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Archive for the ‘2010’ Category

To say that the last week has been rather stressful would be a most impressive understatement.  Usually, my remedy for any kind of stress is to curl up with a Georgette Heyer or an Alexander McCall Smith.  But, for perhaps the first time ever, they failed me.  After I recovered from the shock, I looked to my bookshelves for further inspiration and saw Eva Ibbotson.  How could I have forgotten about her for so long?  I loved her comforting, light, romantic books when I was a teenager but because I only own one of them (A Countess Below Stairs) seldom reread the others.  For me, comfort reads are usually the ones I can grab off my shelf at three in the morning as the mood takes me.  Obviously, this signals a gap in my personal library that will have to be remedied through visits to used bookstores in the future.

Happily, my library had a copy of A Song for Summer by Eva Ibbotson that arrived at just the right time.  How could I not love a book that sends characters off to all my favourite places: England, Austria, Bohemia, and British Columbia?  And place does play a very important role in this novel: all of the characters are concerned with going home, making a home, or finding a home.  Most of the book is set in Austria in 1937, when young Englishwoman Ellen Carr arrives to take over as housekeeper at an experimental school containing eccentric adults and unchecked youths.  As usual when Ibbotson writes about her homeland, the Austrian countryside is beautifully described and the village of Hallendorf is idyllic.  Romantic in the extreme, I am ready to move there now.  Reading it at lunch on Friday, I actually forgot about my snowy surroundings and felt like I was at Hallendorf:

They had rounded the point and suddenly Schloss Hallendorf lay before her, its windows bathed in afternoon light, and it seemed to her that she had never seen a place so beautiful.  The sun caressed the rose wall, the faded shutters…greening willows trailed their tendrils at the water’s edge; a magnificent cypress sheltered the lower terrace.

But oh so neglected, so shabby!  A tangle of creepers seemed to be all that held up the boathouse; a shutter flapped on its hinges on an upstairs window; the yew hedges were fuzzy and overgrown.  And this of course only made it lovelier, for who could help thinking of Sleeping Beauty and a castle in a fairy tale? (p.14)

Like all of Ibbotson’s heroines, Ellen is good and pretty and brings joy wherever she goes, complete with children and animals frolicking about her.  She’s intelligent but wants to be a housekeeper rather than a scholar or professional, to the disappointment of her suffragette mother and aunts. (Aside: Ibbotson excels at writing aunts.  I remember reading somewhere that if she was ever stuck with a story she just introduced aunts).  Ellen prefers kitchens to labs, children to professional colleagues.  She’s a very unfashionable heroine by modern standards but I couldn’t care less.  I want to believe that people like her exist and, what’s more, I want to be like her.  Considering that my favourite Louisa May Alcott book growing up was An Old Fashioned Girl with the virtuous Polly rather than Little Women with the spunky Jo, my preference for this kind of heroine is hardly a new development.  Ellen’s scarcely a pushover but it seems that any heroine who isn’t overtly ambitious and aggressive is deemed a wet blanket and a poor role model these days.  Pfui.  I find all those spunky heroines obnoxious and tiring.  The restful, maternal Ellen is a charming alternative.    

Marek, on the other hand, is a tiresome hero.  I am predisposed to forgive him many of his sins as he is a) Czech and b) possessed of one of my favourite names.  Unfortunately, he is meant to be too many things to too many people and as a result comes out as a strange amalgamation of talents with little individuality.  Sensitive musical genius, selfless resistance fighter, landed gentry, gardener, pilot, fencing instructor…he pretty much does everything except emote.  I wanted desperately feel some real attachment to him but was never able to, not with him coming across as temperamental and immature just when he needs to be practical and constant.  It wasn’t all bad though: the musical storyline, centered on Marek, did give me a desperate urge to listen to Der Rosenkavalier again.  I do love Strauss and such a romantic musician is well suited to this romantic book.    

Ibbotson never makes things too easy for her characters.  There are frustrating twists and turns that probably add some much needed angst to the plot.  Ibbotson’s wit and energy, as always, save this from becoming sappy or trite.  I am romantic enough that I like things to be simple but in wartime, and particularly with a hero as pointlessly noble as Marek, things are never simple.  It does make for an interesting book though and a very enjoyable read; absolutely the right thing for this moment in my life.

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Before moving to Calgary, I had been searching for a copy of Beyond the Chestnut Trees by Maria Bauer for years.  Yes, I could simply have ordered a second-hand copy offline but that is far too simple and takes all the fun out of the hunt.  Besides, I’d never even seen the book – how could I part with my money when I didn’t even know if the book was any good?  But then I moved to Calgary and, wonder of wonders, the library had a copy.  I borrowed it immediately but was never in quite the right mood to read it so back to the library it went.  This cycle has repeated itself more times that I care to count over the last few years but finally, finally!, I was in just the right mood to pick it up and learn about Maria (Kahler) Bauer’s life growing up in Prague, recounted upon her return forty years after leaving. 

A brief warning: a wrote this post in a bit of a rush, wanting to make sure it would be posted on October 28th, the anniversary of the day Czechoslovakia declared its independence from Austria-Hungary.  Timing is everything.  that said, I have so many emotions tied up with this country and topic that any review of this book was going to be a bit muddled no matter how long I took to write it. 

I grew up surrounded by Czechs (commonly referred to as cancelled Czechs by the family wits) who had left either in ’48 or ’68.  The Kahlers, however, left long before that, in the summer of 1939 after the Germans had invaded.  The story of their rather convoluted exodus makes for fascinating reading.  From Prague they went to Paris, where they met up with another refugee, a young Austrian whom Franz Kafka had introduced Maria to at a ball in Prague: Robert Bauer.  When France fell, the Kahlers and Bauer fled to Portugal, where Robert and Maria were married.  From there they sailed for America to begin poorer and definitely less interesting lives (well, the senior Kahlers at least.  Robert pursued a fascinating career in journalism and politics that took him and Maria around the world, though that is only alluded to here).  Happily, Maria doesn’t spend too much time describing her life in America; the focus is mostly on her idyllic youth in Czechoslovakia and then her experiences and impressions on returning in the early 1980s.

I am a hopeless snob in that I prefer to read about people with money as opposed to those without.  You can have Angela’s Ashes, I’ll stick to people who have their own castles.  Admittedly, Czech castles are really just large manor houses but they’re lovely and I’ve been fixated on them since I was five.  And the Kahlers (Maria’s father was Felix von Kahler was a wealthy German-speaking Czech of Jewish ancestry, although the family was non-practicing) had one, as well as a large mansion in the city.  As is inevitable in any refugee story, the family lost all their wealth and most of their possessions when they fled and would never regain anywhere near the kind of affluence they had once enjoyed.  In a particularly upsetting interlude, Maria returns to the family castle as an adult.  While the countryside remains beautiful, the building and grounds have been almost destroyed during years of communist rule.  Again, a familiar story: I remember when my uncle regained his family’s property after the fall of communism and the all the years and effort he and my aunt put into restoring it. 

The most enjoyable parts of the novel are Bauer’s charming recollections of brief scenes from her childhood.  The book is loosing structured, jumping between decades with ease and some frequency, so no particular incident is analysed too closely, just sketched out for the reader to absorb and smile at.  Especially memorable were Bauer’s remembrances of summers en famille in the country – I was jealous enough of the castle but then she introduces her Parisian-dwelling aunt and uncle, which just makes it that much more glamourous! – and the description of a long but chaste relationship with a teacher during her school years.

I think a large part of why I enjoyed this book so much is because, frustratingly, there really aren’t that many books about Czechoslovakia or its refugees.  Everything I know comes from my family and no one was ever willing to go into as much detail or describe their emotional journey as intimately as does Maria Bauer.  Maria was only a few years older than my grandmother.  They grew up in the same country and though my grandmother’s family was nowhere near as wealthy as the Kahlers, they still had a governess and a cook, a driver and a gardener and little children neatly dressed in sailor suits.  So I look for the similarities and I cling to Maria’s descriptions of her return after a forty year absence, searching in her words for a glimmer of my own grandmother’s experience when she went back for the first time, seeing old school mates and relatives, old haunts and homes after a long absence. 

Sometimes it’s difficult for me to remember that not everyone wanted to leave, that the people who got out aren’t necessarily considered the lucky ones by those who remained.  An old acquaintance of Bauer’s gives this other perspective, acknowledging the problems of life under first the Nazis and then the Communists but casting them aside in favour of family, friends, and a city that only grows more dear with time:

…I have no intention of leaving here.  I don’t like the conditions here any better than you.  There is widespread corruption and life is hard and drab, but it’s my home and I am not unhappy.  No regime can hurt the beauty of the country and the city, which I enjoy more the older I get.  And I have my friends who are all in the same boat.  To me, old friendships and roots and family are more important than freedom and prosperity in a foreign country.  When I heard about the way your parents lived in the States, I didn’t feel sorry for them for losing their fortune – I knew they could handle that – but because they were unable to return home.  Who was it that said ‘Blessed are those who can die in the land of their forefathers?’ (p.141)

One thing common to all the memoirs I’ve read (admittedly not many but everything I could get my hands on) and all the people I’ve talked to is how difficult it was for them to leave Prague, which, even in their adult minds, remains the most magical place on earth.  I think a lot has to do with, as Bauer says, growing up in a city that seems to be composed almost as much of myth as reality.  All Czechs, adults and children, seem to have a love of fairy tales and the fantastical that presumably traces back to this.

I think it is hard for any child to accept reality when it starts to filter into its make-believe world.  But in Prague it seemed particularly confusing since nothing in Prague was real.  History, legends, and reality were so intermingled that it was hard to distinguish among them. (p. 16)

All in all, this was a bit of an emotional read for me but one that I enjoyed greatly.  I can heartily recommend it as a wonderful insight into life in Czechoslovakia between the wars and a fascinating description of the flight of refugees.  I’ll certainly be looking for a copy to add to my personal library now. 

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I’m not quite sure if I want to class Bliss by O.Z. Livaneli with my other recent lackluster reads. On the one hand, it certainly didn’t thrill me. You’d think that the story of Meryem, a young woman raped by her uncle and of Cemal, the cousin who has been tasked with carrying out the honour killing would be gripping and most likely disturbing. Instead, it was a bit muddled. On the other hand, it held my interest, which many books have failed to do recently, and each of the three main characters gives fascinating insight into the multiple identities of modern Turkey.

Meryem is bright and energetic, a winsome, naïve fifteen-year old village girl from Eastern Turkey. When Cemal comes to take her away, to Istanbul she is told, the reader knows by the responses of the villagers (cruel jokes from some, tears from others) the true fate of the other girls who have ‘gone to Istanbul’, the girls who no one has heard from since. But Meryem, in her innocence, is excited to begin her journey, to see the world beyond the valley she has known all her life.

Cemal, to me, was the most fascinating of the three main characters. Four years older than Meryem, he is just returned from military service when his family presents him with his horrible duty. After years spent fighting Kurdish rebels, Cemal is unsteady, a man trained for violence but not for reasoning. As Cemal struggles with the duty he knows is morally wrong, Meryem remains innocent of the awful fate intended for her. And so they travel the length of the country, from the eastern border to Istanbul and coastal communities beyond, in an uncomfortable alliance.

On this journey, they meet İrfan, a professor tired of his over-privileged, indulgent life in Istanbul. Having left his wife and his possessions behind, İrfan has bought himself a boat and is sailing to nowhere, drinking too much and contemplating his failures. Cheerful stuff. Coming across Meryem and Cemal, he invites them abroad to serve as his crew and off they all sail into the sunset. And into lots of conflict.

It’s through İrfan that the reader really gets to hear about modern Turkey. From Meryem, we learned of village traditions and Islam as interpreted by the whims of the local Sheikh, from Cemal of warfare and the struggle to stay true to what he learned in the village in a more secular, educated society, and from İrfan of the decadence of the liberal, European-style West, of scantily clad women and expensive restaurants, in stark contrast with the tribal ignorance of the east. It’s not just like two difference countries: it’s like two different centuries.

The ending was, for me, far from satisfying. Interesting, yes, but Meryem’s ending felt far too neat for a story that had been anything but. As much as I hate to say this, I think I actually preferred the film adaptation (which is what prompted me to borrow the book in the first place). They’re not terribly similar, but both are definitely worth checking out. What they have in common is the ability to inspire a desperate need in the reader/viewer to visit Turkey.

When Meryem and Cemal got off the train in Istanbul at Haydarpaşa Station, they shared the same feelings as the Megarians, the Vikings, the Crusaders, and many others who had come there over the centuries: amazed admiration. They had all felt that this city was like no other city past or present. (p. 150)

I have always wanted to visit Istanbul and as I was reading this as one of my friend was planning his trip to Turkey (he’s there now); I became increasingly jealous of him as I progressed through the novel.

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The NYRB Classic edition of The Summer Book by Tove Jansson is described on the back cover as “the essence of summer” and, after reading this delightful slim volume, I can’t disagree.  In fact, as we stumble headlong into August having seen more hail and rain than sun, this seems like the only summer I might experience this year.  But I can’t complain: wouldn’t you rather spend your summers on a Finnish island, exploring and discovering the world around you?

From the opening lines, Jansson paints a vivid picture of life on the island that continues throughout and one can almost smell and feel the scene she creates.  It’s a magical yet still realistic place, the kind you know exists somewhere and would love to find yourself:

It was an early, very warm morning in July, and it had rained during the night.  The bare granite steamed, the moss and crevices were drenched with moisture, and all the colors everywhere had deepened.  Below the veranda, the vegetation in the morning shade was like a rain forest of lush, evil leaves and flowers…(p. 5)

The short vignettes dealing with the adventures, games, and minor dramas of six-year-old Sophia and her elderly grandmother are simple but beautifully expressed, capturing the spirit and selfishness of youth as well as the exhaustion and bluntness that comes with age.  Both characters can be delightful, but they are both flawed and far more likeable than their more perfect counterparts that appear in similar (and infinitely lesser) novels.  Flawed characters are so much more loveable, a lesson that Sophia learns in a chapter entitled “The Cat.”

I’ve always been rather intimidated by Scandinavian writers, having the impression that their writing style was stark and rather brutal.  Perhaps this may be true of some authors but certainly not Jansson.  Her writing and stories are straightforward but still gentle and endearing.  There is subtle humour throughout, but generally I’d call the book sweet rather than funny (though “The Crooks” is very amusing).  Exactly the perfect reading for hot summer days, when all you want to do is loll about in the shade with a wonderful, easy book that sweeps you up into a world not your own.

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I know next to nothing about Garrison Keillor.  Like many people though, when I hear his name there are certain word-associations.  A Prairie Home Companion.  Lake Wobegon.  Minnesota.

That’s about it.  But there were enough similarities between Keillor’s work and that of Stuart McLean, another radio presenter whose domestic yarns were spun into successful book sales and of whom I am a great fan, that I though it time I finally investigated for myself.  So, when I saw a copy of Pilgrims: A Lake Wobegon Romance by Garrison Keillor on the “New & Notables” shelf at my local library, I picked it up.  If nothing else, how could I resist such a quintessentially American author for the Orbis Terrarum challenge

Scandinavians have a reputation for being a little depressing.  Very little sunshine and daisies, lots of stark, dismal scenery and tall Nordic people being uncommunicative.  That heritage certainly comes through here and, though Keillor mocks the dreary outlook of his fellow Minnesotans, it does set the tone. 

The pilgrims of the title are twelve of Lake Wobegon’s finest who journey to Rome to visit the grave of a hometown boy who had died there during the Second World War.  Remembered as a hero by generations of school children, the truth about the young man’s less-than glorious (but rather more poignant) end is detailed as the novel progresses.  The trip was organized by, and the novel centers around, Marjorie Krebsbach, a middle-aged woman ready to shake up the monotony of her life and to figure out why exactly her husband has taken to sleeping in another room.  A typical enough mid-life crisis set-up but Marjorie is rather more fearless than most heroines of such stories.  She’s marvelous, actually.  Ethically I’m not sure I agree with all of her choices but I loved how fantastically decisive she was and her complete lack of guilt afterwards – what many writers would have turned into a source of internal angst, Keillor chalks up to life experience and proceeds on to other issues.  When Marjorie finds herself on her knees in a church, she prays not for her husband’s love or forgiveness or even for the return of the fortune she has unwittingly given away but for the existence of God (while studiously ignoring the other occupants of the church, a mafioso and his armed guards). 

Unfortunately, Keillor’s humour always seems a little off, as though you know he’s trying to make a gently mocking yet affectionate statement but it never quite comes off.  The only lines that truly amused me were the ones at Keillor’s expense – Gary Keillor is the 12th member of the pilgrims and the one providing the funding.  However, his fellow travelers don’t feel so indebted to him as to be polite and take care to remind him frequently that they either don’t like or don’t read his books.  Keillor makes fun of himself as well, remarking that “lack of social skills: that was what made him a writer.  Nothing to do with talent whatsoever”(p. 121). 

A book dealing with small-town Americans travelling in Europe is always guaranteed to mock them, even if just a little, but again, it didn’t quite work.  Yes, there were the grouchy men who didn’t want to leave the hotel.  And yes, the group decided to hit all the main tourist spots, accompanied by large cameras and loud voices, and to eat at an English-style pub with an English-language menu rather than walking a little farther to find something authentic.  The plain, simple Americans pale in comparison to their more worldly, polished Italian counterparts.  Most of this we see through Margie’s eyes – Margie who wants the glamour and romance of Rome, who wants to absorb and be absorbed by the city rather than stand out in it like a sore thumb.  Obviously, she does what any self-respecting tour group member would do and ditches her companions to explore by herself, exchanging the restraint of her townsfolk for the passion of the Romans.  Understandable, especially if you come from a place like Lake Wobegon, where “you worked from a small pool of appropriate partners and a man stepped in where the woman had signaled a vacancy and if she thought he was okay, not an incipient drunk or child molester, she didn’t dismiss him, which was the Lake Wobegon equivalent of falling love”(p.169).  Wouldn’t you jump too at the chance to flirt with handsome Italians in cafes?

In the end, everything works out (as though you ever had any doubt).  Mistakes are made and misunderstandings cleared up, good people prosper while less-than-good (but not bad, never that) people are thwarted, however incompetently.  The prose got increasingly sentimental towards the end though this reader did not – an awkward situation (there are very few writers whose flights of sentimentality I will tolerate without question, really only Alexander McCall Smith and Stuart McLean).  In the end, I was satisfied but not impressed by the story.  I’ve since been told that this is one of Keillor’s weaker offerings so perhaps I’ll go back one day and try one of his earlier works.  Probably not though – it was the style of writing that bothered me most here and I’m not terribly eager to wade through more of it.  I’ll stick to Stuart McLean’s far superior Vinyl Cafe stories.

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While I was having the rather unpleasant experience of reading The Girl Who Chased the Moon, my friend was enjoying one of Sarah Addison Allen’s earlier books, The Sugar Queen.  She enjoyed it so much that, immediately after finishing, she passed her copy on to me, urging me to give Allen another try, which I did and thank goodness, as it redeemed Allen and I will no longer have to think badly of her (and I do dislike thinking badly of others).  The Sugar Queen was light and frothy but it had characters who were actually interesting (unlike the one-dimensional characters in The Girl Who Chased the Moon) and I found the magical elements enchanting rather than grating.

When my friend first mentioned The Sugar Queen, she mentioned that one of the characters reminded her of me.  The character, Chloe, is, to use my friend’s phrase, “haunted by books.”  They appear from out of no where, follow her around, and the titles are selected to get her through whatever crisis she is currently facing, giving her advice she’s not necessarily willing to take.  Of all the compliments I’ve ever been paid, being compared to Chloe and her magical books might be my favourite.  If I ever have to pick a magical power, I’m all set now.

On the other hand, I might like the compliment all the more because my friend passed over Josey, another main character, with whom I share more personality traits than I might like.  Overweight Josey, holed up with her aging mother, held there by guilt, secretly eating junk food in the safety of her bedroom closet, desperately in love with the mailman Adam who barely notices her, afraid to take any risks.  And yet, at heart, she’s a sociable, adventurous woman, though it takes a ghost to help her discover that.  I’m far more outgoing than Josey but the fear in her, the terror of rejection or failure and the twisting of that fear into a rationale for not living her life, struck a little too close to home, especially as far as relationships go.  I can sort out every other aspect of my life, but that bit still eludes me.

Side note: you know you’ve been reading too many cook books when you go to type aspect and you find that you’ve written out ‘aspic.’  My mind has turned to jelly (yes, bad joke, but I couldn’t resist – it’s been a long week).

And, because I collect these, here’s a lovely quote about books, taken from a conversation between Chloe and the owner of her dream house (complete with a dream library):

Books can be possessive, can’t they?  You’re walking around in a bookstore and a certain one will jump out at you, like it had moved there on its own, just to get your attention.  Sometimes what’s inside will change your life, but sometimes you don’t even have to read it.  Sometimes it’s a comfort just to have a book around.  Many of these books haven’t even had their spines cracked.  ‘Why do you buy books you don’t even read?’ our daughter asks us.  That’s like asking someone who lives alone why they bought a cat.  For company, of course. (p. 180)

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The Girl Who Chased the Moon by Sarah Addison Allen has had some very positive reviews and, looking for another book for the Once Upon a Time challenge, I thought ‘why not’?  Allen seems to be a favourite with many other bloggers and the premise seemed intriguing enough:

Emily Benedict came to Mullaby, North Carolina, hoping to solve at least some of the riddles surrounding her mother’s life. Such as, why did Dulcie Shelby leave her hometown so suddenly? And why did she vow never to return? But the moment Emily enters the house where her mother grew up and meets the grandfather she never knew—a reclusive, real-life gentle giant—she realizes that mysteries aren’t solved in Mullaby, they’re a way of life: Here are rooms where the wallpaper changes to suit your mood. Unexplained lights skip across the yard at midnight. And a neighbor bakes hope in the form of cakes.

I was never very excited about reading this and, once I got started, the excitement certainly didn’t build.  It was one of those books that I didn’t find offensive or awful, just plain boring.  I stuck with it until the end (it’s a very quick read), hoping that I might be missing something, but my perseverance was for naught.  There was really no suspense or build up so when the climax came it had little to no impact on me, aside from being a sign that I was closer to the end (a cause for celebration). 

Strangely enough, one of my close friends has been reading The Sugar Queen week, which she’s had much better luck with than I did with this.  Since we usually have very similar tastes (last week we read The Imperfectionists at the same time, also unplanned) I might be willing to give Allen another try.

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It feels like ages since I’ve written a review (rather than just one week) so bear with me as I work the rust out of the system.  Give me a few days and I’m sure everything will be back in working order.

 

Benny & Shrimp by Katarina Mazetti is almost certainly a book I would not have picked up, would never have heard of, if I hadn’t one day wandered into a bookstore that I rarely visit and found it on the Staff Recommendations shelf.  I was in fact more intrigued by the novel’s country of origin (Sweden) than its description of a love story between two thirty-something opposites who meet in a graveyard.  Quirky, Scandinavian fiction?  Count me in.

Shrimp, properly known as Desirée (I would prefer to be called Shrimp, frankly), is a widowed librarian who in the months following her husband’s freak death finds herself crossing paths with the farmer Benny, whose parents occupy the cemetery plot next to Shrimp’s husband.  Both Benny and Shrimp are initially upset to have to share what should be private time at their loved ones graves but, as time goes on, they find themselves drawn together.  And when they finally take a running leap into that inevitable relationship, it’s electric and messy and clearly doomed but so, so fascinating to read about.

The novel is short – only 209 pages – and reads faster than most books that length because of the constant switching between perspectives after only three or four pages.  This is a narrative where it would be very easy to take sides and I thought that by switching so frequently, by presenting both character’s struggles in such a sympathetic, articulate manner, Mazetti made it much more difficult to pass simple judgments on either lead.  That didn’t prevent me from doing so (I come from a long line of dairy farmers, so my sympathies were always going to be with Benny and his commitments to his family farm) but it still felt balanced.

It is a novel about love.  Sort of.  Shrimp’s marriage to the cerebral Örjan was ordered and neat, designed to offer comfort and companionship but never any excitement and really not very much love, not even platonically.  Certainly not the kind of chemical reaction that she and Benny have right from the first moment.  It’s difficult to think of two people worse suited for a relationship: Benny longs for the traditional, for a good farm wife to cook and clean and raise children, a woman who can understand what it means to run a farm, what kind of sacrifices are necessary.  Shrimp is not that woman: Shrimp lives in town, can’t cook and has no interest in learning how, loves books and the theatre and the Opera and foreign films at the cinema.  Neither is terribly willing to adapt to the other’s way of life, to make the kind of sacrifices they know are necessary in order to make the relationship work.

Is that love?  What is love?  Is it a chemical reaction, desire, a ravenous need to jump into bed all the time, victim to a ticking biological clock?  Or is it the well-ordered, emotionless partnership that Shrimp had with her husband and that Benny finds with Anita?  From my way of thinking, it’s neither but then, even as a teenager, I never had one of those hormone-driven crushes or relationships that are thereafter labeled ‘first love’ and alluded to indulgently, nostalgically as time passes.  I think too much.  That’s always been my problem when it comes to matters of the heart (well, when it comes to everything, actually) and I have always managed to reason myself out of any illogical emotional attachment.  The relationship between Benny and Shrimp fascinates me because it’s the kind of thing I simply cannot imagine happening to me.  They cling to each other for so long, even as they’re stubbornly pushing away and fighting, in a way that makes absolutely no sense to me.  Wanting, I understand.  It’s the giving in; the indulging when you know it’s not going anywhere that gives me pause.  I just don’t see the point.  Better to have loved and lost, etc, aside, what is the point of expending all that energy on something that you’re already actively working against to ensure it doesn’t succeed? 

Alright, now that I’ve revealed far too many personal details, best to end (unlike the novel, which remains rather open-ended, in order to accommodate the sequel that does not appear to be available in English.)

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Given all the controversy and the excessive press coverage that surrounded its publication, I think I was expecting The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ by Philip Pullman to live up to all that hype.  Perhaps I was expecting something challenging and offensive, certainly I was expecting something fresh and original.  However, after reading this slim volume, I was singularly underwhelmed.

By now, I’m sure that most people have heard the premise of the story: Mary is visited by an ‘angel’ (who looks suspiciously like one of the boys in the village) and conceives twins who, when born, are named Jesus and Christ.  Jesus is an energetic and mischievous child, hugely charismatic, while Christ is weaker, happier to study and pray than to play with the other children.  When Jesus begins his ministry, Christ is convinced by a mysterious stranger to document his brother’s teachings, to keep records of what is said and of what ‘miracles’ Jesus brings about.  This was perhaps the only aspect of the book that I found at all intriguing: Christ as Jesus’ PR rep.  Rather than always reporting them as the truth, Christ’s intention after Jesus’ death is to refine the stories, to essentially create a more dramatic narrative of his brother’s life, using artistic license where need be (‘if the child born in the stable had been not just a human child, but the very incarnation of God himself, how much more memorable and moving the story would be!’ P. 243). 

I suppose I was mostly disappointed simply because the story didn’t seem very creative.  Yes, the twin-angle was new but everything else, all the secular explanations of what had actually happened, seemed like the kind of thing that children puzzle out, trying to come to terms with the fantastical stories in the Bible, trying to determine what bits might actually be rooted in truth. 

Monty Python’s Life of Brian still does it best.

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My conversion into a graphic novel fan continues!  A quick review now for what was, in fact, a very quick read. 

Apparently, based on my conversations with friends who saw me reading this during my lunch hour, there are still people left in the world who have not heard of Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi.  For these readers, a quick summary:

In powerful black-and-white comic strip images, Satrapi tells the story of her life in Tehran from ages six to fourteen, years that saw the overthrow of the Shah’s regime, the triumph of the Islamic Revolution, and the devastating effects of war with Iraq.  The intelligent and outspoken only child of committed Marxists and the great granddaughter of one of Iran’s last emperors, Marjane bears witness to a childhood uniquely entwined with the history of her country. 

Admittedly, I know very little about Iran.  We covered the bare minimum in high school history classes, so I knew the basics about the overthrow of the Shah and the Islamic Revolution, but Satrapi personalises those events, providing a glimpse into life inside the country during those tumultuous times.  But it also provides a glimpse into the mind of a child coming of age under very usual circumstances, which is what makes this book stand out.

Satrapi is a delightful protagonist – unique from our first introduction to her, as a ten-year old who can’t understand why, in the wake of the Islamic Revolution, she now has to wear the veil (though she may prefer to play with it in the schoolyard).  Quickly, we flash back four years, to a six-year old girl determined to become a prophet and who holds private conversations with God each night.  Irresistible.

There is a pervasive sense of paranoia throughout the book, and no wonder.  Satrapi’s parents were not passive bystanders to the events taking place: they were protestors, Marxists activists who saw many of their friends disappear as the situation worsened.  The most chilling moments in the book come from Satrapi’s encounters with other dissidents, whether it be her beloved uncle (executed as a Soviet spy) or two communist family friends who come to dinner shortly after being released from jail, full of details about the torture techniques used on them.  This kind of personal detail is certainly not what they taught us in my history classes and had an incredibly powerful effect.

I’m already eager to pick up Persepolis II, the story of Satrapi’s return to Iran after years spent studying abroad.  Satrapi’s illustrations aren’t in and of themselves particularly special, but her story is and absolutely worth reading.

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