Friday, January 29, 2010

The Complete Persepolis

Week 4 Memoir

By Marjane Satrapi
New York, Pantheon, 2003-2004

Before I begin my discussion of this book which touched my heart greatly, I have to say that I am still haunted by the book I read over the weekend, American Salvage by Bonnie Jo Campbell. I have thought about the characters numerous times and told several people about the book and the author. While still absorbing that book, I read Persepolis and my thoughts have been haunted by this book as well. I am not sure how the women who blogged about a book a day did it. How did they survive the emotional ups and downs of being engrossed in a book.
While on that subject, I read this morning the column in the Wall Street Journal called "Dear Book Lover" by Cynthia Crossen. It appears every Friday. In today’s column, someone asked her how she continues to read as much as she does. What are her techniques? Here is her advice:
“Three bits of advice for those who want to read more: Buy or borrow books that look appealing to you, not books you think you ought to read. Make sure you always have a book in easy reach. Most important, try to find a place where you can be alone and quiet for a few minutes a day with nothing to distract you but the treasure in your hands.” And I would add for myself, decide that reading is an important activity that you need to do to keep yourself up-to-date and to keep your mind and heart full. For years, I have felt guilty when I immersed myself in a book—“There must be something more important that I should be doing!” This exercise I am involved in this year is an attempt to move beyond that type of thinking. Reading is important for my existence.

Now on to Persepolis. First of all, you need to know that this is a memoir in “graphic novel” style. It is like reading an extended comic book. I found it an ideal format to tell the surreal coming-of-age of an Iranian girl growing up during the war with Iraq and then surviving in revolutionary Iran (1976-1990 approx.). The book was originally published in two volumes; the one I read combines both parts of the story.
The graphic format makes the story more dramatic and important than it would have been in written form. The revolutionary guards are more menacing, Marjane’s antics funnier, and her reliance upon God (who looks like Marx) more poignant. When events made it impossible for Marjane to go to school and get an adequate education in Tehran, her parents send her to Austria to a French-speaking school where she failed to thrive. The second part of the book relates the story of her return to her family in Iran, her university training as a graphic designer, her marriage, divorce, and return to Europe, where she has remained. The New York Times book review says, “Persepolis dances with drama and insolent wit.”
My favorite parts of Marjane’s childhood are when she pretends to be a revolutionary…a Marxist, a leftist like her mother. Her rebellion gets her into lots of trouble, but she is secure in the knowledge that her parents support her insolence and rebellion. Yet, she also wants to be a prophet, and she crawls into the arms of God when the world closes in upon her.
The reviewer in the New York Review of Books says: “That Persepolis 1, a book in which it is almost impossible to find an
image distinguished enough to consider an independent piece of visual art, and equally difficult to find a sentence which in itself surpasses the serviceable, emerges as a work so fresh, absorbing, and memorable is an extraordinary achievement.”

Persepolis 1 was turned into a French language animated movie called Persepolis, which won the 2008 Oscar for Best Animated Film as well as the Cannes Film Festival Jury Prize and numerous other awards. (We are watching it this weekend.)

This is a book I can highly recommend.

Here is some biographical information about Marjane Satrapi.

Here is an interview with Satrapi:

Here is the New York Times review:

Monday, January 25, 2010

American Salvage

Bonnie Jo Campbell

Detroit, Wayne State University Press, 2009

Short Story Collection. This is a bonus book for me this week because of the long plane ride home from visiting my mother. Bonnie Jo Campbell is a Kalamazoo author whose short story collection, American Salvage, was a finalist for the National Book Award in 2010. This is a big deal, and I am not sure she received the publicity she deserved for this accomplishment. It was also the first time that Wayne State University Press had a book thus recognized.

These are stories about people I know--the people who are on the periphery of my life in Kalamazoo; Jim, who worked for us from his teenage years on… a father at 17, in jail several times…no education and now working at a used-tire service; Deb, a greenhouse worker whose daughter was killed in a hit and run accident and self-medicated her grief with meth; her alcoholic brother Ken, a skilled house painter, whose hands shake so badly from alcoholism that he can’t paint too much.

These are the people who are on the periphery of Bonnie Jo Campbell’s life as well. She tells their stories superbly, full of details and despair. But, what makes the stories worth reading is that there is an indomitability about these characters that makes you keep reading, even when what is happening to them is hard to swallow. It reminds you of what you hear people say frequently during these hard times; “I keep keeping on.”

The centerpiece of the collection is the story of “The Yard Man.” Jerry lives in a rundown house with his wife and two stepchildren, yet he is fascinated with the nature that surrounds him, even inside the house. His wife is not so fascinated, and he has to balance these two major aspects of his life.

The stories ring true with the things that we know and the things that we read about in the paper. I really enjoyed the two stories about the millennium and the preparations many made for the disruptions they felt they would find. A woman character says, “This millennium business was just another distraction to keep men from being of any goddamned use whatsoever.” She thinks this as her brother-in-law buys more propane gas to keep his generator going when the electricity is cut off. I am currently hearing about people doing this for when the world will end in 2012.

Some stories make you cringe; most of the characters are not sweet or dear or appealing in any way. Yet, I was especially touched by the story, “The Solution to Brian’s Problem,” in which the young father tries to figure out how he is going to deal with his wife’s meth addiction. I know a young father who most likely has thought of these same solutions.

Interspersed throughout these stories are the places we know; Meijers, Hardings, Bell’s Brewery. The stories in American Salvage are a great read.

Here is Bonnie Jo Campbell’s website:

This is an interesting interview that explains a lot about how Bonnie Jo knows these characters:

A review of American Salvage in the Chicago Tribune:

Friday, January 22, 2010

The Sisters of Sinai: How Two Lady Adventurers Discovered the Hidden Gospels

By Janet Soskice
New York, Alfred Knopf, 2009

Week 3        Non-Fiction

By the 1850s, Bible anxiety was in full swing; discoveries were being made and the infallibility of the King James Version was in question. At the same time, adventure tourism was in its infancy. Into the fray strode twin sisters Agnes Smith Lewis and Margaret Smith Gibson. They were rich Scottish Presbyterians, the daughters of a businessman, who believed that his daughters should be as educated as a son might have been. However in mid-1800s Scotland, there was very little advanced education for women, so Agnes and Margaret were self-taught. Their father had taken them on many trips as they were growing up, and he always insisted that they learn the language of the country they were visiting. After they had both been widowed in their early 50s, they decided that they would seek out all the lands of the Bible. Their first trip was down the Nile, then to Syria and Palestine. Agnes became quite skilled in Syriac, one of the ancient languages of the Sinai Peninsula.
A friend and fellow scholar told them of a hidden room at the St. Catherine Monastery on Mt. Sinai, and the sisters set out on a camel voyage to see if they could find any biblical treasures at the monastery. Indeed, they charmed the prefect of the monastery, Father Galakteon, and he showed them several documents that had not seen the light of day for centuries. While observing one of them, the sisters realized that there was writing on an underneath layer. This type of document was called a palimpsest, the product of a common practice in ancient times of writing over old parchment. She thought that it looked like a gospel.
It turned out to be the earliest example of the gospels ever written, and it changed the course of biblical scholarship forever, and the sisters became preeminent Biblical scholars. Throughout the rest of their lives, they were constantly searching out ancient parchments which they purchased and gave to universities; they also edited manuscripts and wrote books about their studies, discoveries and adventures. “The contribution the twins made in cataloging the Arabic and Syriac manuscripts at St. Catherine’s is literally incalculable: we cannot know when another scholar might have been entrusted with the task by the monks, or how many manuscripts might have gone missing in the interlude.” Their discoveries changed everything.
This history is filled with Indiana Jones-style adventure and De Vinci Code-type secrets, with two middle-aged women as the heroines. The book is skillfully written; there is never a dull moment with intrigue, adventure, misunderstandings, and eccentricity. There are just enough photographs and drawings to aid in the deciphering of the mystery. I enjoyed my read from beginning to end. These formidable women are the precursors to the feminists of the 1960s and 1970s. They did not know what they shouldn’t be doing.
Here is the address of the New York Times reviewof this book: found out about it in Book Marks magazine where it was given 4 stars. I checked it out of the Kalamazoo Public Library.

Friday, January 15, 2010

Things Seen and Unseen: A Year Lived in Faith by Nora Gallagher

January 15, 2010

Week two of my project to read a book a week in four different genres. This week’s book fits into the religious/spiritual genre. What I am discovering as I write daily, is that I am so much more thoughtful in my reading, even as I have to be mindful of time and number of pages. I have been teaching myself not to read just for plot, which is what I had been doing through the years. Actually, reading for my book group has trained me well for reading in depth, and writing about the book every day has also had an influence on the why of my reading.

Things Seen and Unseen: A Year Lived in Faith by Nora Gallagher

New York, Vintage 1999

Nora Gallagher entered the doors of Trinity Episcopal Church in Santa Barbara after years of being a very indifferent Christian, and over the span of a year, she became totally immersed in the life and community of the church, the members became her dearest friends, and the patrons of the soup kitchen where she worked the touchstones of her own humanity (and sanity).

Gallagher’s chapters follow the church year, Advent, Epiphany, Lent, Eastertide, Pentecost, and Ordinary Times. Her faith follows the church year as well; the reader is exposed to the ups and downs of her faith as she follows the ups and downs of the church year. I particularly liked the chapter on Epiphany when she sorts through her belief system and decides to follow Jesus. It is the story of a slow awakening to full participation. When asked why choose Christianity, she says: “Because the story is compelling to me. And because I do believe in the Incarnation. I want to believe that God Intervenes.”

Hers is a faith of worship and works. She works in the church’s soup kitchen, and some of the lighter moments in the book come from the interactions with the patrons and the patrons-turned-workers. Anyone who has worked in a soup kitchen can relate to these experiences and with her responses.

Trinity Church faces many trials during this year of change in Nora’s life including the calling of a gay priest and protests regarding operating a soup kitchen in their neighborhood. The reader is impressed with the strength of this liberal group of Christians as they grapple with the soul-wrenching work of being the Church in a changing world.

Through the year, she experiences the death of a soup kitchen patron and two very good church friends. She also has to come to grips with the cancer that is killing her brother. She says, “Out of the chaos and trauma of death, something new is written or revealed.”

This is a diary of sorts…snippets of thoughts and stories and words of wisdom. So many things she writes or remembers or quotes fill your heart with truth and spiritual honesty. She is critical of the Church even as she yearns for it and embraces it.

I really related to this book. I could see much of my life and religious experience in hers. Working at Martha’s Table, confronting the issues of homosexuality within the Methodist Church, teaching Companions in Christ at my church, and facing the death of loved ones are all examples of ways in which her religious experience parallels mine.I would highly recommend this bookit is immensely readable, full of insight, wit and depth.

Here is Nora Gallagher's website:

Others of her books are: The Sacred Meal (2009) Changing Light (novel 2007) Practicing Resurrection (2004)

Here is the website for Trinity Episcopal Church, Santa Barbara: It was very cool to find that Mark Asman who was the rector during Nora Gallagher’s year of Things Seen and Unseen is still the rector of the church.

Friday, January 8, 2010

Shantaram by Gregory David Roberts

St. Martin's Griffin, Sept. 2005

Week 1     Fiction
Shantaram is a huge book 900+ pages. It is the fictionalized version of the adventures of the author, Gregory David Roberts. His character in the book is Lin. Lin excaped from an Australian prison and fled half-way across the world to Bombay, India where he has more adventures in 10 years than a normal person would ever have in a lifetime. Finally, he is recaptured and sent back to Australia. The book is full of stuff the reader never knew before and some stuff that you wish you had never found out. But, it is an amazing read. I began reading Shantaram about 3 months ago and haven't finished it yet, although I am getting closer. I really wanted to be done with it today so I could begin reading my next week's book tomorrow. However, I still have 200 pages to go.

I keep thinking about the two blogs I followed last year written by women who read a book a day--and my inspiration for the book a week goal I established for myself. Well, in the first place, they would not be picking a book of 900+ pages. Then I keep thinking of the people in my book club who are also reading this book, and so I keep reading.

Here is the entry in my reading diary for Tuesday of this week: It is an interesting problem to be reading about poor people in India and then move over to read about poor people in Pakistan because my husband and I are also reading Three Cups of Tea by Greg Mortenson. The one is filled with altruism and the other is filled with crime…but the cast of characters are much the same. Except one hero is perfect and the other hero has lots of faults. The purposes of the books are different, of course, but the incongruity remains. I am fascinated by the dichotomy. When does a hero become a hero…when he does noble deeds, or when he is the focus of the book? One would think that Mortenson is the true hero and Lin a villain, because one is altruistic and the other is a crook doing illegal things. Yet, there are noble things about Lin…but for him, his ability to survive (and thrive?) is what makes him the hero.

Definition of a hero:
1. In mythology and legend, a man, often of divine ancestry, who is endowed with great courage and strength, celebrated for his bold exploits, and favored by the gods.
2. A person noted for feats of courage or nobility of purpose, especially one who has risked or sacrificed his or her life: soldiers and nurses who were heroes in an unpopular war.
3. A person noted for special achievement in a particular field: the heroes of medicine. See Synonyms at celebrity.
4. The principal male character in a novel, poem, or dramatic presentation.
This is what the dictionary says for the term hero. Which one is Mortenson? Which one is Lin. I would say that Mortenson would be #2, Lin could also be classified as #2 as well. Not sure. We can also ask: Is survival an heroic act? A lot of this book is about survival.

Here is a portion of a review of the book by the Amazon reviewer:
"Roberts is not reluctant to wax poetic; in fact, some of his prose is downright embarrassing. Throughought the novel, however, all 944 pages of it, every single sentence rings true. He is a tough guy with a tender heart, one capable of what is judged criminal behavior, but a basically decent, intelligent man who would never intentionally hurt anyone, especially anyone he knew. He is a magnet for trouble, a soldier of fortune, a picaresque hero: the rascal who lives by his wits in a corrupt society. His story is irresistible."

The New York Times reviewer has this to say:
“What is he after, anyway? But it seems unsporting to begrudge Roberts the license to thrill while having such a good time… and ‘Shantaram,’ mangrove-scented prose and all, is nothing if not entertaining. Sometimes a big story is its own best reward.” It also questions why Roberts didn’t write a memoir. Why did he make it a novel?

New York Times review of Shantaram

Here are some connections to youtube videos of Roberts speeches:

If the reader has the time, this is an honest, albeit disconcerting book, and a real page-turner. And if Johnny Depp ends up playing Lin in a movie, as has been rumored, life will be perfect!