The Complete Persepolis

The Complete Persepolis

Cover image for Persepolis
Cover image for Persepolis

This post is not really a review. This book is so critically acclaimed that it does not really need my take on its pros and cons. The “pros” have already decided that this book is worthy of an award-winning film and being on the required reading list for schools all over the world. My purpose here is to encourage those of you who have not read it to please do so at your earliest convenience.

Persepolis is the story of Satrapi’s unforgettable childhood and coming of age within a large and loving family in Tehran during the Islamic Revolution; of the contradictions between private life and public life in a country plagued by political upheaval; of her high school years in Vienna facing the trials of adolescence far from her family; of her homecoming–both sweet and terrible; and, finally, of her self-imposed exile from her beloved homeland. It is the chronicle of a girlhood and adolescence at once outrageous and familiar, a young life entwined with the history of her country yet filled with the universal trials and joys of growing up.” —Indiebound.org

Persepolis challenged me in a way that very little of what I read does. It puts fear, heartache, and suffering in perspective, and hopefully awakens a powerful empathy in its readers. It is impossible to read this without feeling something for the people of Iran, for Marjane, and for her family.

This is not an easy book to read. Normally I can read graphic novels fairly quickly, even while spending extra time to appreciate their artistry and notice small details in the illustrations. Reading this, I had to stop every other chapter for a mental break–a chance to think over and process what I’d read. It’s difficult to read about such things–the horrors of war and the growing pains of a young woman coming of age in such a time.

This book should be required reading for everyone, not just students. It’s important, in our time, to understand that our thousands of years of warlike history are not going to serve us in the future. These comic strips, in simple black and white, tell the true tale of war as an instrument of suffering, and of greed, politics, and fundamentalism  It also tells a more recognizable story: one of family, love, and belonging. Sprinkled in among the things that I can never imagine experiencing, and count myself lucky to have never known, there are also things that touched my heart because they were so achingly familiar. There are also plenty of laugh out loud funny moments.

Persepolis is one of those books that can grant healing and change minds. The millions of people who died cannot be returned to those who lost them, but perhaps, with more hearts and minds opened through books like these, the world we create for future generations can ensure that others need never experience the grief, terror, and loss suffered by those in this conflict and countless others. Please, read this book and allow it to open your heart to those who are different from you.

The Nightingale (And Why It Matters)

The Nightingale (And Why It Matters)

The Nightingale
The Nightingale

I have never been a tremendous fan of Kristin Hannah. Before this, I never felt that her novels had much substance. They are frilly chick-lit with very little real value. The Nightingale, however, took my breath away. It is an incredible novel with a lot to say, and it highlights several parts of history that I feel deserve more attention than they have received in the past.

“In love we find out who we want to be.
In war we find out who we are.

FRANCE, 1939

In the quiet village of Carriveau, Vianne Mauriac says goodbye to her husband, Antoine, as he heads for the Front. She doesn’t believe that the Nazis will invade France…but invade they do, in droves of marching soldiers, in caravans of trucks and tanks, in planes that fill the skies and drop bombs upon the innocent. When a German captain requisitions Vianne’s home, she and her daughter must live with the enemy or lose everything. Without food or money or hope, as danger escalates all around them, she is forced to make one impossible choice after another to keep her family alive.

Vianne’s sister, Isabelle, is a rebellious eighteen-year-old girl, searching for purpose with all the reckless passion of youth. While thousands of Parisians march into the unknown terrors of war, she meets Gaetan, a partisan who believes the French can fight the Nazis from within France, and she falls in love as only the young can…completely. But when he betrays her, Isabelle joins the Resistance and never looks back, risking her life time and again to save others.

With courage, grace and powerful insight, bestselling author Kristin Hannah captures the epic panorama of WWII and illuminates an intimate part of history seldom seen: the women’s war. The Nightingale tells the stories of two sisters, separated by years and experience, by ideals, passion and circumstance, each embarking on her own dangerous path toward survival, love, and freedom in German-occupied, war-torn France–a heartbreakingly beautiful novel that celebrates the resilience of the human spirit and the durability of women. It is a novel for everyone, a novel for a lifetime.” –Indiebound

On the surface, this is just a historical fiction novel about two sisters.  It’s not really even about the two sisters together or their relationship. Much of the novel follows both of them separately, except in the few places where their paths overlap. Set in France, it has a natural appeal for me because France is one of my favorite places in the world. I’m sure I’m not the only person who feels that way. There are so many depths and layers to the story once you delve deeper into the book. I am really pleased with Hannah for making this novel more than just another empty piece of chick-lit.

Several things set this novel apart for me. The first is that the goal of the novel is a lofty and noble one. Both of the women in the novel recognize the horror of what is happening around them. Rather than choosing the safer path of compliance, as many women understandably chose when their men were gone and their homes were invaded, both of these women live dangerous double lives in order to defend their homeland. They rely on their wits and act in the face of overwhelming danger. They stare their fear in the face and they continue onward in spite of it. Their level of courage is hard to match and it made for a really great story.

What I think is most important and enjoyable about this novel, though, is that this story is not entirely fiction. I do not know if Hannah based her story on any one person in history, but I do know that there were people in France doing exactly what these sisters were doing. One historical figure I read about reminded me so much of Vianne that I thought surely Hannah was inspired by the real woman’s story. The uncommon courage that people found within themselves during this very difficult time is inspiring.

What’s more, it changed my perception of the area and its people during the war. Growing up in the United States, we are taught, in both school and at home, that the United States were the big heroes and we saved Europe from Hitler. That might be one way of looking at it, but reading this kind of novel is important because it makes one realize just how difficult it was for the people under Hitler’s thumb to survive, let alone resist. Though my worldview has expanded drastically since I was a child in history class, I still sometimes sense those lingering prejudices and biases. Reading this novel and others (The Book Thief by Marcus Zusak is another that will alter your perceptions of people in Nazi-occupied Europe) helps to combat some of that conditioning.

Here are a few things that I already suspected, but which this novel really helped to drive home for me:

-The people of France, or anywhere else in the Axis-occupied territories, were not cowards, and they didn’t just sit around waiting to be rescued. Hitler was not recognized for the threat that he was until it was too late, and he seized his power by degrees. In hindsight, it is easy to recognize his evil, but no one truly knew or believed how bad it would eventually get. And still, people were resisting his influence from the beginning of his power.

-Not all Nazis were evil. Just because they wore the armband and followed orders doesn’t mean all of them truly subscribed to the message. Many of them resisted in any way they could while still doing the minimum necessary to protect themselves and their families.

-Women played a vital role in the war. Many didn’t wear uniforms; they didn’t fire guns; they didn’t die in trenches. But they did more than “keep the home fires burning.” They protected children. They hid those people wanted by the Nazis. They smuggled fallen pilots out of Nazi territory and kept them from being murdered or made prisoners. They risked their lives to subvert the Nazis in countless ways, and it is a relief to see some of those stories being told at last.

This is a powerful, emotional novel that packs a lot of message in just a few hundred pages. It is beautiful, it is deep, and I believe it is an important work of historical fiction–one of those that reminds us that there are many tales to be told, even when we think we’ve heard them all.

The Accursed King

The Accursed King

Okay, The Accursed King is not the name of a book. If it is, it’s not the one I’m reviewing. I have another duel post today, and first I’d like to talk about The Accursed by Joyce Carol Oates.

The Accursed cover
The Accursed cover

“A major historical novel from ‘one of the great artistic forces of our time’: an eerie, unforgettable story of possession, power, and loss in early 20th-century Princeton, a cultural crossroads of the powerful and the damned.”

This novel was very interesting. I did not understand its format, at first, and an apparent “historical” quote about a Curse in Princeton, NJ near the turn of the 20th Century confused me. This quote is, of course, part of the novel and made by a fictitious character. But it was intriguing for the author to introduce a fictional character in a place where most novelists put relevant, real quotes by real authors.

This blending of history and fiction sets the trend for the entire novel. Many of the chapters are actually diary entries or memories of characters. Interspersed with fictional names are some very recognizable real ones: Woodrow Wilson, Teddy Roosevelt, Upton Sinclair, Jack London, and more. It made the story interesting, to read about these historical figures and the supernatural events that only happened to them in this novel.

This is the first novel by JCO that I had ever read. I really enjoyed her style. It’s eloquent, detailed, and, at least in this novel, satirical of the upper class (always a favorite of mine). This novel was also just creepy enough to keep me guessing and just a little afraid, but not so creepy as to keep me up at night. I believe I read this one around Halloween, and it was the perfect read for that time of year! I’d really recommend this novel.

The Once and Future King
The Once and Future King

“T.H. White’s masterful retelling of the saga of King Arthur is a fantasy classic as legendary as Excalibur and Camelot, and a poignant story of adventure, romance, and magic that has enchanted readers for generations.”

The above blurb is not really sufficient to describe what this novel encompasses. This is one of my favorite books of all time. It is a masterful work that imagines the life of King Arthur from beginning to end. If you’ve ever seen the movie “The Sword In the Stone” you will recognize the first book of this novel (it’s divided into four books; you can also buy the first book as a separate volume).

I wrote a paper on this novel in college and actually had it published in our literary journal. I am a big fan of Arthurian literature and legend, and what really speaks to me about this novel every time I read it is the way it links identities formed by events in childhood to their contributions to the story in adulthood. It very clearly connects issues with self-confidence or emotional control in Lancelot, Gawaine, or other popular characters directly to their actions as adults and the ways in which they contribute to the downfall of Arthur’s kingdom.

But this is English-major-nerd speak. Why should someone who isn’t examining every word of this book for connections read it? First, it’s funny. White wrote it decades ago, but the quirky, whip-smart humor holds up. I often find myself laughing out loud and trying to explain to the people around me what’s so funny, but no one understands. What I really need is for someone to also read this novel, love it as much as me, and then talk about it with me all the time.

It’s also an emotionally manipulative masterpiece. I’m not sure how White manages to make me laugh while I’m also crying, but he does it more than once. He makes me grit my teeth and wring my hands and completely stress about what is going to happen. He makes you love even the worst of the characters (with one notable exception) and wish more than anything that they would stop digging their own graves.

I daresay Arthur’s story is one of the greatest legends of all time. It has endured more lastingly than any other, I think, and this novel is a beautiful tribute and contribution to the canon. T. H. White’s interpretation of the legend is my favorite out of all the texts I’ve read (Marion Zimmer Bradley’s The Mists of Avalon comes pretty close, too). Even if it doesn’t become your favorite interpretation, I highly recommend you read this novel.

A Circus-Themed Post

A Circus-Themed Post

I’ve recently read two novels with circus themes that I think lovers of Erin Morgenstern’s The Night Circus would enjoy.

Gracekeepers

The Gracekeepers by Kirsty Logan was our book club selection this month, and it was incredibly polarizing. On one side, you have those like me, who absolutely loved it, and you have those who really didn’t think much of it at all. I thought it was an incredibly lovely book. The language was lush and poetic, the setting well-structured and highly visible in the reader’s mind’s eye. It is the story of two women in a drowned, post-apocalyptic landscape. One girl travels with a floating circus, her act involving a trained, dancing bear who is also her dearest friend. The other conducts funeral rites on her lonely island wreathed in mist and surrounded by floating bird cages.

There are many story-lines happening in this novel. Perhaps the author was a little over-ambitious in such a short novel, for there are questions that were not answered to their fullest and loose ends that could have used tighter tying. Despite its minor failings, I thought the novel was so enjoyable that I couldn’t put it down. I loved North, the bear girl, especially. She is courageous and strong. Her circus, the ship Excalibur and its flotilla of coracles, sounds like a rough but adventurous life. I found myself drawn to this watery world, where trees are so rare it’s a crime (or even blasphemous) to harm them in any way. It is only vaguely fantastic, so it will appeal to readers who ordinarily stay away from fantasy stories.

BookSpeculation

The Book of Speculation by Erika Swyler was another incredible circus book (how I ended up reading two almost in a row, I don’t know). In this novel, narrator Simon Watson is a librarian who lives by himself in his ancestral home on the harsh coast of the Northeastern United States. The house, due to erosion, is so near the cliff’s edge that it threatens daily to go over, but that is the least of his problems. His parents are dead, and his sister is the fortune-teller in a traveling circus. Simon one day receives a book in the mail from someone he has never met–a book that shows a frightening trend in his family’s women’s tendency to drown on a particular day of the year. The women in his family are side-show “mermaids” who can hold their breath for impossibly long periods of time; Simon and his sister both possess this ability as well. The drownings lead Simon to believe that perhaps there is a curse on his family, and his sister seems to have arrived at home just in time for her own drowning, unless Simon can do something about it.

I apologize if I made this sound like a thriller. It is thrilling, but it is so much more than that. It is, in part, a beautiful homage to the written word. Simon and several other characters adore rare and antiquarian books, and it is a feeling with which many of the novel’s readers will feel kinship. It is also, in part, historical fiction, as the narration flips back and forth between first-person in the present day with Simon, and third-person following a mute circus “Wild Boy”-turned-seer in the late 18th Century. Swyler’s prose is eloquent, and her plot is so exciting that I didn’t want to put this book down. One thing I enjoyed in particular was being witness to the origin story of several of the antique relics that Simon comes across in his search for truth–an old theatrical curtain, mysterious portraits of unknown persons, and a crumbling deck of tarot cards that his sister obsesses over.

Though the supernatural is only hinted at and never quite makes a verifiable appearance, it adds enough of an air of mystery and intrigue to hook its readers. Are Simon and his family descended from an Eastern-European water spirit? Is there truly a curse, or are the family merely victims of truly bad luck? Is it wishful thinking, or does Simon truly hear his mother’s ghost in the water? What’s up with the horseshoe crabs?

These books are must-reads for lovers of somber, beautiful prose; sorrowful, nostalgic stories; ethereal setting; and the draw of a carnival atmosphere providing a light in the darkness.

The Grapes of Wrath

The Grapes of Wrath

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I expected to hate this book. Of Mice and Men was really overwhelmingly “meh,” and I’ve never had a particular fondness for American literature. So when I cracked the spine on this one and found that I was actually really drawn in by Steinbeck’s prose and the story of the Joads, I was sort of blown away with delight.

First, let me preface this by saying that, as a former literature major, I am the type of person who simply must read the introduction. I can’t skip it. It’s just not possible for me. The fact that this introduction was 46 pages long was really irritating to me, because I was ready to jump straight into the story.  However, if you read this book, I recommend reading whatever introduction might be included, no matter how long. It really helped with the reading of the book to learn so much about how he wrote it. For instance: I learned that Steinbeck spent years researching the book, spending time among migrant workers in run-down camps, learning what it was like to live their lives. He began several projects about the plight of the migrant worker before he finally sat down and wrote The Grapes of Wrath start to finish in a matter of a few short months. The introduction also prepared me for the structure and style that he wrote the novel in, and knowing that gave me a better appreciation for the novel.

Because there are so many things in this novel to potentially talk about, and because this is not a college essay, I will briefly mention some things I loved, and allow you to decide if you feel it is worth reading.

  1. The prose is a work of art. Even the dialogue,written in a very thick country dialect, has, at times, a surprisingly lyrical quality to it:
    1. “She seemed to know, to accept, to welcome her position, the citadel of the family, the strong place that could not be taken. And since old Tom and the children could not know hurt or fear unless she acknowledged hurt or fear, she had practiced denying them in herself. And since, when a joyful thing happened, they looked to see whether joy was on her, it was her habit to build laughter out of inadequate materials….She seemed to know that if she swayed the family shook, and if she ever deeply wavered or despaired the family would fall.” 
    2. “Funny thing how it is. If a man owns a little property, that property is him, it’s part of him, and it’s like him. If he owns property only so he can walk on it and handle it and be sad when it isn’t doing well, and feel fine when the rain falls on it, that property is him, and some way he’s bigger because he owns it. Even if he isn’t successful he’s big with his property. That is so.’
      ‘But let a man get property he doesn’t see, or can’t take time to get his fingers in, or can’t be there to walk on it – why, then the property is the man. He can’t do what he wants, he can’t think what he wants. The property is the man, stronger than he is. And he is small, not big. Only his possessions are big – and he’s the servant of his property. That is so, too.”
    3. “But you can’t start. Only a baby can start. You and me – why, we’re all that’s been. The anger of a moment, the thousand pictures, that’s us. This land, this red land, is us; and the flood years and the dust years and the drought years are us. We can’t start again. The bitterness we sold to the junk man – he got it all right, but we have it still. And when the owner men told us to go, that’s us; and when the tractor hit the house, that’s us until we’re dead. To California or any place – every one a drum major leading a parade of hurts, marching with our bitterness. And some day – the armies of bitterness will all be going the same way. And they’ll all walk together, and there’ll be a dead terror from it.”
  2. The story is important. More important today than it was back then, I would argue. I saw in this novel a primary document that describes the beginning of the decline in quality of our food in this country. When Big Ag began to take over, and the little guy got bulldozed or run off his land. By reading this novel, you are witnessing the course of history changing, ad you can still see its effects today.
  3. The structure of this novel is unique and keeps the story rolling. Each long chapter detailing the story of the Joads is separated by one or two chapters that described the larger situation in some way. These short, descriptive chapters set the scene for the migration from the Dust Bowl to California, or provided details of the squalor of Hoovervilles. They show the similar circumstances which forced families from their homes, or the underhanded dealings of the car salesmen who provided the broken-down trucks which they used to travel west. Steinbeck wrote these chapters in a very fable-like way, often using grand and mythic language to describe something truly awful.

This novel is beautiful. It’s full of sorrow, sacrifice, determination, love, and pride. It is the story of an American family who refuses to break. In some ways, it almost seems a precursor to the dystopian, post-apocalyptic novels that are so popular now. The Joads must face every obstacle with ever-decreasing resources, and dwindling hope. But their story is an inspiring one, sad as it is, and I highly recommend this novel to readers young and old.  

13.19–Between Shades of Gray

13.19–Between Shades of Gray

I have so much to say about this book and its author and the event I attended at BookPeople. But before I say any of it, I need to make a disclaimer:

This book is in no way related to the erotic series. It is not at all erotic. If you’re looking for novels about sex, look somewhere else.

Thank you for paying attention. Not to knock the Fifty Shades series (ok, maybe a little), but this book is so wildly out of the league of those, both in subject matter and in degree of skill with which it is written, that I am almost personally affronted when people assume they are related texts. No. No no no no no. Also, this one came first.

Now, to the book I say yes. Yes yes yes yes yes.  It is amazing.  It is beautiful.  It is heartfelt and heartbreaking.  And most importantly, it tells the story of a group of people whose plight has been overshadowed and nearly lost to general knowledge.

Goodreads Summary:

“It’s 1941 and fifteen-year-old artist Lina Vilkas is on Stalin’s extermination list. Deported to a prison camp in Siberia, Lina fights for her life, fearless, risking everything to save her family. It’s a long and harrowing journey and it is only their incredible strength, love, and hope that pull Lina and her family through each day. But will love be enough to keep them alive?”

This novel was suggested to me in my first week of work at BookPeople.  I was immediately drawn to both its premise and its beautiful cover.  I finally got around to reading it when I found out that Ruta Sepetys herself would be visiting our store and I would get the chance to meet her.

I have to be honest, I was a little put off at first.  There are no polite introductions in this novel, no quaint descriptions of what life was like before Lina’s world was pulled apart.  No, it takes off immediately, with Lina’s family being arrested in the middle of the night for completely unknown reasons.  From there, the plot explodes out of the gate, and Lina and her family are jostled from one place to the next without warning or comfort.  They must immediately go from what seems to be an affluent, happy family to one that must learn to survive or die almost immediately.  The sentences are short and simple, almost choppy sometimes.  The chapters are incredibly short, especially in the beginning.  While this frustrated me a bit at first, I realized how well it fit in with the events of the plot.  Sepetys’ style gives short, confused glimpses of what Lina’s life suddenly becomes, and they work well for the content.

The story, despite its horror and sorrow, also fills the reader with a sense of hope.  Not necessarily hope of rescue, for Lina’s plight seems impossible to overcome, but hope that, even in the absolute worst circumstances, human spirit and goodness can find a way to shine.  And the novel’s treasured, slow-blooming element of romance was a bright spot in an otherwise bleak, frozen landscape.

I loved the book on its own, but when I met the author herself I just became a total fangirl.  It was an intimate little gathering, and so those of us who asked questions got amazing, lengthy answers.  When she told us that Lina’s story is loosely based on the experiences of her own Lithuanian family, I was enthralled.  Sepetys exhibits such a passion for history and a fiery need for the unheard, forgotten voices of the past to be given a podium.  She herself is cheerful, funny, and tells a great story (duh), but her intelligence and compassion are evident in everything she says.  I can’t wait to read her latest book, set in 1950s New Orleans, called Out of the Easy.

My coworkers and me (on the far left) with Ruta Sepetys at BookPeople

I highly recommend Between Shades of Gray to everyone.  In fact, I encourage people to read it and spread the word about both the book and its historical basis, so that these nearly-forgotten victims of Stalin’s evil will not be left in the shadows any longer.  I am grateful to Ruta Sepetys for writing such a beautiful novel and for caring so much about the faded voices of history.  5 stars and 2 thumbs up, and a cookie on top. Lovely, lovely book!


12.22–The Lace Reader

12.22–The Lace Reader

Not the best cover for the book, but it’s the cover I own, so I stayed faithful.

I would like to take this moment and say thank you to Brunonia Barry for writing a beautiful, haunting, intelligent novel that I found impossible to put down. Barry’s The Lace Reader is an elegant novel that packed an incredible amount of good things into less than 400 pages.  I think the best way to write this is to compile a list.

1. Character

The novel is mostly in first person, and its narrator, Towner Whitney, admits on the first page that she is unreliable, warning readers to warily trust her recounting of events. As if to prove this, she admits that her name isn’t even really Towner, but is, in fact, Sophya.  She is a woman who has health problems of multiple sorts, but whose mental health is by far the most abysmal of all.  It is clear she suffers from delusions and depression, though the reader does not discover how serious these are until the end of the novel.  She and most of the other important characters are very well-developed. May, her mother, is an agoraphobic feminist who houses abused women on a secluded island. Eva, her great-aunt, has the gift of Sight, which she channels through the patterns in the lace that she makes.  Cal, the villain, is a cult leader who has a special vendetta against Towner and the rest of her family.  Towner, despite her infinite flaws and her many weaknesses, is a protagonist I had no problems getting behind.  She deserved my empathy, and I cared for her as I would a long-suffering friend.

Thank you Google Images for filling in the gaps of my experience.

2. Setting

Although it is for the most part set in Salem, Massachusetts in the mid-1990s, Barry plays with time a lot, utilizing hallucinations, flashbacks, and dreams to enhance the story.  Still, the majority of these focuses on this beautiful section of the northeastern coast of the United States.  In the case of this novel, the location is very much vital to setting a mood, and the characters are all products of their physical place in space.  For instance, one of the supporting characters is a witch.  Some even believe that Eva is a witch, as well as the rest of the Whitney women.  Towner, her brother, and her love-interest are all expert sailors, and these play a significant part in the plot.  The history of Salem helps bolster the plot and set a tone for the entire novel, which is often one of suspicion, gloom, and religious persecution.  A great deal of it happens on a fictional island that is only accessible by one ramp, controlled by Towner’s reclusive mother–the perfect setting for the development and perpetuation of agoraphobia.

3. Plot

This is, of course, the most important. At least to most people, although a novel rich in plot but lacking everything else would be rather unpleasant to read. After all, who cares what happens to a character that isn’t believable?  But Barry’s characters are, and so her rich plot is very much appreciated.  Towner receives a call from her brother, who asks that she  return to Salem from California because her great-aunt Eva has gone missing.  Her return forces her to face dark family secrets and memories that she has attempted to subdue by running all the way across the country.  Things escalate, as they tend to do, and…well, I won’t say anymore.  Just know that it’s a little mystery and suspense, a little mysticism and magic, and a lot of family drama.

4. Twist

There are lots of mini-twists in the middle that I really did not see coming. But holy cow, the end took my breath away.  Just be ready to get slammed in the chest with surprise.  And don’t go looking for it. Allowing yourself to get caught off guard is part of what is so magical about this novel.

Can you see your future?

A lot of people will expect witchcraft or fortune-telling to figure prominently in the novel. While Towner and Eva do seem to have a special talent for foresight, Towner spends much of the book hiding from these talents.  Do not expect this novel to focus heavily on the paranormal or the supernatural.  Those things are plot devices and make for interesting setting and premise, but the novel is truly about families reconnecting, old wounds healing, truths being revealed, and troubled minds being put at ease.  It is a beautiful novel, though often very sad, and I would highly recommend it to anyone who is looking for a novel that keeps the pages turning. I couldn’t put it down and I wish there was more!