Books in the Park

suggestions from the Barbara S. Ponce Public Library at Pinellas Park

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The Buddha in the Attic, by Julie Otsuka

buddha-otsukaJulie Otsuka’s beautifully and poetically written second novel tells the story of young Japanese “picture brides” who leave behind a life of poverty and hard labor in Japan in the hope of finding happiness and prosperity in America. Their hope, however, turns out to be based on an illusion. Upon arriving in America, they discover that not only are the men waiting for them much older than they were led to believe (they had sent 20-year-old pictures of themselves), but that the stories of their husbands’ prosperity were merely the fabrications of the matchmakers who had brought them together. In reality, their husbands treat them with crudeness and they experience a kind of suffering they are not prepared for.

Otsuka writes in the first person plural point of view, as though the women are speaking collectively about their common experiences. This makes the telling of their saga more powerful than one individual story would have been. “Some of us were from the mountains, and had never before seen the sea, except for in pictures, and some of us were the daughters of fishermen who had been around the sea all our lives. Perhaps we had lost a brother or father to the sea, or a fiancé, or perhaps someone we loved had jumped into the water one unhappy morning and simply swum away, and now it was time for us, too, to move on.”

Though the women continue to feel like outsiders in their adopted country, by the 1940’s they have settled into their life in America, many running businesses with their husbands and establishing their own communities. Their children have assimilated into the culture, speaking fluent English and feeling ashamed of their parents’ old fashioned customs and broken English. But life becomes surreal again with the outbreak of World War II and the looming threat of internment camps.

The Buddha in the Attic is in a sense a prequel to Otsuka’s first novel, When the Emperor was Divine, which details the life of a Japanese family living through World War II. Her novels are based in large part on her own family’s history, as Otsuka’s grandparents and parents were among those taken to the internment camps. Their stories should not be forgotten.

Winner of the Penn/Faulkner Award for Fiction and a National Book Award finalist.

Check the PPLC Catalog for Buddha in the Attic.

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Junji Ito’s Cat Diary: Yon & Mu, by Junji Ito

junji-itos-cat-diary-itoA horror manga artist, J, has recently moved into a new home with his fiancee, A-ko. The artist can see a rosy new life opening up before him—until A-ko asks him the fateful question: “Are you a dog person… or a cat person?” Thus begins J’s life with two fractious cats, Yon and Mu. Yon is  A-ko’s quirky childhood cat, and Mu is a Norwegian Forest kitten, adopted as a companion  In a series of biographical vignettes, Ito chronicles J and A-ko’s life with their exasperating but beloved felines.

Ito is best known for his horror manga, and it is a stroke of genius to bring a creepy element to this sleepy slice-of-life comic. Ito creates a sense of dread, both with the atmosphere and the illustration. This is beautifully juxtaposed with the humorous tone, and the everyday plot of human/cat interaction. It makes for a very surreal and entertaining story. In addition, Cat Diary perfectly captures the joys and frustrations of living with cats. Ito’s love for his fur babies shines through, making the manga adorable and touching.

Admittedly, this is a weird book, and it might not be for everyone. However, if you have had surreal experiences with cats of your own, you will enjoy Junji Ito’s Cat Diary.

Check the PPLC Catalog for Junji Ito’s Cat Diary.

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The Friends, by Kazumi Yumoto

friends-yumotoYamashita, Kawabe, and Kiyama are friends on the verge of adulthood, or at least middle school. With the future looming ahead, the three boys think it is high time they underwent a rite of passage, namely: witnessing a death. For this activity, the boys choose to watch an unkempt old man who looks as if he has one foot in the grave already. Their plans crumble when the old man realizes he is being watched. Proving to be very lively, he browbeats the boys into doing his house work. Yamashita, Kawabe, and Kiyama’s grand rite of passage is ruined, but their journey to adulthood is just beginning.

This book is a Japanese import. Fully translated, it still contains some concepts that may not be familiar to American readers. The text explains these things in a way that can be understood and is unobtrusive to the narrative. The Friends reads almost like a 1980’s film, making the text easy and enjoyable to read.

The story is simultaneously warm, and unsentimental. The harsh realities of life and death are examined realistically, but this is softened by the truly wonderful relationships that develop between the characters. As the story unfolds, the old man becomes a nurturing figure that the three boys never knew they needed. Conversely, the boys bring a spark back into the old man’s life, enabling him to face his past, and his quickly shrinking future. This is a book for readers 10 and up, but has applications for any reader experiencing grief, death, or the existential terror brought on by the passage of time.

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Ringu (1998)

ringuI may be the only person in the world who missed the initial J-horror band wagon when it first rolled through town, but what better way to make up for lost time than by watching the most well-known of the Japanese horror movies. Based on the novel Ring by Koji Suzuki, this film completely reworks the world created in the novel, creating a final product that is every bit as thrilling as the novel in a completely different way.

Reiko Asakawa is reporting on the latest urban legend, a mysterious video tape that will kill the viewer in seven days. The case hits close to home when Reiko’s niece, Tomoko, dies suddenly with no explanation. After doing some sleuthing at Tomoko’s funeral, Reiko realizes that Tomoko must have viewed the tape, and she sets out to retrace her niece’s steps to find the source of this ghost story. When Reiko watches the tape, she finds herself in over her head, and enlists the help of her ex-husband Ryuji, who is no stranger to the supernatural. It is a race against time for both of them, and they only have seven days to find a cure for the curse.

The film and the book share a couple of key elements, but the film diverges drastically from the book. The novel’s protagonist, Kazuyuki, a troubled family man, becomes Reiko, an intrepid single mother, who may or may not be neglecting her son in favor of her career. The ‘sidekick’ Ryuji, was a depraved degenerate in the novel, but in the films he is a brooding anti-hero with latent physic abilities. Both of these characters are acted wonderfully. Reiko displays the nervous verve of a woman of action who is facing her own death, and Ryuji is simultaneously charming, rude, and controlling, so the viewer understands why Reiko married him, as well as why she left him. Their interactions are peppered with an awkward remorseful affection, that plays second fiddle to their desire to remedy themselves of the curse that has them in its cross-hairs.

As for the horror aspects, Ring is pretty light on the scares. The film relies on the tense atmosphere to make the viewer feel uneasy, and this tactic works incredibly well. The supernatural elements of the film are very different from the ones in the novel; this movie tells a classic ghost story, complete with a terrifying specter. If you haven’t seen it, I strongly recommend you try this film out.

Check the PPLC Catalog for Ringu.

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Saturn Apartments Volume 1, by Hisae Iwaoka

saturn apartments iwaokaIn the distant future, humanity has evacuated the Earth, but it is not the scenario you might think. The empty planet has been declared a nature preserve and is more beautiful than ever now that humans live in the orbiting habitat ring. Those wealthy enough to live on the upper levels get a front row seat to the planet—and the sunlight—but people on the lower levels live in the dark.

Mitsu is proud to have earned his middle-school diploma, but he’s eager to take up his father’s profession of window washing, possibly the most under-appreciated profession in the ring. How would anyone see sunlight if the washers didn’t march onto the outside of the ring and wipe the windows down? However, the job is not without its dangers; meteorites could strike, atmospheric suits could malfunction, or a tether could break. Mitsu learned this lesson when his father disappeared five years ago on a job. Risks aside, Mitsu is excited and determined to begin his career. After all, window washers get the extra perk of getting closer to the Earth than anyone else.

This is a beautiful science fiction story, and takes the idea of an evacuated Earth in a direction I had never read before. Instead of a barren, used-up wasteland, the planet is a lush glowing ball of life. The characters are in utter awe of their old home. They speak about it in a way that makes me want to go outside and hug a squirrel. The story creates a sense of longing for the planet that is extended to every other aspect of the plot, whether it be a longing for love, friendship, wealth, or an idea of home. The tone of this graphic novel is quiet and introspective. Every single character is rich and layered. The art work is simply stunning. So far, I’ve only read the first volume, but I’m hooked and I will definitely be reading the rest of the series.

Check the PPLC Catalog for Saturn Apartments (Volume 1).

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Chi’s Sweet Home by Kanata Konami

chis-sweet-home-1-coverHailing from Japan, this media franchise began with a manga series, and has blossomed into eleven written volumes, two seasons of a television show, and a myriad of merchandise. Here at the library we have all eleven volumes of the manga, and (fresh off the truck yesterday) the first season of the TV show! This is a story I would recommend to anyone who loves cats or cute things.

A mother cat takes her kittens on their very first walk outside. Along the way one tiny grey kitten gets lost. Alone, scared, cold, and starving, the kitten cries for her mother to come find her, but the Yamada family gets there first! The Yamadas name the little cat Chi and welcome her into their home. The stories come in bite-size, slice-of-life narratives detailing Chi’s adventures and her family’s harried attempts to keep her existence a secret from their pet-averse landlord.

There is no hiding the fact that this TV and book series is targeted towards children, but that does not diminish my love for it. Each story/episode captures cat ownership in a way that will entertain viewers of all ages. The books are translated into English and should be no problem for younger readers. The cartoons are in Japanese with English subtitles, so those who hate subtitles have been warned.

This is in all honesty my favorite anime and manga series, ever. It is relatable, touching, and very very cute. There are several chapters/episodes that made me cry, and that is the highest compliment I could ever give to any story.

Check the PPLC Catalog for Chi’s Sweet Home.

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Uzumaki by Junji Ito

Uzumaki cover 2A sleepy coastal town is at the center of something terrible. It begins innocuously, with the spirals in rivers, plants, seashells. Then it progresses. These spirals become more prevalent, appearing on people’s bodies, taking hold of their minds, and driving them to kill others, and themselves. It becomes apparent that the spirals are part of something larger, and no one in the town is safe from this phenomenon.

The protagonists are high-schoolers, Kirie and her boyfriend Shuichi. The stories are told from their point of view, but the story is much larger than either of them. The author manages to tell the story of the whole town and works a multitude of unique characters into the novel. What makes this collection truly scary is the art. The often vicious actions of the townsfolk are made real by the equally monstrous illustrations provided by Ito. This collection fits squarely into the genre of body horror, so squeamish readers should be wary.

Check the PPLC Catalog for Uzumaki.