Law and Conversation

November 22, 2010

Listen To This: A Zimbabwean Doctor in Newfoundland

Filed under: Documentaries,interviews,nonfiction,storytelling — Helen Gunnarsson @ 9:56 am
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This blog is about storytelling.  Mondays I’ve been posting with a Read This! theme, recommending stories that I’ve enjoyed so much that I want everyone in the world to read them. 

Stories come in more media than just books, of course.  Today I’m urging storylovers to Listen to This:  a documentary from the CBC on Dr. Mohamed Iqbal Ravalia, born to a Muslim, East Indian family in Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe), who’s been practicing medicine in Twillingate, a town of around 2500 on a rocky island off the northern coast of Newfoundland, for a quarter of a century.

According to the documentary, many rural communities in Canada, like those in the US, find it difficult to attract and keep practicing physicians.  Dr. Ravalia, though, came to like the unglamorous, overcast life in Twillingate.  He made friends, married and raised a family, and stayed.  The documentary even includes a portion taped at one of his son’s school hockey games.

Documentary producer and narrator Heather Barrett has helped Dr. Ravalia tell his own fascinating story.  Have you heard any documentaries with stories that you’ve particularly enjoyed?

November 19, 2010

Harvey Pekar: Stories of Everyman

I’ve posted several times over the last couple of weeks about how I love comics and graphic novels.  I’d heard of Harvey Pekar and his “American Splendor” series, especially once it was made into a movie, but hadn’t read any of his books until recently.  Curious, I checked out the first two slim volumes of “American Splendor,” “Another Day” and “Another Dollar,” from my public library.

Each volume consists of a number of vignettes about Pekar’s everyday life, written by Pekar and drawn by various artists.  By “everyday,” I really MEAN “everyday;” this is Pekar’s life at its most minute and mundane.  We see him one day doing errands–standing in line to mail a package, picking up a prescription–another day unclogging a toilet (“Today I Am A Man!”)–another day on the phone with an artist who’s drawing a story for him, discussing drawing the story–and still another day reading and reacting to reviews of his books, including one review that characterizes his life as “pathetic.”  The illustrations are as detailed as Pekar’s text, showing a clutter of books, CDs, and a telephone on his desk, a glass of whatever he’s been drinking on his bookshelf, and traffic-laden Cleveland streets in an evening snowstorm, to name just a few examples.

At first, I wondered what the point of Pekar’s tales was and why they’ve attracted a cult following.  The art, I thought, was great, but I couldn’t find any point to the stories.

Then I started thinking about how neat it would be if we had similar stories, especially in graphic novel format, about someone in ancient Rome.  Wouldn’t that make a book like Alberto Angela’s “A Day in the Life of Ancient Rome,” in which Angela does a fine job of depicting daily life two thousand years ago in the Eternal City, even more fascinating?  What if we had such marvelously detailed pictures and stories about the daily life of common, ordinary, long-forgotten people in any other time and place–ancient Egypt?  medieval Europe?  a resident of Cahokia 800 years ago?  someone at the time and in the area that Angkor Wat was built?

Pekar’s storytelling technique would also shed more light on historical figures.  What if we could see Eleanor of Aquitaine getting up in the morning, and what she did on arising?  What if we had graphic novels showing Martin Luther arguing with his fellow priests or, later, having dinner with his family in the kitchen of his home in 16th century Germany, J.S. Bach refereeing a dispute among some of his many children or politicking with his patrons for raises in his pay, or Voltaire and Emilie du Chatelet playing cards with their friends?  And wouldn’t it be neat if you had a graphic novel like one of Pekar’s about the daily life of an ancestor who died long before you were born?

We do have letters, memoirs, and other material that helps us get a very good idea, in some cases, of the everyday lives and characters of people from other times and places.  The Pastons, a medieval upper-class family in medieval England, are famous for the letters they wrote which have survived to this day, and writers such as Angela, Claire Tomalin (“The Invisible Woman: The Story of Nelly Ternan and Charles Dickens” and other biographies), Philippa Gregory (“The Other Boleyn Girl” and many other historical novels), and Helen Bryan (“Martha Washington:  First Lady of Liberty”) have masterfully reconstructed the lives of people from centuries gone by with words alone, albeit through 20th or 21st century eyes.  But Pekar’s graphic novels provide a completely different level of detail.

I have to disagree with whichever critic called Pekar’s life as he depicted it “pathetic.”  What he’s written about his own life could come from anyone’s, from the lowliest and most anonymous townsperson to the most glamorous of the glitterati.  As Wired magazine and others aptly characterized Pekar, he was Everyman, and his stories are everyone’s.

What stories would you like to see in graphic novel format?

November 17, 2010

Three graphic memoirs worth reading

I mentioned last week that I’ve been on a graphic novel kick on and off this year.  The combination of dialogue, occasional narration, and often stylized cartoons to tell great stories never ceases to fascinate me.

The relatively recently coined term, “graphic novel,” not to mention the Pulitzer Prize that Art Spiegelman won for “Maus” in 1992, is an indication of the respect comic books have gained since I was growing up, when my parents admonished me against revealing that I had a subscription to Mad magazine.

My parents’ admonitions notwithstanding, until recently, I didn’t realize just how controversial comics once were, condemned by no less than Sterling North, the author of Rascal, and Frederic Wortham, the Comic Book VillainDavid Hajdu recounts that interesting and scary history in his nonfiction “The Ten Cent Plague:  The Great Comic Book Scare and How It Changed America,” which is reviewed here and here.  Hajdu discussed his book and the history of comic book persecution and burning in a number of podcast interviews, including this one from Maximum Fun and this one from NPR.

Here are three other graphic memoirs worth reading:

1)  Persepolis, by Marjane Satrapi, which got me started on graphic novels earlier this year, is the story of the Iranian revolution of 1979 from the vantage point of a young girl in Tehran as she grows from a small child into a rebellious teenager.  Her parents ultimately send her to Vienna for her own safety and for more opportunities.  (Satrapi now lives in France.)  Satrapi also wrote “Embroideries” and “Chicken With Plums,” both of which I enjoyed, but not as much as “Persepolis,” which was made into a movie.  Like “Maus”, “Persepolis” is a two-volume work, and, also like “Maus,” the first volume so enthralled me that once I’d finished it, I RAN to the library to check out the second. 

2)  Stitches:  A Memoir.  David Small’s remarkably nonbitter account of his parents’ dysfunctional marriage and his radiologist father’s unwittingly planting the seeds of cancer by treating his breathing difficulties with massive amounts of x-rays during the 1950s.

3) Fun House, Alison Bechdel‘s memoir of coming to terms with her father’s and her own homosexuality, and with her relationship with her complex father.  Bechdel drew and wrote the comic strip “Dykes To Watch Out For” for years; I thought she’d stopped, but her website seems to suggest that she may still be drawing it.

I have more graphic memoirs and novels and books relating to comics on my near-term reading list, including Craig Thompson’s “Blankets” and Michael Chabon’s “The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier And Clay.”  With so many great stories, fiction and nonfiction, in graphic novel format, and with even more stories about the history of comic book controversy and censorship, there’s no lack of material for future posts.

What comics or graphic novels have you enjoyed?

November 15, 2010

Read This! Viktor Frankl, Man’s Search For Meaning

Today’s Read This! recommendation features “Man’s Search For Meaning,” by psychotherapist Viktor Frankl.  A law professor I know characterized this book as “one of the best books on the planet,” and he’s right.

Frankl tells the story of his experiences as a concentration camp inmate in the Holocaust and then uses his story to make a convincing and beautiful argument that the strongest force driving people is the search for meaning and purpose in their lives.  It’s a book that merits reading and rereading. 

On Friday I posted about my plan to read Art Spiegelman’s “Maus” over the weekend.  Now that I’ve done so, I’d include it on any list of great Holocaust literature or list of seminal graphic novels.  It’s fascinating to see how the cartoons of people as mice, cats, pigs, and dogs (and one frog) work so well with the characters’ conversation to convey Spiegelman’s father’s harrowing story of the Holocaust as well as his son’s own story of how he came to draw and write the book.

Speaking of the Holocaust, there are wonderful YouTube videos of another concentration camp survivor, Alice Herz-Sommer, playing the piano at the age of 106 and telling the story of how music helped sustain her.

And speaking of graphic novels, last week I posted about another graphic novelist whose books I love, Lynda J. Barry.  Nathalie Atkinson at Canada’s National Post calls Barry a “happiness bomb!” in her article of November 12, “Everything is illuminated: Tagging along on Lynda Barry’s magical mystery tour of Toronto.”  Barry is in Chicago today, giving a talk at the Art Institute.

What stories have helped you find a deeper meaning in aspects of your life?

November 12, 2010

Weekend reading: Art Spiegelman’s Maus

Weekends are often good opportunities for me to catch up on reading.  This weekend I’m continuing my on-again, off-again graphic novel jag by picking up a graphic novel modern classic:  Art Spiegelman’s Maus, the story of his parents’ experience as WWII concentration camp survivors.

I’m approaching the book, which has been on my list for years, with some trepidation because of its ghastly subject matter.  But I’m also expecting it to be a great story, not least of all because of the melding of text with illustrations.  Many great writers, including Anne Frank, Viktor Frankl, Elie Wiesel, and Gerda Weissmann Klein, have, through words alone, eloquently conveyed the horror of the Holocaust as well as the hope that sprang up afterward.  I’m looking forward to seeing how Spiegelman uses pictures to tell and reinforce his parents’ story.

What graphic novels or comics do you think have told stories particularly effectively?

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