Persepolis: The Story of a Childhood, by Marjane Satrapi

I haven’t yet seen the film based on this graphic novel, a memoir of growing up in Iran during the turbulent 1980s. The book opens a year after the Islamic Revolution, with the ten-year-old and her classmates being told they must wear a veil at school. It is hard to write about political situations without becoming mired in outraged diatribes, yet Satrapi succeeds brilliantly. What is so effective here is that she stays in the child’s viewpoint. Hence, we see the girls using the required veils as monster masks or tying them together to make a jump rope.

Satrapi maintains that viewpoint as the child becomes a teenager and the family’s freedom gradually becomes more restricted. I was particularly curious about how her adolescent rebellion would play out in the context of the larger cultural revolution, and I was not disappointed. Swinging between patriotic fervor during the war with Iraq and horror at the gold keys “to heaven” given to young boys, the young woman’s reactions to her world struck me as deeply felt and emotionally honest. Satrapi’s art, although crude, does an okay job of conveying the emotional content. Some of the most effective panels are the occasional abstract ones.

The question I’m left with at the end of the day, though, is: does it work? And I have to answer: sort of. Parts of it are quite moving and others give a sense of the mingled ordinariness of daily life and shock of terrible events. Yet, for me, the inherent superficiality of the graphic novel format prevented me from full emotional participation in the story.

Don’t get me wrong—I like graphic novels, and I think it an especially appropriate format for this story from a child’s point of view. However, now I would like to read a story of women in post-revolution Iran that fully engages me with descriptions of place and nuanced characters. I didn’t get that from the oddly popular Reading Lolita in Tehran either. Despite its bizarre best-seller status, I found that book lacking in content. I’d hoped to learn more about the young women, and felt betrayed by finding out that the author had used composite characters. Only the mini-lectures about the books were interesting.

I recommend Persepolis as an excellent start at conveying the reality of life in post-Revolution Iran. If it left me hungry for more, that’s not such a bad thing.

Mason’s Retreat, by Christopher Tilghman

This is a good story. In some ways, it was the perfect reading experience: I was carried away into the world of the story, caught up in the characters’ concerns. With some books (including most mysteries) the adrenaline kicks in and has me racing for the end, but with this book each scene drew me on, gently, ineluctably. There was just enough description to enable me to visualise everything without the descriptive passages overpowering the action. The characters seemed like people I knew, and the point of view moved between them in a natural way that did not disrupt the story. And it wasn’t until I finished the last page that I began to consider the larger implications of what I had read.

Harry Mason tells the story of his grandparents, Edith and Edward Mason, as they return to the U.S. in 1936 after many years of living in England. Edward fancies himself a great businessman, but his factory in Manchester, England, has been declining for many years and he is finally being forced to bring his wife and two sons, Sebastien and Simon (Harry’s father), home to take up residence in the family estate he has inherited from his aunt: some acres and a house which has been left empty and unattended for years and is now filled with mold and fallen plaster.

The Retreat is located on Maryland’s eastern shore, and one of the great joys of this book is seeing how this cosmopolitan, yet unsophisticated family reacts to their first encounter with life in such a remote backwater and how they adjust over the course of time to life among the farmers, white and black, and the inbred owners of neighboring estates. Anyone who has been to the eastern shore will appreciate these descriptions of the life and landscape in the days before the Bay Bridge brought hordes of tourists and retirees.

I initially picked up the book because the opening scenes take place on the Normandie, a pre-World War II luxury liner which has been part of my personal mythology since staying in the Normandie Hotel in Puerto Rico in the 1990s. Yet I quickly became absorbed in the concerns of all the characters as they try to figure out how best to live their lives and accommodate each other. I forgot about the Normandie until I finished the book and found myself wondering about the remnants of the past, what is new and what we carry forward.

A most satisfying read, I highly recommend this book and will be looking for others by this author.

Linnets and Valerians, by Elizabeth Goudge

Elizabeth Goudge is one of my favorite authors, though some of her children’s books are a bit too sweet for my taste. Of her adult books, my favorites are The Scent of Water and the Damerosehay books, with their lovely descriptions and gentle wisdom. Of her YA (young adult) books, this one is my favorite, although The Little White Horse runs a close second.

When their father departs for a new posting in India, the four Linnet children are left with their grandmother and her companion, Miss Bolt, two elderly women whose autocratic ways do not go over well with the children. Nan, Robert, Timothy, and Betsy, ranging in ages from twelve to six, are most distressed at being abandoned by their father, their mother having died five years earlier. After a particularly difficult set-to with Grandmama and the Thunderbolt, the children run away, scrambling over the garden wall and trudging toward the setting sun.

Tiring, they spy a pony and cart outside of a pub and hop in. The pony sets off for home, fetching up at a dark house in a mysterious village. Investigating, they find a tall man with an owl on his shoulder, who turns out to be their Uncle Ambrose, a retired schoolteacher-turned-parson who professes to loathe children and all their ways. Yet he allows them to stay with him. Also resident is Ezra, who has pointed ears and cooks delightful meals for the children, despite having been left to walk home from the pub when the children “borrowed” the pony and cart. Adventures ensue, as the children get caught up in the tensions and tragedies of the village and its surroundings.

Part of why I love this story is simply the immersion in another world. Set in 1912, the way of life described in this story has a nostalgic tint, but it is far from the Merrie England stereotype. There’s a bit of The Fatal Englishman as Sebastian Faulks called it: amateur explorers and archeologists wandering off on adventures and getting lost. There’s the darkness that comes from village isolation, set against the power of intelligence, learning and the ability to love. And, of course, everything is lit by the lovely glow of that “long afternoon” of the pre-war years.

Another part is the children themselves. Goudge does children very well. They are neither sarcastic nor smarmy, neither too good nor too bad, simply real children. I can’t imagine how Goudge knows or remembers so well how children think and what they care about, but she does so brilliantly. I also like the way she describes the food at meals with such relish, whether it’s the tiny cakes for tea or the great fry-ups for breakfast. Goudge’s descriptions of places, especially gardens and houses, are quite wonderful. Something about the description of Nan’s little parlor, furnished for her by Ambrose, has stayed with me over the years.

Finally, I like the way the magic bits are handled: lightly, deftly. You can chalk them up to a child’s imagination or, if you like, believe that a cat can concertina into a huge monster and a handful of bees lead you to safety. I love the gentle allusions to legends about bees and fairy folk. This book is charming, not in an empty soap-bubble way like Brideshead’s Sebastian, but in the old sense of casting a spell on the reader, enchanting me again every time I read it.

A Fatal Grace, by Louise Penny

I enjoyed Penny’s earlier book Still Life which was the first book in this series. What I liked best were the descriptions of the setting, a small village just south of Montreal, and the people who live there, many of whom are artists of one sort or another. In that first book, the villagers’ relationships and jealousies and secrets must be disinterred and disentangled in order to discover why and how their elderly neighbor died while walking through the woods on Thanksgiving morning. I liked the detective, Inspector Gamache, but I found the young agent who comes along on the case, Yvette Nichol overdone and unrealistic. Elements of the ending took me by surprise, always a good thing.

Here, a woman who has recently moved to Three Pines is electrocuted in the middle of a curling match, and Inspector Gamache is called from Montreal to investigate. The dead woman, a self-centered monster who showered her husband, daughter, and lover with verbal abuse, has some mysterious tie with the village. She has named her decorating/self-help company and self-published book “Be Calm” which is also the name of a spitituality center in Three Pines run by a local woman.

While I enjoyed the bits of Canadiana and curling lore, I was a little disappointed by this book. The descriptions are wonderful and the plot suspenseful, but most of the characters are too simplistic, either perfect saints or evil monsters. Unfortunately, agent Yvette Nichol, whose portrayal marred the first book, is back and, despite some additional backstory, still more of a caricature than a person. Gamache himself is a bit too good to be true. Only the young couple who help him, Clara and Peter, and a few of the minor characters are allowed contradictions and complexity.

Penny is an excellent writer, but some aspects of the book are clumsily handled. For example, there are a number of threads left hanging at the end, which I find frustrating, since part of what I like about mysteries is the resolution. Also, we know little of Gamache’s inner life. He is trustworthy, brave, loyal, etc. but needs some inner conflict to come to life. Penny attempts to do that through the use of what I call a “Chinatown”, an off-hand reference early in the story that isn’t fully explained until the end, subconsciously pushing the reader to keep going (see my blog entry on Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro). Here, the references to the Arnot case, something in the past that has deeply affected Gamache, are meant to be just such a Chinatown, but instead of making me want to read on, they irritated me.

In trying to figure out why they didn’t work here, I thought back to Ian Rankin’s Rebus series and some of Laura Lippman’s books where the authors use this technique brilliantly. I think the difference is that Penny’s references are not off-hand. She might as well put them in the middle of a bulls-eye with arrows drawn toward them screaming, “This is important!” whereas Rankin in particular manages to drop his references inconspicuously in the middle of a conversation. The missing explanation seems to have no real importance, but somewhere in the back of my mind, I continue to puzzle over it.

Despite my complaints, I found this a good read. I hope that the series improves as Penny becomes more and more adept at her craft. It would not take much to make this series one of the very best around.