Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Book #9: Iran

Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi

The best and most moving stories often come from reality, and I was reminded of this as I read Persepolis. The author/illustrator was born in Iran, and this graphic novel is a memoir of her childhood during the reign of the Shah and the Islamic Revolution.

Satrapi was nine when the revolution came. Her parents were Marxists and had been campaigning for the ousting of the Shah for years. They hoped for a change towards their ideals, but watched as Iran became a religious state where wearing a veil was compulsory for women (one of my favourite panels shows school girls using their veils as skipping ropes, monster costumes and horse reins), possession of playing cards and videos could earn you seventy-five lashes and almost everyone knew someone who’d been executed.

It’s sobering stuff, but Satrapi depicts her story with such charm and humour that it’s no trial to read. Every page had me in thrall, and even though it’s split nicely into chapters and I had work to do, I kept reading. It’s scary to think how quickly an entire country can change, and you see it happening through Satrapi’s eyes. I think the fact that the story comes from a child/teenage point of view means that you get a better feeling for what life was like. Adults focus more on the overall ‘serious’ picture and forget the small details that create an experience (though I’m happy to be proven wrong :D).

I’d like to know more about the history of Iran, right back to myth. There’s so much history in the world, and at school you only get a small slice of it (usually from your own country). That small slice is, more often than not, pretty boring. What if you could pick and choose your history curriculum from all the histories of the world? And what if, like Satrapi’s philosophy books, you could get it in graphic novel form?

Yes, yes, I know it’s impractical. But soon the Internet will be All-Knowing and it will be possible.

When I got to the end of the book I flipped over the pages a few times to see if I’d missed one, but no, it was just the acknowledgements. I wanted more. I’m so glad there’s a sequel. Now I just have to find it...

What books set in Iran do you like?

(thanks http://sheldohm.wordpress.com/2009/04/17/persepolis-book-vs-movie/persepolis-book/ for the pic!)

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Book #8: Bougainville/Papua New Guinea

Mister Pip by Lloyd Jones

Personally I wouldn’t class this as a young adult book, but I found it in a list of books for young adults and young adults can read it so I thought I’d include it. It’s also very good.

Mister Pip is the story of Matilda, a girl living on the island of Bougainville when it is blockaded by Papua New Guinea soldiers. For the first few months, there is no school – all the foreign teachers have left the island – and the kids are left to run wild. Matilda’s father left years before for Australia, and her strident, God-fearing mother is a difficult person to live with.

The eccentric Mr Watts, the ‘last white man on the island’, decides to hold school lessons, and introduces the class to Great Expectations. Everyone, but especially Matilda, is entranced by the characters of Pip and Miss Havisham and Magwitch, and by the evocation of nineteenth century England, a world away from their tropical island prison. Great Expectations is an escape from the tension of soldiers and rebels on the island, and Matilda becomes ever more immersed in Dickens’ world.

As the threads of the plot unravel, you begin to see how tightly Great Expectations is bound to the story. Matilda draws the story around her to protect herself from the atrocities of the civil war. Mr Watts takes on the guise of Pip and intertwines his own story with that of Dickens and those of the islanders until you are unsure where one leaves off and one begins. You see the fluidity of story and ‘truth’, and the fact that they can never really be separated from one another. History is always someone’s interpretation, and we have the power to rewrite our own histories, to cover ourselves with the history of others, if we want to.

Bougainville seems like paradise, at least in terms of nature. Matilda’s village is right on the beach, and despite the blockade they do not lack for food – Matilda says that the island is one of the most fertile places in the world, and there are always fish in the sea. The beauty of the setting contrasts strongly against the actions of the people, whether soldiers or villagers. When Matilda is transported to nineteenth century England through Dickens’ words, she is escaping not the place but the people.

The book is a lot more complex than I’ve described here, but I’m not sure how to say more without giving away the plot (and I HATE it when people do that). It left me thinking about subjectivity and the layers of story and half-truth that people surround themselves with. How can you know who a person is? How can you know who you are? And does it really matter if we never know the ‘real’ person?

Do you have any books set in Papua New Guinea that you like?

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Excavating the interesting bits

I don’t keep a diary.

When I try, I’m terrible at it. I give blow-by-blow accounts of what I had for breakfast, what time I left the house, whether the traffic was bad or not, and whether the cat was in a mood. I tell, not show. Every second sentence starts ‘And then...’. I spend hours and hours writing and get hand cramp.

For special occasions, though, I do try to keep a diary. These things run to eighty pages over three days. I can look back and see what I had for breakfast on my 21st birthday, what it felt like to go paragliding and (ahem) land in the water, and exactly what our room looked like on a particular trip (I do diagrams too).

No one else could stand to read them but me. I use them as a memory cue, and it’s amazing how you can reimagine the atmosphere of a place or a time by reading your own words. The words themselves are, for the most part, rather dull, but it doesn’t matter because they’re hooking into my memory.

Writing something someone else would actually want to read is entirely different. You can’t just go through a character’s day blow-by-blow (except if you’re the writers of 24, and even they skip from character to character). People (for the most part) only want the interesting bits – the boring bits they can guess for themselves. The trouble is figuring out which are the interesting parts and how to get from one to another.

When I write first drafts, I tend to get caught in a blow-by-blow rut. It’s not as bad as my diary attempts, but you can still see the ‘and then...’s if you read between the lines. I get caught up in telling a true account of my fictional character’s day, and use up so many words that when I finally get to the interesting bits, attention has wandered.

Luckily I have made friends with my delete key.

Maybe keeping a diary would help. I would try to write down my day in ten minutes, picking out all the interesting bits and ignoring the rest. I’d get used to focusing in the right places, and wouldn’t have to depend so much on delete. So, a goal for the week: ten minutes a day of Interesting Diarising.

Have you ever kept a diary or a journal? Do you think it helps you with your writing?

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Book #7: Spain

 Zorro by Isabel Allende

In my edition, 157 pages of this book are set in Spain, so I’m counting it as Spain. I love this book, and couldn’t leave it out just because I wasn’t sure where to place it.

Allende was approached to write the book by John Gertz, the man who owns the copyright to Zorro. The original Zorro appeared in 1919 in a magazine in serialised form, and was released as a movie the following year. At first Allende didn’t like the idea of writing on commission (she prefers saying she received a ‘proposition’), but she loved Zorro and was given free rein on the story so, in the end, accepted the offer.

Gracios a dios.

We get to see Diego de la Vega close up, watch him grow and take on the world as El Zorro. I always liked the movies, but movies are over so quickly and you don’t get the kind of depth you do in books. And this book is not just a movie adaptation – it is Zorro’s coming-of-age story, and Allende is filling in the blanks in the canon with her amazing story-telling.

Diego is the son of a Spanish soldier and an Indian warrior. He spends much of his childhood learning the Indian ways in the forests with Bernardo (his mute milk brother), and arrives in Spain half-wild. It is up to his father’s friend and the friend’s daughters to ‘civilise’ him, but along the way he meets gypsies and joins a circus and a secret society. It is in Spain that he begins his parallel lives, caught between the pressure to appear 'civilised' and his adventurous nature.

Everything in this book is an adventure. Diego and Bernardo take on everyone from school bullies to pirates and the dastardly Rafael Moncada, and every bit serves to build the character we know as Zorro. Allende has a lot of fun with the dramatics of Zorro (one of the best lines, on beholding Zorro: ‘Padre Mendoza laughed nervously; possibly the fellow was an escaped madman’) and the double life of Diego, who most people see as a hypochondriac fop.

The original is in Spanish (has anyone read it?) but the English translation by Margaret Sayers Peden is very very good. I've bought the book twice - I leant it to someone and never got it back (grrrr...). Had to buy another.

Oh, and I think Diego de la Vega is an awesome, awesome name.

What books set in Spain do you like?

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Book #6: United States of America/California

Little Brother by Cory Doctorow.

This book has a Creative Commons licence. Go on, read it now: http://craphound.com/littlebrother/download/ I have no idea how Doctorow’s publishers let him do this, but he thinks that people will support the book monetarily if they like it. It’s worked with me so far – I’ve bought two copies and given them to people as presents. And I have a copy on my phone so I can read it wherever I like.

I love this book because it’s so very plausible. A terrorist attack on San Francisco sends everyone into panic mode, with security beefed up and hundreds of people put under suspicion. Marcus and his friends happen to be playing truant that day, and they’re rounded up and questioned Guantanamo-style. An ongoing theme through the book is your own country turning on you – at first Marcus thinks he’s been kidnapped by the enemy, but it turns out to be his own people.

Marcus decides to fight back against the ever-more-encroaching surveillance. Doctorow points out that you can surveille (yes that’s a word, he uses it) people to the nth degree, but it’s always possible to miss things and it’s easy to get false negatives. One of my favourite bits in the book is where upstanding members of the public are pounced upon because they’re suspected of being terrorists – it shows how difficult it is to be certain of anything with surveillance to this extent.

“Little Brother” is a reference to “Nineteen Eighty Four” by George Orwell, where Big Brother was always watching the totalitarian society. Yes, that’s where the reality shows came from. Nineteen Eighty Four is a mirror of 1948 Post-War Britain, and Orwell’s vision of what might happen if society continued along the same lines. Little Brother mirrors our own society, and is scary in how close it comes to reality.

I find it incredible the amount of security we have to go through now. The fact that I have to have my fingerprints taken if I go to America is just crazy (not that I’ll object to it when I get there, nice airport security people. But still).

There’s also an element of hidden identity – Marcus starts an online revolution under a pseudonym, and has to hide from the authorities as well as deal with the movement as it spins out of control. He's like a cyber-hero :-P

I like books that make you think. This one does.

What other books do you like that are set in California?