Mar 23, 2016

What Is Not Yours In Not Yours, by Helen Oyeyemi

Helen Oyeyemi, author of the wonderful Boy Snow Bird, has a flair for fairy tales. All of these short stories have that same ethereal, fantastical, random quality of a fairy tale, with a modern sensibility and the occasional modern phrase thrown in. All the stories are connected by characters, though you don't realize it until about halfway through reading them, and the connections are usually fairly tenuous - casual mentions or not much more. My favorite story is the very first, "books and roses," and it's also the most fairy tale-like. Oyeyemi is a beautiful writer, lush and evocative no matter what she is describing. My only concern would be that a few of the stories are a bit too random and thus lack cohesion and continuity as a story. They tend to jump around, or introduce something startling that throws the reader a bit off guard. Still, a lovely set of stories from one of the best young writers working today.

Mar 8, 2016

The Complete Persepolis, by Marjane Satrapi

I've been wanting to read this classic graphic memoir for ages, so having it pop up as my next book club read presented me the perfect opportunity. This book deserves all the attention it's gotten over the years. Satrapi grew up during the Iranian revolution - her country was liberal and educated until around her tenth birthday, whereupon religious fanatics took control of Iran and turned it into a fundamentalist Muslim dictatorship. Her family's history provides a solid reflection of the country itself, as her great-grandfather had been a prince under the Shah's rule. Her family was wealthy and well-educated, and Satrapi went to the French school in Tehran. Politically active, her parents took part in demonstrations against the Islamists until it proved too dangerous, and Satrapi was sent to Austria at fourteen to finish her schooling.

Satrapi's honesty about her philosophical growth is refreshing. When very young, she wanted to be a prophet and bring peace and happiness to humanity. When she got a little older, she discovered Marx and communism, embracing that ideology while acknowledging uncomfortably that this conflicted with her own family's obvious wealth. When her life in Austria exposes her to Western values, she realizes that as liberal as she may be in Iran, she would always be a third-worlder to Europeans. A disastrous break up sees Satrapi taking shelter back in Iran, where the political and religious climate only get worse and worse.

The drawing style is striking, almost like wood blocks, as the main color is black with white drawn in it rather than the more common opposite. "Persepolis" provides us with a much-needed inside voice from Iran and the revolution, a look at a situation we see as black and white but that has so much more gray than we realize. This is a fascinating, important book, and I'm very much looking forward to discussing it.

Mar 2, 2016

A Doubter's Almanac, by Ethan Canin

This is an astonishing piece of work, a multi-generational epic about brilliant minds and the prisons they create for themselves as a means of dealing with the world. The first half of this novel is about Milo Andret, a mathematical genius and womanizer whose interactions with others and the outside world are characterized by brutal honesty and basic emotional incomprehension. To calm his mind, Milo turns to drink, and it slowly kills him. The second half of the book is written first-person from his son's point of view. Hans is also a brilliant mathematician, but instead of entering academia, he uses his skills to make millions on Wall Street. His poison of choice starts out as MDA as a teenager, then cocaine as an adult. But rather than let the addiction alienate his family and destroy his body, Hans is able to overcome it and become the father that Milo should have been.

The first half of this book is amazing. The math is there but very theoretical and not at all imposing, and Milo's journey to adulthood is enthralling. Hans' half of the story is not quite as good. It's still engaging, but some of the magic from Milo's story just doesn't quite make it into Hans'. The writing sometimes slides dangerously close to cliche, and watching Hans and his family rally around Milo despite the way he's treated them all was rather maddening. I think I'd have preferred the whole book just being about Milo, a much more interesting (albeit disgusting) character than his son. Still, it's a accomplished work and well worth picking up.