Welcome to the third edition of Off the Shelf with MJand Michelle!
MICHELLE: Well, what do you know? It’s Wednesday again. I feel quite confident that you have been reading things since last time! Do tell!
MJ: It’s true! First off, I finally picked up Ristorante Paradiso.
MICHELLE: Ooh! What did you think? Did you appreciate Claudio’s sexy kindness?
MJ: You bet I did. Also, I really appreciated this manga for its emotional nuance. The story begins with conflict–a young woman, Nicoletta, seeks out her mother (who abandoned her for love) with the intention of outing her as a divorcée to her current husband. But things immediately become more complicated as she finds herself torn between resentment over her mom’s happiness and a desire to be a part of the life her mom has built for herself.
Meanwhile, everyone else is similarly conflicted over something–the mom, everyone at the restaurant she runs with her husband, and (most significantly) the much older man Nicoletta develops feelings for. No easy solutions are presented, but nothing becomes overly-dramatic either. It’s a fairly quiet story about a bunch of people just being people, for better or worse.
MICHELLE: I thought Olga’s sudden decision to admit to being Nicoletta’s mother was a bit too easy, but perhaps impulsivity is in her nature. I particularly liked the story of Gigi, the eccentric and taciturn waiter, who secretly carries a torch for Olga (his brother’s wife). I love that this is communicated entirely non-verbally. I believe Nicoletta picks up on it, too, and glances at him afterwards to gauge his reactions to certain things involving her mother and her husband.
MJ: Actually, I think I’d agree with you about Nicoletta’s mom. It does seem too easy, especially considering what she has to lose. I think that could have been better developed. On the other hand, I think her relationship with Nicoletta is nicely handled overall. And yes! I love the subtlety with which Gigi’s feelings are revealed, though of course it’s terribly sad. It really gives that character some wonderful depth in a very short time.
I really enjoyed this manga. Much more than I did her earlier work, Not Simple, but that’s a discussion for another time.
MJ: So what have you been reading this week?
MICHELLE: This week I gave switch another shot, reading volumes three and four after being underwhelmed by the first two. It’s the story of a team of investigators in a government-run Narcotics Control Division and focuses on a couple of rookies named Hal and Kai. For a good portion of these volumes, they’re undercover at a high school trying to identify the source of some methamphetamines, but after that wraps up, episodic tales of drug users and their horrible lives ensue.
I want to like this series, because the general premise has promise, but instead of developing Hal and Kai and their coworkers, more attention is devoted to depicting lives destroyed by drugs—new characters desperate for a fix and/or going insane as a result. And even this is not handled astutely enough to be compelling; it’s just a muddle of darkness, which is quite disappointing. The confusion isn’t helped by the art, either. I swear at least four guys have the same hairstyle—bangs that fall between their eyes in artfully criss-crossed tendrils.
MJ: Okay, I’m a big fan of artfully criss-crossed tendrils (I love Pandora Hearts, after all) but definitely not of indistinguishable character designs. I find that incredibly confusing.
MICHELLE: At one point I thought I was reading about Kai’s terrible childhood—he’s usually fairly happy-go-lucky but switches to a scary alter ego when injured—only to belatedly realize it was the backstory of one of the kids involved in the high school drug operation. It was very frustrating. That said, so far I’ve been able to get this through inter-library loan so I’ll probably give it at least one more shot.
So, in addition to charming, bespectacled older men, what else have you been reading about this week?
MJ: I’ve also been reading about bespectacled younger men, or rather, one younger man who is occasionally bespectacled at the request of his fetishist girlfriend. And by this I mean I’ve been reading My Girlfriend’s a Geek. This is the manga adaptation released by Yen Press, not to be confused with their upcoming release of the original light novel/blog version.
It’s about a college student who falls for a (slightly older) woman at his workplace, only to be told as they begin going out that she’s a fujoshi (yaoi fangirl or “rotton girl”). He, of course, has no idea what that means, but he figures it out pretty quickly. By the end of the volume he’s writing slash fanfiction for her, starring the male leads of his favorite manga (much to his dismay).
I’d seen a lot of groaning about this title around on other blogs, but I have to admit I had a really good time with it. Maybe it’s my long history in slash fandom, but I have seen so much of what happens in this series play out in real life. Heh, I remember a friend of mine whose husband used to beta all her fanfic for her before it went up. It’s not a deep manga by any means, but it’s funny and entertaining, and I admit now I’m pretty interested in reading the novels when they are released, because I suspect they are better.
I do have to question the decision to translate “fujoshi” as “geek” but I’m not sure what would have been a better choice if they were determined to use English.
MICHELLE: I was just thinking about this series earlier today and how it’s had a mixed reaction from critics. I haven’t read it myself yet, but I’m glad to hear you enjoyed it. I wonder why they didn’t just translate “fujoshi” as “fangirl,” since that’s a pretty common word these days.
MJ: Perhaps it’s got a pretty specific audience, but I would envision it appealing both to fujoshi and those who love them. I mean, I see all these guys sitting with their girlfriends at yaoi panels when I go to conventions. I have to imagine that some of them could relate. I’m sure most of those guys aren’t there for their own enjoyment. But, like the protagonist of this manga, I suspect some of them do start to like just being a part of what their girlfriends are into.
So, what else have you been perusing this week? And does it come with or without artful hairdos?
MICHELLE: Ha! Well, I just finished the tenth volume of Vampire Knight, so that’s a big yes to the artful hairdos! Warning: major spoilers ahead.
The ninth volume of this series was a bit of an incoherent mess, as various forces converged in combat at Cross Academy, a school that humans and vampires both attend. This tenth volume is much better for, even though the political machinations are still boring and confusing, there are some truly touching emotional moments.
I continue to enjoy any scene featuring Zero, a vampire hunter who is himself a vampire, and Yuki, his childhood friend who was recently revealed to be a vampire herself. Their standoff from the previous volume ends with him unable to kill her in a scene that reminds me a little of Buffy and Angelus. At the moment, he’s unable to get over what she meant to him, but he pledges that, “The next time we meet, I’ll kill you.” There’s also a really nice chapter about the unrequited love one of the vampire boys has for a girl who only has eyes for Kaname, the Big Vampire on Campus.
With Yuki and Kaname taking off for parts unknown at the end of the volume and the school closing down until further notice, the future for these characters is a big mystery.
MJ: Aw, see, what are you doing here making this series sound kind of fun? I have carefully avoided it all this time!
MICHELLE: Heh. While the series is by no means great, I think it’s probably better than many give it credit for. I think its biggest problem is that it doesn’t always make sense as a whole (see above re: incoherent), but still manages to occasionally offer some really nice character moments. Yes, there are angstmuffins whom I want to whap upside the head, but sometimes the situations are poignant enough that they work for me. Also, the art is quite pretty. I definitely file it under the guilty pleasure category, though.
What else ya got?
MJ: Well, I guess I saved the prettiest for last. I’ve had this in my stack forever and finally picked it up yesterday, The History of the West Wing, a gorgeous Chinese manhua from Yen Press.
Really, I can’t stress enough how beautiful it is to look at. Meticulously drawn in full color, with detailed period costuming and decor, I don’t know that I’ve ever read a comic as objectively lovely as this. It’s no surprise to read that the artist, Guo Guo, got her degree in costume design.
Interestingly, the character designs remind me of those drawn by Korean artist Han SeungHee in One Thousand and One Nights. The protagonist looks so like Sehara at times, I occasionally wandered over to that series in my head as I was reading. This is not a criticism, but rather a compliment to both artists.
Unfortunately, the story does not even begin to match the artwork, in beauty or depth. It’s an older story, so I’d like to be forgiving, but it’s so simplistic, it’s actually difficult to get through, despite the fact that it’s really quite short. A man falls in love with a woman from afar, saves her family from invaders, and then marries her. There’s a brief period of conflict in which he’s required to discredit her betrothed (a genuinely slimy guy) in order to get him out of the way, but really that’s it.
It’s maddeningly dull. Thankfully, the volume closes with a series of stand-alone drawings, beautiful enough to sweep all that boredom away.
MICHELLE: A story like that would bug me because I’d be thinking, “Love her? Marry her? You don’t even *know* her! You just think she’s nice to look at!”
MJ: I think I’ve probably over-simplified in my description, because they do at least meet a couple of times before he goes off to win her hand, but it’s so quick, there really isn’t a lot of difference. Like I said, it’s a very old type of story. But I generally find that with stories like this, a modern storyteller needs to adapt heavily and insert new complexity into the story in order for it to effectively appeal to contemporary readers. Unfortunately, this really doesn’t happen here.
So, I bet you’ve got one more book, eh?
MICHELLE: Gee, how’d you know? I just polished off the third volume of Happy Cafe this evening!
I enjoyed the first volume of this slice-of-life story even when others did not, enjoying the interplay between energetic Uru and her two coworkers, grumpy Shindo and narcoleptic Ichiro, at the Cafe Bonheur. Volume two was quite a disappointment, though, featuring a challenge from some rivals that had Uru behaving at her most obnoxious.
Thankfully, volume three is back to form, offering a low-key blend of humor and heartwarming scenes. Seriously, Uru must stun a male companion with her sunny smile about a dozen times in this volume, but somehow it doesn’t grow old. It might annoy some that practically *every* guy in the story seems to be in love with a girl who, admittedly spunky and pure of heart, looks like she’s about twelve, but she’s entirely oblivious, so the story remains light and refreshing. It’s a nice mental palette cleanser after all the sturm und drang of Vampire Knight.
MJ: Well, the “about twelve” bit is pretty much par for the course, so I would imagine most otaku are used to it by now. So it sounds like those who enjoyed the first volume (but perhaps not the second) should give this another try?
MICHELLE: Definitely. I forgot to mention how much I like that the affection between the central characters, while the guys seem to fancy Uru to varying degrees, is still primarily like that of siblings. It’s a very cozy story.
MJ: I think “cozy” is one of the most alluring descriptions ever. Who doesn’t like cozy?
MJ: Aren’t they just rebelling against a cold, hard world? Rebels invented cozy.
MICHELLE: I was thinking more of the teen variety. “I’m getting out of this podunk town, man, and I’m never coming back!”
MJ: Believe you me, they’re all looking for “cozy.” They just don’t want you to know it. ;)
Clearly this is time to wrap up. Join us again next week for another Off the Shelf!
Some discussion based on review copies provided by the publishers.