13 Jun 2017

Jane Mai, An Nguyen So Pretty/Very Rotten


I was aware of this book since sometime around November last year when the authors, with mod permission, posted some info on the Lolita Updates Facebook page. I had it bookmarked there for a while, but then, as you do, forgot about it until it floated on some other social media feed that they’re all ready now.







Let me start off with a little review of the purchase before I get onto the book itself.



I found it on Amazon UK for £13.96 plus shipping. The estimated delivery time on the page clearly indicated that the book was not in stock in Europe, but I’ve no issues with that since that was made clear and the cost of postage was reasonable (£2.99). However, the order wasn’t handled very well in that the communication was poor, virtually non-existent, which nearly made me cancel the order altogether. After placing it on May 20th I had received absolutely zero updates and the status on my Amazon account kept saying that it’s not shipped for a very long time. I week in, after a good while searching for some contact details, I messaged Amazon and received a very generic non-apology apology reply with the promise to keep me informed. Still nothing happened. It was nearly 4 weeks after placing the order, on June 9th, that I (finally!) received an email that the order was posted and I actually did receive it the following day.



Now, I want to be clear that as far as I can tell this is not the fault of the authors or the publisher. The seller on my invoice was named as Amazon EU S.a.r.L., whom Google search unveiled as another trading name for Amazon themselves (probably their European warehouses). While I appreciate that such a niche book published for North American market doesn’t have to be in stock in EU warehouses, what they should have done is kept communication with me open and honest. Had I not messaged them, I would’ve heard absolutely nothing for almost 4 weeks, in which time any normal person would’ve cancelled their order, however much they wanted the item purchased. It costs nothing to send an automated email to say that they placed the order, but your item is being shipped from North America first and add an expected waiting time for that. It costs nothing to keep the customer informed as to what’s happening with their order at a given time, but it could mean the difference between making a sale and losing one. To me this lack of communication is highly unprofessional and unjustifiable, and I genuinely was going to cancel the order on the day I received the shipping notification. So for anyone who’s based in Europe who might be interested in purchasing this book – bear this in mind. If you place the order with Amazon S.a.r.L., and I believe there may be only one listing to purchase the book from on Amazon, then you will feel like you’re being scammed and you will have to demand updates, although you might not have much more luck than I did. I’d suggest you either look for another seller that ships internationally or ask any North American friends if they would be a shopping service for you to save yourself the stress and hassle, and feel that the people involved in the sale actually deserve and have earned their commission throughgood customer service and communication.



*~*~*~*



This long rant aside, I literally devoured So Pretty/Very Rotten in a day. Because it’s a mixture of comics and essays, despite being 300 pages long, these pages fly by. The authors have managed to create a book that feels very fresh, yet at the same time evokes a sense of nostalgia by referencing iconic Lolita characters or designs. It’s also very apparent that this is a book created for Lolitas by Lolitas because the introductory and explanatory bits are kept to the minimum (and where they are, they are presented in a way that’s pleasing to the eye and not tiring or repetitive for those who already know that), focusing instead on the title theme. This makes it feel more appropriate for seasoned Lolitas to enjoy rather than for newcomers, although it’s not written in a way that’d alienate the latter – instead they may find themselves not understanding certain references, but that could be taken as things to look into later to build their knowledge and understanding of the fashion.



What I really love about So Pretty/Very Rotten is that the majority of essays included are very clearly written by an academic. They’re not boring, heavy-worded theses, but the content is on the research that one of the authors has done into Lolita fashion and its history, with focus on the origins and links with other fashions and movements. They have left room for more personal writing, particularly the piece by Jane Mai, but personal bits are mostly in the comics, leaving the essays to be informative, enlightening and well researched. My favourites must be Magazines for Independent Girls and Wavering Bodies and Fluttering Minds, which are more specifically focused on broader Japanese culture, pop-culture, language and mentality/psychology. This is the kind of research that I enjoyed studying whilst doing my degree, the ones that took those everyday objects or concepts and deconstructed and analysed them, so despite having studied and been to Japan I learnt something new and felt inspired to pursue the search for more knowledhe on these topics. The essays are inserted in between the comics, but not without careful thought, so it makes sense to read the book back to back. Very often, if not always, the story in the comic will depict or refer to something mentioned in the essay, so especially if the essays would teach you things you didn’t know much about, it’s important to read the essay first.



As for the comics themselves, I won’t spoil much if I say that some inspiration for the pretty vs rotten theme came from Momoko from Kamikaze Girls. However, the authors of So Pretty/Very Rotten deal with this correlation differently, sometimes taking it further (think more Dorian Grey than Momoko) and sometimes showing the more relatable side of this that we may have seen in our own lives as Lolitas. These comics make you stop and reflecy on your own behaviour and relationship with the fashion and/or the community in a way that sounds very familiar. Every comic story created by Mai and Nguyen avoids falling for the obvious “Lolita problems” or “things Lolitas say” tropes that we’ve seen done quite a few times already, instead remaining incredibly relatable, whilst telling a brand new story with Lolita fashion as its focus.



Since I’m not talented at or knowledgeable about drawing, I probably shouldn’t comment on the artistic side of the book, but since So Pretty/Very Rotten is just as much about the comics and the art as it is about the stories and the essays, I have to. Although there are a few more detailed drawings, the majority of the comics are drawn rather simply and cartoonishly – think simplified Astro Boy or very early Mickey Mouse or the Fallout Pip Boy (to me, as a Polish reader, there was also something comfortingly familiar and reminiscing of cartoons like Bolek i Lolek about them). My art references are very limited, so these ones aren’t the most accurate, but hopefully you get some idea. The artwork is more cute than it is beautiful (and I say that with a very conscious reference to the Wavering Bodies and Fluttering Minds essay) and this adds to that overall sense of comfort and nostalgia, yearning for a simpler past even if we haven’t lived through it ourselves. They don’t detract from the story, but I feel that despite not being highly detailed they still add to it and I think it takes a great talent to showcase the details of Lolita outfits when using this much simpler style of drawing – neither Mai nor Nguyen have missed any of these and you still get a sense of how lavish the characters’ dresses in the comics are. To me this may not be the kind of artwork that I’d want to frame and put on my wall, but definitely the sort that I’d want made into stickers (real or mobile app ones) and put them everywhere, or have the authors draw me in this style.



However, the greatest strength of So Pretty/Very Rotten lies in the fact that this is a book you’ll want to come back to. It links with what I said about the stories not being content you’ve already seen somewhere else – whether you want to re-read one of the essays or revisit a favourite comic story in the book, I feel that upon second reading you would pick up on a whole assortment of previously unnoticed themes, references and details. You’d expect that from a book that, from what I’ve gathered, took years to complete and that costs just under £14, yet it’s not always a guarantee. But there definitely is more to it than just pretty pictures/drawings and as soon as I finished it, I wanted to share it with my other Lolita friends, because I know they’ll understand it at the same level as I have and I’m interested to see what they’d pick up on in it.


In other words, if you’re still on the fence as to whether to buy it or not, I’d say do it. Not only you’ll get a whole book with stories about and by Lolitas, but you’ll also support two people who are clearly passionate about the fashion and have a lot to offer (both artistically and intellectually). And it won’t be one of those books gathering dust on the shelf after being read like some of my other books or magazines have ended up. Although please – please! – learn from my lesson and if you’re based in Europe and can avoid it, don’t order it via Amazon. Unless, of course, you like extreme sports and making purchases with no updates you for weeks, leaving you second guessing whether you’ll actually get your order or not.


5 comments:

  1. I really want to buy the book now, but I can only find it on Amazon.... Too bad.

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    1. Do you know anyone in the US or Canada who might be able to order it for you? (I seem to recall a US shopping service called MyUS.com, though I just know that they exist, nothing about them.)

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    2. I found a site carrying it, so.

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  2. I bought mine some weeks ago and finally received it! :D I started reading and already loved how easy it is to understand even for someone whose mother language isn't English. The drawings are cute, and some comics just melted my heart.

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    Replies
    1. I didn't even think about language accessibility, I tend to assume that people who aren't confident enough in their English wouldn't buy it. But it's true, the comics and the essays are very easy to understand, the authors have definitely brought some of their own experiences into this to ensure that it is. Which one's your favurite comic?

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