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review 2017-05-18 08:33
Baccano!, Vol. 1: The Rolling Bootlegs (book) by Ryohgo Narita, illustrated by Katsumi Enami, translated by Taylor Engel
Baccano!, Vol. 1: The Rolling Bootlegs - Ryohgo Narita

In the year 2002, a Japanese man has won a trip to New York, and he’s having a terrible time. A bunch of teens mugged him and took his most prized possession, his camera. If he wants to get it back, he’ll have to talk to a member of the Camorra (an Italian crime syndicate). Luckily, the man he speaks to is in a good and talkative mood, and boy does he have a story to tell. It starts in 1711, when an alchemist and his comrades summoned a demon who gifted the alchemist with the knowledge of how to make the elixir of immortality, and continues to New York in 1930.

In 1930, a young man named Firo has just been promoted to executive in the Martillo Family, a Camorra group. At that very same time, two cheerful and energetic thieves named Isaac and Miria have just arrived in the city, determined to right their past wrongs by doing only good deeds. Of course, they have a rather odd notion of what constitutes a “good deed.” And at the same time as all of that, an immortal old man named Szilard is being driven to a meeting by Ennis, his artificially created human servant. Szilard has spent the centuries since he became immortal trying to determine the recipe for the elixir of immortality, and it looks like he might have finally achieved his goal. Unfortunately, a fire makes things more complicated, and the two surviving bottles of the perfected elixir go missing.

Ennis has to track the bottles down or risk getting killed by Szilard. Of course, they just happen to look like regular wine, it’s the Prohibition era, and there are two different Camorra groups, a couple idiot thieves, some thugs, and several FBI agents in the area, so her job isn’t going to be easy.


My first exposure to this series was via the anime, which was confusing, violent, high-energy, and lots of fun. One of the reasons it was so confusing was because it didn’t entirely follow a linear timeline. Viewers would be shown events from 1930, 1931, 1932, and 1711, all mixed together. I have since learned that this is because the anime adapted events from the first three novels. Although this first volume in the series jumped around between the various prominent characters and their storylines, it at least stayed rooted in 1930 (with a few brief glimpses of 2002 and 1711).

Although the more linear storytelling was nice, I’d still advise most English-language Baccano! newbies to start with the anime. The only reason I might tell someone to start with the books instead is if 1) they absolutely needed more linear storytelling and/or 2) they couldn’t stand Baccano’s on-screen gore and violence. While this novel was a lot of fun and contained several bits of information that fans of the anime will love, the writing/translation was...not very good.

The book was very heavy on dialogue, which was probably a good thing, since the issues with the writing/translation were most noticeable in the narrative parts. The phrasing often seemed stilted, and there were times when I wondered how accurate the translation was, because certain statements contradicted each other. For example:

“They couldn’t die from injuries or illness. As long as they didn’t age, they could rely on regenerating even if they fell into boiling lava.

However… The exception was that they could be killed with ease.” (50)

I think that this is referring to the way the immortals could “eat” each other - the only way an immortal (the true immortals, anyway) could die was by being absorbed by another immortal. However, the phrasing is strange. Another contradiction:

“Why? Why did this have to happen now? Why a conflagration now of all times?!

There was nothing here that was flammable!

The liquor… I must haul out the liquor…” (57)

Umm… Liquor is actually quite flammable. And then there was just plain awkward writing, like this:

“In the instant he stood, frozen, the muzzle of a gun appeared from behind the falling Seina’s.” (163)

Seina’s what? I’m pretty sure it’s referring to Seina’s falling body, but the sentence structure made it seem like it was referring to something like “the falling Seina’s gun.”

In addition to awkward writing, the book committed the crime of being a historical novel with, at best, vague and handwavy descriptions. One of the things I had been hoping the Baccano! novels would include was interesting period details. There were a few, here and there, but not nearly as many as I had expected. Instead, more of the focus was on the action and dialogue. On the plus side, that probably contributed to this being a very quick read.

As awkward as the writing/translation was, it somehow never leached the fun out of the overall story. I still enjoyed this combination of Prohibition era setting, goofballs and deadly criminals, and immortality-granting wine. I could remember the end result of the two missing bottles of wine, but I couldn’t remember how they got to where they needed to be, so it was fun trying to keep track of them. Also, it was surprisingly nice to see these characters again. I haven’t seen Baccano! in a few years, and this book made me think that a rewatch might be a good idea.

If I had to pick favorite characters from the anime, I’d probably go with Isaac, Miria, and Claire/Vino. I still found Isaac and Miria to be delightful in this book, but one thing that surprised me was how much I liked and felt sympathy for Ennis. I couldn’t recall her making much of an impression on me when I saw the anime. I think the book might have included details about her history that weren’t included in the anime, but it’s been so long I can’t be sure.

Eh, I should probably wrap this up. Overall, I enjoyed this a lot more than I expected I would, although I’d hesitate to recommend it to Baccano! newbies - try the anime first. If you’ve seen and enjoyed the anime, it’s definitely worth giving this book a shot, if only for the extra character information.

Extras:

There's a 3-page afterword written by the author. Also, these aren't exactly extras, but the book includes several black-and-white illustrations and 8 pages of color illustrations (or 6, depending on how you're counting). Unfortunately, the color illustrations have text on them that needs to be read, and it's a bit hard on the eyes.

The illustrations were nice enough - often a better way to get an idea of what a particular character was supposed to look like than any of the descriptions in the text, if there were any. However, I did note one possible historical inaccuracy. One of the illustrations showed a 1930 New York cop. I googled their uniforms, and I think Enami might have gone with a more modern uniform design than was appropriate.

 

(Original review posted on A Library Girl's Familiar Diversions.)

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review 2017-05-17 17:06
Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi
Persepolis: The Story of a Childhood - Marjane Satrapi,Mattias Ripa,Blake Ferris

A graphic-novel-style memoir about the author's childhood during the Iranian Revolution, this book seems written largely to educate Westerners about Iran. It is an episodic story focusing on how current events affected the author and her progressive family. This focus seems to have worked well for most of its readers, especially those who knew next to nothing about Iran beforehand. For some reason, though, I found it less gripping than others did, although all the right elements seem to be there: the stakes are high but the author keeps it personal, the characters are as well-defined as can be expected in a childhood memoir, the art is emotive. The plotting is a little off, with both individual chapter arcs and the novel as a whole either tapering off or ending abruptly. You should probably read it anyway though.

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review 2017-04-30 17:49
The Misfortunates by Dimitri Verhulst
The Misfortunates - Dimitri Verhulst,David Colmer

Based on the protagonist’s sharing the author’s full name, and the little information about Verhulst available in English, this short, episodic novel appears to be autobiographical. Somewhat more than half of it focuses on Dimitri’s boyhood, surrounded by the raging drunks that are his father and three uncles. In these chapters Dimitri himself almost disappears, but one gets the sense of a narrator struggling with the tension between his affection and nostalgia for these incorrigible relatives, and his ultimate rejection of their lifestyle after they fail him in ways that are largely left to the reader’s imagination. In later chapters Dimitri appears as a not-particularly-endearing adult, and the book becomes even more episodic – it’s almost more of a short story collection than a novel – as major events are referenced only in passing. It makes sense thematically but leaves a great deal untold.

The book is set in Belgium and originally written in Dutch, but the translation is skillful and flows well. Early on some of the descriptions wallow in the muck to a fairly repulsive degree (generally related to bodily fluids), but this is less a feature of the entire book than of the early chapters. And they do speak to an eye for detail. The individual characters are not especially distinguishable, but the culture of Dimitri’s family and his community come to life (the encounters between the men of the family and Dimitri’s refined, well-off aunt and cousin, and later a cultured immigrant family, throw their mostly well-intentioned boorishness into particularly sharp relief). There’s an adept balancing of entertainment value and the narrator’s darker view of the world, sprinkled with brief, pointed references to the meaninglessness of life.

There’s certainly something to this book, and some readers will connect strongly to this ode to a dysfunctional family. But the narrator’s emotional distance combined with his often poor treatment of others once reaching adulthood, the episodic nature of a story without any unifying plot, the gross-out factor, and the rather limited, child’s-eye view of the primary characters made it difficult for me to become engrossed in the story. We’ll call this one a neutral reference.

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review 2017-02-01 11:00
Saint Augustine and His Abandoned Concubine: Vita Brevis by Jostein Gaarder
Vita Brevis: A Letter to St Augustine - Jostein Gaarder
Das Leben ist kurz = Vita brevis - Jostein Gaarder

During much of European history men shaped the world of things and thought as they believed right and passed over women in silence, if they didn’t hold them in contempt. Highly revered Fathers of the Christian Church like Saint Augustine of Hippo Regius further institutionalised this contempt of women… and of earthly pleasures altogether as shows his autobiography titled Confessiones. In this theological key text he admits that before his conversion to Christianity in 385 he was a man who tasted life to the full. For over ten years he lived with a concubine (probably law forbade a formal marriage) and had a son with her, but in retrospect he regrets this sinful and immoral relationship because it kept him from true love of God. In Vita Brevis. A Letter to Saint Augustine (also translated into English as The Same Flower) the Norwegian writer, philosopher and theologian Jostein Gaarder gave this abandoned woman a voice.

 

In 1995 in a second-hand bookshop in Buenos Aires, Argentina, Jostein Gaarder comes across an old manuscript in a red box titled Codex Floriae. Its first sentence shows that it’s the letter of a certain Floria Aemilia to Augustinus Aurelius, the Bishop of Hippo Regius in Northern Africa (today: Algeria) who was later to become Saint Augustine. When he translates another sentence, it occurs to him that Floria Aemilia might be the saint’s long-time concubine whom he mentioned in his Confessiones without ever revealing her name. Of course, the author doesn’t know if the seventeenth-century copy is of an authentic letter, but it intrigues him that it might be and he buys it. Back home he makes a copy of the entire letter and sends the original to the Vatican Library for inspection. The Codex Floriae gets lost and the author decides to translate the Latin text from his copy and to publish it as Vita Brevis. A Letter to Saint Augustine. So far in brief what Jostein Gaarder says in his introduction about the actual letter of Floria Aemilia that makes up the major part of the book.

 

As it soon turns out, the author was right to assume that Floria Aemilia is the concubine of Saint Augustine. The exceptionally intelligent and self-assured woman from Carthage read the Confessiones of her former lover and obviously felt the urgent need to comment on them, notably on the passages dealing with their life together in Northern Africa, Rome and eventually Milan and with the emotional bonds between them that he tries to reduce to sexual desire. But she doesn’t only give her point of view of events (sometimes drifting into bitterness or mockery seeing how religious frenzy distorted his memories and opinions). Thanks to thorough studies of philosophy, theology as well as rhetoric during the years since Augustine sent her back to Carthage, she is able to challenge his notions of (original) sin and morality with great dialectical skill. Above all, she can’t agree with his attitude towards women who are for him the seducers leading men astray from the way to God and Eternal Life. Augustine postulates that all pleasures on Earth are sinful and should be avoided in preparation of life after death, while Floria Aemilia is convinced that pleasures are God-given and that denying them means to deny God’s creation. She supports her arguments with many quotations from classical Greek and Roman sources that Jostein Gaarder points out and explains in footnotes if necessary for understanding.

 

All things considered, Vita Brevis. A Letter to Saint Augustine isn’t so much a book about Floria Aemilia than it’s about Saint Augustine, his biographical background and above all his philosophy that helped to marginalise women not only in the Christian Church, but in Christian society altogether for more than one and a half millennium. Alone for the critical examination of the Confessiones from a female point of view, it’s a worthwhile read. In addition, it’s well written and easy to follow despite the complex philosophical argument.

 

Many have wondered, if the Codex Floriae really exists or if the “feminist manifesto” of Floria Aemilia is an invention of Jostein Gaarder. As it seems, the author always refused to clearly answer the question. I think that the book is a gorgeous work of fiction.

 

Vita Brevis: A Letter to St Augustine - Jostein Gaarder 

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review 2017-01-04 14:10
The Moonlit Garden
The Moonlit Garden - Alison Layland,Corina Bomann

I listened to this one, narrated by  Justine Eyre. It was about 12 hours long, but it passed by quickly with this fun read. It's not particularly deep or magical and it doesn't call life as we know it into question.

It's a nice read/listen, light and intriguing for anyone in the mood for a little escape from the disappointments that have been abounding.

Funny enough, the only problems with the book are also reasons why I liked it. Lily Kaiser's journey is a little too convenient throughout the book but that can be just perfect sometimes. It can be exactly what I need to read or listen in order to balance out the pressure of the world.

So, yes, the book is a little too neat. The story a little too beautiful and coincidental and works a little too well, but I didn't mind it at all. Mostly because it was also written incredibly well. It moves between times, giving insight into Rose Gallway's life that Lily doesn't readily have and let's the reader piece some of it together on our own. I do enjoy that. And then the author lays it all out and it's just perfect. A little too perfect, like in one of those rom-coms that we watch to feel good but that we all know aren't the way the world works.

I really loved that about it. It's going to be one of my comfort books, to peruse when I'm down, maybe listen to when I wanna revel in new beginnings, like the mood I re-watch Stardust in. If you've read a few too many mysteries lately, or too many books that ripped your heart out (like I have recently), than this is the perfect book to recover with. It's comforting and sweet and romantic and doesn't take itself too seriously. But it's not the book for that serious deep read. Don't expect it to be.

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