Thursday, August 28, 2008


My graphic novel kick continues... recently finished Persepolis: The Story of a Childhood by writer and artist Marjane Satrapi. Persepolis is a memoir of her childhood in Iran. Like the wonderful Fun Home, this graphic novel is also occasionally funny, often poignant, and masterfully displayed in graphic image.

Satrapi lived through the beginnings of the "Islamic Revolution". Her graphic novel is sort of like Khaled Hosseini's The Kite Runner, which does a great job of illustrating how Afghanistan was not always the stinking hellhole that we see on the news these days, but rather a vibrant, well-educated, multi-cultural land. Before the Taliban gained control, Iran was a fairly liberal society. Satrapi's liberal parents participated in protests until they became prohibitively dangerous, and continued to, you know, listen to music and drink and dance, even when these things became illegal.

Satrapi's panels relating to the abrupt change in the educational system were most interesting to me. While most children might go through a period of questioning their education, she experience a real indoctrination, and standing up to ask questions had serious consequences.

Coincidentally, Feministing recently addressed women graphic novelists. Not surprisingly, Alison Bechdel and Satrapi are high on everyone's list. Pia Guerra, co-writer and main illustrator of Y: The Last Man (which I've been borrowing from friends) also gets a few mentions. It's worth having a look at the comments if you're looking for graphic novel recommendations.

Saturday, August 09, 2008

Never Let Me Go

Never Let Me Go, by Kazuo Ishiguro, had me really excited for the first 20 pages or so. It reminded me of The Handmaid's Tale (probably my favorite book), in that it takes place in some other time. I gleefully prepared to watch it all unravel as I read, but, unfortunately, very little unravelled and it utterly failed to keep my interest.

I won't go into the story line, just in case a reader has it on their list (although, if I were you, I'd scratch it off). I know this book was highly reviewed, which is the reason I picked it up when I saw it in the bargain bin. But, it's the kind of book that makes me want to call up all the reviewers and say, "Really, Michael Ondaatje? You seriously think Ishiguro is 'One of the finest prose stylists of our time'? Really?"

Aside from going nowhere, poorly, two things bugged me more than anything.

#1. The word "carer" (as in, "one who cares"). The beauty of writing a dystopian novel is you can make up any GD word you want to. The repetition of "Carer" was almost as bad as Anne Rice and her bullshit (and inappropriately used) "anthropomorphic" again and again.

#2. The font. I never thought this would matter, but the font really made me nuts. It was so distracting. You know when you get to the end of a book, and there's a paragraph "On the Font"? And you're like, who gives two craps about the font? For this book I actually skipped to that paragraph about 4 pages in to see if it said, "This font was specially created to stop the eye for approximately 20 seconds each time the letters "g" and "y" appear in succession. It'll happen more than you can imagine!"

Post Script: I just found a review by Margaret Atwood herself on Slate. She gives away the farm, so be aware. She writes, "It's a thoughtful, crafty, and finally very disquieting look at the effects of dehumanization on any group that's subject to it." Really, Margaret Atwood? Really?

And some snarky editor over at the Guardian wrote a hilarious parody of Never Let Me Go:
...I realise now how lucky Tommy, Ruth and I were to be brought up in such surroundings. We even had a sports pavilion where we would go to chatter amongst ourselves. You may wonder why I mention these details, but such empty observations are the hallmark of the consummate prose stylist....It may strike you that I like to hint at truths. This is because I fear you might stop reading were you to guess that the story really was as predictable as it first seemed.

Sunday, August 03, 2008

League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, Vol. 1

We read The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, Vol. 1, by Alan Moore for book club. It's a graphic novel about a group of characters, some of whom you'll recognize and some maybe not (we all know Jekyll and Hyde, but do you know where Allan Quatermain originated?). The plot largely centers around gathering this rag-tag group of hero-types in a team to do... something... on behalf of some unknown entity. I'm not quite sure what.

Because a few of these characters were recognizable to me, I had to wonder if there were some references I wasn't getting. I meant to do a little googling before the book club, but I didn't get around to it. Lo and behold, it turns out practically every single panel in the novel contains a reference to some 18th or 19th century British literature. Only slightly more interesting than the question "If a tree falls in the woods and no-one hears it..." is "If a book is full of literary references that no-one gets, does it matter?" I have a general formula that goes like this:

Given: I'm pretty smart.
Given: I read a lot.
Given: most people are kind of dumb.
Given: nobody reads as much as me.
Proof: If *I* didn't get it, nobody did.

(Does that make me sound like a jerk?) I didn't really enjoy reading the graphic novel, mostly because I wasn't interested in the story and its shtick (that it's written for young boys, ie, not girls [however ironicly]) wore a bit thin for me. I did gain some new respect when I found out it had all these hidden references, though. My proof is wrong, of course, because my super-genius librarian friends did get it.

Aforementioned super-genius tipped me to a book called Heroes and Monsters by Jess Nevins that, essentially panel by panel, goes through the novel and spells out what most of us schmucks are missing. I'm going to have a peek at that book, and a brief return to The League as well (wikipedia by my side) to have a second look at some of these references and maybe get some ideas for future reading.

A Mango-Shaped Space

A Mango-Shaped Space, by Wendy Mass, is a YA book about a girl with synesthesia. Synesthesia is a very interesting "neurologically-based phenomenon" in which a person's senses are combined in a different way from most of us. For example, most synesthetes experience letters as colors as well (like, maybe "B"s are a certain shade of green) or that tastes have sounds and so on.

I know a fair amount about synesthesia (I have another book called Blue Cats and Chartreuse Kittens: How Synesthetes Color Their Worlds, by Patricia Lynne Duffy). I think it's a fascinating condition and I'm interested in developing it myself, if such a thing is possible. A Mango-Shaped Space was a bit boring to me because it's explains from a very basic level what it's like to have this condition (from the perspective from a young girl). However, I suppose if you don't know much at all about synesthesia, it would be quite interesting. I'm sure also that young adults themselves would be rather moved by the book (because, beyond her condition, it's about a 13 year old who's sensitive and misunderstood).

Something I remain a bit confused about is that the book won the Schneider Family Book Award, which "honors an author or illustrator for the artistic expression of the disability experience for child and adolescent audiences." Whether or not synesthesia is a disability, I'm not convinced. In any event, the book certainly does not indicate that being a synesthete in any way limits the main character's abilities. In fact, it seems to be just the opposite - that her condition (for lack of a better word) is something that makes her unique and special and should be honored and respected.