Review: Habibi, Craig Thompson

Nyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyynnnnnnnnggggg. Come on, dude.

Is what I was saying throughout most of Habibi. I wanted to be saying what I was saying throughout most of Thompson’s previous book, Blankets, which was nothing actually because I was so breathless from the beauty of the story and the illustrations. I wanted that to be the case with Habibi, and occasionally it was, like when the characters were telling each other stories from Muslim traditions. Craig Thompson never didn’t succeed at making his stories beautiful. If he had stuck to this, we’d be having a very different review right now.

Let me back up. Described by Thompson as a fairy tale, Habibi is set in the fictional country of Wanatolia, an Arabian Nightsy place complete with harems and sultans and deserts. Dodola is raising a small boy named Zam, whom she rescued from slavers, on an abandoned ship in the middle of the desert. This is all very nice for Zam, up to a point (that point being the point at which he discovers how Dodola procures rations for them both), but then Dodola is taken away to be part of the sultan’s harem, and then a bunch of depressing stuff happens to both of them, and eventually (spoilers) they are reunited.

Basically, the book starts out lovely, but then gets super rapey. I do not like super rapey books. And here’s what it is: If your book is about real life, and you are careful, you can have a super rapey book. I might not want to read it, but I am far less likely to say “Come on dude” to you. If your book is a fairy tale and it’s super rapey, then that tends to fall into the realm of the unnecessary (as a rule! not always!). If you’re going to show sexual abuse, be prepared to deal with the emotional consequences for your characters. Don’t toss it in there because you need your characters to undergo many trials. When you do it that way, it makes me feel icky. It’s not that I’m trying to hide from the fact that rape is a real thing, it’s that I need books to treat it like a real thing, and give it the weight it deserves.

Leaving out the questionable way Thompson deals with rape in this book, the misery the characters go through was just too much misery. It was too much misery in too episodic and haphazard a way. They bounced from one miserable life to another miserable life, steady being miserable, that shorthand thing of making characters sympathetic by inflicting misery on them. There’s something to be said for putting your characters through hell, and I’m all for it, I really am, I love Buffy the Vampire Slayer as much as the next geeky girl, but you still have to make them recognizable people whose experiences change them. I didn’t feel anything for Dodola and Zam, I just sort of wanted the book to be over.

Boo. I was so excited for this book and I ended up not liking it at all and sort of wanting to give Craig Thompson the look of squinty-eyed wrath at which my family excels. I wish it had been one huge long book of stories from Muslim tradition. That would have been gorgeous and exciting and wonderful. Instead it was occasionally gorgeous and exciting and wonderful, but overwhelmingly unawesome. I’m going to go reread Blankets and make myself love Craig Thompson again.

But don’t take my word for it!

The Handmaid’s Tale, Margaret Atwood

Margaret Atwood‘s The Handmaid’s Tale is feminist dystopian satire.  It was sort of a box-tick read, but it was very good, and well-written, and I’m glad I read it and I never ever want to read it again.  In slightly-future America, now a fascist misogynist theocracy called Gilead, Offred (but June, really) is a Handmaid.  This means that she has viable ovaries, and is responsible for producing babies.  Once a month she has sex with the Commander to whom she belongs, and her life is sharply circumscribed – she can’t read, can’t walk in public by herself, can’t talk to other men.

The book is not a straightforward narration of events – what fun would that be, for a Bad Future America?  June’s narration tilts between times, the present and the past and the little she can imagine of her future.  We gradually begin to get a picture of June’s life as a Handmaid – dancing around forbidden subjects with fellow Handmaids and other members of the household, trying to navigate changing relationships with the Commander and his Wife, who used to be an awful Phyllis Schafly person in the time before Gilead became a fascist theocracy.  And June talks about her life before, her husband and daughter, and the events that led up to where she is now, including her time in a women’s indoctrination school.

The Handmaid’s Tale made me feel upset – or, actually, as I have been rigorously trained not to say that anything makes me feel anything, I felt upset when I was reading The Handmaid’s Tale.  Obviously that’s the point!  I just don’t think I’m going to read it again.  She just makes it seem so viable – they draw a comparison with Iran, and I’ve been reading about Iran, and it’s scary.  Like, June talks about the speed with which she has adapted to her new life: it’s been only a few years, but already she is shocked to see the clothes on women from other countries, skirts to the knee, and lipstick.  I don’t know – June’s life has become so small, even from what it was at the indoctrination school.  Upsetting.

Something else that upset me: June tells stories about her friend Moira, a feminist who went to her same college, and who was at June’s same indoctrination school.  Moira is brave and rebellious – she swears and gossips and escapes from the school – and June admires this.  But still she recognizes that she isn’t as brave as Moira, and she tries to imagine that Moira finds a way to be free.  “Moira is right,” she says, almost at the end.  “I am a wimp.”  (I’m not brave either.)

Oh, but (spoilers here!) there was one of those lovely unresolved endings that I like so much.  I like these because then things always end happily.  In my mind, June escaped and  she found Luke and she went through the Phyllis Schafly person to find her daughter, and then she got her daughter back, and they moved to Canada, the true North strong and free (yeah, I know that song), and lived happily ever after.  I love it when grim books let you decide what happens in the end.

A bit I liked, about the pre-Gilead days:

There were places you didn’t want to walk, precautions you took that had to do with locks on windows and doors, drawing the curtains, leaving on lights.  These things you did like prayers; you did them and you hoped they would save you.  And for the most part they did.  Or something did; you could tell by the fact that you were still alive.

And this, from one of the women who indocrinates June.

There is more than one kind of freedom, said Aunt Lydia.  Freedom to and freedom from.  In the days of anarchy, it was freedom to.  Now you are being given freedom from.  Don’t underrate it….We seemed to be able to choose, [in the old days].  We were a society dying, said Aunt Lydia, of too much choice.

The newspaper stories were like dreams to us, bad dreams dreamt by others.  How awful, we would say, and they were, but they were awful without being believable.  They were too melodramatic, they had a dimension that was not the dimension of our lives.

We were the people who were not in the papers.  We lived in the blank white spaces at the edges of print.  It gave us more freedom.

We lived in the gaps between the stories.

I want to read more Margaret Atwood.  I love how she writes.  I only didn’t give this five stars because it gave me a nightmare.  Dammit.  Without even being true!

Other reviews: Book Nut, The Book Lady’s Blog, The Luscious Literary Muse, Books for Breakfast, The Bluestocking Society, Books and Other Stuff, Violet Crush, It’s All About Me, read warbler, things mean a lot, Valentina’s Room, Reading Reflections, In Spring It Is the Dawn, A Guy’s Moleskine Notebook, Rebecca Reads, Boston Bibliophile, and let me know if I missed yours!

Palimpsest, Catherynne Valente

I love the word "palimpsest".  I like how it sounds and what it means.  When I read Nymeth’s review of this book, and she was all, It reminded me of MirrorMask!, I knew I had to get it.  Catherynne Valente‘s Palimpsest is about a city called Palimpsest, a sexually transmitted city – people have pieces of a map of Palimpsest, like tattoos, somewhere on their bodies, and when two people with the marks on them sleep together, they go to Palimpsest for the night.  Like a dream, except that it isn’t a dream.  The book is about four people who are bound together by their first visit to Palimpsest – November, Sei, Ludo, and Oleg – who want to leave the real world behind and go to Palimpsest forever.

Palimpsest gets off to a slow start, and the long, rather treacly descriptions of the different places in the city were a bit much.  It did remind me of the world in Mirrormask, or one of the weirder episodes of Doctor Who, but the kind of detailed strangeness that works in a visual medium can be too much when it’s described at great length.  Each of the Palimpsest chapters began with one of these long descriptions.  Some of them were interesting and cool, but some weren’t, and after a while my brain went on overload, and I started skipping them.  I think it would have worked better if these had been more character-centered.  Sei, November, Oleg, and Ludo are stand-ins for us, discovering the city as we do, and I would have liked to see more of their interactions with the city, with characters in the city, and with characters from the real world inside of Palimpsest.

I liked November best because she made lists – not dull lists but interesting lists.  Things which are gone in the morning: sleep, darkness, grief, the moon.  Women.  Dreams – and, Things that are left in the morning: memory, thought, snow.  Light.  Work.  Disease.  Dreams.  I like this.  Things that cannot long be kept secret: death in the family, the loss of a ring, corruption of the spirit, boredom, illicit love.  Sickness.  Addiction.  Pregnancy.  Lovely.  I love making lists.

The story is graceful and gradual and mysterious.  The history of Palimpsest unfolds slowly, with the stories coming to us from many different characters.  I like how it begins to fit together carefully, like puzzle pieces – the city’s past and present, while the four central characters come together to determine its future.  They all four have to find each other in the real world, in order to move to Palimpsest permanently, which is their most desperate desire.  Palimpsest wants them as much as they want it, offering them their heart’s desires in the city.

Actually that is sort of creepy.  It is like that Barbara Michaels book where the house wants to make the people happy, and it makes them be happy using its creepy powers.  Palimpsest shapes things for November and Sei and Ludo and Oleg.  They want to move there, of course, but the book leaves you to wonder whether this is what’s best for them.

Is it just me?  Is it not more creepy for a place to make people happy?  Than to make them miserable or insane like in The Haunting of Hill House?  I don’t know why I find this so creepy!

Other reviews: things mean a lot (thanks for the recommendation!), BSC Review, Reading the Leaves, Stage and Canvas, Scooter Chronicles, and let me know if I missed yours!

Understanding Comics, Scott McCloud

In Understanding Comics, Scott McCloud writes about the structure, creation, history, and vocabulary (among other things!) of comics.  He does it, of course, in graphic novel form, with a little cartoon Scott McCloud telling us what is going on.  I love this because when he talks about a technique that graphic novels use, voila, he can show it to us too!  The book never becomes boring, which is partly down to the fact that it’s an interesting topic, but also partly because the form allows a lot of room for humor.  (I was going to write “and whimsy”, but I hate that damn word.  Though I like Peter Wimsey.)

I loved the section about the different transitions between panels.  Scott McCloud lists six categories of transitions between panels, and then does an analysis of how often different comic artists use each different transition.  He makes bar graphs.  I was so intrigued by the differences between how often American & European artists used each transition type, and how often Japanese artists did.  McCloud shows examples of each transition, and although he gives them a number, he keeps reminding you which type is which (through pictures!).  Fantastic.

My one little gripe was with the section on the (sometimes uneasy) marriage of words and pictures.  I am only griping about it because to me, the combination of words and pictures provides the most amazing and fascinating and incredible possibilities for comics.  (I like words.)  I just looked back at it, and that chapter is just as comprehensive as the transitions chapter; when I was reading it, I felt like there weren’t nearly enough cool examples.  I still feel like that actually, but you may want to consider the possibility that there are plenty of examples and I am just insatiable and can never have enough.

In other news, Scott McCloud referenced a painting of Magritte’s (“This is not a pipe”), which caused me to tell my sister “I really like Magritte,” which caused me to have to get up and bring her a book about Magritte because she couldn’t remember who he was.  And this in turn led us to find this painting, which is rather graphic so you’ve been warned, “The Rape”, which pleased me so much that I traveled back in time and thanked Magritte in pretty and fluent French for his getting a point about what it is like being a woman that people often seem to miss.

(No, you may not borrow my time machine.  I have destroyed it, along with all copies of the plans.  V. dangerous to have such a thing around the house.)

(I just found a woman called Eunice Golden who says she created (warning, this is fairly graphic too) this piece of art “in defiance of censorship (which I consider to be a rape of the mind), and as a response to Magritte’s mutilation of the female body in ‘Le Viol’.”  Am I misunderstanding her completely, or is she misunderstanding Magritte completely?  Or, possibly, am I misunderstanding Magritte?)

I have strayed from the Scott McCloud point.  I liked Understanding Comics!  I have Making Comics out of the library, and I want to get Reinventing Comics as well!  Other views besides mine:

Nymeth at Things Mean a Lot
Kim at Sophisticated Dorkiness
1330V
Shananagins
Rebecca Reads

Let me know if I missed yours!

The Tenth Circle, Jodi Picoult

I know, I know.  I know I said I was done with Jodi Picoult.  But I was at my aunt and uncle’s last night, and I had The Charioteer but I am in London, I don’t have loads of books with me, and I didn’t want to use up The Charioteer because I love it so much.  So I read The Tenth Circle, which my aunt and uncle had on their bookshelf.  The issue: date rape.  The court scenes: none – shocking, I know.  However, there is a murder.

As Jodi Picoult’s books go, this is not one of her better ones.  I thought it was silly.  Must everyone in her books behave in this fashion all the time?  I’m sorry, but you can’t just go around killing people.  You just can’t.  It is inappropriate behavior.

The Brooklyn Follies, Paul Auster

The Brooklyn Follies is all about a middle-aged man called Nathan Glass, divorced, a cancer survivor, estranged from his daughter, who goes to Brooklyn to die.  While there, he reunites with his nephew Tom, who is working in a bookshop for an earnest, checkered-past-y, rather gullible man called Harry.  The events of the story come together to give Nathan a life again.

Hm.

I cannot decide what my final verdict on the book is.  In parts, I really really liked it.  It was extremely well-written, as I noticed from the first.  I would say this was its most notable characteristic, that it was well-written.  I was interested in what was going to happen to everyone as soon as they showed up – or if not as soon as, then definitely shortly thereafter.  There was an element of absurdism – I say an element, it was a really big element – and I am a fan of absurdism too.  The little girl Lucy who shows up and changes Nathan and Tom’s lives is adorable and (mostly) exactly like a little girl.  This was all good.  Oh, and there was a cult.  I want more cult!

On the other hand, the author kept bringing up weighty matters very casually, and then not paying them off.  For instance, he mentions the 2000 election a number of times, just matter-of-factly complaining about Bush’s awfulness and how that election was handled badly, without actually discussing it in a serious way.  I don’t mind characters having political views that they don’t talk about in depth, but it came up often enough in The Brooklyn Follies to feel like a preachy message from the author, rather than a view held by the characters.  I don’t like preachy.

Furthermore, I did not like the way the character of Aurora was handled.  I am not sure I can articulate the way I felt about it, but I will give it a go.  Aurora is Tom’s sister, and Tom tells a long tragic story, awfully long and awfully tragic, about how he lost track of her and then one day he discovered she was doing porn and then she had been gang-raped by the porn crew, and then he was taking care of her, and then she vanished again.  Later on she gets married to a cult member who keeps her locked in a room when she refuses to keep going to church after the cult leader comes on to her and she gives him oral sex (this story she tells at some length to her uncle).

It’s not that the characters are saying, Hooray for rape and bad culty sex behaviors.  They are upset that Aurora has gone through all of this.  But still I do not feel comfortable with the way it’s handled.  Aurora hardly ever speaks for herself, or does anything for herself.  She undergoes many miserable trials, and en fin Uncle Nat rescues her.  There’s never any attempt to deal honestly with what happens to her, or pay it out emotionally, which makes you wonder what it’s all in there for, this rape and bad culty sex behaviors business.

As I say, the book was well-written, but this Aurora problem bothered me enough that I wasn’t able to enjoy it.  Perhaps I shall try a different Paul Auster book instead?  Any Paul Auster fans out there who want to weigh in on this issue?  Am I imagining things?  Is there a method to the madness that I’m just not picking up on?

How I Live Now, Meg Rosoff

I will preface this by saying that I liked this book a lot.  However, due to that habit I have of forming expectations when I read about things, it was also not at all what I thought it was going to be.  Because I forgot about the whole second half of Nymeth’s review or something, but the only thing that stuck with me was a girl goes off to live with her cousins (there is really no phrase I find more appealing in a book synopsis than goes off to live with) and I had a vague sense that they also frolic around in the country and ignore the war.  Which yes, that is exactly what happens, but then they get discovered, because even in slightly-future English countryside it isn’t easy for a bunch of kids to live by themselves and not have anyone interfere; and then a number of very unpleasant things happens.

So my plot synopsis, revised from the plot synopsis I had in my head when I got the book out of the library, is as follows: A dysfunctional fifteen-year-old girl called Daisy goes off to live with her slightly-telepathic and insane cousins in slightly-future England, and this is fun for them all until the war they have been ignoring becomes unignorable, and Daisy has to grow up and be tough and fend for herself.  Also she has a slightly-incestuous relationship with her cousin.

(Amazon felt angry about the underage sex and slightly-incest plotline.  However, since they are both very young, and this is a weird-ass family, I don’t care about that; and after the year and a half I spent listening to that awful song and making electrocution jokes about the whole Jonathan & Tammy plotline on Guiding Light, I have had every ounce of anti-cousin-sex prejudice mashed out of my brain.  I think there may be a touch of unhealthy dependence on each other, but on the other hand, Daisy handles being on her own just fine.  Unlike some unhealthily dependent heroines I could mention.)

I think that unsettling is an excellent quality for a book to have.  I seem to have only ever used that particular adjective in reference to books I liked, and quite rightly.  How I Live Now possesses that quality.  I’ve never been in a war, so I of course don’t know how it would be, but I think the way that Daisy talks about the war is exactly how it would be for a bunch of teenagers living without any parents.  She says this, which I think is perfect:

The first thing that happened wasn’t our fault.  That was a bomb that went off in the middle of a big train station in London the day after Aunt Penn went to Oslo and something like seven or seventy thousand people got killed.

Seven or seventy thousand.  Excellent.

The vagueness of the war is fantastic – though I’m inclined to think the vaguer the better in general, since I hate war and I can’t read war books because they make me sick to my stomach (a reason that I will not be buying this book myself).  The closest Daisy gets to talking about specifics is when she’s referring to The Enemy.  She spends a lot of time talking about how it’s nearly impossible to tell the Good Guys from the Bad Guys, since they all seem to be doing the exact same things.

On the downside, I thought the cousins were a bit too-too.  Daisy was such a strong, solid character, and easy to identify with, and it was obvious why she adored them, because she belonged with them in a way she didn’t at home.  That worked really well.  But the cousins were so airy-fairy that I couldn’t invest that much in her relationships with them (probably another reason I wasn’t fussed about the underage incest).

I have to stop staying up late reading!  Sleep is important too!  But thanks to Nymeth for the recommendation.  I cleverly have what I thought was Meg Rosoff’s only other book, Just in Case, out from the library too; though it turns out (hurrah!) it’s one of two other books by her.  Yay.