Tuesday, November 15, 2011

In Which Trai Lists Some Books That Have Been Sitting On Her Shelves

I haven't done one of these in nearly a year! I like the topic for this one: Top Ten Books That Have Been On My Shelf For The Longest But I've Never Read. Maybe listing them out will finally motivate me to get around to them! :)

1) The Lost Memoirs of Jane Austen, Syrie James: I've had this one for at least a few years now and I've never gotten around to it despite the great reviews I've seen! I'm saving it for a rainy, Jane-craving day, I suppose.

2) Rebecca, Daphne duMaurier: It's been so long since I got this one that I honestly don't even remember what prompted me to want to read it! I think I probably got it around the time I read Jane Eyre.

3) The Book Thief, Markus Zusak: A ton of people have told me to read this one, ever since my sophomore year of high school, but I've shied away from it knowing how upsetting it apparently is!

4) The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, Anne Bronte: I'm really, really interested in this one--one of the first novels to deal with domestic abuse and alcoholism, I believe--but I think I've let it sit because I liked Agnes Grey so much that Anne became my favorite of the Bronte women, and I'm reluctant to read the second and last of Anne's novels!

5) Mr. Darcy's Diary, Amanda Grange: There's actually a few Darcy-centric books I'd like to get around to, but I'd have to space them out. I've read another Grange book (Colonel Brandon's Diary, two summers ago), but none of her others just yet.

6) Skin Deep, et. al., Christopher Golden: I loved the Jenna Blake books when I was in high school! Jenna is a mildly squeamish college student who works as an assistant for the local medical examiner, and I really liked her personality and how she and the team at the morgue responded to all kinds of suspicious deaths. I have a feeling I could relate to them a bit more now that I'm in college myself, and I'll have to pick up the remaining half or so of the series soon.

7) Wives & Daughters, Elizabeth Gaskell: Gaskell in general is one I've been trying to acquaint myself with slowly. I got sidetracked on this one during high school and never managed to pick it up again, and I'm wending my way back towards North & South, which I was reading prior to moving in this semester. Gaskell and I will meet someday!

8) The Handmaid's Tale, Margaret Atwood: One of my favorite high school teachers recommended this to me, and I know it's one of those dystopians I just need to read!

9) Middlesex, Jeffrey Eugenides: The Virgin Suicides is one of my favorite books, and I've always been curious about Eugenides' second book. It's been staring at me for at least four years now.

10) Mockingjay, Suzanne Collins: So... yeah. I read Catching Fire in September of last year, bought Mockingjay shortly after... and haven't touched it since, probably because I've heard how depressing it is. Oops. I have, however, remained unspoiled.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

In Which Trai Reviews 'The Left Bank Gang'

The Book: The Left Bank Gang

The Author and Artist: Jason (colored by Hubert)

How I Found It: My Graphic Lit professor passed it around in class and was kind enough to let me borrow it when I expressed interest. Thanks!

The Review: In the world Jason presents, the most valuable art isn't books--it's comics. In Paris' Latin Quarter in the 1920s, struggling artists F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingay, Ezra Pound, and James Joyce are fighting against artistic blocks and marital problems.

Scott is trying to deal with Zelda's fits of instability and infidelity. Ernest doesn't have the money to support his family. With this in mind, Ernest proposes a radical scheme for how they can get money. The scheme doesn't exactly go off without a hitch, and it's only seeing it from everyone's perspectives that helps the reader come to understand what really happened.

Having just finished discussing Pound, Stein, Fitzgerald, and Hemingway in my American Lit survey, I thought this would be an interesting read. What did it have to say about art, and what did it have to say about the artists? How would the artists, real people of the period, come across on page? I'd seen fictional representations of these people before (this summer's Midnight in Paris was lovely), and though I only have a passing acquaintance with the work of most of these artists, I'm very much interested in them. After reading this, I'm certainly curious to finally dig in to Tender is the Night and A Moveable Feast, to get glimpses of the truth behind their lives.

The choices Jason made were really interesting to me. I can't say I think I fully understand it all, but I'm certainly willing to think about it. The characters are represented by anthropomorphized dogs, which I see now is a trademark of Jason's style. I don't think he does it for the same reasons as Spiegelman did in Maus, say, but I found myself thinking about the reasons anyway. Each character is only distinguished by a color--Fitzgerald is a white dog in a red suit; Hemingway wears orange; Pound wears green. By having the protagonists look so similar, was Jason raising a point--were the members of the Lost Generation really all treading the same path, essentially the same person? (Given what I've read of hers, I think Gertrude Stein would say they were.)

I found myself taking particular notice of the silent panels. Silent panels are probably one of the things I've most enjoyed learning about in the course of my studies this semester, and there are several that have really made me think (a tragic escape from an illegal party in Persepolis, a closeup on a Rorschach inkblot that resembles an abyss in Watchmen), and this book added several more. Scott, alone and devastated, sits contemplating the bottle of alcohol next to him. Hemingway feeds a pigeon and then stealthily kills it, desperate for food for his family. Pound draws a fellow customer at the coffee shop and seems to wonder about her. Often, these sequences carried on for several panels, with characters whose capacity for emotional expression was limited by how they were represented, but I never lost sight of what their thoughts were or what was going on. I give Jason a lot of credit for that.

I really appreciated and enjoyed the commentary on the writers-turned-artists--Tolstoy is criticized because all his characters "look the same." Zelda used to help Scott with his artwork; from what I can remember, Zelda helped him with his writing at times. Gertrude Stein offers the young Hemingway some harsh but helpful advice. The choice to have everyone be comic book artists rather than writers was another thing that made me think. Was Jason positing the idea that comics are something to be valued as highly as we value novels? Was he being ironic?

Perhaps my favorite part of the book was the shifting perspectives towards the end. I've said before that I'm a sucker for multiple narrators or perspective shifts (only when done well, though), and it worked perfectly here. Nothing truly fits together until you see that final piece, and even if parts of what went on were obvious, I was captivated by how minute shifts of perspective made all the difference.

I couldn't find anything at all to dislike in this book, and I'd even like to own a copy someday. It's a fast read, but one subtle enough that I'd like to return to it a few more times--knowing more about Jason, about Fitzgerald and Hemingway, about the other artists mentioned, or just to appreciate the craft and skill that went into it. Recommended to fans of the Lost Generation!

In Which Trai Reviews 'Tess of the d'Urbervilles'

The Book: Tess of the d'Urbervilles

The Author: Thomas Hardy

How I Found It: Years ago, when I was but a junior in high school studying for the English Literature AP exam, I had this one down as a possible choice to read in preparation for the exam, in time for the miniseries to air on Masterpiece Theatre. I never did get there and instead read it this year. This was my first book read via Dailylit.

The Review: "O mother, my mother!" cried the agonized girl, turning passionately upon her parent as if her poor heart would break. "How could I be expected to know? I was a child when I left this house four months ago. Why didn't you tell me there was danger in men-folk? Why didn't you warn me?"

There are some books you read only to wish you'd read them earlier. Me, I'm quite glad I read this one exactly when I did, at nearly 21, instead of at 17, as was the initial plan. I think I would have sworn off men for life.

One night in Marlott, an English village, the local parson tells Jack Durbeyfield something interesting--he is not just "plain Jack Durbeyfield, the haggler" as he believes, but the descendant of one of the greatest old families, the d'Urbervilles. Jack gets it in his head that this means something grand, and he and his wife hatch a plot to "claim kin" with a wealthy d'Urberville living not far from Marlott. Tess, the beautiful eldest Durbeyfield child, has far more sense than her parents and would prefer they not get wrapped up in such nonsense. Circumstances soon necessitate it when a horrific accident--partly Tess' fault--fells Prince, the family horse, leaving the Durbeyfields on the edge of poverty, and Tess finally agrees to go and claim kin.

This acquaints Tess with the charming, but conniving Alec d'Urberville, her alleged cousin, who is really anything but. Alec is perhaps a bit too interested in Tess, and takes advantage when he sees the chance. This event and its tragic outcome will define Tess for the rest of her life, haunting her subsequent associations with nearly everyone she meets--including, a few years later, Angel Clare, a kindly farmer and scholar who becomes smitten with Tess. Will Tess finally find happiness with Alec, or will she end up paying for a sin that was never her own?

Entirely unintentionally, this year has become the "Trai acquaints herself with the great female protagonists of literature" year. First Moll, now Tess. I wonder that some of the frankest portrayals of female sexuality I've ever read were written by men! It's funny, too, that Moll and Tess were two completely opposite sides of the coin--Moll truly owns her sexuality and is unashamed of her crimes, whereas Tess is ashamed of a "sin not of [her] own seeking" and tries to swear off all contact with men because of it. Reading both novels within a month or two of each other was certainly interesting.

This is one hell of a depressing story--tears were shed at the last few chapters--but an important one. I think Hardy pushed a lot of boundaries by writing such a sexually-charged story, and by pointing out the flaws inherent in the "system" of religion, morality, what have you. That doesn't mean it wasn't still frustrating to read at times, from a modern perspective--when Alec kept going on about Tess tempting him just by looking the way she did, I wanted to shake him and yell at him that it's his fault for being tempted, not hers for having the body she does--but it did mean I could engage with the text more fully and find its views fascinating. These flaws and contradictions are still happening today--in the same vein of the Alec example I mentioned above are the recent hypocritical tweets by a hockey player that many took issue with. The player first asked women to cover up so that they wouldn't tempt their male brethren... and then went on to tell men that they've got nobody but themselves to blame if they are tempted. Huh?

I felt the three main characters--Tess, Alec, and Angel--and their relationships were well-drawn and convincing. I felt for Tess and hoped she would be able to find some happiness, or at least some gainful employment, during her difficulties. Alec made my skin crawl, but I could see why Tess would, at first, find him charming--the strawberry scene is going to stay with me for quite a while; I adore the Vintage cover (above) for evoking that so simply. Angel made me love him and then made me hate him, but I rooted for him nonetheless because of how tenderly he treated Tess as he fell in love with her--a marked contrast from Alec. (I think this book might have earned the distinction of one of my favorite kisses in literature--as Tess and Angel work together to break up curds for cheese-making, Angel leans down and kisses the underside of Tess' arm, despite its being covered in curds. That's love, folks.)

It was one of those books that had me appreciating the side characters as much as the leads--there's the early image of Jack Durbeyfield drunkenly riding along and chanting about his family vault at Kingsbere, Joan Durbeyfield worriedly realizing she should have ascertained if Alec was a good man before sending Tess to him, Marian eventually turning to drinking but still managing to stay quite pleasant and supportive of Tess. (Continuing my happiness at positive depictions of women in love triangles, this book had a lovely one--all the dairymaids are in love with Angel and resent Tess for a short time, but quickly become her steadfast friends once they realize Tess does not wish to be their rival.) The plot the characters were involved in was slow at times, undoubtedly, but slow enough that it made me think and have the time to really consider where things were going and how I felt about that.

I decided to watch the 2008 BBC miniseries adaptation on the strength of good reviews and its being the most recent adaptation, and because David Nicholls (One Day) was the screenwriter. I expected to like it, as I do most BBC adaptations--what I didn't expect was to love it, and for it to become my all-time favorite BBC adaptation. It was beautifully shot and incredibly well-acted.

Certain things really chilled me--the final shot of Tess that ends Part One, where the viewer is finally given the truth of what Alec's violation has left her with; Tess huddled in the rain, desperate and kissing her wedding ring; the choice to have Tess and Alec framed by the bars of a tomb during one confrontation, symbolizing how Tess is trapped with no other option but to obey him. The soundtrack was sorrowful and insistent, almost like a warning, and the echoing strains of "The snow, it melts the soonest..." were haunting.

Gemma Arterton really impressed me--I'd only ever seen her as a Bond girl and a goddess in Clash of the Titans, so I wasn't expecting her to pull it off, but she had me at the indignation Tess displays in her opening scene: who among us hasn't scoffed and rolled our eyes at embarrassing relatives? She perfectly played Tess' indifference and numbness in her goodbye to Alec in Part One, and her anger and sorrow at Angel in Part Three. Hans Matheson captured Alec exactly, the charm and the slime. Eddie Redmayne, Angel, was a bit flat at times, but I really felt the connection between him and Gemma's Tess, and the kiss I mentioned before was just as I imagined it. (A special shoutout to the woman who played Marian; she was all I'd imagined and more.) All the emotional scenes were well-played--I cried at the speech I opened this post with, and at the end--and Nicholls' screenplay was outstanding.

This story has left quite an impact on me, and I look forward to exploring it further both in my research for a paper and as I view two other adaptations: Roman Polanski's Tess, and an earlier miniseries version starring Justine Waddell of Wives & Daughters fame. Most definitely recommended to anyone who'd like to read a classic or to anyone interested in portrayals of female sexuality in literature.

(I mentioned above that I read this via Dailylit; I highly recommend it! The site delivers small installments [the length of your average email] of public domain books into your inbox on a schedule of your choosing, and it worked quite splendidly for me.)

Monday, November 7, 2011

In Which Trai Reviews 'The Complete Persepolis'

The Book: The Complete Persepolis

The Author and Artist: Marjane Satrapi

How I Found It: I saw the film in theatres upon its release, but didn't get to read the graphic novel until it was assigned for my course.

The Review: I'm sure I'm not the only one to have seen a movie long ago, not having read the book first, only to read the book years later, realize it's amazing, and then find the movie doesn't quite measure up to it. I had that experience with this book and its movie. I vividly remembered loving the movie and being outraged that it didn't win the Academy Award for Best Animated Feature that year, even when I knew that as an animated film, Ratatouille far outclassed it. I loved the book just as much as I remembered loving the film, fortunately, and was more than pleased to talk about it in class.

Persepolis is the story of Marjane Satrapi's girlhood and then her teenage years, all taking place during the tumultuous years of the Islamic revolution and the Iran-Iraq war. Her parents are somewhat more modern than their countrymen, and Marjane grows up surrounded by rock music, forbidden parties, and a certain knowledge about what's really going on in the country, contrary to the filtered version given to her by teachers and even the television.

Marjane grows up among the horrors of war; before she is even fourteen, she will see her friend's dead body following an explosion, learn some painful truths about class differences, and eventually have to leave Iran to live in Austria, when her parents decide she could have a better and brighter life ahead of her. In Austria, Marjane is faced with unraveling the complexities of her identity: in Austria, she is too Iranian; in Iran, she is too Western. Not only that, but she must begin to make sense of boys, politics, and her emerging artistic sense.

There are just certain things, I've realized now, that can only be conveyed by a graphic novel, by words and images combined. Silent panels, as I will mention in a forthcoming review of another graphic novel, have been the thing that most captivated me thus far in my coursework. There's a few here that really strike me: Marjane's horror upon seeing her friend's body in the rubble, or the silent chaos of a party interrupted by the guardians of the revolution. There's nothing that can match a series of wordless panels, frozen images of terror or nothingness, in emotional power or intellectual stimulation. Satrapi uses the graphic novel format to great effect.

It's one thing to have a recurring motif in a novel; it's another to have a visual motif in a graphic novel, so that the reader can see the repetition of certain images and how they change over time. The raised fist, the all-seeing eye, a farewell at an airport--all of these images are repeated more than once, and the meaning is different each time. That was another thing I found worked better in a graphic novel than straight prose. Even the color scheme was effective--the black and white color scheme meant, to me, not to get hung up on the details of what someone looked like, what that might mean for their nationality, and to instead look at the characters as people.

Technical considerations aside, Marjane's story was an emotional ride and an eye opener, one I'm not sorry to have read. Marjane's parents explain the truth behind the Shah's rule to her, but it also serves as an insight for Western readers, a look into what went on "behind the scenes," so to speak, the things that occurred in Iran that didn't make it to the Western news-watching public. This isn't always about the grand narrative of the revolution--it's about the lives of the individual people caught up in it. Marjane's parents, who risk their lives several times by protesting. Marjane's grandmother, full of wisdom and often helping the young Marjane on her path to self-discovery. Marjane's Uncle Anoosh, a former political prisoner Marjane becomes attached to. It's clear how much Marjane cares about these people, and how much we should care, and as a reader, I became emotionally invested fast. I cried several times as Marjane lost friends and family members, or came to some sort of revelation about herself or her country.

There are several incidents that will really stay with me--Marjane learning about class differences as she sees that poor young men are being sent to war (99-100), her grandmother's life advice (150), Marjane telling off some guardians (301), Marjane's mother's reaction to her impending marriage (317). Even if the story was painful at times, it was still an unflinching look at growing up, one that I could even relate to at times, despite not having gone through nearly as much as Marjane had. I'll certainly want to reread this in the future.

The movie was a good representation of the story, for sure, but so much was condensed or cut out entirely that it just didn't stack up in my mind. There's none of the graphic novel's insight into the ideology of the veil, and we barely see anything of Marjane evolving into an artist, which perhaps the most fascinating section, to me. Moments like the lineup in the second volume, where we see the hair and clothes each girl has under her veil, highlighting her individuality, are gone, and I felt that a good portion of the story's meaning went with it.

This graphic novel is an especially good choice for teenage girls as well as older women, and educational to boot. If someone is hesitant to read it, I'd say show them the movie first and see how they react--if they like it, be sure they read the graphic novel to get the full story. If there's a teenage girl in your life who might not appreciate graphic novels just yet (or a boy who's interested in history, or vice versa!), I'd say give them this one and see what happens.