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Archive for the ‘Graphic Novel’ Category

It is indeed December but, operating as usual on the concept of better late than never, I wanted to share thoughts on some of the books I read in October.  October was dominated by my trip to Europe and my two weeks there hiking in the mountains, wandering through galleries, and eating absolutely delicious food left little time for reading, but I made up for it once I was home.  It was a great reading month and there are a few contenders here for my year-end top ten list:

The Star of Kazan by Eva Ibbotson (2004) – a comforting reread of one of Ibbotson’s best children’s books.

The Marriage Portrait by Maggie O’Farrell (2022) – there is always excitement around a new release from O’Farrell and this is solid storytelling, but not to the excellent level O’Farrell is capable of.  It is the story of Lucrezia de’ Medici, who became the duchess of Ferrara and died at sixteen – of illness, or was it poison at the hands of her husband?  Lucrezia is a distant personality but the only fully-formed character in the book, which proved challenging for me to engage with the story.  The ending was very frustrating and felt cheap, making for an unsatisfying experience all round.

The Winners by Fredrik Backman, translated by Neil Smith (2022) – Powerfully concluding the trilogy which began with Beartown (one of my favourites books a few years ago), I fell deep into this book, even dreaming about it, in part because the characters are so well known to me now but mostly because this hockey-mad northern community has always felt so real.  Backman told us in the first book the fates of several characters and it was immensely satisfying, if heartbreaking, to follow them on that journey.

Horizon by Helen MacInnes (1945) – MacInnes’ thriller focuses on a British PoW who, after escaping from his camp, finds himself living in the Dolomites and helping Tyrolean resistance fighters who, despite a common language, feel only hatred for the Germans.  It’s a flimsy plot with shallow characters and usually I wouldn’t have bothered finishing it but MacInnes does a good job of evoking the stunning setting and the fierce sense of a regional identify separate from either Austria or Italy.  Reading it while in the South Tyrol, only a short distance from the plateau where much of the story is set, also added to my enjoyment.

Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant by Anne Tyler (1982) – a typically excellent Tyler novel about a Baltimore family, told from the perspectives of various members and tracking them from the children’s youths to middle age.  And, as usual, bleak.  I feel like Tyler has relented a little as she’s aged but I’m not sure that she believed happy families existed when she was younger.

Shrines of Gaiety by Kate Atkinson (2022) – a new book from Atkinson is always a cause for rejoicing but this exceeded even my expectations.  Set in the 1920s, Atkinson focuses on missing girls, London nightclubs, and the people caught up on both sides of the law.  She turns phrases so easily and artfully that you can’t help but be delighted and knows how to manage a large cast amidst tangled plot threads better than any other modern writer I can think of.  I loved every word of this.

The Trials of Topsy by A.P. Herbert (1928) – a comic joy.  Full review here.

A Company of Swans by Eva Ibbotson (1985) – what better to turn to while jetting home than an old familiar favourite?  For someone who hates airplanes, this was the perfect distraction and comfort.  Here’s a proper review from ten years ago.

The Golden Enclaves by Naomi Novik (2022) – I was so excited to see how Novik would conclude her “Scholomance” trilogy after loving the first two books, but had to force myself through this.  With graduation now behind her, our heroine El finds herself travelling the globe and Novik loses the world and constraints she built up so well in earlier books set within the school.  Without that tight focus, the story sprawls in every sense of the word, with new characters introduced every few pages as El journeys from one magical community to another.  There are altogether too many dramatic “twists” and, in a series that has always felt mislabelled as adult rather than YA, the entire approach felt geared towards juvenile readers with its neat and bloodless tidying up.  Disappointing.

The Belle of Belgrave Square by Mimi Matthews (2022)Matthews has been a relatively recent discovery for me (thanks to other book bloggers) and I’m loving her gentle historical romances.  This is the second in her “Belles of London” series, which started enjoyably earlier this year with The Siren of Sussex.  I liked that book but I loved this one about a marriage of convenience.  Our heroine Julia, the quiet daughter of demanding invalid parents, and hero Captain Blunt, a veteran of the Crimea who is scandalously raising his bastard children, were introduced in the earlier book and immediately intrigued me but this still managed to exceed my expectations.  The secrets are obvious from the start, so there’s no real Gothic tension (just as I like it), and the story is full of the tenderness Matthews does so well.  If you haven’t tried Matthews yet, her North and South-inspired novella, A Holiday by Gaslight, is perfect seasonal reading.

The Hero of This Book by Elizabeth McCracken (2022) – Nancy Pearl put me on to McCracken and I’ve read three of her books this year, impressed each time with her style and readability.  This is autofiction, which is strange to me at the best of times, but if anyone can convert me it is McCracken with her excellent and entertaining writing.  I especially loved this description of her grandmother:

My grandmother was a nonpracticing lawyer, not the first woman to graduate from Benjamin Harrison Law School in Indianapolis but the only one in the class of 1927.  She was president of her sisterhood, traveled as a public speaker, needlepointed, knit, took photographs and developed them, was a small-business consultant, silk-screened tablecloths, once built a table, and still had time to worry too much.  Somewhere there’s a picture of me in a sweater set of such burlappy awfulness, steel wool to the eye as well as the skin, so cunningly unflattering to every proportion of the short, plump 1980s teenager I was, you would have thought it had been designed as a specific punishment, not knit out of love, though she did love me, which is why the photo exists: She wanted me to pose engulfed in proof.

Ducks by Kate Beaton (2022) – a superb graphic memoir about Beaton’s time working in the oilsands of Northern Alberta.  She does a wonderful job of evoking the strangeness of the camps – where everyone is from somewhere else and no one particularly wants to be there – and how it alters people, rarely for the better.  It is a hard place to be a woman and this may be the best account of sexual assault I’ve read.

The Case Against the Sexual Revolution by Louise Perry (2022) – such an interesting book to read following Ducks – an unintentional pairing but a very appropriate one.  Perry, who has spent time working in rape crisis centers in the UK, lays out the ways in which women have been disadvantaged by the sexual revolution.  Well-researched, well-argued, and full of common sense, she’s not delivering a particularly new message but one that we clearly need to be reminded of over and over again.  There is an excellent review of it in the Guardian if you want further enticement.

Miss Bishop by Bess Streeter Aldrich (1933) – I don’t think Aldrich can be called neglected but would under-appreciated be the right word?  Her books aren’t very hard to find, A Lantern in Her Hand remains a standard in school libraries, and Miss Bishop was adapted fairly loyally into the film “Cheers for Miss Bishop”, and yet I don’t think she’s as popular as her excellent stories of Midwestern pioneers warrant.  Here, she gives readers a wonderful account of the life of Ella Bishop, from her entry into a brand new midwestern college at the age of sixteen until her retirement from that same school fifty years later.  Aldrich handles all the joy and sadness beautifully, as Ella’s life evolves very differently from what she had envisioned.  As always with Aldrich, the sense of community is excellent.

The Forbidden Valley by Essie Summers (1973) – what a very dramatic title for a quintessential Summers romance.  Our heroine Charlotte is shocked to hear her cousin Phyl has disappeared, leaving her two children without explanation as well as her new husband, who, unbeknownst to her, was injured the day she left and is lying unconscious in hospital.  Charlotte takes up the post of housekeeper to keep an eye on the children and figure out what is actually going on, though she hadn’t accounted for the immediate rapport with Edmund, Phyl’s brother-in-law who rushed home after his brother’s accident and is ill disposed towards the feckless Phyl, whom he has never met.   There are far, far too many secrets – when in doubt of how to create conflict, always add another secret! – but it was still a fun story to pass an afternoon with.

I’ve Got the One-More-Washload Blues by Lynn Johnston (1981) – I came back from vacation to discover the paper has entirely changed the comics section but one happy result is that they have brought back “For Better or For Worse”, which ran for almost thirty years from 1979 to 2008 and chronicled the lives of Elly, Anthony and their children.  This collection took me back to the comic’s early years when the children were young and their parents were losing their minds.

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After slacking off a bit with my non-fiction reading earlier in the year, May saw me stepping up my game (also receiving a number of much-anticipated library holds – truly the deciding factor when it comes to what I read) with seven non-fiction titles.  But it was still balanced by many, many rom-coms.  

The No-Show by Beth O’Leary (2022) – Three women are stood up by Joseph Carter on Valentine’s Day: Siobhan, who enjoys their hotel hook-ups when she’s visiting from Dublin; Jane, who Jospeh had promised to partner as a fake date for an event she dreaded; and Miranda, his girlfriend.  None gets a straight answer as to why she was stood up and so their doubts begin to grow.

O’Leary treads a line here between slick and smart and I’m still not entirely sure which I think she pulls off but it’s fundamentally a fun book, even if Joseph remains a (necessarily) distant figure throughout and therefore not an ideal romantic hero.

Free by Lea Ypi (2021) – a wonderful memoir about growing up in Albania in the dying years of communism and in the desperate 1990s.  Ypi provides an interesting glimpse into a country I know little about and her memories of helped me understand all the modern stereotypes I’ve absorbed – of gangsters trafficking people across the Adriatic and illegal workers in Italy – and how they came to be.  A good country to leave, sadly.

The Authority Gap by Mary Ann Sieghart (2021) – the subtitle for Sieghart’s entertaining and enraging book is “Why Women Are Still Taken Less Serious Than Men, and What We Can Do About It”, but it’s hard to get excited about the (very practical) actions she outlines when you realise just how many of them there are.  I suspect there won’t be many surprises here for most women, especially those in the corporate world, but it’s helpful to have the facts.  A book you’ll want to make every man in your office read (but will they take it seriously?).

One More Croissant for the Road by Felicity Cloake (2019) – Reread.  A joyous foodie memoir about Cloake’s bicycle journey through France to explore regional specialties.

Goblin Hill by Essie Summers (1977) – After Faith’s parents die, she discovers she was adopted with only just enough time to reconnect with her dying birth mother.  Now knowing the identify of her birth father, she looks for a job near his New Zealand farm until she can work up the courage to present herself.  She starts work as a family historian only to discover that the women who have hired her are her great-aunts.  Soon she is caught up in the family (especially with Gareth Morgan, her stepbrother) while waiting for her father to return from his travels.  There are many silly secrets and the overall effect is classic Summers but far from her best.

The Wedding Crasher by Abigail Mann (2022) – an enjoyably slow-moving romcom about a woman who finds herself swept up into the wedding chaos of her university housemate years after last seeing him.  It’s a bizarrely complicated set up but Mann makes it work with fundamentally relatable characters.  This is her third novel and I’ve enjoyed all of them.

Twelve Days in May by Niamh Hargan (2022) – jumping from one novel about two university friends contemplating what-might-have-been, I fell straight into another.  I guess we know what people were musing about during Covid lockdowns.

Twelve years after meeting in Bordeaux, Lizzy and Ciaran reconnect at the Cannes film festival where his film is debuting and she is working for the Scottish Film Board.  With allegations of plagiarism against Ciaran, his PR team pulls her in to the media whirlwind to attest to the originality of the film, based on their Erasmus experience.  But the film – and being together – brings back memories of their intense friendship all those years before and its abrupt ending.  Soon Lizzy is wondering how well she really remembers what happened and if there is a chance to start again.  Thoroughly enjoyable.

Under One Roof by Ali Hazelwood (2022) – Hazelwood has a trio of linked novellas that have come out before her second novel is released in August.  They’ve been released first as audiobooks and I did listen to the other two but this was the only one I read.  About three friends in STEM fields, I honestly found all the characters very annoying and the romances frustrating, though this one – about two unwilling housemates who eventually fall in love – was…the least frustrating?  Faint praise, indeed.

The Temporary European by Cameron Hewitt (2022) – For North American travellers, Rick Steves is a dependable and practical travel guru, inspiring others with his passion for European travel.  Cameron Hewitt is his right-hand man and equally excited about sharing his love of Europe.  I’ve loved reading his blog posts over the years, especially since his main area of focus is Central and Eastern Europe, so it’s no surprise I loved this collection of travel essays.  Like Rick, Cameron is funny, generally optimistic, and candid about his likes and dislikes.

Book Lovers by Emily Henry (2022) – when literary agent Nora’s sister insists they take a holiday together to a small town in North Carolina, Nora can’t refuse.  Ever since their single-parent mother died twelve years before (and even before that), Nora has felt responsible for Libby’s happiness.  Seeing how harried Libby is now – pregnant and with two young daughters already – Nora goes along with the plan.  She’s less willing to go along with Libby’s romance-novel-esque list of things to do while there (ride a horse, go skinny dipping, date a local).  But when Nora finds a familiar face in the small town – Charlie, an editor she’s crossed paths with in New York – things begin to look up.

Henry is very, very, very good at romcoms and this may be her best so far.  Nora is the anti-Hallmark heroine.  She feels cast as the evil urban ice queen, whose boyfriends go on business trips to quirky small towns and find love with peppy girls trying to save their family companies.  When she finds herself in a small town…that does not change.  And I loved that.  Nora gets to be who she is throughout – a successful, competent, in-control woman.  And she gets a successful, competent, in-control love interest who doesn’t need to challenge or change her, just be there for her to rely on and let her feel comfortable enough to relax a little.  Truly, the dream.

We Don’t Know Ourselves by Fintan O’Toole (2022) – a superb blend of history and memoir in which journalist O’Toole looks at the changes in modern Ireland over the course of his life, from his birth in 1958 to the present day.  Reviewed here.

Borders by Thomas King (2021) – a graphic novel adaptation of an old short story by King about a boy and his mother trying to cross the Canada-US border.  When his mother is unwilling to identify her nationality as anything other than Blackfoot (whose lands straddle the border), the boy and his mother find themselves stuck in a no man’s land at the border crossing.

The Meet Cute Method by Portia MacIntosh (2022) – Still enjoying my discovery of MacIntosh’s romcoms.

Vinegar Girl by Anne Tyler (2016) – Reread of Tyler’s retelling of The Taming of the Shrew.

After the Romanovs by Helen Rappaport (2022) – another fascinating history from the always reliable Rappaport about the Russians who found their way to Paris both during the early years of the 20th Century and after the revolution.  Reviewed here.

A White Bird Flying by Bess Streeter Aldrich (1931) – excellent sequel to A Lantern in Her Hand from the perspective of Abby Deal’s granddaughter Laura.  Laura is determined to fulfil the genteel aspirations her grandmother never achieved but, ultimately, like Abby she finds herself tempted by love and the promise of friendship and a family.  Aldrich poignantly tracks the decline of the first generation of pioneers and reflects on how quickly the country has changed, that the grandchildren of those early settlers now take going to college for granted and have the whole world at their feet.

New Zealand Inheritance by Essie Summers (1957) – this was Summers’ first book and she certainly began as she meant to go on.  Roberta returns to her grandfather’s Otago farm in her mid-twenties, after travelling the world with her artistic parents and nursing them through their final years.  Now she is looking for roots and feels drawn back to Heatherleigh, where she spent one idyllic summer as a child.  When she arrives, it seems as though her grandfather’s one-time shepherd and now neighbour, Muir Buchanan, is paying her attentions with an eye to her inheritance.  Roberta, fighting her attraction, decides to lead him on a merry dance.

Roberta is the worst kind of heroine: a sensible person doing absolutely bonkers things to serve the plot.  And Muir is uselessly uncommunicative and struggling a bit with the chip on his shoulder.  Backed up by some absurdly melodramatic stories for secondary characters, it’s all a bit much.

How We Met by Huma Qureshi (2021) – a short, gentle memoir about Qureshi’s experiences growing up in a family and culture that shaped her approach to finding a romantic partner – and how she eventually chose a different path and a very different sort of husband.

Holding Her Breath by Eimear Ryan (2022) – I loved the writing in this story of a young woman starting a new life at university in Dublin, growing away from the swimming that defined her teen years and delving into her family’s past and the suicide of her famous poet grandfather. But…there are too many buts to count.  The plot and characterization are bog standard and I’m sure I’ll forget everything within a month or two.

See You Yesterday by Rachel Lynn Solomon (2022) – Extremely good YA novel about two university freshmen who find themselves stuck – à la Groundhog Day – reliving the same day over and over.  When they realise it’s happening to them both, they band together and start trying to break out of the loop and move forward with their lives.  As days turn to weeks, they have time to get to know one another, go a little loopy, work through some issues, and, very sweetly, fall in love.  It’s all delightful, funny, and poignant, and the characters, both dealing with baggage they don’t particularly want to confront, are highly relatable (if a little too emotionally evolved for eighteen year olds).

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A User's Guide to Neglectful ParentingI love Guy Delisle’s graphic travel memoirs.  Shenzhen, Pyongyang, Burma Chronicles and Jerusalem are all well observed records of Delisle’s time abroad, humourously depicting the culture shock he experiences while also addressing the very serious political issues he confronts in his travels.  But as much as I love those books, it was delightful to just be able to have fun with Delisle’s most recent book, the 100% lighthearted A User’s Guide to Neglectful Parenting.

The book is short, just a collection of anecdotes about Delisle’s more irresponsible interactions with his son and daughter.  I loved it.  After a busy day last week, I sat down with it after dinner and had a very pleasant half hour giggling my way through Delisle’s missteps.  I still can’t decide which vignette was my favourite.  Was it Delisle repeatedly forgetting to act as “la petite souris” several nights in a row after his son loses a tooth and having to persuade his son that the mouse is running behind schedule?  Or was it when he is trying to convince his daughter that she prefers sugary cereals so that he can keep his precious Shredded Wheat, brought all the way from Canada, to himself?  Or perhaps when he decides to offer his daughter his professional opinion of her drawing?  They are all enjoyable.  If you’re looking for a fun distraction, this is the book for you.

How to traumatize your children with the aid of red chainsaw oil

How to traumatize your children with the aid of red chainsaw oil

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I adored Essex County by Jeff Lemire.  Honestly, that is not something I ever anticipated being able to say about a graphic novel but here you have it.  Set in the rural Southwestern Ontario farming community of Essex County, the book is a compilation of three inter-connected volumes, dealing with the personal stories of three of its residents.  They are not cheerful stories but they are beautifully, if somberly, told.    

Volume 1, Tales from the Farm, centers on young Lester Papineau.  Lester, sent to live with his Uncle Ken on the farm after his mother’s death from cancer, spends most of his time escaping into his super hero fantasies and reading (and attempting to draw his own) comic books.  The awkwardness between Lester and Ken is both sad and very realistic, neither one comfortable with the other, both still grieving for Claire, Lester’s mother, but unwilling or unable to share their pain with the other.  Their silent meals around the dining room table broke my heart.  The story follows Lester’s friendship with Jimmy, a former hockey player who, after a severe head injury, now works at the local gas station where Lester buys his comic books.  Jimmy spends time with Lester and encourages his artistic efforts and imaginative play.  But when Ken finds out about their friendship, Lester realises there is something he does not know about his family’s history with Jimmy.         

Volume 2, Ghost Stories, made me cry more often than I like to admit.  All three volumes are sad to varying extents but I found this one the most powerful.  Lou Lebeuf is living in his memories, remembering his happy childhood and then the split that tore him and his brother apart, as deafness and dementia set in and he is moved from his farm house to a nursing home.  I loved the image of the two brothers skating on the river together as boys, leaning into one another, the affection and camaraderie of it.  And both boys achieve that great dream of all boys who grow up playing hockey on rural ponds and lakes: they move to the city and get to play professionally.  And they get to do it together.  But then there is a betrayal between the brothers, one that cannot be overcome, and while Vince returns toEssexCountyLou stays in the city, though he hates it and longs for the farm.  The isolating images of the middle-aged Lou, going deaf and driving streetcars in Toronto when he wants nothing more than to be back on the farm with a brother he can’t even bring himself to talk to, were gut wrenching. 

Finally, volume 3, The Country Nurse, is devoted to Anne Quenneville and her grandmother Margaret. The story follows Anne as she flits about the county in her capacity as a nurse, visiting and caring for others, all the time struggling with her own family situation, while Margaret, more than a hundred years old and living in the nursing home, remembers the circumstances that first brought her to Essex County ninety years before.  This is as close to cheery as Essex County gets, as the indefatigable Anne encounters the characters from the earlier volumes and we see how their stories are resolved.

The art is wonderful and used to powerful effect, especially in capturing the stillness and emptiness of the rural community.  The panels without text, generally used in sequence, were a wonderful way to evoke the mood of a moment – whether it be Uncle Ken sitting alone at the dinner table or the elderly Lou wandering alone and confusing down to the river.  There are many flashbacks and Lemire does a particularly impressive job of making characters both recognizable and realistic at all ages.  His drawings of elderly characters were especially excellent. 

More than anything, I was impressed by Lemire’s skill in capturing such a true-to-life portrait of rural life.  The stories and experiences of the characters seemed very real, just the kind of things I might encounter or at least hear about if I went back to the rural Southwestern Ontario farming community where my own family is from (the farmers are all like Uncle Ken and my great aunt was a nurse like Anne and visits the elderly and afflicted even more often now that she is retired).  There was no suspension of disbelief here.  Each depressing detail, each tragedy, each family rift felt very human and very genuine.

If all graphic novels were this thoughtful, well-plotted, and emotionally honest, I’d certainly read more.

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I’m afraid that Moving Pictures by Kathryn and Stuart Immonen, while much praised by other, far more knowledgeable reviewers of graphic novels, left me cold.  Graphic novels aren’t my thing.  I have enjoyed a few – I’ve been particularly delighted by Guy Delisle’s graphic memoirs – but more often than not I find the medium jarring and ill-suited to tell a story that might otherwise have captivated me.  And this story, sketched out in the barest possible terms, had all the potential to be a gripping one. 

Individually, each panel is striking.  The graphics articulately express the tension that pervades the novel.  Everything is restrained and stark except for the paintings in the museum.  These are recreated in extravagant detail.  The famous subjects bend and curve and emote, breathing life into characters’ otherwise restrained existence.  But the art provides the only real energy in the book and it is strangely at odds with the dry, vague text of the novel.  More than anything, the scenes from the book felt like vignettes from a larger tale, as though the real storytelling was taking place somewhere else.  You could piece together the story from what was there but you couldn’t help but feel that there was a richer, more satisfying narrative behind this work, something you were being denied access to.   

I went into this book knowing it had a Canadian heroine (Ila) and was set in wartime Paris where museum and gallery curators were working to ‘misplace’ items from their collections before they could be handed over to the Nazi occupiers.  I’m not sure I came out of the reading knowing all that much more, which was so frustrating!  Ila’s conflicted relationship with Rolf Hauptmann – by turns her lover, her interrogator, and her rival – seems so intriguing.  I want to know more about them, I want a full book devoted to their personal interactions.  Instead I get a few lines of incredibly restrained dialogue.  I want that novel and I want it now.  Doesn’t that sound like a book you would read?  

While I’m glad that I tried another graphic novel, this wasn’t a particularly successful reading experience for me.  There’s simply too much story – or rather, the promise of a story – for such a slim, minimalist volume.

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So many books read, so little of interest to report.  You have all been incredibly patient, even going so far as to humour me by commenting on what were clearly filler posts (the idea of going a day without posting fills me with dread – I am working on this).  Bless.  The truth is that after reading The Rehearsal, which blew me away, I had a lot of trouble settling on any one book and, when I did, nothing that I picked seemed particularly worthy of its own individual review.  So, I have decided just to bombard you with all of the books I read last week in one post.  Fair?

The highlight of the week, and this is sad, was Hungry by Crystal Renn (with Marjorie Ingall).  A barely literate memoir by someone born in 1986 (people my age should really not be allowed to write memoirs), Hungry begins with tales of Renn’s happy if unconventional childhood, leading up to the moment she was ‘discovered’ by a scout and told that if she could get her weight down to 110lbs (at 5’9), the modeling agency would be interested in her.  Renn did even more than was asked: she got her weight down below 100lbs through a combination of anorexia and compulsive exercising and, at fourteen, earned her ticket to New York.  There, she was miserable and unsuccessful (yes, it is a morality tale as well).  Eventually, she came to her senses, made her health a priority, and switched to plus-sized modeling, where she has been hugely successfully as a US size 12 (at approximately 165).  Renn is now one of the few modeling faces (and, it must be said, bodies) that are instantly recognizable even to people like me, who know nothing about the modeling world.  A very typical celebrity memoir, the book comes across as very frothy for the first half and preachy towards the end, when Renn advocates for the HAES (Healthy at Every Size) philosophy and devotes many pages to her arguments about acceptance and empowerment.  Far, far too many.  The message is good, but the reader is bombarded and then bored with it.  Still, it’s a fascinating story of a woman who has made a very real difference in a generally sizest industry, conquering the accepted wisdom that plus-size models only have limited appeal.  I may have been unfairly won over by the photos as well – I do love nice, glossy, colour photos. 

Renn's most famous work (for Breast Cancer Awareness)

I also read two (count ‘em, two!) graphic novels: Burma Chronicles by Guy Delisle and Blankets by Craig Thompson.  I was incredibly unwhelmed by Blankets, which was disappointing after reading so many enthusiastic reviews.  The illustrations were fabulous but the story seemed rather dull and predictable to me.  There was no tension in it, nothing that made me care about the narrator or his life events.  Burma Chronicles, on the other hand, was just as delightful as Delisle’s Pyongyang.  There’s something terrifically charming about Delisle; both his illustrations and his sense of humour endear him to me.  Certainly, this is the best way to experience any military dictatorship. 

Moving on from Burma to India, I read The Immigrant by Manju Kapur.  The story of an arranged marriage and the ensuing culture-clash when the wife, Nina, comes to join her husband in Canada, this should have been right up my alley.  It was not.  The first section, handling the events leading up to the marriage, was fascinating but after that everything fell apart and focus shifted entirely to the sex life of the couple.  Sounds salacious but it was in fact terribly, terribly boring.  I persisted until the end, hoping it would improve.  It did not.  I enjoyed the author’s style of writing so will (after I recover from my disappointment) attempt to track down more of her work (Difficult Daughters seems to get high praise).

The weekend was then spent reading ridiculously fluffy Regency romance novels.  I knew, years ago, when I started reading Georgette Heyer that she was viewed as a gateway drug.  Lauren Willig’s novels signaled another slip (confirmed when I reread The Masque of the Black Tulip on Saturday).  Finally, my former manager (of all people) recommended that I try the newest book by Kate Moore (with the awful title To Tempt a Saint) and down I went.  It was quickly followed by the equally ridiculously-named (but far superior in style and substance) Then Comes Seduction by Mary Balogh.  I am a ridiculous snob and even as I enjoy these books I feel rather ashamed of even having ‘lowered’ myself to crack the covers (and rather afraid that I will be shunned by other bloggers).  But such books are fun, not even remotely as explicit as some of the other literature I read (see The Immigrant above) and, while I’d never spend money on them (thrift overlapping with snobbishness), my library seems to be stunningly well-stocked.  Not the sort of thing to read all the time but, as a diversion every once in a while, very pleasant.  The Balogh book was also surprising descriptive about garden layouts, which, combined with the recent improvement in the weather here, has reawakened my passion for landscape design, a passion I suppress all winter long and obsess over most summers.  The appropriate volumes have been ordered from the library and it won’t be long before I’m daydreaming about sunken gardens, blossoming orchards, and fragrant rows of roses.

Sunken Garden at Upton Grey

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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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There’s a question that has to be burning on the lips of all foreigners here, a question you refrain from asking aloud but one can’t help asking yourself: do they really believe the bullshit that’s being forced down their throats?

I think Pyongyang by Guy Delisle may have converted me into a graphic novel fan.  In fact, I may now be able to call them graphic novels without snickering, which, trust me, is a breakthrough.

Pyongyang is subtitled ‘A Journey in North Korea.’  Journey might be overstating is somewhat: for the most part, Delisle is stationed in Pyongyang, where he is working for a French animation company, occasionally being escorted on day trips further afield.  However, his experiences and commentary are fascinating and beautifully illustrated and, occasionally, hilarious.  I think it is this humour that made the book special for me: the subject matter is far too depressing otherwise, if I hadn’t been able to laugh every few pages I probably would have abandoned it mid-way.  Happily, I was hooked quite early when, immediately after arriving in Pyongyang, Delisle is reading a passage about the thought police from 1984 in his hotel bedroom and subsequently becomes somewhat paranoid about his room being tapped.  This is also where I first realised the power of images over text, as the episode is conveyed without commentary. 

Delisle’s experience is the same of any foreign entering a communist country.  He is assigned a translator and a guide, both of whom chaperon all of his excursions outside of the sterile hotel-zone.  Like all foreigners, he attempts to get his translator to admit to feeling stifled and scared by the communist regime.  Like all foreigners, he fails.  He is outraged by the propaganda that pervades throughout the country: his field trips are all to such inspiring sights as The Children’s Palace, the Museum of Imperialist Occupation, and the Pyongyang subway, which foreigners are only allowed to ride from one stop to the next.  As Delisle notes in frustration: “there’s a banner on every building, a portrait on every wall, a pin on every chest.”  Naïve to be surprised by this perhaps, but his documentation of the various forms of propaganda is fascinating nonetheless.  I know so little about North Korea that any glimpse of it is fascinating and Delisle handles the little details exceedingly well – everything from the make-work projects civilians ‘volunteer’ for to the disgusting, soiled tablecloths that can be found in all restaurants.

All in all, an intriguing glimpse into a very private country and a wonderful introduction to a talented illustrator.  I’m already eager to get my hands on a copy of Delisle’s The Burma Chronicles.

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