Tuesday, December 29, 2009

The Graphic Novel

Ah December, a time when the calendars are filled with obligations and gatherings of every sort, families and friends make time to make and consume traditional foods, treats and treasures. It is also the time of year when our little bookgroup gathers for the last time to discuss the current selection and then review our year. We make our cases for book of the year and inevitably our least favorite book also emerges.

This is not that blog post. You will have to wait for that one because our final selection(s) were so unique and wonderful that they get their own posting.

In a departure from our normal novel or non-fiction book Amy suggested we read a graphic novel (or 3) and discuss the merits of the genre and the books themselves. Selecting 3-4 books would be laughable but we were assured that the graphic novel is generally a faster read than word based books. For the record, there are plenty of words in a graphic novel and it is considered reading. So there.

Graphic novels are not comic books even though the story is told with both cartoon like drawings and narrative. Wikipedia (the source of all information be it true or not) describes graphic novels as a “narrative work in which the story is conveyed to the reader using the comics form.” “ Graphic novels are typically bound in longer and more durable formats than familiar comic magazines. The term graphic novel is sometimes used to disassociate with the works from the juvenile or humorous connotations of the terms comics and comic book, implying the work is more serious, mature or literary. “ (end of Wikipedia quoting.)

We selected three different novels to give us a deeper view into the medium than we might obtain from a single selection. We read:

Maus I : A Survivor’s Tale: My Father Bleeds History by Art Spiegelman
Maus II: A Survivor’s Tale: And Here My Troubles Began by Art Spiegelman
The Complete Persepolis, Marjane Satrapi
Blankets, Craig Thompson

Each told a widely different type of story. Maus I & II (sold as a set or in a single volume) tell the story of a young man who is drawing out from his father the experiences of the holocaust that he and his mother endured. Graphically, Jewish people are mice, the Nazi’s are cats (get it, cat & mouse) and other nationalities are represented as other animals (Polish are Pigs and so on). The subject matter does not shy away from the horrors of what one group of people can inflict on another. The graphic novel format allows for the portrayal of certain things that may be harder to explain in words only. For example, as the father is telling his story he is physically represented as a mouse, but when the story is in “present day” and the son is talking with his father the son is drawn as a person wearing mouse mask. It is a visual way of saying that the son doesn’t feel “as Jewish” and as connected to his heritage as someone who had those experiences. It is subtle and yet speaks volumes.

The Complete Persepolis is another non-fiction telling of a different family dealing with political change and oppression. Marjane describes her upbringing in Iran before and during the Iranian revolution. Her parents and family were not in favor of the new regime and raised Marjane to be an independent thinker. She describes the changes in the schools, church and eventually everywhere as the country she and her parents love is altered by the Shah’s and Ayatollah Khomeini’s influences. She is at one point sent away to live with family in Austria who have no understanding of the situation and although she was raised to be liberal and rebel against the requirements of the regime she does not thrive in a secular world. Eventually she returns to Iran and again struggles to balance the incongruent ideals of Iran and Europe. Interestingly, Marjane is not concerned with presenting a sympathetic and likeable image of herself and in doing so lends credibility and complexity to a simple way of portraying a challenging topic that many of us know little about.

Lastly, Blankets is the story of a high school boy who falls in love. This unflinching tale is remarkable in its youthful outlook on what love is and how it changes you and how it feels when it dies. While this book doesn’t have the backdrop of world altering war and revolution it is powerful and engaging. It is not at all a trite story and touches on complicated familial dynamics, substance, child and even sexual abuse.

It would be safe to say that as a group we thoroughly enjoyed these books. We enjoyed the reading of them and discussing the differences and similarities. Our main complaint was that the graphic novel is a genre that is easily devoured and these novels were hard to savor. I finished Maus I on a 90 minute flight and Persepolis in a 90minute flight plus 15 minutes into the return flight. (thus leaving me with only the Alaska Air in-flight magazine to read – ICK) . We loved what the graphic images were able to add to the story and the tone of the books. We liked how much detail we were able to gather from such a ‘simple’ medium. We also marveled over the editing process that must occur to bring a graphic novel to life. We wondered how much of a story is left out because it isn’t necessary or if we all fill in the same details when the canvas is left blank.

We tried to vote on which of the three stories we liked the best and we could not land on a solid favorite. We liked them all and were split as to which we thought was the best. We decided (as if anyone is listening) that we approve of the genre and it has a place in the literary world.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

A Book Group Miracle

With only 3 weeks notice we were able to pull off a book group miracle and gather together on a Friday night with our significant persons for a fabulous dinner. This is the same group that has troubles picking a week night to gather with 6 weeks notice and no child care issues to work out.


We cozied in around Melinda & Mark's dining room table and chatted away about current events, (Is Sarah Palin really considered an "author"?) Hobbies, kids, recent social events and of course... books.

We rounded the table sharing which books were our favorites as kids, titles included:

Little House on the Prairie

Island of the Blue Dolphins

Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe

Ayn Rand, The Fountain Head

Larry McMurtry

A Wrinkle in Time

Monster at the End of this Book

Where the sidewalk ends

Some of the more "adult" Judy Bloom titles even made an appearance.

Each title was met with oohs and chatter. We did discuss at length weather or not "The Giving Tree" is a good book or very depressing. We did agree that while it has been used as a corporate gift that it is a questionable selection. Are they saying that the receiver is the tree, who gives and gives until it is dead, or the human that takes and takes until it is filled with regret. Either way, not a merry sentiment.

Another book that we decided was creepy is "Love You Forever" by Robert Munsch.

The story goes like this: A mom goes into her son's room and rocks him to sleep professing she will love him forever. As he grows older - um, like to a teenager he's not so excited about being rocked to sleep so she's forced to sneak into his room after he's asleep and cuddle with him while he is unaware. He, getting irritated at waking up in footed pj's eventually moves out of state, but she continues to commit crimes of breaking and entering to assault him in his bedroom.

Eventually, she gets to old to make the trek across the state and the son, never having been able to form normal man/woman relationships starts to do what he knows with his mom. He starts to sneak into her room and rock the feeble old woman with no boundaries to sleep professing he will always love her.

Then, they buy a hotel, a cute hotel and they name it after themselves. Thus is the story of Mrs. Bates and her sweet boy Norman.

Anyway - back to the party. We had lots of laughs, enjoyed each others company and celebrated the simple miracle of scheduling.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Look at us

Here we are goofing around at someone's wedding.

Hello Again...

Sorry for the delay - the scribe has had a busy summer and fall. Not that getting married and moving should be an excuse.

So, here's what you missed.

The Measure of a Man, a spiritual journey by Sidney Poiter.

To be perfectly frank, this book did not receive high praise from our group. We were not taken in by the tone of the book, felt Mr. Poiter needed a better editor, and were frankly irritated by things he chose to gloss over.

This book was not intended to be a study of his life in hollywood but because that life is how we know him, we felt that the book could have followed a more traditional type of timeline.

The book encourages you to separate the persona of Sidney Poiter and his true self - however, he seems to grasp onto that spiritually elevated perception of himself and when he deviates we didn't really like him. His spiritual journey wasn't quite clear enough and we didn't 'get it.'

The Fate of Africa
Oh my... never let the gal who is moving and getting married in the same month try to pick a book on the fly. This seemed like such a great pick, smart, educational and according to the book jacket and reviews "accessible" to the non-academic reader.

I was wrong. It seems like a fantastic book, and now that we all own it, I'm sure we will use it as reference when preparing our speeches on African nations.

One week in, we switched to "The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society." A much lighter work of fiction that was about a 4 hour read from beginning to end. Set against a post WWII occupied Great Brittan this little book tells of the German occupation on the Channel Islands (one in particular) and the fate of a few characters.

Consensus among the book group was that it was an enjoyable read, that the format (letters and telegrams) was a bit contrite and limiting, that some of the characters were more developed than others. Some were nothing more than devices to move the story along.

We enjoyed the historical nature of the book and the portrait of an idyllic little community that was transformed overnight. We were thankful that the author(s) didn't completely take the easy way out about the story resolution, but were not overly involved in the primary love story.

One of our astute members did draw a comparison to the archetypes in an Emily Bronte / Jane Austin story and the characters in this tale. We had the dark moody man, the seemingly perfect but totally wrong guy, and the "maligned hero".

Did we enjoy the book, yes. Did we love it? Don't know. Next meeting is our final year end gathering and our next set of books may (or may not) eke out the 2009 Book(s) of the year.

Stay tuned.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

The Two That I Forgot

Somehow in the course of 2009 I failed to write up two of our books because I skipped the book group meetings (due to a failed attempt at a real estate transaction and the other due to an unfortunate work reschedule.) I can’t comment on the discussions but the books are summarized here as follows:

The White Tiger, by Aravind Agida The White tiger tells the story of a driver in India who murders his employer. He feels justified in his actions and in letters to the Premier of China, tells his story. His act was in response to the Indian elite and the social and financial inequities, and through the letters he describes is upbringing and the transforming landscape within a land that he loves, but a land where the kind of work you can do is largely determined by the caste you were born into.

The Geography of Bliss; a grumps search for the happiest place on earth. This non-fiction book follows a sociologist (National Public Radio reporter) as he travels from location to location attempting to discover why certain countries and people are considered “happiest”. He travels to Bangalore India, strip clubs in Bangkok and drinks himself into next Tuesday in Reykjavik. He is on a vacation of discovery and the irritations of travel surface in his journey (are all local guides 100% responsible for only showing you the nice side of a location? Why don’t they ever show you the seedy side?) In addition to seeking out the happiest people on earth he also gives us the gloomiest and grumpiest folks. If you live in Moldovia can you truly be happy anyway? This book offers no real answers but does pose some funny questions such as are the Swedes really happy or just overly polite?

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Inspired by Savage Beauty

Our latest book Savage Beauty: The Life of Edna St. Vincent Millay by Nancy Milford has inspired our little group to an odd yet fun correspondence regarding the book group this evening. Ms. Millay was a revered poet and this biography is told through remembrances and correspondence. Millay, a colorful character to be sure, was spirited, selfish, promiscuous and had no concern for the morals of the times. She had affairs with men, women, married people, single all the while producing lovely poetry that the nation adored.
Notably, Ms. Millay would sent letters home and describe the parties she had attended, new and wonderful clothes that she had acquired while at the same time expressing “genuine” remorse for not being able to send five… no one dollar home to her mother and younger sisters who were without steady income.
The following is our book groups inspired correspondence over the details for the meeting this evening:

Hello All
I can't decide on the theme for tomorrow's dinner. Here are my two thoughts:
1. In honor of Edna's early years, you can make your own dinner.
2. In honor of Edna's later years, you can drink your dinner. Nekkid.
As an aside, I don't think I'll ever hear the word "kitty" again and actually think of a cat.
Terri and Deborah won't be able to make it, and Heather will be a bit late, but I'll see the rest of you around 7!
- Beth
Dearest Beth,
Why don’t you just admit that you spent all the money for our food or gorgeous silk dresses for yourself?
Melinda ,
schnookums - I awoke to see your email this morning and felt I must put fingers to keys immediately.
Firstly, it was Michael not Beth who wrote that letter regarding dinner. Beth was too exhausted from finishing the book to write anyone.
Furthermore you will feel just horrid about the accusation of how she has spent money on any little special thing for herself once you realize the support she is giving that God damn bitch of a sister of hers.
I will not rest till I see all of your faces tonight. Oh to be with you and spend the hours reciting poetry and being gay.

And then the prose began:
In an evening
Full of wit and fun
There will be a loss
Of missing one.
Actually, I think its...
Our eyes will be full of dew
because we'll be missing two

I think Beth mentioned that Deborah won't be there either.
Is that right, Deborah?
don't let your hearts be filled with hate
I'll just be a little late (7:30-ish)

Something smells of a rose
Oh lovely Christine
She who talks in prose.
- TP
"oh to be inspired
by my sister red head
I will talk in prose
for weeks
and read aloud in bed."
Its true you will be without two.
But I will have chosen
And thought carefully
And will bring a book to thee.


Monday, April 13, 2009

The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, Carson McCullers

First of all, apologies for the tardy write up, this is the recap for our March 1st meeting

Published in 1940, this fiction novel written by a twenty-three year old woman from a small southern town still has a place for the modern reader. Ms. McCullers weaves a detailed tale of lost individuals in a hot, sleepy, southern town. She captures the strained race relations of that era in a tone that is still relevant. One character believes that if she just goes along with the way things are (not rocking the boat) that it will improve, or at least not get any worse. Her father is frustrated by this approach and spends his time 'teaching' his community. While his message is critical and correct, his delivery is too much for his community.

Many people in the town are drawn to Singer, a deaf man to whom the darkest secrets, wants and desires are told. He enjoys the company, is confused by these folks, but longs for his hospitalized friend.

This is not an upbeat, happy story and not intended to be such. We are deftly given the image of the restaraunt owner who is kind of a wet noodle, brow beaten by his much more assertive wife and then over time we are drawn into his life and what gives him purpose. This layering of characters is rich and enjoyable.

Friday, January 23, 2009

2008 Year in Review

The 2008 Reading List

The Things They Carried, Tim O'Brien
The Hummingbird's Daughter, Luis Alberto Urrea
The Nine, Inside The Secret World of the Supreme Court, Jeffrey Toobin
The Highest Tide, Jim Lynch
Infidel, Ayaan Hirsi Ali
Under the Banner of Heaven, Jon Krakauer
Travels with My Aunt, Graham Greene
An Unquiet Mind, a Memoir of Moods and Madness by Kay Redfield Jamison
Special Topics in Calamity Physics, Marsha Pessl

Book of the Year

The Nine, Inside the Secret World of the Supreme Court, Jeffrey Toobin , which was closely followed by The Things They Carried.

Least Favorite(s)
Please note the intended departure from the language implying "stinker", "worst" or "don't bother." We each had a 'least favorite' but no one had an adamant "I HATED THIS BOOK" opinion about any of the titles we read this year. We still had loud and strong feelings (negative) about last years selection.

Travels with My Aunt and The Hummingbird's Daughter both earned two votes for least favorite, thus leaving us in agony over what to document for 2008.

None of the books on our 2008 reading list are remotely bad, and most were flat out great - so there!

The Things They Carried, Tim O'Brien

Last book of the 2008 year, The Things They Carried by Tim O'Brien was a finalist for the 1990 Pulitzer Prize. The author tells of his experience in Vietnam from multiple perspectives. He tells a similar story a number of times and each time it becomes more truthful.

The story isn't linear in the way that most tales are told. We are introduced to a platoon of men and then their shared experience is drawn out for us. O'Brien manages to explore the grusome details of war and the shocking immersion back to "real life" in a calm and almost poetic way.

The book is fiction, but the narrator is named "Tim O'Brien" which caused a little bit of wondering about the truthfulness of the stories. The author in an interview states that one of the chapters about "Tim" where he attempts to avoid the war that he doesn't agree with by going to Canada did not happen to him in real life. Instead, he boarded the bus and was sworn in - but felt like a coward for not being able to flee.

Even though the subject matter was difficult, and centered around the Vietnam conflict - it felt topical and relevant in today's world.

The Hummingbird's Daughter, Luis Albert Urrea

From The New YorkerTwenty years in the making, Urrea's epic novel recounts the true story of his great-aunt Teresita. In 1873, amid the political turbulence of General Porfirio Díaz's Mexican republic, Teresita is born to a fourteen-year-old Indian girl, "mounted and forgotten" by her white master. Don Tomàs Urrea later takes his illegitimate daughter into his home, where she learns to bathe every week and read "Las Hermanas Brontë." But Teresita also continues a folk education as a curandera, discovering healing powers and a mystical relationship with God. Indian pilgrims swarm to the Urrea ranch, where "St. Teresita," a mestiza Joan of Arc, kindles in them a powerful faith in God and a perilous hunger for revolution. The novel brings to life not only the deeply pious figure whom Díaz himself dubbed "the Most Dangerous Girl in Mexico" but also the blood-soaked landscape of pre-revolutionary Mexico. Copyright © 2005 The New Yorker --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.

In spite of the fact that universally, national reviews were glowing the notes from our discussion were:
B: disappointed, it was a good story, but not engaging. I had higher expectations.
H: agreed, it was disappointing. It would have been good to be able to get inside the psyche of a character.
C: didn't like thew writing, struggled for the first 200 pages. The narratives were simplistic, but the dialog was good.
A: First 200 pages were hard, but the back end was great. "I didn't hate it." Some characters were likable, such as Don Tomas Huila.
The ending was a little too Hollywood, and jumbled.
The book was sold as fiction, but the people were real, some didn't like the blurring of lines, but C pointed out that the persons were real and the story is folklore, so it has to be fiction.
The story also wasn't clear about the timeline, and the time frame of when the story takes place is unclear until the end of the book.
However, we could buy into the mysticism of the story even though most things could be explained. "I'm happy to suspend disbelief for stories.

Lastly, there were quite a few passages in Spanish with no translation, or even contextual clues to aid the non-Spanish reader.