Sunday, May 25, 2008

Embracing Love, vol. 3

by Youka Nitta

I don't know if my library ever had volumes 1 and 2, but we sure don't now. (No luck with interlibrary loan either.) Luckily, there's a section that brings the reader up-to-date on the story so far: Iwaki, a former (het) porn actor, and Katou, also an actor, are lovers, a fact with which Katou is perfectly comfortable but which causes Iwaki, and his conservative family, some distress. In classic, if somewhat annoying, yaoi style, Iwaki doesn't consider himself gay because Katou is the only man he could ever love.

Though their relationship is tempestuous, the fighting is part and parcel of the emotional intensity and physical passion that bind them together. There are some hot love-making scenes, and also some advances in terms of emotional intimacy, with Katou supporting Iwaki in a confrontation with his family after the death of his mother, and Iwaki finally letting Katou into his bedroom — and his heart?

With solid storytelling and good sex, this is the best kind of yaoi. I just got volume 4, and ordered 5 and 6, so stay tuned for updates. (I have to read some other stuff first, or else I'm going to get fines.)

The Year of Living Biblically: one man's humble quest to follow the Bible as literally as possible

by A.J. Jacobs

This book is primarily funny and a teensy bit uplifting, so if you're a religion hater like me, you've been warned.

That said, I do recommend this book. It's got some laugh-out-loud moments and an appealing earnestness throughout. The author, a secular New York Jew, seems genuine in his openness to feeling some kind of spiritual effect by adhering to the rules set forth in both the Old and New Testaments, even while his ingrained skepticism and a lifetime of agnosticism underline the utter absurdity of the majority of those Biblical injunctions. He doesn't dwell much on the scarier aspects of fundamentalism or the history behind competing interpretations and translations, but he manages to include a decent sampling of the types of Biblical literalism found in contemporary Judaism and Christianity.

One last (very minor) warning: the author's style is a lot like magazine writing (he's published other books but also has worked for Esquire for many years), which isn't necessarily a bad thing — it's just that, after 300-plus pages of magazine writing, your brain sort of feels the way your stomach would after a three-day juice fast.

Monday, May 19, 2008

J-Boy 1

by Biblos

This had a brief review on the Library Journal blog In the Bookroom, and based on that I submitted a suggestion for purchase at my library, and then found out from the library's new graphic novels RSS feed that we did purchase it — isn't the interwebs neat?!

I've had it out for a while and finally was forced to read it because some other jerks had made hold requests and I couldn't renew it any longer. Luckily, it was a pretty quick read and interesting enough to keep me up past bedtime for the couple of hours necessary to finish it in one go. (Still had to pay $2.50, darn it all.)

It's an anthology of one-shot and spin-off yaoi stories originally published in a Japanese serial. As with most compilations, some hit and some miss; I'd say the hit-miss ratio is about 70% to 30%. One or two stories were downright confusing, a couple were creepy (child-molester creepy, not spooky creepy), and four of the good ones really stood out. A couple of stories were more on the romantic side, most at least insinuated sex, and a few were very unambiguous about the characters getting down and dirty — but even the most hardcore scenes had the genital areas covered or blurred out. (It's rated for matures audiences 18+ and has a parental advisory for explicit content, one on the front cover and one on the back.)

Before I give you some highlights, I want to mention something that I absolutely adore about manga. In addition to the speech bubbles and the regular narration, they include lots of little side notes. Some are essentially sound effects (like the fight scenes in the '60s Batman TV show), some indicate actions (grab, stare, dash, hug), and some indicate emotions (stunned, blush, thudding heartbeats). Now, I'm kind of making this up, so it might be totally wrong, but I suspect that the prevelance of these annotations has some relation to the fact that Japanese writing is not entirely abstract (the way our strictly phonemic alphabet is) but also has ideogrammatic and symbolic elements to it, which makes the characters and words easier to stylize and incorporate into an illustration; for example, when a person is drawn with lines to indicate motion, characters for a word describing that motion can be drawn in a style that blends with or enhances or even takes the place of the motion lines. It doesn't quite work the same way in English, which is one of the reasons the annotations sometimes seem bizarre in translated manga. (The other reason is that sometimes the translation itself is weird.)

Aaaand, the whole point of the preceding paragraph is to introduce the first highlight, which nearly made me pee my pants laughing: an upset and crying neko samurai with the words "man tears" next to his face. The story, "Neko Samurai - Ocean of Barrier," is one of the best in the book. (A note in the margin explains that tachi is the person who is leading and giving in a sexual relationship, the one taking care of the partner, while neko is the person who is receiving in a sexual relationship, the one being taken care of by the partner. Top and bottom, essentially — I have more to say about gay stereotypes in yaoi a bit later.)

Actually, looking back, "man tears" was in a different story that I can't find now. But the samurai story — about an almost-thirty guy searching for his ideal tachi to whom he will give his virginity — was great, sexy, and a tiny bit raunchy, though less visually explicit than some. Other standouts include:

  • "Indecent Encounter," about a guy with a nipple fetish who seduces his younger brother's classmate; one of the most explicit sex scenes in the book.
  • "The Summer and the Nostalgia," more on the romantic side, although they definitely do it at the end.
  • "Loving Boys Boarding School," where the boys are forbidden contact with girls and turn to each other for sexual release; they also have Native American–style "spiritual" names such as Tongue of the Heavens, Well-hung Babyface, and Public Toilet (because he's "open for public use, mostly for semen excretions").

Bottom line: great book, highly recommended to yaoi fans, and I hope the library gets more volumes.

In closing, however, I want to mention my frustration, not just with gay stereotypes that sometimes show up in yaoi, but even more so with many of the characters' unwillingness to accept their own homosexuality and their simultaneous willingness to accept society's judgement and lack of acceptance of homosexuality. Sure, their uncertainty and the hiding of their desires creates tension that adds to the story, but it would be nice if they eventually got over it.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

The Blind Watchmaker: why the evidence of evolution reveals a universe without design

by Richard Dawkins

Reading this book was like being the choir that's getting preached to — but it did also deepen and enrich my personal understanding of the Darwinian model. It's been a long time since I read a book by Dawkins (I read most of — okay, okay, some of The Selfish Gene because he was coming to talk to all the nerds in the honors program when I was a college freshperson), and I forgot what a terrible writer he is. It's a shame, because he has some amazing things to say.

I'd only recommend this if you're a science geek like me. If you just want to tell off a creationist (or intelligent design-ist, which is a creationist in a sloppy disguise), there's lots of easier-to-read stuff out there.