a communal approach, huh?


Posted by on August 14, 2011 in contemporary, non-fiction


Tags: ,

The Promise of Paradox

I’m a Parker Palmer fan and couldn’t resist picking up The Promise of Paradox: A Celebration of Contradictions in the Christian Life when I saw it in the little library here at the Ghost Ranch. This book was first written in 1980 and has been updated and rereleased.

In the first third of the book, Palmer reflects on Trappist monk,Thomas Merton‘s writing on paradox, concentrating on Merton’s image of living his life in the belly of a paradox, on how the cross urges us to hold contradictions, e.g. you must lose your life to keep it, together in tension.

Ironically or providentially, tension and contradiction came up in a discussion I had earlier the day I read this. We have this desire to resolve tension, to get rid of it. We don’t like holding oppositions in our minds and hearts.

Well, Palmer and Merton urge us to be patient, to see that the cross symbolizes and teaches us to bear these tensions. The book is full of potent quotations and is quite engrossing in the beginning.

As the book continues, I lost interest as Palmer moved onto other themes. The part on his Way of the Cross was relevant. However, as the book veered into discussions on education, my interest waned. I felt I’d read this before in other places and that it was just filler. Though I agree with Palmer’s opinions, I felt the end of the book didn’t fit with the beginning. Perhaps if I read his introduction, I’d get what his reasoning was for the last section, but I feel a reader shouldn’t have to read the introduction, that the intro is just an extra. The main text should be sufficient onto itself. Perhaps the cover should bill this as a collection of essays.

Comments Off on The Promise of Paradox

Posted by on August 13, 2011 in contemporary, Spirituality


Tags: ,

Ebook Publishing

I found this video series on ebooks quite interesting. Not sure how I feel about the couple outsourcing their writing. It’s not illegal, but just was a shock. That comes up in one of the later videos.

They do offer good tips on coming up with popular ideas though.

Comments Off on Ebook Publishing

Posted by on August 12, 2011 in guide


Tags: ,

Seize the Day

How can I review a book by Saul Bellow or any Nobel Laureate for that matter? I’m so humbled by all his writing.

Seize the Day was terrific and such a joy to read from page one. It’s the story of Wilkie who’s doomed for financial failure and he’s trying to deal with his aloof, superior father. The writing is superb, but then Bellow’s one of my favorite writers. I confess my bias. One thing I love is the way Bellow writes about the main characters inner thoughts. He really nails what someone’s thinking as one listens to a fool or a jerk. He gets the relationships we have and can’t get out of with people who are so annoying or weird.

While I like this book, I don’t think it’s the first Bellow book I’d suggest someone read. I’d start with The Adventures of Augie March, which is longer, but so funny and wild.

Comments Off on Seize the Day

Posted by on August 10, 2011 in American Lit, classic, contemporary, Nobel Prize