May 18, 2009

Prisoner of Tehran: A Memoir - Marina Nemat

I don't know when I last had the luxury (and a good enough book) to read an entire book, cover-to-cover, in a single day!  And I swear that I did do stuff other than read today!

This book made an excellent companion book to Persepolis, which I read a couple of weeks ago. They are set in the same time frame - Iran in the late '70s and '80s - and both feature a strong young woman rebelling against The Authority.  I am glad though that Prisoner of Tehran was not a graphic novel, as it does go into some detail about the torture that Marina experienced in prison.

Marina Moradi-Bakht was born in 1965, and was brought up in a somewhat loveless home in Tehran.  The book does go into some details about her life before being arrested - her first boyfriend who died fighting in the revolution that overthrew the Shah; her deepening Christian faith (her grandparents were Russian); her love of reading; her growing rebellion as the Islamic Revolution took hold.  Then at age 16, she was arrested for "activities against the Islamic government" - activities which started when she led a walk-out of the students at her school insisting that the teachers teach the assigned subject, rather than re-enforcing government propaganda.  She was taken to Evin, the political prison in Tehran, where she was tortured, sentenced to execution (which was changed to life in prison at literally the last minute), then forced to convert to Islam and marry one of the prison's interrogators.  She was eventually released after just over 2 years (arranged by her husband's father, after her husband was assassinated), married for love, and later emigrated to Canada.  I think that what really sticks out in my mind was the willful non-acceptance of her family and friends to what she had been through.  Even husband #2 didn't realise what she had been through until reading the manuscript as she was writing this book.

It does make a good companion book to Persepolis, as it included more detail about what was happening politically, and why (which I guess you can do, if your book is made up mainly of words, rather than pictures!).  I am going to be lending Persepolis to my sister (who's husband is from Iran), and I will probably throw this one in for her to read as well.

I didn't realise it, but I had heard the author, Marina Nemat, telling part of her story on the CBC last year (I think that it was one of the Easter Monday specials), but I was working so only managed to catch the first 5 minutes of it or so.  It intrigued me, and I tried to find the podcast (unsuccessfully) so that I could hear the rest.  But as soon as I started reading this book, I recognised not only the story, but also the voice.  I'm glad that I finally know how her story ended.

The Almost Archer Sisters - Lisa Gabriele

I read Lisa Gabriele's first book, Tempting Faith DiNapoli, several years ago, and while I remember enjoying the read, I don't remember anything more about it.  I think that this book is going to be the same.  I quite enjoyed reading it (and finished it in just a few days), but I don't think that it is going to make a lasting impression on me.

It is the story of two sisters who are opposites of each other - Peachy got pregnant and married at 20, and stayed on the family farm; while her older sister Beth chose to move to New York at 18 and live the high life.  Things come to a crisis when Peachy's husband commits adultery with Beth (his first girlfriend); and Peachy takes off for New York leaving Beth to mind her family for the weekend.

I think that my biggest complaint about this story, and why it won't stick with me, is that it doesn't go anywhere.  There is no character development from beginning to end; nobody learns any lessons; and, other than the implied temporary estrangement of Peachy and her husband, everyone ends up in the same situation that they started the book in.

A good read, but no depth.

May 16, 2009

The Eye of the Leopard - Henning Mankell

This book appealed to me on the bookstore shelf as a story of Africa - I struggled with it at times because it is definitely not *my* story of Africa, but I think that in the end, I liked it, and may even re-read it.

It is the story of the end of colonialism in southern Africa; Zambia in this case.  The main character, Hans Olofson, had lost direction in his life in Sweden when he arrives in Zambia in 1969 for a 2 week holiday / pilgrimage.  18 years later, he is running his egg farm and living in fear for his life.

I couldn't relate with the colonial attitudes and racism that pervaded the white community in that time and place - that was not my experience of Africa.  But I know that these issues still exist in places like Zimbabwe and Kenya - you only have to read the news to hear about stories of white farmers having their land taken, and even today's BBC website has a story of a white "Kenyan Aristocrat" jailed for killing a black poacher (Link).

Other parts of the story I could relate to.  The story of Hans' arrival in Africa for the first time had me laughing out loud, mostly in recognition of his experience.  It also made me glad for two things when I got back to Tanzania this summer:  1)  I already speak the local language, and 2)  I have a friend meeting me at the airport so I won't need to navigate the taxi / hotel system!

There was also a good rant that echos my cynicism about "International Development" (quotes are intentional).  And the last chapter of the book was probably the most brilliant in the book, summarising what Hans has learned in his 19 years in Africa - that is where you see hope for the future, moving beyond the colonial model.

The book was written in 1990 in Swedish, with this English translation done just last year.  I am always a little hesitant when it comes to translations, but this one was quite easy to read.  There were a couple of words when I wondered if that was the meaning that the author had intended, but overall, I was able to forget that I was reading a translation.

I'm planning something a bit lighter for my next read...

May 8, 2009

Persepolis - Marjane Satrapi

So this is the first graphic novel that I have ever read.  But since it is autobiographical, can we really call it a graphic novel.  Maybe a graphic autobiography?  Anyways, lots of pictures!

This book has been made into a film (animated - called Persepolis) that was co-written and co-directed by the author of the book.  I saw the film just over a year ago at the film festival, and it received a standing ovation from the audience that I was a part of.  And the book is as good as the film, only more so.  Since the film was adapted from the book, by the author of the book, it was a condensed version of the book, but nothing was changed (which is usually my biggest complaint about film adaptations).  The only difference is that the book has more details and events.

The author and main character of the book was born in Iran in 1970, and that fact alone should imply that she saw a lot of history in the making.  She witnessed the overthrow of the Shah; followed by the Islamic revolution and the fundamentalist regime.  Her parents sent her to study in Europe where she suffered as a misfit in an alien culture.  She hit rock bottom, moved back to Iran where she completed university, then at the end of the book moves to France to escape the rules imposed by the Iranian government.

I do have a personal interest in this story, as my roommate from university, as well as my brother-in-law both grew up in Iran, slightly younger than Marji, but witness to the same period of history, before moving to Canada.  Interesting that on my last book-buying spree, I picked up a couple of books set in Iran.  I wonder if the increased interest by the general public in that part of the world is increasing the number of books telling stories set in Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan etc?

I don't know what I was expecting from a graphic book (I won't call it a novel).  I certainly wasn't expecting it to read as a book, but it really does.  It is laid out in chapters, and I have been reading a chapter or two before bed all week.  I think that the pictures made me slow down a bit, and appreciate the story a bit more.  The format certainly works for this book, and I will probably try another graphic book at some point.

May 3, 2009

The Other Side of the Bridge - Mary Lawson

I read Mary Lawson's first book, Crow Lake, when I was living in Africa, and I quite enjoyed it, so I was pleased to see her second novel, The Other Side of the Bridge" when it came out a couple of years ago.  It has taken me a while, but I'm glad that I finally had a chance to read it.

Like Crow Lake, it is set in northern Ontario farm country (but a generation earlier), and many themes and plot devices are similar between the two books - the death of parents; an unplanned pregnancy resulting in an unplanned marriage; the dynamics of a small town; the dynamics of family units.

And like some of the other books that I have read recently (Through Black Spruce and Three Day Road come to mind), it is written as two separate stories, alternating chapters, that come together in the end to form one story.  Arthur and Jake are brothers growing up in the 1930s and 1940s, and to put it mildly, there are "issues".  Ian is a boy finishing high school in the late 1950s who gets a job on Arthur's farm to help pay his way through university.  It is essentially the story of the two brothers, but it is interesting to have half of the story told by an outsider who is unaware of the history between the two.

Well written, an interesting and engaging plot - what more could one ask for in a book!