Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Count 'em up: The Basic Eight, by Daniel Handler

First, I gotta say that I’m a huge fan of Daniel Handler. He’s funny, he’s smart, and he plays the accordion. What more could you ask for? One of the greatest regrets of my life (so far) is that I didn’t get his autograph when I met him. O cruel fate, why? Why?

So, um, anyways…

This is a very twisted book, but with a delightfully black sense of humor. But then what would one expect from the man who gave us a best-selling series of children’s books in which terrible things happen to orphans, and bad people get away with murder? Truthfully, it was primarily out of love for the aforementioned series, and curiosity as to what kind of adult literature the author would produce, that I picked up this one. Actually, first I tried reading another one of his books (Adverbs) because it had a cooler cover and I’m shallow like that, but I couldn’t finish it. It’s not that it wasn’t brilliantly strange and strangely brilliant; it was just a little too episodic and disjointed for my microscopic attention span. So I picked up The Basic Eight and was able to polish it off within a couple of days.

The Basic Eight employs some rather interesting narrative devices. Basically, the text consists of the high school diary of Flannery Culp, heavily edited and annotated by herself as she types up the manuscript in her jail cell sometime after the action of the story. You see, Flan sort of beat one of her classmates to death with a croquet mallet her senior year. You know, high school can be stressful, right? Actually, Flan makes for a pretty entertaining narrator, despite the fact that she’s certifiable. I guess the book kind of begs the question as to what extent do her very serious problems and stacked odds really excuse the things she does? (And I’m not just talking about the murder, but all the other poor choices she makes throughout the story.) Where do we draw the line between condemnation and circumstantial non-culpability. Or maybe we’re not supposed to draw any line (or conclusion) at all, as the constantly sarcastic, ironic, and derisive tone of the narration seems to undermine one’s desire to make such judgments.

Interestingly enough, whereas the last book I read had a kind of demoralizing effect for me, The Basic Eight actually made me feel pretty good about myself. I may think my life’s screwed up, but I’ve got nothing on Flannery Culp. I found her life and circle of friends to be about as realistic and true-to-life as the Lemony Snicket books themselves, which is to say, not very realistic at all. But then I don’t think that’s what Handler’s going for in either case. I still got lots of enjoyment out of the reading. I especially enjoyed how Flan would constantly correct her own grammar, making her sentences really awkward just to satisfy obscure grammatical conventions. Lynn Truss would be so proud of her. She’s one of those kids who always seems to have a snappy line or comeback, and her writing’s just chock full of acerbic perspicacity. (She likes to write things like, “The books on the wallpaper had no discernible spines, like the people in the room”.) Too bad she couldn’t turn that oh-so-sharp and clever gaze on herself in time to recognize the extent of her own problems.

Oftentimes I think the little blurb on the inside flap of books do a pretty shabby job of conveying the essence of whatever story they’re trying to condense. But I think in this case the blurb does a pretty bang-up job of showing potential readers what kind of things to expect from The Basic Eight:

It’s first semester senior year, and Flannery Culp needs her friends more than ever. Her homeroom teacher is a tyrant, her biology teacher is a pervert, and in a few months the Winnie Moprah Show will broadcast vicious lies calling her a Satanic murderer when they really mean murderess… Flannery needs all of the Basic Eight, because high school can get so stressful, you just want to kill someone.


Study Questions:

1. In order to sell, a work of literature now has to be condensed into a few pithy paragraphs on the front flap. Does this seem right to you? Why or why not?

2. Really, the only way to tell if a book is any good is to purchase it for yourself, take it home, and read it all the way through. Don’t you think? Why or why not?

3. If a boy is messing with your head, is it okay to pummel his head? Why or why not?

Sunday, April 19, 2009

I Really Really Like You: a good drama gone bad

Why do some dramas start off so incredibly well only to somehow totally morph into very bad shows? In the beginning absolutely nothing is lacking: the characters are great, the set-up is intriguing, the early episodes are really exciting and engaging, and you’re stoked to have found another gem from amidst all the lackluster kdramas out there. But then somewhere along the way the production team suddenly and inexplicably drops the ball, and you barely even recognize the show you’ve committed yourself to watching, and sometimes it’s a struggle just to finish watching the formerly awesome show. This is an unfortunate and sinister syndrome that tragically plagues many a kdrama production (I think sometimes it has to do with encroaching deadlines, but I’m not really sure.) In any case, it undoubtedly claimed 2006’s I Really Really Like You as one of its many victims.

I Really Really Like You (진짜 진짜 좋아해) tells the story of Yeo Bong-Soon (played by Eugene), a young woman who’s lived a primitive sort of life with her grandmother deep in the mountains of one of South Korea’s most rural provinces. One day she saves the life of an injured hiker, a young doctor named Jang Joon-Won (Ryu Jin) who also happens to be the son of the country’s president. Joon-Won, who does his best to lead an independent life, guards the secret of his parentage very closely from other people, including Bong-Soon. The man sent to fetch the injured Joon-Won from the mountains is Nam Bong-Gi (Lee Min-Ki), a young and irascible member of the presidential guard. When Bong-Soon’s grandmother passes away shortly afterwards, she comes to Seoul looking for her birth parents, a search that leads her straight to the Blue House itself (South Korean presidential residence, equivalent of the White House). There she finds herself caught up in the lives of the Blue House staff, Joon-Won and his family, Bong-Gi and his family, and eventually her own newly discovered family as well. Needless to say, the emphasis on family relationships is heavy, with lots of comedy and romance thrown into the mix.

Like I said, this drama started out really, really well. With some very poignant, touching moments, it often managed to be funny and sweet and even bittersweet at the same time. Eugene’s character (in the beginning) was endearing and quirky, if a little on the Pollyannaish side. And Lee Min-Ki was great. In fact, he’s pretty much the only thing that I was consistently good from start to finish; if not for him, I might not have been able to finish this longish series (34 episodes total.) His character was somewhat of an insensitive jerk at first, but then again Bong-Soon did cause the short-tempered guy a heck of a lot of trouble in the beginning, and the gradual revelation of his more sweet and thoughtful side was somehow made really believable. Plus, he was extremely cute. I never really understood all the fuss about Lee Min-Ki even after watching Mixed-Up Investigative Agency and Dal-Ja’s Spring, but this drama totally converted me. All in all, I really, really liked the first 10 or 15 episodes of I Really Really Like You.

Alas, my (strongly negative) feelings about episodes 15-34 basically cancel out my initially positive impression of the show, and then some. It was like the writers just got lazy or something; the plot started going in circles, the dialogue became really repetitive and annoying, and these insipid subplots started encroaching on the main storylines, which were also stagnating. Also, I Bong-Soon’s character began to frustrate me more and more, and when you can’t get fully behind the heroine the watching experience is sort of soured. It was a combination of both how the character was written and Eugene’s acting that drove me bonkers more and more as the show went on. For example, whenever Bong-Soon was troubled by some “Serious Issue”, Eugene would affect this by basically turning into a zombie, walking listlessly around with a dull, lifeless look in her eyes. It started to get really annoying, especially since I rarely had much sympathy for whatever her big problem was at the moment. Oh, so her mother didn’t exactly turn out to be the shining beacon of perfect parenthood that she’d envisioned? Well, parents are people too, and none of us get to choose ours either. It’s like moving to the big city turned Bong-Soon into a more whiny, selfish version of her happy, easy-going self. Or maybe I was just miffed at her for being totally oblivious to Nam Bong-Gi for practically the entire series.

Which brings me to yet another major complaint: the relationship between the main couple was way too one-sided for way too long. Yeah, she chose Bong-Gi in the end, but only after spending the whole series hung up over the other (duller, married) guy. For her to truly not have been aware of Bong-Gi's blatantly manifested feelings for so long, she'd have had to have been either extremely dense or (as I suspect) in subconscious denial. Either way, it just seemed sloppy to have her come around in the final two episodes and think, Hey, I might actually like Bong-Gi, and for everything to be fine and dandy all of a sudden. I just thought their relationship was sadly unbalanced, and therefore not nearly as satisfying as it could have been.

In the beginning, I couldn’t wait to watch each successive episode of this drama. By the end, it was a struggle to even get through them. It’s really too bad that the drama went so far south of watchable sometime in the middle. Pretty much the only thing that kept me going was the adorableness of Lee Min-Ki. In spite of how much I loved it at first, I can’t bring myself, in light of later developments, to recommend this drama with any conviction.

Music: whatever I may say about this drama, I did enjoy the soundtrack, of which I’ve posted two tracks below. The first is the opening theme, and the second is a really lovely instrumental version of one of the songs I really liked.

Joh Ah Hae - Eugene, Mr Burn

Uhn Duk.wma -

Friday, April 17, 2009

Looking ahead to True Blood season 2

HBO's begun to promote the sophomore season of True Blood, their television adaptation of Charlaine Harris' series of vampire/supernatural/mystery novels. In spite of the strongly mixed nature of my feelings towards this show, I must admit I felt a little shiver of excitement when I saw these stills. So I guess I'll be tuning in June 14th for the premiere of season 2. Let's take a look, shall we?

Let's see... We've got Bill and Sookie, the two luvy-dove birds, being all sweet together. Here's hoping for lots of wrenches to be thrown into that relationship in season two. Personally, I enjoyed the books a heck of a lot more after she ditched him and stood on her own for a while. Next up we've got Eric (yay, my favorite character), along with subbordinates Pam and Chow all putting their game faces on, so to speak. Below that is a picture of what I can only assume is a new waitress at Merlotte's. In the books, the bar's staff has a pretty quick turnover (with a few exceptions of course), but I guess this girl has a pretty significant role in season two judging from this photo. And then we come to my favorite still, featuring Eric's shorter hair! This is taken from the promotional video, not from an actual episode, but I heart it so there.
Starting from the top of the right column, we've got Jason finding (mis)guidance from the fanatical, cultish religious group known as the Fellowship of the Sun. I think he's still got a lot of lingering guilt from everything that went down in season one, but of course, being Jason Stackhouse, he's going to deal with it in the most boneheaded way possible. Below that we've got some kind of shindig happening at Merlotte's, and Michelle Forbes' character on the dance floor with none other than detective Andy Bellefleur. And finally, we have Sookie with Tara and Sam all gazing pretty intently offscreen at something that just went down. Because in Bon Temps, there's always something that's just gone down.
If a picture's worth a thousand words, how about a video? Here's the recently released promo for season two:

Let's see... Wierdness? check. Blood? check. Sex? check. Yup, looks like True Blood's back in business. This show walks a pretty fine line between kitsch and cool. Sometimes I find myself bemoaning the blatant proliferation of hackneyed genre stereotypes, while other times I find the show's innovative use of those same steryotypes to be very compelling. And then the rest of the time I'm just plain grossed out by the graphic imagery that constantly reminds me I'm watching an HBO production. In any case, the show is very different from the novels. They took a lot of the same characters and storylines, but they managed to give birth to en entirely new breed. Which is, I guess, what an adaptation should be. So, yeah, I'll give season two a shot.

Friday, April 10, 2009

Second volumes of The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya, Go West!

After finishing the sophomore installments of these two series, I find myself sufficiently satisfied with one and sadly disappointed in the other. The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya vol. 2 continues to foster my pre-established affection for the franchise, while Go West! vol. 2 frustrates my formerly optimistic expectations. I've got quite a bit to say about tMoHS and a little bit about Go West!, so here we go.

The manga adaptation of The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya currently being released in English by Yen Press is only one component of an insanely popular franchise. It all began in 2003 with the publication of the first in a series of light novels by Nagaru Tanigawa. The light novel series is still going strong, but now there's also an anime production, a manga adaptation, and a passionately devoted fanbase both in Japan and across the globe that's growing bigger all the time. It's actually quite the popular phenomenon and it's taking otaku nation by storm; anybody identifying themselves as part of that nation had better be prepared to either join it or fight it, because there just ain't no ignoring it.

I myself first got hooked on Haruhi through the anime series. Source material aside, it's just a really well produced show distributed by Bandai Entertainment. The animation is high quality, the art is solid and detailed, and the voice acting is amazing (I cannot recommend the subbed version over the dubbed one strongly enough). Plus, the story is really bizarre and fun. I had a real bitch of a time trying to effectively summarize the plot - it's definitely not a twenty-words-or-less premise - so I'll just give the (slightly edited) Wikipedia version:
A high school girl named Haruhi Suzumiya is obsessed with the supernatural and forms the SOS Brigade to investigate mysterious happenings. Narrated by her classmate Kyon, who had given up his belief in the supernatural before meeting her, the story follows as Haruhi and those around her are drawn into surreal situations and a world full of fantasies... Haruhi recruits three additional members into her club, without realizing they are the very beings she is seeking. Among them are Yuki Nagato, a silent bibliophile who is actually an artificial human created by the extraterrestrial Integrated Data Entity; shy and timid Mikuru Asahina who is also a time traveler; and the easygoing Itsuki Koizumi who is actually one of many espers in an organization known as The Agency. Each of the members, except Kyon, are secret agents who were sent to observe Haruhi because she herself has unique powers of which she is unaware. It turns out she may actually control the universe, able to destroy and recreate it at will when she becomes too dissatisfied with it. In order to prevent this, the members of Haruhi's club spend their time attempting to keep their god-like leader entertained, hold her powers in check, and maintain the illusion of a normal life.
This story is just really weird and fun and different. I love how it tackles elements of fantasy through the lens of Kyon's thoroughly-grounded-in-the-real-world skepticism. The manga thus far follows the storyline pretty faithfully, so if you liked the anime you'll probably like this as well. However, I can understand how the manga would appeal less to those unfamiliar with the story and characters, as it's noticeably inferior to the animated version in terms of art and execution. I can't speak for the light novels as I haven't read any, but I would definitely recommend the anime over the manga for people new to the story. Yet as an illustration of something I already know and love, the manga's working pretty well for me so far. I'm looking forward to volume three, which comes out in June.

I only wish I could feel as happy about the (relatively) new series by Yu Yagami being published by CMX. Unfortunately, Go West! is not looking very promising after volume two. I picked up the first issue in the bookstore in January because I was intrigued by the cover art and synopsis, and because I'm always on the lookout for titles to diversify my shoujo-heavy collection. And so, ever the optimist, I hoped the potential I saw in its art and story would outweigh my qualms about its less than tasteful execution. Unfortunately, after reading the second volume I don't thing that's going to happen. It's a shame, really, because I did so want to like this series; I had a good feeling about it from the beginning, which I tried to hold on to for as long as possible, but I think now it's time to let go.

Go West! takes place against the backdrop of the quintessential stereotype of the American Old West (you know, tumbleweeds, saloons, cowboys, the whole shebang) and tells the story of an East Asian girl (presumably Japanese, although it's not specified) named Naomi who embarks on an epic westward journey in search of her missing family. Along the way she meets some very, ah, interesting characters who seem to think they're related to Naomi. Hilarity (and confusion and explosions) ensue.

My main problem with this series was that it was supposed to be a comedy and I didn't really find it that funny. Maybe it's just not my particular brand of humor, but I really disliked the hyperbolically exaggerated, overly simplistic, blatantly stereotypical way this series depicts the American West and, to a certain extent, its various ethnic groups. I know the author's going for comic effect, but it just didn't work for me. The oh-so-hilarious antics of the red, white, and black (as viewed by the bemused, level-headed Asian protagonist) probably appeal a lot more to Japanese audiences. Plus, I just didn't particularly enjoy the tone of the series: too heavy on the slapstick and explosions, too light on the family storyline (which is swiss-cheesy enough already.) So it is with the bitterness of disappointed hopes that I officially discontinue my patronage of this series.

Gustave Flaubert is an evil genius

I finally finished Madame Bovary this week, but I almost didn't write anything about it here for a couple of reasons. Since its initial publication in 1857 the novel has been one of the most widely discussed/debated/dissected works of western literature. At the time of its publication it represented a significant rupture with classic French literature that was not really understood by critics of that period. Both modernist and post-modernist literary critics would later hearken back to Flaubert and identify in his work the roots of their own ideals (which in and of itself speaks to the multiplicity of interpretations the book affords). Considering all the historical and ongoing discussion surrounding Madame Bovary, not to mention the novel's sheer complexity, what could I possibly say about the book that would be worthwhile? But then I thought, Aw hell, I slogged my way through this whopping 19th century novel, in French no less, and I'll be damned if I don't at least have an opinion about it. Or at the very least a reaction, however insignificant. So here goes.

In the course of my reading of Madame Bovary I found myself constantly torn between the desire to laugh and the desire to cry. By that I only mean that all aspects of the novel afford many potential interpretations that range from the cynical to the satirical, but rarely fall unequivocally into one camp or the other. The book's just dripping in irony, a fact that nevertheless allows for certain characters to be portrayed both sympathetically and negitavely in turn. Even the penultimate scene of the book (Emma's death) has elements of both humor and tragedy alike. That's what Madame Bovary really is, among other things: a tragicomedy, deftly told by a rather ambiguously affiliated narrator.

Certain elements of the book were also very disturbing to me. It isn't just a novel about adultery with respect to Emma's extramarital affairs, but rather a novel about adulteration on a much larger scale: the corruption and perversity that pervades all aspects of society. One definitely gets the sense, reading Madame Bovary, that Flaubert didn't really think too highly of nineteenth century France, or of the human condition in general. But what really scared me about this book more than anything else was how close to home parts of it hit, and how it made me relate to a very unlikable heroine.

Like many aspects of this novel, the character of Emma Bovary is complex, elusive, difficult to pin down from a reader's perspective, and open to a variety of interpretations. For someone of my relative insecurity it was difficult not to read in her the confirmation of the things I most fear to be true about myself: for example, her warped view of reality, overly distorted by the medium of fiction and fantasy, her duplicitousness, and ultimately her weakness. I do consider myself to be rather more self aware of my own problems than Emma is, but I can't help sympathizing with her in all her misguidedness. I'm not her, but if I had lived under the intellectual, psychological, and social restraints that were placed on women in 19th century France, I can understand how I might have turned out similarly. Which is kind of a sobering thought considering the fact that by the end of the novel Emma is wretchedly miserable, a psychological mess, a liar, an adulteress, a debtor, and a suicide victim.

Of Flaubert's genius there can be no doubt. Yet did he use his powers for good or for evil? That's a harder question for me to answer. When I was reading Madame Bovary I felt like his writing exposed me in some way, revealing and forcing me to confront something banal and unattractive about myself. Needless to say, it did not leave an entirely pleasant taste in my mouth. Yet nor was it wholly unpalatable. It was rather like the bitter taste of just desserts. Something Emma would have hated.
(***Quick language note: I read the novel in the original French, but I also referenced the English translation from time to time on the internet. I tried to balence out my desire to stick to the original text with my desire to maximize my actual comprehension of this really complex novel. It took me quite a while to get through it, but I felt pretty good and proud when I finally did.)

Monday, April 6, 2009

Delightful Girl Choon-Hyang is still delightful

Since I’m going to be talking about Delightful Girl Choon-Hyang in this post, I wanted to put up this song from the soundtrack. This show has a lot of really good songs, and I’ve got a bunch of them on my ipod, but this one is my favorite.

Mi Ahn Hae Ya Ha Neun Guh Ni - As-One (에즈원)

Looking back, I've watched a rather obscene amount of kdramas in the past year or two. (For the uninitiated, those are South Korea television series). It helps that at about 16-24 episodes each they're mostly much shorter than their multi-seasonal American counterparts. Yet until recently I never went back and re-watched a kdrama in its entirety from start t
o finish. To be fair, I did re-watch certain parts of Coffee Prince a lot, but I never went through all the episodes consecutively for a second time. But just this past week I had the sudden desire to revisit a series I initially watched about a year ago, and I ended up re-watching every single episode, and falling in love with it all over again. So I decided to write a nice, happy post about how much I adore “Delightful Girl Choon-Hyang”.

The 2005 series Delightful Girl Choon-Hyang (or Sassy Girl Choon-Hyang) draws on a famous traditional Korean love story, the Legend of Choon-Hyang, and reinterprets it in a modern setting. This is not an original device, but it’s one that’s done extremely well in this case. For anyone who’s ever wondered whether or not it’s possible to mix melodrama of Romeo-and-Juliet proportions with modern, trendy romantic comedy, well, the answer is DGCH. This series manages all that and more. Plus, the two leads are made of awesome.

Han Chae-Young, who just might be the prettiest woman to walk the face of the earth, plays Sung Choon-Hyang with a delightful sense of sass and spunk. But the real standout here is Jae Hee, who plays Lee Mong-Ryong. He pulls some of the best facial expressions you’ll ever see, and he manages to hit the comedic notes in such an endearing way as to make you totally forgive him and even love him for his goofiness. But in addition to that, during the more dramatic/emotional moments this guy can emote like no other. He really delivers both excellent comedy and excellent intensity in this drama, whereas a lot of other drama dudes’ acting tends to seem more stiff and forced to me. Add to all this his great chemistry with Han Chae-Young and you’ve got one pretty irresistible package.

Another thing I really like about this drama was the way it handles the passing of time. The story follows the characters from high school, through college (well, some of them go to college), and into early adulthood. This all somehow happens very naturally and smoothly over the course of seventeen 65 minute episodes. One really gets a sense of Choon-Hyang’s and Mong-Ryong’s growth, and the growth of their relationships, while they still remain tru
e to the characters we originally fell in love with in episode one. Whereas many other dramas tend inevitably to slow down or drag after the initial premise is established, DGCH keeps the plot moving and pulls you along with it for an emotional roller-coaster ride.

Another thing that was cool about this drama was that at the end of the episodes there would usually be short parodies of the popular folk legend on which it’s based, with the actors dressed in traditional garb acting out spoofs of the Choon-Hyang story on sets imitating those of period dramas. It’s actually very clever how these short sketches sometimes reflected what was going on in the drama itself, and sometimes merely spoofed particular elements of the traditional version of the story.

All this being said, I’m not entirely blind to the drama’s faults. But although DGCH does have a lot of the stereotypical kdrama clichés (including but not limited to the ever ubiquitous love square), it somehow manages to use them in such a way as to make me forget that they’re clichéd. And although this drama did have a ridiculous amount of crazy and unrealistic u-turns on the part of the male drivers, I take comfort in the fact that there wasn’t a single back-hug in the entire thing! (I think.)

So in conclusion, anybody remotely interested in kdramas should check out DGCH because it’s one of the best in my opinion. See this fan-made video for a sense of the delightfully humorous elements, and this one for an idea of the more dramatic, emotional components.