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Manga Review: Library Wars

Library Wars

Last week, I finished Library Wars, a manga series by Kiiro Yumi.  This is only the second manga series I have ever finished (I’m still working my way through Ranma 1/2, which is a little longer, and I’ve read a handful of stand-alones in between).  I found the series through another bookstagrammer’s (The Paige Turner) vlog.  As a librarian, I was intrigued by the title, and I was super excited to read an action-packed adventure about my profession.  We don’t get a lot of kick-ass representatives in our field–other than The Librarian(s), who are more like archaeologists than actually information professionals.  I couldn’t wait to see how this plot portrayed us.

In the near future, the federal government creates a committee to rid society of books it deems unsuitable. The libraries vow to protect their collections, and with the help of local governments, form a military group to defend themselves–the Library Forces!

This book is the next chapter in the conversation started by Fahrenheit 451.   The Library Forces are actively fighting against censorship and for the right to information–hell yeah!  I think what I loved most about this series from the beginning was how accurately it approached librarians.  Word for word, it represents a normal day in the information field!

Okay, okay, so maybe the National Guard-esque protection force is a bit of a stretch, but many libraries are in constant battles over banned and challenged books, as well as the rights of their patrons to information and to privacy.  Taking it to the violent level is of course great for its entertainment value in these books, but perhaps some of the valiant action scenes from real-life are more imagined than acted out.  (We’re still kick-ass, though.  Jus’ sayin’.)

No, the more accurate representations of librarians come when Iku and her team have to help in the stacks.  Yes, librarians do spend an inordinate amount of time finding books for patrons, and the system is a little bit like learning to read a map.  Kasahara’s struggles were amusing, but I’ve had identical conversations with student workers that Dojo has with her on her abilities and efforts.

The relationship between Dojo and Kasahara is also handled well.  I have to admit that the trope found in many mangas, in which the guy and girl like each other but won’t admit it, rubs me the wrong way.  I’m not big on romance, and I don’t appreciate when coincidence pushes into the realm of impossibility in terms of almost-slips and missed opportunities.  Yet this relationship was very tasteful.  The author works to shape an infatuation that began before the two knew each other, but the interest was modified when each discovered the other’s personality.  While I did grow sick of some of the situations concerning romance and attraction, the actual affection found between these two (and other couples in the series) was fairly tolerable.

This series was also a first for the author, and that comes through in the earlier books.  It’s around the fourth or fifth volume that the plot really hits a stride, and you can begin to get to know everyone outside of the general story.  At one point, I thought there were giant plot holes in between two of the volumes; then, I realized I had skipped a book!  Whoops!  At times, I do think the subtleties to some of the illustrations are difficult to follow, but the artwork is beautiful.  In the animated form, I’m sure everything is communicated for successfully.

I highly recommend this story, particularly for those who are deeply invested in political issues surrounding privacy, censorship, and information ethics.  It’s not really a bibliophile’s book–very little reading, if any, occurs in the entire series.  However, if you find yourself appreciating your right to read and learn what you want, you will most likely appreciate this manga’s characters for the work they do to get that freedom for their world.

Again, give it a couple books to pick up before you give up on it.  You won’t be disappointed.

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Echo

This week, I listened to the audiobook Echo by Pam Munoz Ryan.  This book had a profound impact on me for so many reasons, and the greatest treasure of this story is that it’s written for children but has the power to speak to anyone.

Echo is four stories wound into one, one of which is almost a folktale, and three of which are about three different children–Friedrich, Mike, and Ivy–and their lives during the tumultuous time of World War II.  Each story is staggered and feeds into the next one, for one epic finale that I will try hard not to spoil here.  All I will say is that the one thing holding them together is a harmonica, which mysteriously appears in each of the stories.

I don’t read a lot of historical fiction, but this book engaged me from the first page.  In a way, the stories were timeless even as they were attached to a time period.  Munoz Ryan follows her characters closely enough that important references to significant events like the Holocaust and Pearl Harbor serve as landmarks more than important plot points.  I also think this particular novel, in using a historical setting, still has a profound message to offer to contemporary American culture.  As I was listening to the stories, some of the conversations and experiences felt by central and exterior characters gave me goosebumps, because what was said in the 1930’s and ’40’s sounds disturbingly like some of what is rising in our political climate today.  It was almost scary, as an adult reading a children’s book about people who lived during Hitler’s reign, to think about there being any parallels between that time and ours, but Munoz Ryan subtly points them out–whether intentionally or unintentionally–in the most profound ways.  Even as a historical fiction book, this story is timeless.

Perhaps the most disturbing part of this book in consideration of its main genre (juvenile/young readers), is the fact that each story ends at first with a cliffhanger.  All four characters come to a time when it seems that hope is lost, and their story pauses until the very end.  And, really, the end does not directly address what happened to immediately resolve whatever situation the characters were left in.  It is set, instead, several years into the future when all three of the children are grown and reflecting back on their experiences.  I am proud of Munoz Ryan for including this in a book meant for young readers.  I think, too often, we are quick to protect children from the reality that life offers no easy answers.  This is particularly true in literature.  Books have quick resolutions–both because of the shorter texts for easier reading and because the Happy Ending seems so very important.  Munoz Ryan forgets both of these things, and writes a lengthy text full of despair and angst.  The Happy Ending is still (relatively) present, but readers have to commit to the story to get there, which makes it that much more beautiful.

The children in this book experience serious hardships in life; however, despite some of the extremes experienced by them contributed by the time period and the story itself, the messages are still relatable.  Friedrich is bullied for most of his life due to his birthmark.  While children today (hopefully) do not have to fear that they will be sterilized or sent to a concentration camp for not meeting a particular higher standard of “human,” bullying is an issue that culture is still trying to resolve.  Moreover, body image issues are a very real and present problem with people of all ages, even those who are very young.  Friedrich’s experiences are still relevant today, and I’m sure many young people have felt comforted and connected to him for what he went through.

Friedrich and Mike are also missing parents.  Mike is an orphan who feels very responsible for his little brother, and Friedrich’s mom died shortly after he was born.  In a time when broken families and single parents are a perfect example of the norm, young people must feel connected to these boys who are raised and adopted by single individuals (Mr. Howard, of course, serves as a good example of the “stepfather,” or the newer adult addition to a family).  Each of these boys experience their struggles around specific contexts, but the timelessness of belonging and love lead their stories to speak to people today as well.

Ivy’s family is transient, and she is constantly experiencing what it is like to be the New Kid.  Her story is unique due to the nature of her dad’s job (in connection with the Japanese internment camps) and her special school, but the anxiety she experiences over making new friends and going to a new school are extremely relevant.  Moreover, she has a family member in the armed forces and for the first time her life must learn how to live normally without her brother with her.  These emotions she goes through can mirror what children and young readers still experience and provide them comfort that they are not alone in what they are going through.

These struggles, while told through a child’s perspective, can also speak profoundly to any reader.  I was rooting for each of the characters to find success, to be safe.  Each segment held my attention to the end, and I desperately wanted to reach the point in the story where I would know that everything would be okay.  Each experience spoke to me in my past and present, and in so many ways brought me comfort that I didn’t even know I needed.

Munoz Ryan’s storytelling talent goes beyond just captivating characters; it shines brightly through the plot that twists and winds in several directions until, quite unexpectedly, even the mysterious folktale becomes linked to everyone else.  The coincidences are a stretch, but not unbelievable.  Everyone is brought together at the right place and right time because of powerful circumstances, and not convenience.  In every chapter and on every page, Munoz Ryan builds toward a crescendo that resounds with hope and community, reminding us that these characters endured and flourished and that they found a place they belonged.  There are many great storytellers out there who manage to make small connections between the beginning and end of their tales, and Munoz Ryan should be included among them.

One way in which the audiobook was made even better than the physical one, in my opinion, is that the music associated with each person and on each instrument was played and sung in the backgrounds of the chapters!  Harmonicas haunted the openings and closings of each Part.  Pianos and singers hummed out familiar tunes in context with the stories.  It definitely pulled you into the story more, and as a music lover I appreciated the aesthetic results.  It makes me wonder how you could enjoy this book in print without also looking up music and songs to accompany when they are mentioned in the story!

I cannot say enough that, regardless of your age, your preferred genres, your experiences, or your perspectives, you should read this book.  The message is more than timeless; it’s relevant.  The stories reflect on an important time in our country’s history (a time that has a certain amount of significance today), and yet it is coupled with just the right about of fantasy to make it magical.  Echo left a big impression on me that will resound for many books to come.

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Read. Learn. Repeat.

This weekend, I finished listening to John Elder Robison’s Switched On: A Memoir of Brain Change and Emotional Awakening.  This is the second book I’ve read by Robison, the first of which was Look Me in the Eye: My Life with Asperger’s.

Switched On recounts Robison’s experience in a study that looked at his brain’s reaction to Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation (TMS).  As someone with a disorder listed on the Autism Spectrum, he had always struggled with understanding and expressing emotions.  This treatment was designed to get him “in touch with his emotional side,” so to speak.  He had a positive, though not “cured,” reaction to this treatment, which is perhaps evidenced best by the fact that he reads his own audiobook with a certain level of inflection and intonation you would not expect from someone with Asperger’s.

This book was a stretch for me, which is why I chose to listen to it on audiobook.  The language was extremely technical, as Robison himself is most comfortable in the world of machines and electronics.  He compared his brain experience to his work in the music industry, which was interesting although impossible for me to understand.  Some of the technical jargon and scientific language was also difficult to follow.  While at times I worried this would detract from my understanding of what the memoir was trying to say, however, in the end I felt like I connected to Robison at the point where his voice took us.  The overarching message and story was very engaging and emotionally charged, as Robison expresses for the first time what it feels like to “feel” like other people do.

I personally take as many opportunities as I can to learn more about people on the Autism Spectrum.  The way they perceive the world is fascinating to me, and I want to know more about what struggles and obstacles they may be facing.  I think that we should all take advantage of opportunities to learn about people who are different.  We may never be able to understand everyone in every situation, but we can take small steps toward discovering the way the world looks to others.  For me, that sometimes means trudging through rather scientific memoirs on topics I don’t understand.  At the end of his story, Robison made me appreciate what he has gained from science’s assistance in his life; I can also understand his optimism toward future discoveries.  These are developments I don’t need for myself, but that I can rally behind and support for other people.

I’m in no way insinuating that I’m good at this all of the time, either.  In fact, I’m hardly good at it some of the time.  I really like reading books where the protagonist is just like me.  I want it to be easy to relate, and to feel like not only do I understand “her” (it’s usually a her), but also that we understand each other.

Still, reading is a wonderful opportunity to explore how others live.  That’s what we praise it for–we want to go to other lives in other worlds.  Stories like John Elder Robison’s offer people like me the perfect opportunity to do just that.

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