Law and Conversation

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?

August 20, 2010

Stories from the Islamic world

Ayaan Hirsi Ali has an editorial this week in The Wall Street Journal entitled “How to Win the Clash of Civilizations” .  She argues that Western news media have incorrectly framed the controversies over the proposed mosque near Ground Zero, the eviction of American missionaries from Morocco earlier this year, the minaret ban in Switzerland last year, and the recent burqa ban in France as matters of religious tolerance.  In Ali’s view, those matters are symptoms of a monumental conflict between civilizations.  You can listen to an interview with Ali on Radio New Zealand‘s “Saturday Morning With Kim Hill” from June 18 of this year in which she suggests that democracy is incapable of addressing Islamic fundamentalism, a discouraging idea for anyone who is accustomed to using and upholding Western democratic laws and who has faith in democratic and legal solutions for conflicts.

I don’t know enough about Islam, international relations, or, indeed, Ali herself, to have an opinion on Ali’s views, which have garnered her death threats.  I do know, though, that the Islamic world has a rich storytelling tradition.  Scheherezade, after all, has to be one of the greatest storytellers ever (though she herself is a story, and was not a real person), and The Arabian Nights should lead anyone’s list of great story collections.  (Geert Jan van Gelder discussed the relative merits of the various English translations in the TLS last year.)

Here are some other books, old and recent, fiction and nonfiction, that illustrate, explain, and uphold that tradition:

1) Damascus Nights, by Rafik Schami.  Salim, a coachman in mid-20th century Damascus, inexplicably loses his voice.  For seven nights, seven of his friends gather to tell seven stories in an attempt to cure him.  (Schami writes in German.  The English translation of Schami’s latest book, “The Dark Side of Love,” was published last year.  From the reviews, it sounds like it, too, is full of great stories.)

2) Tales from the Alhambra, by Washington Irving, another great writer who was trained as a lawyer.  Stories and essays inspired by the author’s 1828 trip to the Moorish palace in Granada, Spain.  Saudi Aramco World has a virtual tour of the Alhambra here.

3) The Khamseh of Nizami.  12th century stories from a Persian poet that are as enthralling today as they were 800 years ago.

4) Persepolis, by Marjane Satrapi.  Graphic memoir in 2 volumes from a child’s perspective about life in Iran pre- and post-revolution.  Vol. 2 chronicles Satrapi’s life as an adolescent in Vienna, where her parents send her for her own safety.  Bookslut has an interview with Satrapi here; the Guardian has one here.

5) Reading Lolita in Tehran, by Azir Nafisi.  Thoughtful, analytic memoir about life in Iran pre- and post-1979, centered around Nafisi’s passion for the Persian storytelling tradition and world literature.  Jian Ghomeishi, host of the CBC’s Q radio program, interviewed her on June 15, 2010; you can listen to it here.

6) Things I’ve Been Silent About, also by Azir Nafisi.  Her second memoir, mostly about her fraught relationship with her mother.

7) Motoring With Mohammed, by Eric Hansen.  Fascinating travel tale about Hansen’s quest to retrieve his journals in Yemen, which he’d buried ten years earlier.  Hansen contributes articles to Saudi Aramco World; you can read an interview with him here.

8) The Kite Runner, by Khaled Hosseini ,  An upper-middle-class Afghan boy behaves dishonorably in the first part of the book but reflects on it and, in the end, redeems himself.  A friend tells me that Hosseini’s followup novel, “A Thousand Splendid Suns,” is even better.

Mary Zimmerman, a Chicago theatre director and professor at Northwestern University, adapted the Arabian Nights and Mirror of the Invisible World:  the Khamseh of Nizami into magical theatre productions for Chicago’s Lookingglass Theatre Company and Goodman Theatre, respectively.

If you’d like to read more about the Islamic world, Saudi Aramco World is a beautiful and fascinating magazine published by the Arabian American Oil Company.  Each issue has a variety of articles on eclectic topics and is gorgeously illustrated on high-quality paper.  There’s no advertising, and the company will send it to you for FREE.

What are your favorite stories or books inspired by the Islamic world?

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