Sunday, August 30, 2015

Rashmi bookmarks “Death Note”

Written by Tsugumi Ohba and illustrated by Takeshi Obata.

There are murder mysteries where no one knows the killer and both the investigator and the public slowly follow the clues and in the end figure out what is going on. Then there are murder mysteries where the reader knows who the killer is and in a cleverly written way, events - and the reasoning behind them - unfold. And then there is "Death Note" where both the investigator and the killer know each other and are working together to catch the killer, while the reader waits to see who will win.

Welcome to the fantastic world of Light (Raito) Yagami, whose accidental discovery of the "Death Note" - a notebook that kills anyone whose name is written in it - starts an unprecedented rush of events, most fascinating amongst which are the appearance of a shinigami (god of death) called Ryuk, and a brilliant battle of wits with "L", a world-famous detective.

Light's journey starts with a truly well-meaning desire to rid the world of its criminals. But right and wrong start to blur, when he appoints himself as "the god of the new world" with the creation of that utopia. Enter "L". And this is what I found the most fascinating aspect of this series: I loved how equally brilliant the two characters were - I loved that each person was immediately able to figure out the other's thinking almost to the point of being able to predict the other's moves. And I loved how - unlike average crime / mystery tales - this narrative did not hide the denouement till the final point of the grand finale. All tricks and plans are played and counter-played throughout this saga, and that made for a very exciting read.

Although, without a question Light and L are two of the stronger characters I have ever come across, I found it fascinating that this was not a story only about the one good guy and the one bad guy. The stories of many characters, with multiple layers, were woven in and out of the narrative. Their relationships added yet another dimension to the story. Light and his shinigami Ryuk; Misa and her shinigami Rem; TV host Kiyomi Takada and devout "Kira" follower Teru Mikami; heirs Near and Mello... With the possible exception of Misa Amane, who tended to get a little annoying at times, each and every character in this story was strong, fascinating and so unique.

Showcased through the actions - and their far-reaching results - of the two main protagonists, Death Note is also a great comment on society, its beliefs, its stand on right and wrong, good and evil. One of the marks of great writing is, in my opinion, its ability to present characters and/or a point of view, in such shades of grey as to have the reader constantly oscillate between admiring and loathing a character, constantly arguing for or against the stand, and never being able to put an easy, permanent label on any one. And that is exactly what this series does.

Also, for a narrative that spreads across 12 volumes, the action was quite fast paced throughout. Told through cleverly inserted flashbacks, there were some truly brilliant "reveal" moments. If there was one time where I felt the story to be lagging a bit, it had to do with events at Yotsuba Group. While the events at that organisation were an integral part of the story, I felt that at times the story lingered around the building and its people, and lost some of its power. A lag, however, that was more than picked up by the concluding events at Sakura TV and the follow-up events, leading to the conclusion at Yellow Box Warehouse; which were some more exciting concluding action scenes I have ever read.

I do have to say that I was a little disappointed with the conclusion insofar as it had just a touch of the didactic - which was more of an anti climax when you consider the brilliant storytelling that had preceded it. Still, overall, a fantastic read.

Oh, and this was my first Manga, so I have no frame of reference, but I thought the art was awesome. In some cases, the illustrations carried the story forward even in a complete absence of words, and that was pretty cool.

(Yes I realize this is an extra long review, but, like I just said, it was my first ever Manga and I did not feel like editing my reactions!)

Sunday, August 16, 2015

Rashmi bookmarks “The Monuments Men”

by Robert M. Edsel.

In a special meeting held at the Met in 1941, the Fogg Art Museum's associate director Paul Sachs addressed the war and its impact on the arts community: "If, in time of peace, our museums and art galleries are important to the community, in time of war they are doubly valuable. For then, when the petty and the trivial fall way and we are face to face with final and lasting values, we...must summon to our defense all our intellectual and spiritual resources ... Art is the imperishable and dynamic expression of these aims. It is, and always has been, the visible evidence of the activity of free minds."

Along with every other physical and emotional plunder, Adolf Hitler had set about stealing the finest art treasures in Europe, a process wherein he and his armies took it upon themselves to judge what art deserved to be preserved, and what could be ruthlessly destroyed. Set in 1944-1945, “The Monuments Men: Allied Heroes, Nazi Thieves, and the Greatest Treasure Hunt in History” is the account of a mission to save some of the world's greatest art from the Nazis.

Without a question this is a fascinating slice of history, and there were so many things here that I was not aware of. (For one, I did not think it possible to hate the Nazis any more, but after reading this book, I do). More importantly however, this recount sheds light on the extremely adverse conditions that the MFAA (Monuments, Fine Arts and Archives) men and women worked under. With little or no official / political support, or access to arms and ammunition, a small band of American and British art historians, museum curators and academicians risked their very lives to save cultural treasures. James Rorimer. Lincoln Kirstein. Walker Hancock. George Stout. Rose Valland. Harry Ettlinger. It is a pity that these names are not more well-known as war heroes.

Overall, however, while this is definitely an important part of history - and something that is unfortunately not as common knowledge as it should be - just as a reading experience, the narrative left much to be desired. Perhaps an introduction to the mission and its background could have been followed by a report of a handful of missions and/or highlights. Detailing each and every mission became very repetitive, and I reached a point where I had to force myself to finish the book.

Sunday, August 02, 2015

Rashmi bookmarks “Counter-Clock World”

by Philip K. Dick.

From starting a conversation with "Goodbye" and ending it with a "Hello", to blowing smoke back into cigarettes and making them grow back to normal size, this is the world where time has started going backwards. The most significant change in this universe - in what is known as The Hobart Phase - is that the dead have started coming back to life and living out their lives, quite literally from the grave to the womb, when the zygote finally separates into an egg and a sperm.

The story revolves around the anticipated rise of religious leader Anarch Peak, whose revival is followed with a lot of interest by various groups including the Vitarium (an organization that revives and prepares the dead for their new life), the Library (an organization that eradicates books - which, by the way, was a brilliant idea) and of course, opposing religious groups.

While the central concept of this story is phenomenal, I felt that not enough was done with that unique concept. Once the fact of the reverse world was established, the story gradually moved away from that aspect into a more mundane world, complete with its political, commercial and religious realities, and I found my attention wavering at times. My final impression was one of somewhat less than the complete awe I usually have for PKD.