Jumaat, 27 September 2013

The Star Online: Lifestyle: Bookshelf

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The Star Online: Lifestyle: Bookshelf



The godfather of ghostly manga weaves a spellbinding tale in this memoir in graphic novel form.

THERE'S a fine line separating fantasy from reality in the world inhabited by young Shigeru and his friends in this chunky graphic novel. So fine, in fact, that it disappears without warning and with great regularity.

That's when the two realms of fact and fancy come together seamlessly and magically, with no attempt to explain away the sudden merging of the two, which just goes to make this semi-autobiographical tale all the more beguiling.

You either gleefully participate in the escapades unfolding over NonNonBa's 400-plus pages, or you should go look for something else to occupy your reading hours instead.

If you can accept that Shigeru lives in a land where someone can be recovering from food poisoning one minute and then talking to Azuki-Hakari the red-bean-throwing demon the next, or attacking enemy "strongholds" with the local kids' "army" in the day and chasing fairy lights at night, you will find a wealth of entertainment in these tales.

Writer-artist Mizuki is known as one of Japan's foremost creators of supernatural manga stories, most notably the sub-genre concerned with yokai – a kind of catch-all term for anything monstrous, ghostly or demonic.

His most famous work is perhaps Hakaba no Kitaro (Kitaro Of The Graveyard) or better known as GeGeGe no Kitaro as the anime adaptation was called (and also the 2007 movie), about a ghost boy with one eye who protects unsuspecting humans from naughty yokai.

NonNonBa is Mizuki's memoir of his childhood, set in his little hometown of Sakaiminato, and the title character is a kindly old woman who is a "prayer hand" – someone whose job it is to pray for the sick to get better.

After her husband dies, she comes to live with Shigeru and his family, much to the lad's delight – because NonNonBa is a fountain of information about his favourite subject, the spirits and goblins of the netherworld.

The episodic tale, originally published in 1977 and only just translated into English and published by Drawn & Quarterly last year, is filled with yokai encounters and childhood adventures. It's a more innocent, pre-war time of boy generals, rival "armies" and largely carefree days.

There's death, young love, spectral visitations, shady neighbours – in fact, so much is crammed into its pages that I found myself frequently having to flip back to earlier chapters to refresh my memory about earlier events the characters are talking about.

Besides Shigeru and NonNonBa, we meet the lad's somewhat eccentric father and proper (as in "prim and") mother, his unimaginative brothers, pretty but sad-eyed cousin Chigusa, and wide-eyed little Miwa, the child (or so everyone thinks) of the abovementioned shady neighbours.

Mizuki renders his human characters in as exaggerated and cartoonish a fashion as his yokai – one of the rival kids seems to have one of those 'toon doggy-bones in place of a chin – while keeping the environments realistic and appropriate to the mood (serene, agitated, urgent, etc).

When Shigeru's father tries his hand at scripwriting, for example, the establishing panel shows him seated at his work desk with an idyllic garden in the background; then, a panel of the man with his mostly blank, elongated face (it's almost as long as his torso!) conveys the hopefulness of the situation – and it is followed by a drawing of a finely-detailed wicker wastepaper basket that tells the observer a lot about his progress thus far. (And these three panels speak volumes without a single expository caption.)

NonNonBa herself lives in perpetual poverty, yet is never short of a comforting word or a nugget of information ... and certainly not kindness, to the point of putting her own safety on the line when (human) transgressors threaten the people she loves.

And Shigeru himself is a sympathetic central figure, so typically ... Japanese in the way he resolutely goes on with his life through all kinds of experiences, ranging from the joyful to the intriguing, from mildly disappointing moments to crushing heartbreak.

It's a testament to Mizuki's storytelling skill that the so-called "slice of life" aspects of this tale are no less fascinating than the many supernatural entities that go bump, Psssh, Klatter, or Waargh in the night.

In fact, as bewitching as the scenes featuring these unnatural beings can get, it's the human tales that are the most memorable. It's the people who bring joy and suffering in seemingly equal amounts to one another, not half-glimpsed shadow creatures (which on almost all occasions can be explained away as the product of hyperactive imaginations ... I say again, almost).

After all, with Shigeru's family dependent solely upon the meagre earnings from his father's cinema, it's not yokai but nasty thieves who steal their only projector.

Nor is it Azuki-Hakari who sells little children into slavery, but an unsavoury man who has just moved to town.

Yes, you'll find Shigeru's more mundane-seeming exploits to be as captivating as his more out-of-this-world experiences, and certainly more poignant – well, except for the trippy sequence where he attempts to accompany Chigusa to the "Hundred Thousandth World".

The factual and the fantastic. One exists, undeniably so; one is there to complement the other, occasionally enriching it and at other times serving as a bizarre reflection – both realms wonderfully woven into a fascinating shared existence by this veteran storyteller.

I'm almost tempted to go out and look for Mizuki's other works, but get the feeling that I've already come in at the top level.

Doctor Sleep


This follow-up to The Shining is a brilliantly told tale with characters you really wish were friends of yours. Except for the Empty Devils, of course.

THE Shining was one of Stephen King's scariest books, and the idea of a sequel 35 years later seems absurd, its standaloneness sacrosanct in the eyes of fans.

After all, when the inevitable sequel to a beloved work arrives, the result typically has all the sour taste of a betrayal.

Fear not. Doctor Sleep is a sequel that succeeds on its own merits, a beacon on any shelf filled with King's post-Desperation output.

The end of The Shining was pretty much it as far as the Overlook Hotel, its ghosts, victims and near victims were concerned. Psychic child Danny Torrance made it out with his mother Wendy and Shining-gifted cook Dick Hallorann. (That's one reason why I spit on the movie adaptation; Hallorann was way too rich a creation to die as a cheap plot gimmick.) Alcoholic, homicidal patriarch Jack Torrance didn't make it. And the freakin' hotel blew up.

What kind of a sequel can you write to that?

A terrific one, it turns out – a page-turner I finished over two days while keeping my mum company after her recent surgery. I say this not as a cheap attempt at sympathy, just to say that the situation of one supporting character in the book hit me right in the gut, given where I was emotionally at the time.

Doctor Sleep is not a continuation of The Shining so much as a continuation of Danny's life, though the events of the earlier book are not ... Overlooked. Something happens early on in Doctor Sleep that will creep the crap out of you like the whole "Room 217" episode did in the original.

These opening pages are like visiting old friends and finding that they haven't changed one bit in the intervening years ... and neither have the ghosts that haunt them. (The book saves one more post-Overlook ghostly encounter for much later, and you might need to reach for a tissue then.)

Doctor Sleep soon leaves these leftover nightmares behind and shows Danny growing up into a troubled young man, an alcoholic like his pa – and grandpa before him – and for a time it looks as though the chap is going to continue the family tradition of an inherently bad nature ("mean jeans", as a typical King interjection might go).

He does some lowdown things, one particularly rotten deed haunting him for years, influencing his decisions but also causing indecision at critical points.

Still, there's always redemption where you care to look for it, and Dan gets an opportunity to put his life back in order. At around this time, he makes psychic contact with another strongly Shining individual, a little girl named Abra Stone.

He is dragged into a series of dangerous but also life-affirming situations, because it turns out there are other creatures as vile as the Overlook ghosts after Abra.

The villains of Doctor Sleep are people, or at least they look like us; the author frequently reminds us that they stopped being people a long time ago. The "True Knot" are a parasitic lot who feed off the Shining of gifted individuals, using prolonged torture to extract their "steam".

The younger the victim and the more agonising the torture, the more potent the steam, apparently. So, yeah, you know who these monstrous "Empty Devils" have set their sights on.

As the hunters close in on their quarry, the book becomes a parallel tale of Dan's struggles to pull himself back together and Abra's determination to sort out the devourers.

I liked how Abra's courage makes her not just a strong but inspiring figure in the unlikeliest of packages. As she stands up to the True Knot, patterning her "battle self" in one psychic struggle after Game Of Thrones' Daenerys Tagaryen (to show that King is up on the pop culture icons of the day too), you get the feeling that these bozos really had no idea what they were getting themselves into.

Metaphorically, the whole True Knot aspect of the book seems to be a cautionary tale of a cruel, soulless and indolent society being undone by its own complacency and greed. These villains, however, are also the weakest portion of the novel, sometimes appearing downright unthreatening – like they were there just to give Dan and Abra something to rally against and strengthen their characters in the reader's estimation.

King's storytelling has evolved to the point that he is able to effortlessly juggle numerous plot threads and characters and give all of them significance, making it relatively easy for the reader to keep track of things because they matter.

Many characters, Dan most of all, are broken or fractured souls, and that makes them that much more real. Even the True Knot has a kind of sympathetic appeal, not to our darker natures but because King makes them seem so ... regular.

The author says he is a different man now from the one who wrote The Shining and that is a big plus for Doctor Sleep. Its story is compellingly told and emotionally affecting in a way that early King (The Shining was only his third published novel), as good as his scares and plotting got, was not.

For all the creepiness, scares and page-turning excitement of Doctor Sleep, it's the strong emotional resonance of its characters and situations that struck me the most.

Whether you're keeping vigil with a loved one, or piecing your life back together after hitting a low point, or looking out for the folks who matter in your life, there's a thread in here that will connect with you.

The book ends on a painful yet gentle note, a powerful one that really cements King's status as a master storyteller. As he says in the dedication about Warren Zevon, who always used to insist that King sang lead on Werewolves Of London when they played gigs together, this is the author howling like he means it.

Anyone Who Had A Heart: My Life And Music


YOU know all the songs. Raindrops Keep Fallin' On My Head; Walk On By; Do You Know The Way To San Jose? They occupy the same brain space as nursery rhymes and Beatles tracks: you don't remember not knowing them. You could hum Raindrops ... to a stranger on a train, anywhere in the world, and they'd sing right along with you.

If only Burt Bacharach's life could be told exclusively through his compositions. It would be a soft-focus tale of tender heartache and innocent romance. But the songs were just Bacharach's trade, the lucrative business that won him Oscars, Grammys, the US Library of Congress Gershwin Prize for Popular Song and a devoted generation of damp-eyed fans, including spouses of world leaders Cherie Blair and Laura Bush (the pair once serenaded him backstage in Dallas: "I thought that was wonderful").

The problem with Bacharach's life is the common one: the work edged out everything else, including wives, children and his longtime songwriting partner, Hal David. While the songs are lovelorn and honeyed, the reality is sometimes cruel, often painful. To be fair to Bacharach and his ghostwriter, Robert Greenfield, they haven't tried to skirt the truth.

Spliced with Bacharach's stark recollections of bitter divorces and unseemly professional wrangling are the memories of those he met and married along the way. It means you get lines like this one, from his third wife, singer Carole Bayer Sager: "What I now realise is that nothing changes with Burt when he changes wives. The only thing that changes is the wife, but his routine remains the same." And this from his second, actress Angie Dickinson, after Burt had given her a list of 26 things that had to change in their marriage: "I don't remember Burt giving me an actual written list.... If he had ... I would have stuck pins in it and held it up to say, 'See what a p**** I married?'"

Bacharach was obsessed: a lifelong insomniac kept awake by the music he heard in his head, a conductor who would make singers such as Dionne Warwick and Cilla Black do 30 takes of the same song before choosing the second. His ambition made him famous as a performer and a composer, but it also created an insatiable hunger – for bigger prizes, for winning (at horses as well as music), for sex. Bacharach was a prodigious shagger.

He's wonderfully blunt about his appetite. Bacharach recalls as a child reading Ernest Hemingway's The Sun Also Rises. "I really identified with the hero, Jake Barnes, who couldn't perform sexually because he was impotent. That was definitely not a problem for me." Indeed, no. Bacharach was constantly starting "little affairs" and remembers tender details like the secondary school girl with "colossal tits" or the time when he was on tour in Russia with Marlene Dietrich and he would wander the streets looking for girls who didn't have gold teeth. "By our third week ... even the cows were starting to look good to me."

Of his long-suffering wives, Angie had the toughest ride. Their daughter, Nikki, was born more than three months early, weighing less than 1kg. As Bacharach has it: "If a child was born as prematurely as she was back then, there was no way she was going to come out with a full deck." Aged four, Nikki started collecting mounds of detritus – old batteries, dog poo, broken glass; at eight, Angie would buy Nikki pet mice and she'd kill them by throwing them against the wall. Soon enough, Bacharach left (sometime around that 26-point list).

He remained involved in Nikki's life, and as her problems worsened, decided that the intensity of her relationship with Angie wasn't healthy and had his daughter committed to a clinic in Minnesota for 10 years. "Ten years!" writes Angie. "With no change because she didn't have the mechanism.... That poor darling. She was so heroic and still loved the sonofabitch because Burt can charm everybody."

Nikki's story is the corrective to all the sugar-coated, American West Coast glamour. Beneath the fanboy interjections from Mike Myers, Elvis Costello and Noel Gallagher ("If I could write a song half as good as ... Anyone Who Had A Heart, I'd die a happy man") lies a layer of darkness. In her early 30s, Nikki – far too late diagnosed with Asperger's syndrome – started reading books about suicide. She spoke of killing herself but despite her threats, Bacharach never thought she'd do it. "But then suddenly she did." She left her father a note, which he's never read.

Bacharach ends the chapter about his daughter's death by quoting a song he wrote for her: "Nikki, it's you/ Nikki, where can you be?/ It's you, no one but you, for me/ I've been so lonely since you went away/ I won't spend a happy day/ Till you're back in my arms."

And so another episode in this glittering, damaged life is translated into song, into emotion so meaninglessly simple that anyone can feel it. – Guardian News & Media

Kredit: www.thestar.com.my

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