Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Embroideries by Marjane Satrapi

I've had this on my bookshelf forever, having read and enjoyed Satrapi's Persepolis books ages ago, but for some reason, didn't get around to this one. However, Iran is in the news once again and after reading Adrian McKinty's blog posts here and here, which are a form of literary solidarity with the protesters' position, I noticed a copy of Embroideries in the store and had a sudden impulse to read it.

Let me start out by saying that I love graphic novels. I am so happy to have been reintroduced to the form again after many, many years, as I was never a comic book collector. And lord knows, I've never been hip enough to have caught on to all the great things people were doing with comics until, what, maybe ten years ago?, when everyone else had the same blinding insight.

I know a lot of people who get frustrated with the form--for them, it's over too quickly. But I really just love the marriage of word and image. I think it's one of the great sins of modern publishing that the divorce of these two has been so complete in all 'serious' modern fiction. Illustration is suspect. But for godssake, why? The most we can hope for these days is a decent cover.

I think one of the reasons I was slow to check out this particular Satrapi was that, in some half-conscious way, I thought of it as 'slight'. After the political work of Persepolis, I suppose I thought she was coasting when writing and illustrating this shorter tale of a group of women coming together to 'ventilate their hearts'--ie, gossip and tell tales. And of course, in this I betray my own subtle indoctrination into the idea of the importance of men's business, and the triviality of women's business.

As we read about what to all intents and purposes is an Iranian women's consciousness raising session, it's true that it's possible to feel that the subject matter is a little bit dated. Haven't we all been through this already? Well, yes and no. Perhaps women's predicaments are universal, but the way they are articulated are particular and local. The position of educated Iranian women must be one of the most delicate and excruciating of all. And let me just say that you will never view the word 'embroidery' in exactly the same way again.

Satrapi is sometimes criticized for the apparent artlessness of her images. There is a lot that is very, very simple in her drawing. But her use of the possibilities of the form are far from naive. She uses the space quite dramatically and effectively.

Check it out.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell

In keeping with my, well, not tradition, since I've only done it once or twice before and then missed last month entirely, but let's just say premise, I am going to post about our latest book club selection before going to the meeting tonight. Sadly, I have not actually gotten very far with this one, but why let ignominy be an excuse for not writing? Maybe I haven't used the time so wisely, but hey, it's been a busy month.

The Sparrow is what I suppose might be called literary science fiction, maybe more in terms of its apparent aspiration rather than anything inherent in the story itself. We enter the tale after a space mission to reach another form of possibly humanlike life has somehow gone horribly wrong, and its sole survivor, a Jesuit priest named Emilio Sandoz, has now returned to earth, and Rome, both scarred by and judged for the experience. As the book unfolds, we are taken into the backstory of this fateful mission, in which a small handful of people are driven by a seeming destiny to set forth together on it. Whether the hand of God is in it is an open question.

This book was published in 1996 and it made a big splash in certain circles at the time. A lot of our staff members read and recommended it, so I have been interested in its appeal for awhile now. I confess to being a little surprised that such a seemingly God-driven book, though hardly pious and definitely not orthodox, would have captured the interest of what by and large is a pretty secular demographic. I also find the date of the space launch, which involves light speed, a bit disconcerting, because by 2021, it has apparently been figured out and is available for use. The world has moved a long distance since 1996, but not, so far as I know, in this direction. There's no real harm done, but since all the chapters are dated, you can't help contrasting our reality to the book's a lot. It's a bit jarring.

So far, I am finding the story interesting enough, but perhaps a bit too leisurely. There is this foreboding about what really happened out there, but it hasn't yet become my foreboding, if you see the difference. I'm on about page 143 and they are only just now launching off into space. This is what I mean by sci-fi aspiring to be literary. In real genre fiction, the author would feel an obligation to get on with it.

Unfortunately for me, there will undoubtedly be some spoilers tonight about all that goes wrong, and though I'm planning to keep on with it, it will be interesting to see if in fact I still want to after what others say.

I should emphasize that this is not as far as I can tell any kind of Christian tract. Of course, I suppose a lot depends on the outcome...