I suppose any book about the Oxford English Dictionary would necessarily have to be somewhat pompous and stuffy. But in a way, it works in the favor o...moreI suppose any book about the Oxford English Dictionary would necessarily have to be somewhat pompous and stuffy. But in a way, it works in the favor of The Professor and the Madman, which though often feeling a bit over-the-top, is nevertheless a lean and enjoyable read cover to cover.
Where I stumbled a bit in trying to evaluate the book is in some of the more scholarly aspects of the telling which affects only a very small portion of the narrative but still managed to rankle me enough that I nearly reversed my overall opinion of the book from favorable to disdained.
First, the good. The twin stories of Dr. W. C. Minor and Professor James Murray are by themselves interesting enough to warrant a historical biography apiece. Woven together as they are here, they create a very compelling tale that includes all manner of wonderful stranger-than-fiction storytelling. The bits on the history behind the OED and its long, arduous path to completion are truly enthralling as is the lengthy semi-digression about the origins of English language dictionaries as a whole.
Simon Winchester's discussion of the tragically ill Dr. Minor is full of reverent sympathy without offering excuse for the man's many sins and, of course, his irredeemable murder of a man in London. This event triggers the core of the story about how Dr. Minor came to be so involved in the creation of the OED by responding to a plea by James Murray to assist with gathering quotations from historical texts. Had the book contained merely the sum of these parts, carefully crafted into an absorbing true tale of making the most of an otherwise wasted life, it would easily have been among my top nonfiction books.
However, where Winchester fails nearly unforgivably is in a few isolated areas where he seemingly can't resist venturing outside of verifiable facts into wild, salacious speculation. Specifically he seems to get caught up in the ultimately fruitless and unnecessary idea of what brought about Dr. Minor's devastating mental disease. He offers conjecture and folk-tales to ascribe it to various possible situations occurring during the American Civil War, finally settling on a gross and mostly imagined account of Minor being forced to inflict punishment on a deserter as the catalyst. Later he careens wildly out of bounds for a historical account by theorizing with no justification that Minor's late-life self mutilation might have been the result of latent sexual feelings directed at the woman he widowed with his sidearm in a fit of lunacy. It is this sort of question-mark journalism in which anything is permissible in print as long as you frame it as a rhetorical question that smacks of trying to artificially elevate the scandalous element of the story just to make it seem more enticing.
But it's transparent and it's wholly without justification since the story as can be confirmed by actual records is remarkable enough on its own merit. The need to even include the mythic campfire telling of the first meeting between Dr. Minor and Prof. Murray is succumbed to—twice!—for no real purpose.
In the end, I truly enjoyed the book and can't resist recommending it, I just wish Winchester had enjoyed the story—exactly as it can reasonably be told—as much as I did and didn't feel he needed to dip into supermarket tabloid territory.(less)
My wife has been pestering me to pick up Lynda Van Devanter's memoir of serving as a nurse in the Vietnam War for years. The thing is, I don't really...moreMy wife has been pestering me to pick up Lynda Van Devanter's memoir of serving as a nurse in the Vietnam War for years. The thing is, I don't really like memoirs all that much. Too often they spend a third or more of the book going over the kinds of "start at the beginning" backstories which don't really add as much to the framing of the meat as the authors think. This is especially true of stories where either childhoods were especially harsh and difficult (nearly always highlighted in tales of survival as the place the narrator learned how to never give up) or were more or less idyllic (usually setting up a grand disappointment or disenfranchisement later). It's rarely as simple as these narrative devices let on and they just sort of bore me, especially since I usually only care about the hook of a memoir, something the author can describe that I've not heard about before. I've heard plenty of stories of happy and sad childhoods. Spare me.
Home Before Morning isn't exempt from this memoir-itis, relying on the idyllic childhood context to contrast the horrors of war and show how the oppressive futility of trying to piece dying soldiers back together shattered her once peaceful little existence. Whatever else you may say about the meat of the book and the skillfulness of its crafting, the basic premise is hardly novel. That doesn't make it bad, I suppose, it just makes it familiar. I guess it's difficult to look at a book about a naive Catholic nursing student volunteering for a tour of duty from my lofty 21st century ivory tower, decorated as it is with all the dissecting literature, film and coursework of the past forty years and not say, "Well, jeez. What did you expect, lady?"
Still, Van Devanter managed to make a slow but effective incision in my post-irony viewpoint and drag me back to a time when patriotism wasn't just a jest adopted by people to serve a political purpose, when ideals weren't viewed with cynicism and suspicion wrought from too many disappointing years under questionable leadership. Home Before Morning shows, in a way, the birth of all that, chronicling at its best moments the death not of an individual's innocence, but of a nation's.
Some of Home Before Morning doesn't completely work. The last third of the book is devoted to Van Devanter's return to the States, chronicling her disenchantment with what she (and other vets) termed "The World." The World was unhappy with the war and for the most part shamefully took it out on the soldiers who, as Van Devanter points out, largely were as opposed to it as those who hadn't gone into the service. Some of this section is powerful, riveting and insightful but parts of it drag a bit as she describes Post Traumatic Stress Disorder faithfully but without near as much passion and impact as her tales from the one year in the 71st Evac. The choices of what to skim past (her marriage) and what to bog down in detail (her stint as a dialysis nurse) and mostly what to try to weave as a narrative thread aren't always the best. A key example for this is the recurring theme of the question that continues to plague her throughout the war and the aftermath: Why? For as often as Van Devanter asks the question, she never makes any serious attempt to answer it, even when some thoughtful introspection about it would be deeply appropriate like in the epilogue where she describes her return to Vietnam in 1982.
A couple of places where Home Before Morning really shines is in its depiction of the horrors of war through the lens not of the hyper-masculine killing machines in the infantry units (I'm thinking of works like Apocalypse Now and Full Metal Jacket), but through the eyes of the sort of ironically necessary medical personnel who have to be on hand to try and undo the work of the warring soldiers on both sides. For some reason the idea that the trauma of war would seep into the lives of medics never really occurred to me, as if treating wounded soldiers was no more traumatic for hospital staff than the doctors and nurses working in a Stateside facility in a particularly violent neighborhood. I'm grateful to the book for giving me a different perspective, one that extends to all emergency medical personnel.
One thing I wish Home Before Morning had was a follow-up; the book's narrative stops in 1982 and I had to go online to find that she eventually re-married, had a daughter and passed away in 2002 and spent a lot of the years between the publication of the book and her death serving as a spokesperson for women veterans and that this book was in part the inspiration for the television series China Beach. Obviously that's not the kind of thing that would appear in this book, but I was interested enough in the tale, and in Van Devanter herself, to want more when it was over. I guess that says something in itself.(less)
I love science the way I love history: When presented by a storyteller, it assumes the inherent magic that I suppose those who find it fascinating jus...moreI love science the way I love history: When presented by a storyteller, it assumes the inherent magic that I suppose those who find it fascinating just at its surface level always appreciate. Unfortunately, science and history both are often told with a dullness, a dry lack of drama which the facts themselves do not really lack. Too often I get the impression that people tasked with relating the wonderful truths about science and history feel like if they elevate the palatability of the delivery they may inject too much license, which would undermine the fundamental essence of truth that must accompany work which is often difficult or laborious. The point missed by these people (too many of whom attempted to instruct me about these subjects during my school days) is that even a fascinating truth can be told in such a way as to make it utterly uninteresting.
Enter Bill Bryson, working through his own struggles with science (using a fair bit of history, it turns out), he writes A Short History of Nearly Everything which is the storytelling historian's book about science, knowledge, progress and, well, pretty much everything that flows from that, which is pretty much everything. Bryson guides the reader with an impressive clarity through the lives and works of the scientists, amateurs, thinkers and tinkerers who unlock the secrets of our world, the universe and everything in between. Rather than just stating cold facts or even narrating the facts, he choses to dissect the people behind the theories and formulas which make up the basis of what we think we know. There isn't a point at which Bryson shies away from the heavy subjects, assuming the intelligence of his audience is sufficiently like his own: Capable of grasping even advanced concepts provided they are presented in a knowable way. But when Bryson himself finds that in his exhaustive research there is no one to provide him a hook he can use for his own understanding much less one that can be transferred to his willing students, he doesn't dismiss the reader as too dim to grasp it thus implying he does, he shrugs his own shoulders and says, "it gets deep from here, so deep even the scientists themselves don't always get what they're talking about."
Bryson has a gossipy way of describing in good-natured humor the quirks and personalities of the names we all have heard but perhaps know little about other than the laws or theories attached to their monikers. In not pulling punches for the titans of modern thought, the author humanizes them and makes them relatable, understandable and even all the more admirable. If the guys unlocking the secrets of gravity and thermodynamics and atoms and geophysics and astronomy can struggle with reclusiveness, boorish behavior, petty squabbling, professional misconduct and close-mindedness, perhaps they aren't these mythic figures after all. But then that means they're just people, and if they're just people doing great things then perhaps some day so might I. The crossing of streams, as it were, that Bryson employs where he hops from biographical history to geology to astronomy to world history to astrophysics to politics to oceanography makes one almost wonder why course curriculums in school are divided at all. There was never this sense of interconnectedness conveyed to me in my studies and there was certainly never this much riveting attention paid to what was being explained. If I could have Bill Bryson as my one and only high school instructor, I'd gladly do it all again and I'd probably even study for the tests and hand in all my homework on time.
This book is inspiring, the way all good nonfiction books are. It gets your mind working, it sparks imagination. There are also times when it is terrifying (check out the section on asteroids and their potential to impact the Earth and then see how well you sleep that night), hilarious, shocking, and fun but it is also relentlessly, unapologetically educational from first page to last. I love this book, I would and will recommend it to any and everyone. I listened to it on audiobook borrowed from the library and I now I must buy a physical copy. In fact, it is pretty amazing that for all the educational value of A Short History of Nearly Everything, it never relies on complicated diagrams or wild charts to convey its information. Bryson gets the job done—better than almost anyone—with just the power of his words. Someone please convince this man to write textbooks.
Or better yet, someone just get this book into the hands of students, before it's too late for them, as it (almost) was for me.(less)
If you—as I do—occasionally forget that literature serves a purpose, other than the entertainment value it provides or the thoughtful questions it som...moreIf you—as I do—occasionally forget that literature serves a purpose, other than the entertainment value it provides or the thoughtful questions it sometimes raises, consider for a moment Toni Morrison's Beloved.
Having grown up in a post-Civil Rights Movement era, the history of slavery in the US has always been a conflict point for the historical narrative. Slavery, the textbooks and teachers stated firmly, was a mistake and one which needed to be remedied through valiant acts by national heroes like Abraham Lincoln. The horrors of slavery were isolated to a few key line items: lack of freedom (the mental exercise of human ownership or human as property always left to the student), vicious corporal and capital punishment for transgressions (lashings and lynchings given the same grim matter-of-factness as, say, the tale of the crucifixion), overt racism and white superiority assumption (supposedly a nod to the psychological underpinnings of the master/slave construct without expressing it in any meaningful way). The end result left my mind with an academic sense of the travesty of slave ownership, a vague regret over the slave experience, and no mechanism to begin to approach anything like comprehension.
So then I picked up Beloved, not knowing what to expect, only knowing it as a book I ought to read because people who know books often speak of it in terms of maybe-ought-to-be-mandatory-reading. Toni Morrison gets described as a national treasure. It's a book that—regardless of what weight you give to Pulitzer Prize recipients—is award-winning in a way that you can't dismiss. And not an iota of that comes close to expressing the power of this book.
I'm an earnest guy, prone to hyperbole, so let me try to tone it down as best I can. Maybe say this in a way that is reasoned while still holding the truth of what it was like to read. This book changed me. You can talk about the plot, you can talk about the writing and the writer, you can talk about the characters and the puffed-chest courage of the book and its direction, you can talk about its spirit and spirituality, you can say what you want in the book circle club chats. But even with all that gone—which it isn't, at all—you'd still have a novel that does something no other history lesson or nonfiction or shocking expose could do for me: it made slavery as real as a throat-punch. It gave slavery fangs and rank breath and testicle-drawing horror.
As most genius does, the method seems so obvious after the fact. Morrison turns guts and shines light by bringing the human aspect out into the sun of her prose, by building characters that matter and putting them into the fire of this ghastly beast of history. Then she makes us watch them burn. People say, "I could have gone my whole life without knowing that" when they talk about over-sharing or sudden understanding of a sick fact of human existence. This book is the opposite. Actually, it feels like that at first. Understanding now, as I do, the lengths that slave owners would have had to go to, intentionally, systematically, to reduce a human being to a machine or a beast or just a little-t thing so they could exist above the natural guilt and shame. So they could feel superior. So they could feel justified. So they could feel entitled. I could have gone my whole life without knowing that. Except, that's completely backward. Because it's what I didn't want to know that I absolutely had to see.
Morrison manages some prose of striking beauty. Her thing about the shadows. The way she handles the book's jaw-loosening reveal at the end of part one. That poem-of-poems that closes the books. But I can't ruin it for anyone. It's enough to say that the least of the feats Morrison pulls off in Beloved is expanding the concept of how to tell a horror story in the most beautiful way I can imagine. That I almost forgot to mention this book will inform the way I think of writing—almost my reasons for reading to begin with, lost in the weeping for everything else this book is—is an essay itself. You want to know what the book is about? It's a ghost story. Takes place shortly after the Civil War. You know enough. Read it yourself.
The only thing I can't say is that I loved every single moment of Beloved. It starts with a heap of words and takes some time to settle into the rhythm of Morrison's eloquence. Not knowing about the ghosts, it gets confused for a bit. Then it comes around. It also can't be loved, in a particular way. Hard not to resent what the book puts you through, maybe. Maybe it's just tough to love the one that tells you the way the world really is. I can find plenty of thanks, but I don't know I'd beg for more. Late in the novel, once the truths are revealed, once the backstories are filled in from the scraps fed early on, once the lives that are going to change have shifted in their way, the book knows it has to end. It finds a conclusion, but it's just a place to bow out gracefully. At least we get that final chapter. Not sure the surge of new characters necessary to hasten that end feels quite right.
But it's not about loving. It's about learning. It's about what literature can do. Maybe ought to do. Maybe has to do to earn the title. And as you learn inside, you can love too much. So Beloved makes sure you love just enough. The right amount. Even if it hurts a little to do so.(less)
I'm not a fan or follower of Rachel Maddow, as I tend to shy away from talking-head pundits of any political stripe, finding them all insufferably ext...moreI'm not a fan or follower of Rachel Maddow, as I tend to shy away from talking-head pundits of any political stripe, finding them all insufferably extremist, adding little to the national discourse. However, I decided to check out Drift as it is not (on the surface) a catch-all "Here's My Worldview" type of book, but rather a focused examination of the United States' military as it exists today, with an eye cast to the historical series of events that resulted in the current state.
I will say that Ms. Maddow's politics are hardly hidden here, but she admirably refrains from digressing from the topic at hand and stays focused on the expansion of military spending, the changing face of how war is waged since Vietnam and the increased reliance on long-term, low-impact conflicts aided not by sacrifice from the populace at large but by private para-military contractors. She is very thorough in her dissection of the way this all came about, though you can kind of feel the pull of her personal opinion in the way she chooses to levy the responsibility (or is that blame? it's not spelled out, but it's heavily implied) of the shift from citizen-soldier run combat and national burden to deficit-funded and unilaterally mandated on Reagan. I can't say I fully buy that the title's drift began the moment Reagan took office (if nothing else, Eisenhower's speech in 1961 warning of the dangers of the military industrial complex indicates that some of this framework was in place twenty years prior to Reagan), but Maddow makes a pretty convincing case that no matter where it started, war today is almost entirely unlike what it was less than a century ago.
It's particularly telling that Maddow devotes dozens and dozens of pages to both Reagan and George W. Bush's role in the slide from war as a difficult, national decision to one made by the guy at the top but she skims the surface of the roles Clinton and even Obama have played in this transition. Not that she lets them off the hook, far from it. But considering the depth of her dive into the Grenada invasion, Iran-Contra, Desert Shield/Storm and then the post-9/11 conflicts in Iraq (again) and Afghanistan, it does induce some eye-rolls to note how little (other than the Balkans) time she devotes to military action during Clinton's eight year term.
The most compelling pat of the book is Maddow's description of the state of our nuclear arsenal, now aging and no longer necessary from the perspective of what it was assembled to accomplish (arranging the mutually assured destruction deterrent against the Soviet Union), including the number of mishaps and mishandling mini-calamaties that are, perhaps, inherent in trying to maintain 5,000 true WMD, some of which date back sixty years. This is a chilling account of past mistakes, current dangers and policy nightmares that make this an ongoing concern—where "concern" is the lightest possible term for something that ought to be a sort of systemic panic but is really more of a casually shrugged-off low-priority issue. Perhaps books like this one will shine some much-needed light on the pressing need for disarmament, a point in which I find myself in full agreement with Ms. Maddow.
Drift is a book that I'm not sure I can use the word "enjoy" to describe my experience with; it is certainly interesting and well-written with Maddow's casual-but-earnest style that makes it easy reading. More so than anything, I find this to be a book I'd recommend because it invites (perhaps demands is the better word) thought and discourse, which is something that I think both Maddow and I would love to see more of in our politics, especially when it comes to questions of how we exert our military might, how we make those decisions and what we do going forward.(less)
When I was in junior high school, I started reading Stephen King novels. I was a timid, easily frightened little kid and I think in part my interest i...moreWhen I was in junior high school, I started reading Stephen King novels. I was a timid, easily frightened little kid and I think in part my interest in the creepy stories of King's early work was part of an effort to deal with the anxieties I labored under. Books were safe, salvational, and though titles like It, Carrie, and Pet Sematary were terrifying, there was something about them that I could confront where trips to the Halloween store and VHS copies of horror films were overwhelming. I read a lot of King's work between the ages of about 12 and 19, basically everything he published under his own name (I think the only Richard Bachman work I've read is The Regulators) up through 1996 (the only major novel release from that time period I skipped was Rose Madder). Since then, I've drifted from King's work, with a few exceptions like The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon and On Writing.
The reasons for me branching out don't have all that much to do with the quality of King's work (although the Gerald's Game, Dolores Claiborne era found me not really loving what he was putting out toward the end of my obsession there), and more to do with the fact that I no longer needed to prove myself capable of conquering literary fear and I transitioned to getting my chills and thrills from a long back catalog of horror movies while my reading preferences drifted into epic fantasy and other genres. Eventually my fascination with all sorts of macabre stuff faded along with my sense of invincible youth and the prospect of gaining entertainment value from death and terrestrial horror (regular humans doing despicable things, as seen in trash like Hostel and Human Centipede, perhaps influenced by similar subject matter in the less effective King novels around the time I stopped lining up for each new release) so I never really went back to the Stephen King well. And admittedly a big part of my inability (or unwillingness) to keep up was tied to the copy of The Dark Tower IV Wizard and Glass, which came out so long after I had finished the previous entry that I had trouble keeping up and frustrated me.
11/22/63 then is the first novel I've read by King, then, since probably 2000, and there are two key factors that did it: time travel and JFK. I don't think it mattered who wrote a novel that incorporates these two elements, I would have been intrigued either way; the fact that it represented an opportunity to re-visit an old favorite author was just a happy coincidence. So I picked up a copy of the 850-page brick that is 11/22/63 and re-acquainted myself with Mr. King.
The first thing that stood out to me—something I had forgotten—was what an easy, natural storyteller King is. His prose isn't jump-off-the-page spectacular, but he has such a way of drawing the reader along through even his epic tales that it never feels like you're reading a near-thousand page monster. He's particularly great about doing this kind of baldfaced foreshadowing thing where he doesn't allude to the significance of an early event, he plainly spells out that it matters, but he doesn't connect the dot right away, instead circling it in yellow highlighter so that the tension mounts as the chapters fall toward the front cover leaving the reader anxious to discover why that particular event matters.
11/22/63 is the story of Jake Epping, a divorced high school English teacher who stumbles across a sort of wormhole in the back of his friend Al's diner that he can pass through and come out in the same spot only in 1959. Each time through the portal, the world in 1959 is reset, but the effects of Jake and Al's actions in the past can have ripple effects so that when they return to 2011 (always two minutes later than when they went in, no matter how long they stay in the past), things may be different. Initially, Jake tests this theory by saving a family doomed to a horrific fate he knows about from a janitor pal at the school he teaches in, and though he is successful, he realizes there is sufficient uncertainty in the outcomes due to the oft-cited butterfly effect. But Al is convinced that the risks are worth it for one big intervention, one key opportunity to improve the past and create a better future: Stop the assassination of John F. Kennedy.
Yet Al is dying of lung cancer and his final attempt sees his illness progressing too rapidly for him to make it to 1963, so he implores Jake to take up the cause. Thus begins the main thread of the narrative where Jake travels to the past for a four-year stint in which he is determined to find Lee Harvey Oswald and stop his plans. Under the guise of his past (King refers to it often as The Land of Ago) alias, George Amberson, Jake returns twice, once to stop the janitor's fate and check the outcome, and once to push all the way through to 1963 (if necessary) and do whatever it takes to prevent the death of the president.
The principal antagonist in the story is what Jake (and King) refer to as "the obdurate past," which in the world of 11/22/63 means that the past resists efforts to change it. And though Jake/George is determined to succeed in his mission, the obdurate past requires careful planning and patience to execute any sweeping ripple effects. As Jake's time in the early sixties drags on, he makes his way through by carefully manipulating the details he knows about, betting on sporting events to provide cash, lying smoothly to most everyone he meets, and he begins to sort of fall in love with the simpler times of Ago. Then, he falls in love with a woman, Sadie Dunhill.
The threads of Jake's existence in the past begin to twist themselves together, propelled along by that not-foreshadowing trick, the careful pacing squeezing tension deliberately like a snake slowly wrapping itself around prey, only tightening uncomfortably at the moment when it is too late. Sadie and George (Jake) have a cheer-them-on kind of romance, though George's secretiveness threatens their happiness, you see the bond they share working behind the scenes in what has got to be Stephen King's best depiction of love and tender romance that I've come across. Of course, this is Stephen King, so an ominous cloud hangs over them throughout, further dragging readers through the pages wondering how it will all work out.
There is an awful lot to like about 11/22/63, from the clever but simple mechanics of his time travel, the fun fanservice-y tie-in with his earlier novel (and one of my favorites), It; even the portrayal of life in the 60s through the lens of a modern man is impressive. Jake himself is a likable character, full of self-doubt and occasionally self-importance, but with a sharp wit and a not-too-schmaltzy big heart.
Late in the book there is a point at which the mounting tension hits a break point and King makes a specific decision that sets the stage for the dramatic climax and it was here that I remembered the other thing about Stephen King: he really struggles to find endings that leave readers—or at least me—feeling satisfied. I've wondered for a long time if King's books tend toward the epic in length because the author doesn't really want the stories to end, that he has more fun creating the worlds than making them change. If you've read a few of his novels, you can start to recognize where this process begins and King tends to make a particular decision that will define the context for the final push to the end and in 11/22/63, the point comes at just past the three-quarters mark in the 842-page book, (view spoiler)[when Jake's association with shady bookies catches up with him (hide spoiler)].
From that point on the book is not quite as delightful, and the event comes across as an obvious writer-tool to set up a race against the clock to try and avert the assassination. I didn't hate the turn the story took, but I felt it could have been executed more subtly or at least in a less formulaic fashion. Another side effect of this choice is that a book that has been... well, not exactly light-hearted, but at least fairly upbeat until the turning point. From there, the last quarter of the book passes by under a grim, dark shadow. I can't quite decide if this is an effective note to hit or if it feels uneven, though I lean toward the latter. There is something off-putting about the hasty final chapters that doesn't quite spoil the experience of the whole thing, but left me with a sense that at some point King decided the party just needed to end so he shut off all the lights and screamed, "Get Out!" It's not a bad ending, it's merely one that falls short of the promise shown in the first half. For a book that I loved for that long, to end with sort of a depressing sense of, "Yeah, sure, okay" was a disappointment.
(view spoiler)[One thing I did appreciate about the ending is the way that King—without stuffing it into your throat—points a spotlight on the fact that while it's easy to find people who bemoan the present, who wistfully speak of "the good ol' days," to even get the sense from reading a daily news site that things are tough all over, modern society has a lot going for it. There is a hard-to-spot undercurrent of hope in the bleak closing chapters which has no bearing on Jake at all, but says something larger about the way that we view the past and the way we might be best served when looking at the future. I liked that. (hide spoiler)]
In spite of a lukewarm sense about the end, I will say that it shouldn't stop anyone from reading the book. Stephen King may not be my favorite author anymore, but he remains a master storyteller and this book is a showcase for what happens when you give a great storyteller a great story to tell.["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>(less)
Marjane Satrapi's autobiographical graphic novel describes a childhood/early adolescence spent in Iran during the late 70s and early 80s. In a lot of...moreMarjane Satrapi's autobiographical graphic novel describes a childhood/early adolescence spent in Iran during the late 70s and early 80s. In a lot of ways this is a fascinating account and an important perspective on historical events that continue to have resonance 30+ years later. Ms. Satrapi fills Persepolis with a lot of intriguing little personal details and fills it with a sharp, distinctive visual style.
Unfortunately, as a graphic novel, I think Persepolis fails in a key aspect which is that it really has no use being a graphic novel at all. I found the book to be a very slow read which I think is in part because it's very wordy but also because Ms. Satrapi's artwork, for the most part, adds nothing to the narrative. I can't help but contrast this to another graphic novel I read recently, Habibi, which embraced the combination of text and images to tell a story in a way that could not have been handled with words alone. Here we have the opposite end of the spectrum where for the most part the pictures just serve as short- (or long-) hand for dialogue attributors. And even then I think a lot of the time one could understand the tale even without that much context. Take this text-only excerpt from page 45:
"My idea was to put nails between our fingers like American brass knuckles and to attack Ramin.
'Ramin! Ramin! Come out of hiding! Don't be a wimp!'
But my mother arrived in the middle of our euphoria…
'So kids, what are you up to?'
'Marji found us some nails!!!'
'We are going to beat up Ramin!'
'His father has killed a million people!'
'So that's what you want, to nail Ramin? Get into the car, I have a better solution.'
'Really? What's that?'"
The point being that panel after panel passes with very little added by the art to the point where in the end I kept wondering why this wasn't just a straight autobiography.
I also know that autobiographies don't follow the same rules of conflict and development that novels do, but I think the best nonfiction incorporates elements from fiction structure and I think another reason why this book felt so slow to me is that it doesn't really flow very well. Ms. Satrapi tells the story in little vignettes but because there doesn't seem to be a unifying theme and because she felt the need to draw it rather than expand the story in text, the effect is stilted. She seems to struggle to find the balance between focusing on intimate details from her recollection and a broader historical context, something I again attribute to her medium choice.
To a certain extent, I liked the story contained within Persepolis. I don't know if given to a different artist it might have worked better for me as a graphic novel or if someone were to adapt the script to better utilize the medium and permit the same style to remain in place it would be more effective to me. As it was, I felt the narrative within had a lot of promise but the execution lacked to the point where I just wouldn't recommend it to anyone else.(less)