AEL: Dumbing of Age, Daniel Errico books, A Letter of Mary, SKU musical, Zootopia, The Princess and the Goblin, FMA vol. 1

Dumbing of Age — Zombie Girl, a monster bent on destroying my productivity, recommended I check out this webcomic, so I read all six years’ worth of it. That is to say, I glutted on it, to the point where it filled spaces of time that are usually dedicated to a number of videos I have yet to catch up on (and even some time I should have spent writing). The good news is that I am all caught up now, and following it as it comes out like normal. Because I loooooove it.

I love how the characters are overdrawn enough to be hilarious, but realistic enough to be extremely engaging and endearing, and detailed enough to create highly complex interactions. I also love how their flaws are used for humor while at the same time treated with empathy.

I also also love how the art is simplistic enough not to distract from the story, but detailed enough to be pleasant to look at, keep all the characters recognizable, and always make it very clear what’s happening (which is waayyy better than any comic I ever tried to draw could do XD). Overall, an extremely enjoyable experience, and I’ll be very happy to be following it in future.

Daniel Errico books — I read these two kids books Rosaline and The Bravest Knight Who Ever Lived, alerted to their existence by The Mary Sue. And, OK, any progress toward presenting the queer world as normal (and presenting it at all) to kids is an awesome and desirable thing, but seriously… CDBA (children deserve better art).

The illustrations in these books are mediocre at best, and excessively ugly in a lot of places… but what bothered me most was the dreadful attempt at rhyming couplets. Though there were only a few moments in each book where random shit got inserted into the narration to fill out the lines, meter was cavalierly abandoned many a time, and it all had a very awkward feeling to it that could have been avoided by simply refraining from attempting poetry.

What’s really tragic about this is that the stories were cute, and some of the little details very clever and excellent additions to mood and character development. If the author had just stuck to prose and not bruised my sensibilities, I would probably have forgiven the ugly art. As it was, there was too much annoying about these books for me to enjoy them.

A Letter of Mary — Of the Mary Russell books I’ve read a couple of times each (which is all but the last three), this is the installment I had the haziest memories of, and I came into it this time without the faintest idea of what the mystery was about. I did clearly remember, however, that Dorothy Ruskin would die pretty soon, so I was able to read the scenes(s) of her visit to Sussex with that in mind… and I have to say that I was quite impressed with how King set things up there.

There’s a way an author sometimes has of saying goodbye to a character, very subtly if it’s not meant to be obvious that this is our last encounter with them, that I often really like. It’s the author’s sort of last respects, or a final spotlight on the character, or the setup for a really shocking or emotional moment when they’re suddenly gone forever (for whatever reason)… or all of the above. And it worked exceptionally well in this book.

Ms. King also does something that isn’t in any way unique to her or new to me, but that has been striking me this time through this book: giving only one side of a conversation and using it to imply, rather than describing in narration, what’s going on in the scene. To my memory, I have never done this. One side of a phone conversation, yes, but not an exchange where both parties are present onpage. I’ma have to give it a try sometime.

So Jenny Sterlin, the main narrator of the audiobooks, is very talented, and I enjoy her reading of these and several other audiobooks I have. However, I can’t quite figure out why she can’t quite figure out whether “Lestrade” is pronounced “less-TRAWD” or “less-TRADE.” Especially since I don’t think anyone else in the history of ever has ever said it the second way. In any case, consistency, please?

And speaking of Lestrade, I don’t know quite how to take his initial reaction to Mary’s description of the eponymous letter. It seems like an overreaction to me; would he really be likely to laugh like that? I mean, I don’t know his level of investment in Christianity, and I would definitely expect him to be dismissive, but the laughter seemed like an exaggeration of his probable reaction. And perhaps it was deliberately so, as King’s way of saying, “This is how any man would react, so you can see the dilemma a feminist faces.” Still, it seemed jarring and not entirely realistic.

Quotable lines:

“The violent death of a good person is a severely disturbing thing.”

“That knife, please, Mycroft– Wipe off the butter first, man!”

“I believed the heart to be a treacherous organ which served only to cloud the mind, and now… now I find myself in the disturbing position of having my mind at odds with– with the rest of me. Once I would have automatically followed the dictates of the reasoning mind. However. I begin to suspect that– I shall say this quietly– that I was wrong, that there may be times when the heart sees something which the mind does not. Perhaps what we call the heart is simply a more efficient means of evaluating data. Perhaps I mistrust it because I cannot see the mechanism working.”

And I had completely forgotten the “bad translation from the French” scene that made me laugh so uproariously last time despite how brief it is. I got to enjoy it like the first time all over again!

SKU musical — It occurred to me to check whether any of the SKU musicals were available to watch on YouTube, and indeed I found the first one.

Soooooo…. my initial reaction here was, Surely this isn’t a professional production…? ‘Cause it kinda felt… good-for-high-school quality? The sets are… mostly nonexistent… and the choreography is creepy at times and goofy at others, and never very good (my favorite moments are when the entire cast writhes in the background with, like, bunches of flowers to highlight{?} what’s going on in the foreground)… and the acting is way overblown and busy (though I have to admit that all-female casts hit me in just the right spot)… and the gal playing Anshi is the only one that seems to have any pitch control…

And honestly I love this story so damn much that any retelling of it (even truncated) is likely to engage me (pun intended), so I enjoyed the whole thing pretty well. The scene where Utena sings (off-key) about wanting to protect Anshi, and Anshi counterpoints about how this is bringing back memories and she’s surprised that she’s smiling, is very touching; they have some good chemistry.

Actually, in general it’s fascinating to see Anshi played by a human instead of animated. Not surprisingly, it makes her seem more human. Of course you always ache for her throughout the anime, but her creepiness and inevitable collusion with her brother are always in the way of complete sympathy (to my mind, at least). Played by a human, she becomes much more pathetic. Of course it helps that in this version, we don’t seem to get to any of the deeper parts of the story and her involvement with Akio (who’s just… around…), so she’s more of a perfect victim and has every right to be more pathetic. Damn, those giant balls on her shoulders, though! O_o

I liked the way they set up the descent of the power of Dios by having Dios appear ethereally onstage kinda up in a corner and sing some of his iconic lines. Visually it worked very well to accomplish something they clearly didn’t have special effects for. Also, I’m 99% certain that’s Suzukaze Mayo playing Dios and Akio (though not singing as well as I’m used to hearing her sing), so that, of course, prejudices me in favor of this presentation some XD What a surprise, though, when she started singing — I was like, What is Kenshin doing in Utena…?

I’m not sure I’m a fan of characters singing duel songs. I kinda feel like giving one to a main character to sing implies a greater level of straightforward meaning — rather than mood-setting imagery — to the lyrics, and lessens the impact and function of the song. But, you know, for Touga in heels I forgive a lot (despite the awful wig or whatever they’d done to that poor woman’s hair), and thematically it is very interesting to have the shadow girls join him onstage for that number.

In the anime Touga is more… how should I put it? …more behind the scenes than a lot of other characters. He’s manipulated by Akio just like everyone else, sure, but he’s also sort of a dragon to him, and understands a lot of what’s going on better than many of the others. As such, teaming him up with the shadow girls, who are also very much behind the scenes and more deeply buried in the internal workings of the meaning of the show (if that makes any damn sense), is a nice touch.

A slightly off-key or generally dissonant sound (a la Cats) is very reminiscent of the original duel songs, so the larger choral numbers in this show are some of the most effective. The vocal deficiencies of the cast are covered up very well in the harmonies in Hana no nai Bara, and the result is a very moving scene as long as I can ignore their flail-dancing.

The reprise of Onna no Ko no Kisetsu with Utena in her girl’s uniform is quite decent too, her mediocre performance notwithstanding, and a very good way to set up that scene. That part of the story has always been one of the most moving to me, so I appreciated its being the climax of this version, and I cried no less (OK, maybe a little less) than in the anime. It’s kinda sad they took her wake-up moment away from Wakaba, but that did give me more (off-pitch) Suzukaze Mayo, so it’s a wash.

Then I liked how at the end it’s very blatantly about the love (ai-style love, not the watered down {dai}suki type) between Utena and Anshi. Admittedly this deviates from a lot of the major themes of the original, because that’s about so much more than romantic love, but, as far as I can consider Utena and Anshi actual literal characters rather than symbols, I still ship them pretty hard, so in a truncated version of the story I’ll absolutely take it.

P.S. What’s the biggest benefit of an all-female SKU cast? The necessary absence of the ZUM tenor.

Zootopia — Brother and I saw this movie in the theater a month and a half ago (or so), and came home raving. Mom, who watches even fewer movies than I do, was uncharacteristically interested (mostly because she saw an extended preview at Disneyland, and because that sloth DMV scene gets everyone. EVERYONE.), and since I loved it so much, I was happy to facilitate her watching it by buying it the moment it came out. So here are some thoughts from the second time through (actually some of these are from the first time through, but whatevs):

This movie is damn near perfect in every way. I love to see stories tackling serious social issues, but I also love happy stories with happy endings (none of this Brokeback Mountain shit, plzthx), so it pleases me greatly when a story can seriously tackle serious social issues without pulling too many punches while remaining uplifting and happy and hilarious.

When I first saw the movie, right near the beginning I was thinking, Wow, they’re hitting the racial interaction sub-theme a little heavy-handedly, aren’t they? Then as the movie progressed and I realized that it wasn’t a sub-theme, that the movie was actually primarily about racial interaction, I absolutely backed off that idea. It’s not heavy-handed at all; it’s perfect.

If anything, it’s the actual sub-theme of doing your best and trying hard and chasing your dreams that’s a little heavy-handed. Which I think they did deliberately, because that aspect of the story is marketed a bit more blatantly than the racism thing. It’s funny, in fact, how much the movie is billed as a try-your-best or a buddy-cop comedy. I think Disney thought (and probably rightly) that people either weren’t ready or would assume they weren’t ready for the type of story this really is.

What I think I love best about the race-relations aspect of the story is that they didn’t create situations that are directly analogous to situations in the real world. Nobody’s going to look at it and say, “Oh, obviously, X represents Y.” But they set up such an excellent mirror of reality nonetheless, echoing the subtleties and complexities of how people with a full life of experiences and layers upon layers of interrelated emotions and attitudes interact with other people in the real world.

Interestingly, I think the “You can’t just touch a sheep’s wool!” scene, though probably the most blatantly analogous moment to a real-world situation in the entire movie, was also the most meaningless in terms of the overall message. It didn’t seem to contribute anything to the theme; it was just kinda there. Like, “Hey, this is another thing that happens in racial interaction! Aaand… yeah. This happens.”

I mean, we already know that Nick has some inappropriate behaviors based on racial insensitivity… we already know that Judy is given to speaking out against that type of behavior (whether she’s entirely consistent with it or not is beside the point)… we already know that Bellwether is a member of a group that is marginalized and objectified by some other groups… so this scene adds nothing except a moment of recognition and humor. Though it may be rather irritating or even painful recognition and possibly humor for anyone that’s had their wool touched in the analogous real-world situation.

So, yeah, I don’t think the movie is 100% perfect, not that it matters much. I felt like the “hustle” line was obnoxious the second time and groan-inducing the third time. I thought Nick’s, um, clever(?) tactic for getting Mr. Manchas to be willing to open the door to them… didn’t make sense? and therefore wasn’t very well written? And, though I’m not all that sensitive to “the Lord’s name in vain,” I have to agree with my more sensitive family members that the interjectory Gods were unnecessary and a little jarring in this style of film.

But that’s about the extent of my complaints. Truly a remarkable work of art overall, and one that I appreciate on a social as well as artistic level (as far as the two can be separated when it’s the excellent art that makes the social commentary so good and the on-point social commentary that adds additional depth to the art). Now, if only we could get a movie just like this about gay shit, I would probably die of joy.

The Princess and the Goblin — I don’t remember how many times I’ve read this book. I find it unutterably charming every time, but I don’t have a huge number of thoughts about it other than that. Here are the ones I do have:

Less gender essentialism than I expect from a book of its time. Not none; just less than I expect. Actually in some ways it feels quite progressive when it comes to gender, which is, of course, delightful.

More vaguely Christian-scented mysticism, though.

The evolution of the modern fantasy genre is a fascinating thing to trace, and MacDonald must always be interesting to any fan of Tolkien.

My audiobook-reading app lets you assign cover images to books from local files or the internet. As I was going about doing so for this book, waiting for image search results for “The Princess and the Goblin” to pop up, I was saying to myself, How much you want to bet the first set of images are all from the movie? And I’m sorry to say I was right. Despite the fact that this is classic literature, despite the fact that the movie adaptation was terrible and a commercial failure whose very existence probably nobody even remembers, the first several images (all I could see before scrolling down) came from the 1991 film. This kind of thing doesn’t even make me angry anymore, just tired and kinda sick.

Young Irene is an interesting character in a way I think was entirely unintentional. Her politeness and considerateness were, I believe, given to her by the author to make her a shining good example for young readers of how a well-mannered child ought to behave. As such, none of those traits would particularly stand out in the time period in which the book was written.

But our sensibilities are slightly different now than they were in the 1870’s, and to me the modern reader those traits do stand out. Irene comes across as extremely, almost absurdly courteous and thoughtful, and it’s adorable in a way it could never have been back when such behavior was merely proper and might have obtained just an approving nod from an elder rather than a wide-eyed “Are you serious right now?”

Fullmetal Alchemist volume 1 — I read something like fifteen volumes of this manga (borrowed from a friend, and as that was all she had, I never finished the series) about eight years ago, and enjoyed it quite a bit, so I figured I’d make it my next collection and get through the whole thing this time.

So despite opening with an almost painfully generic wandering-heroes-encounter-small-town-problem story, the in-medias-res beginning is very effective. It’s so effective, in fact, that I was disappointed at how incredibly quickly we’re given the tale of the brothers trying to resurrect their mother (and the body parts lost). I feel it would have been much better suspense, and built interest much more intensely, if hints were continually dropped for several chapters before letting the reader know what actually happened to them.

(Also, I don’t remember how open they are about that story to other characters in the future, so this impression of mine may be completely off, but would they really just tell some random chick they just met and simultaneously the bad-guy-du-jour this painful, personal story? Surely there was a better way for the reader to become acquainted with their history than their spilling their guts to complete strangers?)

I also felt the appearance of Lust and Gluttony was premature. Once again I thought it would be better just to hint that there’s a shadowy organization that may or may not be behind or involved in subsequent encounters, but reveal its members and information about it a little more gradually, than to drop these characters into the narrative so blatantly and so early.

I do understand, however, that when you’re releasing chapters in a monthly magazine, and your continued ability to do so depends on the popularity of what’s released, you have to lead with some hooks. I just think it’s kinda sad when the overall story might have read better otherwise.

And despite these criticisms, I enjoyed the first volume very much. I look forward to rereading for a while and eventually reaching unfamiliar territory; I’m interested in getting the full story this time around!

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