Book Review: Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi (2004)

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Review #77

This graphic novel tells the story of Marjane Satrapi’s life growing up in Iran during the tumultuous years that include the fall of the Shah and the beginnings of the Islamic Republic. Marjane, raised by well-educated intellectuals and the great-granddaughter of one of Iran’s last emperors, finds herself struggling to understand the difference between the freedom of her home life and the sudden restrictions of public life.

Surprise graphic novels are the best kind of graphic novels! I was unaware when I requested this book from my local library that the story was going to be told using simple yet powerful black-and-white illustrations. I was expecting a painful story of a girl whose freedom was stripped away by a regime change. Instead, Persepolis is something far more unique. It is equally parts funny, heartbreaking, and triumphant.

The best part of Persepolis is its heroine. Marjane (Marji) is outspoken, honest, and at times contradictory. Spanning her life between ages ten and fourteen, Persepolis focuses on her changing attitudes towards religion, family, politics, and Iran itself. She begins the novel with a strong belief in God, and tells her parents that when she grows up she wants to be a prophet. Marji’s faith is shaken as the people she loves are exposed to persecution and violence. For a twelve year old girl to turn her back on religion is a devastating life choice, and we share Marji’s sadness and anger as she realizes that faith can be used as a tool for suppression.

This is a smaller, more personal viewpoint of a historically volatile time period. Marji has very little knowledge of exactly why these things are happening, and couldn’t get less about the larger international implications. Instead she just knows that one day she has to wear a veil to school when last year she didn’t, and she finds it uncomfortable and restrictive. She leaves her house one day in “modern” clothes and is accosted by a woman who shouts that she is a whore. Things go from bad to worse when her family experiences the loss of a beloved family member.

I loved this novel because even though the graphic panels are in a stark black and white, the plot itself exists in shades of gray. Marjane Shatrapi illustrates the horrors that were perpetuated during the Islamic Revolution, but also makes room for lightness and laughter. She presents the Iranian people as having a “philosophy of resignation”. When the Ayatollah rose to power, the vast majority of people went about their lives and loved their families and found small victories in listening to modern music and drinking contraband alcohol. The love between Marji and her family shines through every page of Persepolis. I’m really looking forward to getting my hands on the sequel.

Going in, I realized that I did not have enough information about Iran during the fall of the Shah and the rise of the Ayatollah. I did a little bit of research so that I could truly understand what was happening in this novel. I found this video to be particularly helpful if you are also interested in learning a little bit more about this time in history.

My rating: 5/5

You can find Persepolis here on Amazon or here on Book Depository.

Happy reading everyone!

Book Review: The Power by Naomi Alderman (2017)

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Review #74

A teenage girl is being brutally beaten during a home invasion when she feels a tingling feeling in her hand and finds herself giving her attacker an electric jolt that brings him to his knees and saves her life. Across an ocean, other young girl uses a similar force to kill her would-be rapist. Soon all around the world teenage women are finding themselves developing a previously unknown ability to conduct electric energy with their palms. This change in the power dynamics between genders begins with women releasing themselves from dangerous and unwanted situations, but it doesn’t stop there. All around the world women begin to claim positions of political and religious power, and their intentions are not always good.

Author Naomi Alderman has envisioned a world where different women from different walks of life suddenly find themselves able to physically dominate the male sex. Spanning a ten year period, Alderman takes these women (and men) through all the upheavals and confusion that would accompany such a sudden and potentially dangerous change in traditional gender roles.

As the women begin to realize their new powers, they explore their new opportunities in different ways. Some, such as Margot Clearly, set their sights on politics by empowering the young women in her community to form a militia. Allie sees the chance to form a new religious movement and becomes a powerful cult leader known as Mother Eve. Roxy Monke seizes the occasion to become the head of an international crime syndicate. The only male character with a prominent voice is the Nigerian journalist Tunde, who travels the world and films the increasingly precarious place of men as global society undergoes a radical shift away from patriarchy.

This book would be a wonderful addition to a university course on sex and gender sociology. Alderman brings up some truly interesting questions with her novel. Are women truly the “gentler” sex, or have they taken on more nurturing roles due mainly to their physically weaker bodies? If women were in charge, would the world truly be a more peaceful place, or would females begin to exact revenge on males for all the real and imagined discrimination they have experienced in their lives? Can one sex have the monopoly on violence without becoming corrupted by their own power?

The Power took some time to get its plot rolling, and there were definitely characters that I wished had been given more focus and others that I found a little bland. However, this is one of those novels that I can already tell is going to stay with me. I would be very interested in finding other people who have read this book so that I could explore and discuss the ideas depicted here.

My rating: 4/5

You can find The Power here on Amazon or here on Book Depository.

Happy reading everyone!

 

Book Review: American Wife by Curtis Sittenfeld (2008)

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Review #61

Alice Lindgren has no idea how she ended up in the White House. A quiet book-loving girl from rural Wisconsin, Alice dreamed of being marrying her childhood crush and becoming a librarian. But a tragic accident changes the course of her life, and Alice finds herself married to man whose political views don’t align with hers, and whose political ambitions far surpass her own dreams. Alice finds herself struggling to remember who she is in a world of privilege and power.

I connected immediately with the protagonist in American Wife. Alice is a book-nerd who feels more at home within the pages of a novel than she does with others. She is not always comfortable in social situations, and deals with a lot of anxiety when meeting new people. I identified with Alice’s relationship with her grandmother, an equally avid reader who often neglects her family in favor of a world between the pages. I have always credited my grandmother with my love of reading, and the bond between Alice and Emilie was sincerely touching.

The plot of American Wife is a like a slowly moving river that gradually picks up speed as it goes along. It meanders its way through the key points in Alice’s life, showing the intimate snapshots of her life rather than drawing back to see the whole picture. There are wide jumps in time, and the story is not always linear. After a hundred pages or so, a small part of my brain kept asking when the book would be “getting to the point”. But the story of a person’s life doesn’t work like that, and instead Sittenfeld winds us through the aspects of Alice’s life that have led her to where she is now. All those little triumphs and tragedies that make up a person. And although it does move slowly, American Wife is far from static.

I was not aware until completing this novel that author Curtis Sittenfeld is a woman. This explains the focus on the bonds between women in this book. Alice’s relationships with her grandmother, her mother, her best friends, and her daughter are the keystones of her character. As Alice’s life takes her far from her country upbringing, the strength of these relationships are what sustain her through the transition. While reading this novel, I found myself treasuring the female relationships in my life. So many books focus on the “frenemy” circle of female friends, and it was nice to see something so open and trusting.

Much has been said about this novel being a loose re-telling of the life of former First Lady Laura Bush. I had no idea going in that this novel was anything other than a work of fiction, but apparently Sittenfeld took the broad strokes from Bush’s life and worked them into the character of Alice Lindgren. The comparison doesn’t become blatantly apparent until the final act, when Alice and her husband find themselves in the White House, but many of the important milestones from Bush’s childhood and early life are represented in American Wife. Some people have called this a breach of privacy in the lieu of yellow journalism, especially since the character of Alice finds herself in a few situations that the First Lady would certainly not want associated with her person. While I personally did not find that the book intruded on Bush’s life in a deliberately harmful or malicious manner, that would be a judgement for each individual reader to make.

While reading American Wife I chose to distance the character of Alice Lindgren from any resemblance to the former First Lady. Removing the political factor, what is left is a novel with wonderfully written protagonist that I thoroughly enjoyed.

My rating: 4/5

You can find American Wife here on Amazon or here on Book Depository.

Happy reading everyone!

Book Review: Republican Like Me by Ken Stern (2017)

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Review #38

In the days leading up to and following Donald Trump’s election to the Presidency, the former CEO of NPR Ken Stern realizes that his social and professional circles are comprised entirely of liberal progressives. He then proceeds to spend a year immersing himself in “Trump’s America”, attending gun shows and NASCAR events, and speaking with the people who feel that the American dream has left them behind. He wonders if the gap between Democrats and Republicans can’t be solved by a little human empathy and understanding.

I need to begin this review on a personal note. I am a liberal progressive from a family with deeply conservative, evangelical roots. To this day I cannot for the life of me figure out how I ended up on the completely other end of the ideological spectrum from the majority of my relatives. Part of me blames Harry Potter. Or the fact that I was one of the first members of my family to attend university (a liberal arts university at that). Whatever the reason, I can state with utter honesty that the 2016 election was a devastating blow towards my relationship with my family. I felt personally betrayed by their decision to vote for Donald Trump. I felt that they had been brainwashed by Fox News and the NRA, and that they had chosen to side with racism, intolerance, and misogyny. Was I being close minded, unfair, and more than a bit immature? Most definitely. But this knee-jerk offense that people tend to take in reaction to those who have different views from them is part of what author Ken Stern seeks to unravel in his book. I went in with very high hopes of a liberal’s fair and reasoned perspective on rural, white America.

It must be immediately addressed that Stern’s book focuses almost completely on white conservative America. At no point does he acknowledge the white, male privilege that allows him to blend in at a gun show, or to interview people in a depressed mining town. The entire book consists almost entirely of one middle-aged white man talking to other middle-aged white men, which gives an extremely limiting perspective. A young black man asking questions of Trump supporters at a NASCAR race would likely have written a very different book. And possibly a more interesting one.

In Republican Like Me, Stern tackles major “hot button issues” such as gun control, evangelism, climate change, and attitudes towards the media. His research is meticulous and well-cited. I enjoyed his use of statistics to blow holes in both conservative and liberal ideologies. For example, during his chapter on gun control he mentions that the majority of firearm deaths in the United States are committed using handguns, not assault rifles. And the vast majority of firearm homicides are either individual murders or suicides. Stern uses this data to draw the conclusion that the Democrats frenzied screaming for a ban on assault weapons will not significantly lower the percentage of gun deaths in the United States.

It might lower the rate at which (white) gunmen walk into public schools and shoot a bunch of children, but Stern doesn’t talk about that.

He does delve heavily into the economic factors which led people to vote for Trump. If a person from a West Virginia mining town sees Hilary Clinton speaking at an exclusive Manhattan banquet about “shutting down the coal industry”, of course they are not going to view her with favor. Stern does not address Clinton in his book, but I wish he had. I had to bite my cheek and grimace as I checked her name on the ballot in 2016. I imagine that a great deal of conservatives had to do the same thing when they voted for Trump. It was this idea more than anything else which caused me to pause and think.

I’ve been a liberal all my life, and I can say without pause that the Democratic party comes off as arrogant, condescending, patronizing, and sanctimonious. They have ceased to be the party of the working people. And while liberals, myself included, pat ourselves on the back and tell ourselves that we will at least be on the “right side” of history, it doesn’t change the fact that 33 governorships, 51 senate seats, and 237 house seats are held by the GOP. If the Democratic party hopes to succeed, they need to remember that not everyone in the country lives in New York or California. But I digress.

I found myself consistently irritated and annoyed by this book. Stern wastes an opportunity to point out the hypocrisy that thrives on both sides of the aisle. He has a wonderful soapbox from which to describe the extreme discrepancy between the majority of reasonable Americans and the frothing lunatics who have been elected to represent them. Instead, he offers pithy platitude on top of condescending comment. “If we just listened to one another…” “If we just took the time to get to know one another…” “Republicans aren’t all that bad…”

On one hand he is absolutely correct. Republicans demonizing liberals and Democrats bashing conservatives doesn’t help anyone except the lobbyists and the corporations they serve. And it is much easier from a psychological standpoint to cater to our own confirmation bias than it is to logically and rationally consider new ideas. It’s easier to point the finger at the “dumb rednecks” who got duped into voting for Trump because they were to stupid to know any better. Most Republican voters are decent, middle-class people who are just trying to support their families and build a better life in a country that they perceive as falling into chaos. This is not new information, and it is not presented here in a new way.

The problem is that it is very difficult to have a logical and rational conversation regarding these ideas. I will absolutely listen to someone from a small, dying Rust Belt town as they lament that all of the factories are closed and the jobs are gone. I can and have discussed fracking versus solar versus coal as a viable form of energy for the future. But I cannot in good conscience listen and nod as someone lays all the blame for their misfortune on “the Muslim African” who got elected illegally by putting mind-control substances in America’s drinking water. I’ve had those exact words said to me by a former coworker. What does Ken Stern think a person should do in that situation? Am I supposed to say, “Ah, yes that’s a very good point and I respect it”? What about the man from my hometown who thinks that all Muslims should be deported whether or not they are legal American citizens? I would wager ninety-to-one odds that he has never met a Muslim in his life. But am I meant to shake this xenophobe’s hand and strive to find common ground?

I realize there are no easy answers, and this is not a conversation that can be solved with one book, or ten, or a thousand. But at the end of the day, Ken Stern pulls too many punches, wastes too many opportunities, and only acknowledges the “white working class” facet of an extremely convoluted issue. For now I will have to accept that we cannot “just all get along”. I guess I’ll just have to continue avoiding political conversations at family gatherings.

My rating: 2/5

You can find Republican Like Me here on Amazon or here on Book Depository.

Happy reading everyone!