Sunday, November 29, 2009

Mission Accomplished--52 Books Read

Well, I'm happy to report I've accomplished my goal of finishing 52 books this year, and with a month to spare!
Of course with a project like this I had to keep a record--to be honest, I wouldn't remember I'd read some books if I didn't write them down, which tells you of the impact of those books. Basically, I just kept a spreadsheet of the book details (title, author, genre, etc.), my personal rating, and maybe a brief note.
As far as my goal of being diverse, I'm reasonably satisfied, though I probably could have read a greater variety of nonfiction categories--I mostly stuck with memoirs, travel, essays, and humor. Another of my earlier goals was to purge my shelves, and I got rid of about half of the books I read that I owned (some were borrowed from the library or friends). Basically, anything that didn't get a 4-star rating or higher went in the canvas bin for donations/used book store trade ins.
Before I get to my favorite books of the year, I should briefly explain my rating system. There are half stars, but obviously those are for books that fall between.
* = repulsive, I actively disliked this book. Nothing got one star because I wouldn't have finished it, and only the books I finished counted.
** = Didn't like, regretted reading it. Only three books got a 2, two of which were slightly obscure 19th century children's *** classics.
= Okay, enjoyable read. Most books got this, which isn't surprising since I focused on books I wanted to read.
**** = Exceptional, I would read it again or recomend it to a friend. I'll note these in a moment.
***** = An all time favorite. None received this. There are only a handful of books I've ever considered a 5.
I should also note that my rating system is entirely subjective, naturally, and vastly skewed according to my personal preferences. I also weigh books in the context of their genres. For instance, a romance novel could get a 4, while Hemingway earned a 3. You can't compare carrots and cupcakes, each have their place and can only be compared to their kind.
So, without further rambling, here, in order of having read them, are the 4-star books of 2009 (a.k.a. those I would recomend):

Lord of Ice by Gaelen Foley (historical romance)
A Walk Across America by Peter Jenkins (memoir/travel)
What I Did for Love by Susan Elizabeth Phillips (contemporary romance)
Traveling Mercies by Anne Lamott (memoir)
The Total Money Makeover by Dave Ramsely (personal finance)
The Bean Trees by Barbara Kingsolver (fiction)
Wildlife Preserves by Gary Larson (humor)
The Widow of the South by Robert Hicks (historical fiction)
Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury (classic/science fiction)
Me Talk Pretty One Day by David Sedaris (memoir/essays)
Lord of Fire by Gaelen Foley (historical romance)
Finger Lickin' Fifteen by Janet Evanovich (mystery)
Dealing with Dragons by Patricia C. Wrede (YA/fantasy)
Searching for Dragons by Patricia C. Wrede (YA/fantasy)
Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim by David Sedaris (memoir/essays)
Signspotting III by Doug Lansky(humor)
The Good Thief by Hannah Tinti (historical fiction)
Bear Portraits by Jill Greenburg (photography)
In Dubious Battle by John Steinbeck (classic/fiction)

I tried to be diverse in my reading. I work on commercial fiction, so I try to keep up on genre fiction (romance, mystery, science fiction, young adult, etc.) I also tried to get in a few classics, and for most it was evident to me why they've lasted.
So now I'll have to think about what adjustments to make for 2010. More books? More diversity? Hmmm....

Monday, November 16, 2009

A Novice in the Land of Manga

As I mentioned in my last post, I've been investigating the genre of manga. It's been a slow journey, but quite interesting because manga is a unique format (illustrated, like comic books), and heavily influenced by Japanese culture (because, well, they're translated Japanese books).
Traditional manga books read from right to left, meaning you start on what we would consider the last page, and read the top right panel first and proceed to the top left, then the second right panel, and so on. The panels are sometimes different sizes, so this can vary. Thinking this style wouldn't catch on in the US, they originally reset the books to read the Western way, a very time-consuming and costly process. But it's actually not difficult to adapt to. Manga written by Western (American) authors, and manhwa, which is the Korean equivalent of manga, is written in the Western style, like American comic books.
Manga is actually a Japanese adaptation of American comic books, which I think one of the great things about global culture. Japanese artists adapted American culture, and now their adaptation has caught on with a fierceness with American readers because of how they made it uniquely their own. In Japan, manga is published in thick magazines that feature different series. Episodes from popular series are then bound into books, and series of these books are published and translated for English-speaking audiences. A manga book might contain four episodes, and the beginning might remind readers of the concept or back story of the series, particularly in early episodes. This seems odd in the book, but makes sense when you consider how it was originally serialized.
Popular series are also made into animated television series. Anime series sometimes stay close to the books, but some episodes may differ, most often toward the end of the anime series to give it a conclusion where the books continue the story of the characters. Another impetus for me reading manga was checking out a few anime series on Netflix and online at and after falling in love with the anime movies of Hiyao Miyazaki. Miyazaki is distributed by Disney in the US, and his movies are brilliantly imaginative, and so different from what I'm used to seeing. My favorites are SPIRITED AWAY and MY NEIGHBOR TOTORO.
Manga is divided into sub genres according to gender and age. As far as what you'll find in the bookstore, it's primarily shojo manga for girls and shonen manga for boys. There's also kodomo manga for children under 10, josei manga for women, seinen manga for men, and hentai or ero manga which features very explicit adult content. I've mostly focused on shojo manga thus far. I tried a few shonen books, but the ones I read focused on fight scenes and/or scantily-clad female characters (very like American superhero comics).
In Japan, manga is read rapidly, and embodies the idea of a 'picture is worth a 1,000 words.' I've not come close to mastering reading a picture along with the words at a quick pace, and don't know all the symbolism. The shape of the eyes will tell you about the character's personality, for instance. Some of these are obvious, and akin to American comics (big eyes = good, squinty eyes = bad). Also, apparently the hair color is significant, but as most manga is black and white, you have to rely on dialogue or cover art--I think this may apply more to anime series than manga.
There are some characters unique to Japanese culture. The one that most frequently appears in shojo manga is the bishonen--basically a really good looking guy who often appear nearly feminine. Another odd one is a teen character who is drawn and behaves like a child relative to the other characters despite being the same age--I don't know if this character type has a name, but I saw it in several series.
There are other odd things that come up that take a bit of adjustment. When characters have extreme emotions, they turn into child-like caricatures of themselves. When they're nervous, a big sweat drop appears on their heads. Most baffling of all, when they are attracted to someone they get explosive nosebleeds. I still don't get that last one, but speaking of, apparently in Japan sharing your blood type is like telling someone your astrological sign, so it's included in the character profiles, and the authors will often note theirs in their bios.
Probably the biggest challenge for me was keeping the characters straight. Not only do they sometimes look similar, there are usually a lot of them and they have unfamiliar Japanese names and nicknames. Then there's the honorifics added to their names, which differ according to the relationship between the character and the speaker. For instance, a male character named Tamaki might be called Tama for short, Tamakisan (like Mr. Tamaki, general term of respect), Tamakikun or Tamakun (term of endearment used by close friends), Sempai by someone younger in school or a club, or Kohai by an upperclassman or senior member of a club. A female character can also have a -san added (like Ms.) or -chan as a term of endearment (the equivalent of -kun for boys). You can see how it can get confusing for a new reader. I think I've got it down, but it took a while (and a helpful glossary of terns from one series).
I also learned a lot from a book called Understanding Manga and Anime by Robin E. Brenner, which is a guide written primarily for librarians that gives a good overview and recommendations of series. If you're a parent, you'll find age ratings on the back cover that are in line with American standards. The Japanese have a different approach to sexuality, but for the most part I've found the shojo series to be very tame by American standards. A more open attitude toward homosexuality and cross-dressing are the most noticeable differences relative to American YA series. For some reason, the girls find it attractive when the heartthrob dresses like a girl--but since the bishonen look a bit feminine, maybe this makes sense.
I think the main appeal of these series is that they are plot driven with strong characters, can be read quickly, usually have cliffhangers, and for shonen manga tend to center on a love triangle. As far as specific series, the ones I liked best so far are as follows:
FRUITS BASKET by Natsuki Takaya - An orphaned girl moves in with a family with a secret--the members change into animals of the Chinese zodiac when hugged by a member of the opposite sex. There's a love triangle between the girl, gorgeous but lonely Yuki who transforms into the rat, and the rebel and family outcast Kyo, who becomes the cat (the animal cast out of the zodiac).
OURAN HIGH SCHOOL HOST CLUB by Bisco Hatori - A tomboy attends an exclusive private school on scholarship, where she is mistaken for a boy and ends up part of a social club full of good looking boys who entertain girls with lavish parties. They call this a reverse harem, a theme in manga where a girl hangs out with a group of goodlooking boys. Another example would be BOYS OVER FLOWERS by Yoko Kamio. I wouldn't recommend starting with OURAN, as I did, because it's a tongue-in-cheek take on common themes of the genre. If you read it without knowing what those themes are, it's a bit baffling and weird, but I grew to like it more and more as I kept reading different series.
MAMMOTTE! LOLLIPOP - An average girl accidentally swallows a magic pearl that is central to a final exam for wizards from another dimension. In order to protect her from others, and pass the exam, two young male wizards (yes, love triangle) have to stay by her side at all times. This series tends to stray a bit into shonen, with each episode having a battle scene where the characters use their unique powers.
GOONG by Park Sohee - This is a manhwa series (i.e. Korean) with beautiful illustrations which reimagines Korean society as having a royal family (like Britain). It focuses on a high school girl who is married to the surly but attractive prince through an arrangement made by their grandfathers and has to navigate palace life. There's a lot of intrigue and politics, and a love triangle involving the prince's cousin--the original heir to the throne before his father died. It's more contemporary and targeted at older teens than the aforementioned series.
DRAMACON by Svetlana Chmakova - also focused at older teens, this is a brief (3-book) series about a young woman who wants to become a manga artist. Each book takes place at a manga/anime convention and it delves into the culture of the genre.
I know I still have more to learn, but I hope this post informs and perhaps even inspires. If you are a manga fan and have any recommendations, I'd love to hear them.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

52 Books a Year

As I've mentioned before, I'm a bookaholic. Back in late 2007 I faced the usual dilemma--I had binged at the bookstore, and had a stack of books and no shelf space to put them. I've learned to occasionally weed out any books I no longer want. However there were no weeds at this point--I'd have to read some before I'd know if I wanted to keep them. The problem has always been that I shop faster than I read. So I decided that I would read as many books as possible. I didn't have to finish if I didn't like it, the goal was to purge the shelves, after all. But this naturally meant that I focused on the books I thought I'd least enjoy. It's not much fun to read that way.
For 2008, I changed the rules. I would see if I could read a book a week for a year. By the end of the year, I'd read 54 books. I was focusing on books I wanted to read more, and I did manage to get rid of about half of them. But I can't honestly say, "I read 54 books," because to me saying you read a book means you finished. And I didn't finish some of them.
So I upped the stakes again for 2009. Again, 52 books in a year is the goal, but I have to finish them. I think I've mentioned this before, but as the year has progressed, I've refined the rules.I have to be diverse, reading fiction and nonfiction, a variety of genres and authors. Audio books, I decided, count. The idea is no longer to purge the shelves (a hopeless goal, I accumulate about three books a week on average). The goal is to be more broadly read.
By summer, I was well ahead of schedule, and then I walked into my local Borders and noticed they'd rearranged the shelves, primarily to move the teen books into the adult part of the store and farther away from children's books. Most prominent was the manga section, which dwarfed the regular teen book section and was in the center of the store. I knew manga was hugely popular with teens--a friend of mine who teaches high school noted it's all kids are reading. All I knew was they were Japanese illustrated novels. So I decided I wanted to understand what the fuss was about and hit the library, where there were two large spinning racks of manga books. I'll save what I've learned about the genre for another post, and focus instead on what it did to my plan. Manga books can be read in about an hour or two, and I was reading about nine a week. I played with different ways of counting them--a full series would count as one, ten mangas would count as one regular book, etc.. after all, they're books, in a different genre, and I finished them, so they should technically count...but that made it too easy. So I decided none of them would count, and now was barely ahead and had to catch up.
So, here it is, second week of November, and I'm at 48 books read (not counting any manga). Things are looking good, but I don't know if the holidays will mean more or less reading time. Still, I'm confident, so when I've finished number 52 I'll post again, and talk about the top books I've read this year. Until then, I better get back to reading!