Review: After the Falls, Catherine Gildiner

Here are two recommendations to further your happiness:

1. Go read Too Close to the Falls. It is a lovely, touching, frequently laugh-out-loud funny memoir about Catherine Gildiner’s childhood in Lewiston, New York, and her friendship with her father’s delivery man, Roy. I cannot say enough good things about it. Toward the end, it gets quite a bit sadder, but the rest of the book is so wonderful that I did not really mind. Gildiner’s account of stabbing a classmate with a compass and being taken to a psychologist for evaluation is one of the funniest bits of life writing I have ever read.

2. If, having read Too Close to the Falls, you then feel you must find out what happened in Catherine Gildiner’s life subsequently, feel free to read After the Falls. Only do yourself a favor and don’t read Chapter 4. Really. I read Chapter 4 and now I am stuck with it in my brain forever. If you do not want to be made to feel nastily complicit in a group of dumb teenage boys taking sexual advantage of a dumb teenage girl in a really awful way, skip it. I have only your best interests at heart when I say: SKIP THAT CHAPTER. If you’re dead curious you can email me and I’ll tell you what’s in it. That will still be sad for your brain, but less upsetting than Catherine Gildiner’s polished, vivid prose. You’re welcome.

Catherine Gildiner’s lovely prose is a major bonus in Too Close to the Falls — every scene pops. In this one it just made me sad. Her descriptions of her family, and particularly her deteriorating relationship with her father, are often painful to read. I was so pleased that this book had been written, and so depressed while I was actually reading it. Gildiner’s skill as a writer is considerable. But I am far away from my Mumsy and Daddy (not to mention my Social and Indie Sisters and a whole slew of aunts and uncles), and I do not want to read about other people being mean to theirs. Or about other people being brave and tough because they need to be because their parents are ill and/or incapacitated.

In sum, I am not getting this for my mother for Christmas, as I initially thought I would. I will get her something else. Something better. A present even better than I thought After the Falls was going to be when I first heard of it. That tapping sound you can hear? Is my Christmas-gift-skills colors being nailed to the mast.

Burma Chronicles & Love and Rockets

And now for some comics that did not rock my world but count towards the Graphic Novels Challenge anyway:

Burma Chronicles, Guy Delisle

Once again Guy Delisle, French-Canadian animator and cartoonist, went a-traveling to a faraway land with an oppressive regime.  In this case, his wife Nadège was working for Médecins sans Frontières (MSF); Nadège, Guy, and their small son Louis take off for Burma (Myanmar) for a year.  Delisle notes at the beginning of the book that the UN has recognized the regime and calls it Myanmar, but that many countries, including Canada, have not.  Hence Burma.

If I hadn’t read Pyongyang first, I think I’d have liked Burma Chronicles better. Burma Chronicles is charming, with keenly noted observations of day-to-day life in Burma, but Pyongyang was so chilling and scary that it was hard for this one to live up to it.  Because Delisle was in Burma longer than he was in North Korea, he got to know people better, but you’d never know it from the book.  He has an eye for detail but not an ear for conversation.  His wife’s present throughout the book, and I never had any idea what she was like.

This isn’t to say that I no longer love Guy Delisle.  At first his wife believes that they will be going to Guatemala rather than Burma, and Delisle immediately pops Star Trek into the DVD player and starts playing it in Spanish.  A man after my own heart.  I love watching Buffy in French.  Plus there’s a picture of him trying to bathe his son in a shower that’s worth the price of admission all by itself.  Tip: Don’t try to bathe a baby in the shower.

Love and Rockets, vol. 1, by the Hernandez Brothers

Am I stupid?  Stupid in the head?  Very, very stupid?  I think I must be extremely stupid, y’all, because I swear to Jesus, I was reading these stories and they did not make sense to my brain.  I have heard that Love and Rockets is glorious.  It may be glorious but it is right over my head.

Any thoughts on this?  If you loved Love and Rockets, please tell me what I’m missing.  I have heard good things!  I don’t want to lose a good graphic novel series around being a fail reader.  Should I persist into volume two?  Now that Delisle has given me a taste for travel writing, do you have any recommendations along that line?  Good travel books?  Anyone?

Pyongyang, Guy Delisle

I first heard about Guy Delisle over at A Life in Books, when Lesley reviewed Pyongyang, and since then it seems he’s been popping up all over the place.  Delisle writes travelogues in comics form of the time he has spent living in countries with oppressive regimes, which is a slightly weird thing to be known for, but never mind.  Pyongyang chronicles Delisle’s two-month stay in North Korea, where he is supervising the animation of a children’s cartoon.

From the first page I loved Pyongyang.  Delisle starts by excerpting the travel information he’s received about going to North Korea.  “Do not do anything on your own,” says one of them, and indeed Delisle is not supposed to go anywhere without his guide.  The guide is responsible for ensuring that Delisle sees and hears the best of North Korea, and is always taking him to see monuments of Kim Jong-Il, or pointing out “volunteers” cleaning up roads or picking up trash.

Delisle has an excellent eye for small, chilling details of life in North Korea.  At one point he notes that only married men with children are permitted to travel outside of North Korea.  He leaves it at that, but the implication is obvious.  What creeped me out the most is when Delisle realizes he hasn’t seen any handicapped people since coming to North Korea.  He asks his guide, and the guide says there are none.  Everyone in North Korea is born strong and healthy and intelligent.

I always think it must be very difficult to end a travelogue.  The obvious ending to a travelogue is, And then I went home, but that’s not necessarily very satisfying, particularly if, as in Delisle’s case, you have been writing about some serious, important issues.  Pyongyang doesn’t just end, it has an ending.  Props, Guy Delisle.

I am afraid that Burma Chronicles will be unable to meet the standard set by Pyongyang, but so far it is also good.  Updates as warranted.  This review brought to you by the Graphic Novels Challenge!  Which I’d completely forgotten about, along with all my other challenges, until I noticed that someone else had read Pyongyang for the Graphic Novels Challenge, so I guess I cannot really say that this review was, in fact, brought to you by the Graphic Novels Challenge.  That reminds me, I bet some of the books I have read recently can go towards some of my other challenges, and I didn’t even notice.  Dear, dear, dear, I am plainly teetering on the edge of senility here.

Other people reviewed it too:

A Life in Books
A Striped Armchair
The Captive Reader
The Bookling
Helen’s Book Blog

Have I missed yours?  Tell me and I’ll add a link!

Reviewing other people’s grief

Alone in my sublet apartment, no library books whatsoever and no library cards also, and my sublessor having very few books unrelated to law and class anxieties, I picked up Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking and read it.  It’s a very unfortunate book!  When Joan Didion’s only daughter Quintana was in the hospital with a serious brain problem, she and her husband went home for dinner, and her husband died.  Being a writer, she wrote about it.  Attempting to research death, she finds herself without a road map for grieving.  She finds herself subconsciously taking measures to bring back John or deny the reality of his death: hence, the year of magical thinking.

I am not wild about Joan Didion’s style of writing, I have to say.  She keeps circling back around to the same references, the same snippets of quotation, which I can’t say I uniformly hate as a device, but I do not like it here.  I didn’t dislike the book – quite the contrary! – but the reason I liked it was Didion’s honesty about the experience of grieving her husband.  I liked that she didn’t gloss over difficulties she had had in her marriage.  But I might not read the other four Didion books my sublessor owns.  In fact I will definitely not.

Thereafter, I thought it would be interesting to read the classic thing, C.S. Lewis’s A Grief Observed, a copy of which my lovely sister gave me upon my arrival in this Impressive Academic Town.  Along with a Josephine Tey mystery, some Life cereal, and The King Must Die.  That’s how lovely she is.  Oh, and some water when I was all shaky and dehydrated from drinking four cups of coffee on the plane and no water and then there were no food vendors or even vending machines between the plane and the train so I had no water for ten hours.  And also chicken with lemon sauce and goat cheese that she made herself, and, on a different day, sushi from a sushi place.

I know that I am supposed to be reading all of CS Lewis’s books in order so as to follow the progression of his thought.  However, I thought it would be interesting to read A Grief Observed right after The Year of Magical Thinking, and anyway, I have already read a bunch of his books like the Chronicles of Narnia and Mere Christianity and Surprised by Joy, so if reading a book out of order spoils the project, then the project has been spoiled since I was three years old.

A Grief Observed is exactly everything I love best about C.S. Lewis: the fluidity of expression, the nice clear prose, and the sincerity of emotion.  He pays attention to what he is thinking, and how his grief takes many different forms, and every now and then there is a truly wrenching cri de coeur.  I was particularly interested in Lewis’s fears that his imperfect, self-oriented memory of his wife would replace, eventually, the complex, contradictory, fundamentally other reality of her.  Although he says little about her (he castigates himself for writing so much about himself when he should be writing only of her), the little he says speaks volumes about her ability to not put up with his shit:

What was [Joy] not to me?  She was my daughter and my mother, my pupil and my teacher, my subject and my sovereign; and always, holding all these in solution, my trusty comrade, friend, shipmate, fellow soldier.  My mistress; but at the same time all that any man friend (and I have good ones) has ever been to me.  Perhaps more.  If we had never fallen in love we should have none the less been always together, and created a scandal.  That’s what I meant when I once praised her for her “masculine virtues”.  But she soon put a stop to that by asking how I’d like to be praised for my feminine ones.

Good for her.

Guest review: Blankets, Craig Thompson

That’s right, everyone!  My puppy voice paid off!  My mumsy has agreed to review Blankets here guestily.  I am hoping that she will find she loves doing guest reviews and will subsequently write about some of the cool and interesting books she read when she was getting her master’s degree in pastoral theology.  She has many books about women in the Bible and feminism in Catholicism and like that, and I would slap a Women Unbound label on the reviews she would write of them, and then I would pretend they counted towards my totals.  Because I have been shamefully neglecting that challenge this month.

So, without further ado, heeeeeeeeeeere’s Mumsy!

Blankets, Craig Thompson
(a review by Jenny’s lovely mum)

First, a somewhat shaming confession:  when I was a kid, I would deliberately make friends with kids whose parents would spring for comic books.  I was a big reader anyway, anything from “Little Women” to the back of the Cap’n Crunch box, but I was a truly impassioned comic books fan.  So the graphic novel format is already close to my heart.

“Blankets” is Craig Thompson’s memoir of his childhood in an intensely religious, rigidly fundamentalist home.  Wedged between his family and community’s punitive, authoritarian God and his own compelling need to draw and write, young Craig is a  loner and a misfit who wants desperately to  find a way to please God while maintaining some vestige of inner integrity.  Some of this is painful to read – Thompson is very, very good at drawing emotional turmoil, and  the first episode of this novel was so heart-wrenching that I wasn’t sure I could continue reading.

But then, oh then, in his senior year of high school, he meets Raina at church camp.

And that is where Blankets moves from being an interesting memoir to being the most moving story of first love that I have ever read.  Thompson has a true artist’s gift for total recall, and he has not forgotten one beat of his heart from that year: his drawings of his two weeks at Raina’s house seem to actually shimmer with passion.  Wielding the graphic novel format with the skill of a master, Thompson never has to use more that the simplest prose to convey sweeping, transcendent emotion.  Craig’s love for Raina is his first genuine experience of the divine – the experience he so longed for, and never found, in church – and he is able to convey this with absolute simplicity and overwhelming tenderness.

I love memoirs, but my one objection to them has always been that I sometimes cringe when I imagine what the publication of the memoir did to the relationships of the author with his significant others.  (I once heard an author say that when you lived with a writer, you always knew there was an assassin in the family.)  So kudos to Thompson for respecting the privacy of both family and friends, while penning a memoir so nakedly open that one is shaken at the end by how much he revealed of his inner life.  And more than kudos to Thompson for using his beautiful drawings so brilliantly, often conveying in a single panel what could not have been expressed in a thousand words.  The two panels in which his parents express their deep pride in their grown son, while remaining utterly oblivious to the man he really is, are truly impressive.

Other reviews:

things mean a lot
The Zen Leaf
Regular Rumination
A Life in Books
Stuff as Dreams Are Made On
Book Addiction
Melody’s Reading Corner
Rhapsody in Books
A Good Stopping Point
Sophisticated Dorkiness
Shelf Love
Book Lust
Bart’s Bookshelf
One Swede Read
Reading Rants!
Should Be Reading
So Many Books
1 More Chapter
Experiments in Reading
One Literature Nut

Phew!  That was many! Let me know if I missed yours.

Review: Undress Me in the Temple of Heaven, Susan Jane Gilman

The word “grandiose”, in my family, is a loaded word.  When one of us uses the word “grandiose” to describe someone, we understand that we actually mean “might possibly benefit from medication; updates as warranted”.  I bring that up because if I had been traveling in Communist China with a girl I didn’t know very well, and she had started talking about the project she was working on that was going to be important to national security, I’d have called home and said, “Claire is waxing grandiose,” and my parents would have said, “You get her on a plane and both of you come home this instant.”

Undress Me in the Temple of Heaven is a chronicle of Susan Gilman and her friend “Claire Van Houten”, who decide to go on a round-the-world backpacking trip after they graduated from Brown.  They plan to see the world raw and real, stay off the beaten path, and come home with stories of places and things unseen by Western eyes.  This already sounds very unawesome to me.  I have high anxiety levels and no sense of direction, and I do not like to go to new places (especially new places where I don’t speak the language) without a minder to mind me.  But wait!  Susan Gilman’s already unawesome plans become so much worse.  As they are traveling off the beaten path in Communist China, Claire goes crazy.  Crazy.


Here is the point at which I, child of therapists, talker-out of feelings, and frequent consulter of the DSM-IV, would have decided to pack it in:

“I’m working on a world curriculum,” she said distantly, twisting her watch around on her wrist.  “A compendium of insights on all the nations we’re visiting.  I have to profile their cultures, their histories, their outlooks.  Eventually it will be adapted for grade schools, high schools, universities, and think tanks in Washington.  It’ll be a prototype – you know, a sort of Proustian examination of the world today?  But it’ll be practical, too.  Kids like Cynthia’s boys, whose parents can’t take them to China and India, they’ll be able to access it like a database…It’s something I’ve just got to do.  It’s crucial.  One day it might become a component of our national security.”

Here is the point at which Susan Jane Gilman decided to go home:

“Claire jumped in a river?” I say after a moment.

“Yes.  But do not worry,” Jonnie adds hurriedly.  “The peasants fished her out.”


“Yes.  And they gave her clothes.”

“Clothes?” I say faintly.  “What happened to her clothes?”

“It seems she took them off,” he replies, “when she jumped in the river.”

Horrific, right?  Remember, they were in Communist China in 1986, before the internet, or like, international phone cards.  They got questioned by the military police more times than one time.  Gilman does a good job conveying her own ignorance and helplessness, her (understandable, I think) failure to recognize the signs that Claire was having a breakdown, her occasional seriously awful behavior to the people she meets.  She also writes movingly of the splendor of the good moments: walking on the Great Wall of China, listening to a Chinese opera singer on a boat late at night, the kindness of the people they meet.

However, I couldn’t enjoy this book.  It resembled too closely my worst nightmares of traveling.  It was one of those reading experiences where you can’t abandon the book in the middle, because your imagination has to be worse than the truth, and at the same time, you can’t go to bed with the book unfinished, because it will crawl into your subconscious and affix itself to your dreams like a leech.  After the Oscars (which I watched using the channels on my television, and turning the volume up and down with my remote control just because I could) I stayed up until 12:30 to finish the book.  I cannot take this kind of stress.  I must never read this book again.

I felt this same way, but more so, about Barbara Kingsolver’s Animal Dreams, which I read once on a road trip.  I had to keep reading and I didn’t want to keep reading, and finally I abandoned it at a rest stop in Alabama.  What’s been an upsetting read for you in the past?  A book that you wished you had never started but you couldn’t not finish?

Other reviews:

Sophisticated Dorkiness
reading is my superpower
Bermudaonion’s Weblog
5 Minutes for Books
S. Krishna’s Books
Wrighty’s Reads
One Person’s Journey Through a World of Books
A Bookworm’s World
Chick with Books
Devourer of Books
Bibliophile by the Sea
She Is Too Fond of Books
Books, Movies, and Chinese Food
Books in the City
Bookin’ with Bingo
Drey’s Library
A Novel Menagerie
My Book Views

West with the Night, Beryl Markham

DogEar ReadingChallenge

For Jeane’s Dog Ear Challenge: West with the Night was the nonfiction book on an obscure topic/on a topic you don’t often read about.  I had a broad selection of Jeane recommendations for this one, since she is always reading books that sound interesting but that I would never pick up on my own.

West with the Night is Beryl Markham’s memoir of growing up on her father’s farm in Africa, and becoming a horse trainer, and eventually learning to fly a plane.  Beryl Markham sounds like a pretty cool person, though from reading her Wikipedia article it sounds like you sure wouldn’t want to be married to her.  (She had an affair with the author of The Little Prince!)  And the writing was lovely, though a bit plummy for me.

One thing that didn’t really work for me was the fact that the memoir is composed of chapters that tend to provide slice-of-life-y anecdotes about her time doing different things.  I liked some of the anecdotes a lot, and some of them not so much, but I struggled to fit them into a narrative.  If my brain were a laptop, it would have made a lot of whirring noises and eventually overheated, that’s how hard I was trying to make an overarching story out of the chapters.  This isn’t necessarily a fault in the book, but I didn’t care for that structure – every time I got interested in something, the chapter ended, and the book went on to something totally else!

Now I am on to something totally else: In Defense of Food.  I understand the food being defended is generally vegetables?  Maybe this will make me love vegetables more, or maybe it will make me hungry for fast food – which is what happened, I’m sorry to say, when I read Fast Food Nation.  Mm, I fancy some cheesy fries right now.

Other reviews: Jeane’s, Framed and Booked, ChainReading

I’m Looking Through You, Jennifer Finney Boylan


Heeheehee, this RIP Challenge is jolly good fun.  At this rate I will have read way too many spooky books before Halloween.  I should pace myself, except I can’t because The Girl in a Swing just came in at the library and I went and picked it up today and I really really really want to read it.

Jennifer Finney Boylan‘s I’m Looking Through You is all about how Jenny Boylan (Jenny! hooray! More people should be called Jenny!) grew up as a boy in a spooky old house, haunted by ghosts and writing under the wallpaper.  She writes with love (and some regret) about her family, and particularly about her sister Lydia, whom she hasn’t seen since she came out as a trans woman.  This is sadder than you might expect, and I was expecting it to be pretty sad.

It’s a quiet, gentle book (hm, as far as the RIP Challenge goes, I’ve now said “quiet” about two of two books – weird) that slides past the really dramatic moments in the story.  This is good for me, actually, as it lessens my usual concerns about memoir writers telling every detail of the often very sad and private episodes of their families’ lives.  We don’t see the crucial moments, but we do see the scenes that lead up to the crucial moments; it works surprisingly well, conveying a lot of emotion through these small, everyday scenes.  Without laying bare the darkest moments of the lives of each member of the family.  More than many I’ve read, this is a respectful memoir.

The haunted house is not very scary, but it is certainly atmospheric.

[My father] stripped off another swath of damp [wall]paper, then stood for a moment looking at the exposed bare plaster.  “Hey,” he said.  “What do you make of this?”

There on the plaster, at shoulder level, was a line written in fancy cursive script.

In this room in the year 1923 lived Dorothy Cummin, who was not of sound mind, and drowned.

…Next to the closet we found a face with an open mouth, long hair, and eyes filled with tears.  It looked a little like the translucent woman I had seen in the mirror.

My father got out his pack of L&Ms.  He stood there by the sad, knowing face of the girl on the wall for a while, smoking, and did not say a word.

Ms. Boylan’s own skepticism is palpable, even when she brings in a team of “ghostbusters” to check out the paranormal energy there – this is good because otherwise I’d be all, hm, this is v. hokey.  What’s not hokey at all, and indeed is very genuine, is the author’s description of being haunted by her certainty that she was a girl, and the inner ghosts that obviously still haunt her as an adult.

Plus, it’s a funny and enjoyable and readable book.  Like this:

“You know what the problem with kids today is?” my grandmother said all at once.

“What?” I asked.

“They don’t eat enough dirt!”

My sister and I looked at each other.

“Dirt?” asked Lydia.

“I said dirt,” said Gammie.  “When I was a girl, we ate dirt all the time!  Now nobody does!”

“Why would you eat dirt?” I asked.  “Is it good for you?”

Gammie looked amazed by my stupidity.  “Of course it’s not good for you!” she shouted.  “It’s DIRT!”

“Whoop?  Whoop whoop?” said Hilda Watson.  This sound, a kind of startled interjection, was the sound Hilda made when she suspected that a response was required of her, even if she did not necessarily know what had been asked.

“Can you turn up the heat?” said Aunt Nora.  “It’s freezing in here.”

“Did they eat dirt over there in Yorkshire?” my grandmother shouted.

Hilda, who had begun her life in a tiny village in England, near the border with Lancashire, looked astonished.  “We had pudding on some occasions,” she said, her dignity intact.

“I’M NOT TALKING ABOUT PUDDING,” shouted my grandmother.  The Dodge had a strange device that has since gone completely out of fashion – the stick shift on the steering column – and Gammie kicked us up into overdrive as the car sped through Bryn Mawr.  “I’m talking about dirt!”

“Oh dear,” said Nora.  “I’m so, so, so cold!”

“I know what you’re talking about,” said Hilda to my grandmother.  “I don’t wish to discuss it.”

My grandmother shook her head. “You’re a ton of fun, Hilda.”

“I’m so, so, so cold!”

“There’s no reason to be rude,” Hilda observed.

“You think this is rude?” said Gammie. “You wait.”

Tell me if you reviewed this too!  And thanks to Eva for the recommendation!

Fun Home, Alison Bechdel

I love a memoir, y’all, and you know what I love more than a memoir?  A graphic novel memoir.  Delicious.  My library has a new section on their ever-growing graphic novels shelf, which is Biography.  When I went in yesterday (collecting films for my poor sick little sister and lots of excellent books for me), I took three of the five books from the new wee little section.  Including Fun Home – which I remember the library not having last time I checked, and I was well cross about it.

Fun Home is Alison Bechdel‘s memoir about her father, a closeted gay man who ran a funeral home and was (by accident or design) hit by a truck when she was nineteen.  In the book, she deals with his sexuality and her own, both their struggles with mental illness, and all sorts of things, painstakingly documenting everything with recreated photographs, letters, diary entries, and maps.

The structure of the book is loopy and self-referential, rather than chronological – she returns to crucial moments in her self-discovery and her discoveries about her father, several times in some cases, giving the reader more context each time.  I like this because that is what growing up is like – how you learn new things all the time, and then you come back to something familiar and you have to recast it in your mind, shedding the light of your new experiences on it.

I read an interview with Alison Bechdel where she said that she was nervous about herself as a writer when she began doing this book.  As I was reading it, I was struck by the elegance and thoroughness (for lack of a better word!) of the writing.  Where she’s describing scenes from her childhood, it’s very sensory, evoking the sounds and smells as well as, in the drawings, the sights.  And she is also very self-aware, exploring her own thoughts about and motives in dealing with her father – as an obsessive thought-examiner myself, I wondered whether this was another symptom of her OCD.

As I say, the writing was lovely, but there were times in the book when I thought there were too many words for the pictures – it got a bit frenetic sometimes, and I would have loved to have seen a few full-page or two-page spreads without any words in, to break up the words.

Oh, but she uses the word “perseverate”!  My anxious and obsessive (but self-aware!) family use “perseverate” all the time, just ALL THE TIME, but you don’t see it out there in the world all that often.  Shame because “perseverate” is one of those words that feels defining for my obsessive thinking – like my endless attempts to consider all the sides of any issue, and give a fair hearing to all viewpoints, it sounds like it should be a good thing, so close to “persevere”, which is a good thing.  But in fact it keeps going, past “persevere”, “perseverate”, doing it too much and it’s time to stop.  So I like seeing it being used.  Perseverate.

Bechdel makes use of myths and literature throughout the book – she talks about a book she read at a certain time in her life, then carries on talking about its relevance to her life, her sexuality, her relationship with her father, whatever – while the characters in the panel carry on discussing the book.  I am so impressed by this.  The captions shift focus, but the characters from her past are still paying attention to the literature, and she uses passages from the books/plays/whatever to deepen the meaning of what she says in the captions.  And I am not just praising this technique because there’s a chapter that features The Importance of Being Earnest, making beautiful use of Lady Bracknell’s lines.

(I’m not!  Really!  I mean, do I like it when a book makes reference to Oscar Wilde and how he is funny and brilliant?  Yes!  But do I require more than that to be happy with a book?  …Well.  No.  Actually.  Pretty much, you compliment Oscar Wilde and I am going to look upon you with favor. However, Fun Home would have been great without featuring The Importance of Being Earnest.)

And my perennial problem with memoirs: The Family.  In her acknowledgements, Bechdel thanks her mother and brothers for not trying to stop her from writing this book.  I had to go look up interviews with her – she says that she did let her family read it, and changed some of the things they objected to, and argued for keeping others.  Quote:

Bechdel indefatigably researched her family during the seven years it took to create Fun Home, whose title refers to their common abbreviation for “funeral home.” When her mother found out she was doing a book, Bechdel was cut off: ” ‘No more information about your dad,’ ” Bechdel remembers her saying. “She felt quite betrayed. And justifiably so. Essentially I used information she had given me in confidence over the years.” Currently, although “it’s painful for her to have the information out there,” her mother, Bechdel said, “also understands writing and the imperative of storytelling, and there’s a way that she respects the project, despite her discomfort.”

Eeek!  I feel so anxious about this when I read a memoir!  I am a very private person, and if I had had all these problems in my marriage and my life, I sure as hell wouldn’t want the whole world to know about it.  And look, neither did the mum:

I do feel that I robbed my mother in writing this book. I thought I had her tacit permission to tell the story, but in fact I never asked for it, and she never gave it to me. Now I know that no matter how responsible you try to be in writing about another person, there’s something inherently hostile in the act. You’re violating their subjectivity. I thought I could write about my family without hurting anyone, but I was wrong. I probably will do it again. And that’s just an uncomfortable fact about myself that I have to live with.

I am glad that she acknowledges this – at least part of my concern about memoirs is that the writers aren’t giving any weight to their family’s privacy, and Bechdel, with characteristic self-awareness, makes note that what she did was problematic.  On the other hand, Fun Home is very wondrous and if Alison Bechdel had felt the same way I do about (her mum’s and her own) privacy, it would never have existed.  So I don’t know. Does this bother you when you read memoirs – whether the family wants their secrets aired in public?

Other reviews: things mean a lot, Farm Lane Book Blog, A Life in Books, The Written World, Books for Breakfast, Valentina’s Room, Musings of a Bookish Kitty, A Striped Armchair, Bookish, and tell me if I missed yours!

Reading Lolita in Tehran, Azar Nafisi

This is not so much a review, as a big political thing involving this book and the author of the last one I read.  I decided to make it a separate post from the one about Iran: A People Interrupted.  Mainly because otherwise the post would have been too disjointed; and because the stuff I want to write about right now is really about Reading Lolita in Tehran.  See, Hamid Dabashi really does not like Azar Nafisi.  Y’all, he really doesn’t like her – not in a box, not with a fox, not in a house, not with a mouse.  Look what he says about her:

Nafisi portrays Iran as a land where crazed (clergy) men are abusing virgin houris who are impatiently reading Lolita while waiting to be liberated by George W. Bush and his Christian Crusaders.

Sheesh.  Okay, now, I don’t like to dismiss things that people say without thinking about them thoroughly.  So I read Hamid Dabashi’s article in Al-Ahram about Reading Lolita in Tehran, and then I read a few other articles about it, and then I reread Reading Lolita in Tehran, to see what I thought.  And I end up feeling about Dabashi’s writing on Nafisi the way I feel about Philip Pullman’s writing on C.S. Lewis (except not so defensive).  He makes criticisms that I don’t think are invalid:  Why doesn’t Nafisi talk about reading Iranian writers?  There’s zillions!  Why does she focus so much on women’s victimization, rather than their political and personal agency?  And the cover – it’s really a picture of two Iranian girls reading a revolutionary newspaper, and to suggest that they’re reading Lolita takes away the true context of that picture, and the fact of women’s political participation in Iran.  (That’s not Nafisi but her publishers – and it is obnoxious, and it’s lazy.)  And Nafisi gives America SUCH A PASS in this book.

But even though I agree with him on some things (like I do with Philip Pullman on Lewis’s sexism etc), I think the level of vitriol is uncalled-for.  I think the validity of (many of) his points are undermined by his obvious, passionate, personal dislike of Nafisi.  Look at this here:

The publication of Azar Nafisi’s Reading Lolita in Tehran is the most cogent contemporary case of yet another attempt at positing English literature yet again as a modus operandi of manufacturing trans-regional cultural consent to Euro- American global domination. The factual evidence of the connection of Azar Nafisi to the US leaders of the neoconservative movement and her systematic deprecation of Iranian culture, and by extension local and regional cultures of actual or potential resistance to the US empire, glorifying instead a canonised inner sanctum for an iconic celebration of “Western literature,” are additional factors in placing her squarely at the service of the predatory US empire–the service delivered via the most cliché-ridden invocation of the most retrograde Oriental fantasies of her readers in the United States and Europe.

So Dabashi notes that teaching English literature has been fundamental to colonialization of various territories by the British and American empires, and criticizes Nafisi’s book for “glorifying a canonised inner sanctum for an iconic celebration of ‘Western literature'”.  This bugged me because in his book he talks about a list of books that were forbidden by the shah and his secret police, and how he used that list as “my core curriculum…the map of my liberal education”, and then goes on to detail the contents of the list – Jack London, John Steinbeck, Brecht, Zola, Stendhal, Shakespeare, etc.


I don’t want to be simplistic about this though.  Dabashi’s book later talks about major Iranian writers as well as works from our canon – so I guess he is annoyed that Nafisi’s class wasn’t reading these writers as well.  I can see how this would be annoying, given Iran’s grand literary tradition (Dabashi has a lot to say about this in Iran: A People Interrupted).  But I think it’s quite a leap to say that (through Reading Lolita in Tehran) Nafisi is therefore “a necessary ideologue in George W. Bush’s empire-building project”.

I don’t hold any brief for Azar Nafisi, God knows.  Her political leanings are very much not mine.  However, Reading Lolita in Tehran is well-written and a joy to read for that reason.  I don’t see any problem with her finding refuge in Western literature – it’s a matter of personal taste.  I do not love the idea that she somehow has a responsibility to portray those aspects of Iranian culture that Dabashi wants America to know about.  I am also not comfortable with the way Dabashi dismisses Nafisi’s description of her and her students’ experiences under the Islamic Republic as being solely (or primarily) politically motivated.  Actually, his dismissiveness of womens’ experiences irritates the hell out of me.  Like this, from another article:

The manufactured success of Nafisi’s “Reading Lolita in Tehran” opened the floodgates for women’s accounts of their abuses in Afghanistan and Iraq to appear in American bookstores, precisely at the time that the Bush administration unleashed its attacks on those same countries. Women were being abused by their men, their culture, and their religion! Someone must do something about these horrors! The U.S. army was doing precisely that, liberating these women, one Abu Ghraib torture chamber and Falluja massacre at a time. What is lost in this sordid scenario is the fact that women in these, as in all other, areas have been active agents of their own destiny, defying the culturally inherited and colonially acquired measures of their oppressions and abuses in terms domestic to their own history and culture. They need not have waited to read “Lolita.”

The problem being, apparently, that the women chose a bad time to talk about the fact that they’re being oppressed and abused.  What should they do, shut up about it until Bush is out of office?  The fact is, when Afghanistan and Iraq are in the news, that’s when books about Afghanistan and Iraq are going to sell.  Blame the free market, not the writers.  Either these women tell their stories to America now, or they may not be able to tell them at all.

An aside, because I really like the book: Reading Lolita in Tehran is a gorgeous book, and totally worth reading.  Just be aware that there’s more to the story than what she says (of course!).  Read it!  And then come back here and tell me whether you thought, when you finished it, MY GOD WHAT ARE WE WAITING FOR?  WE MUST INVADE IRAN INSTANTLY.  Cause, um, that’s not what I thought when I read it.

If you managed to get through this – what do you think?  To what extent should memoirists/nonfiction writers tailor their books to the political climate?  When they have lived through something terrible, what sort of balance should they strike between portraying their experiences as they lived them, and highlighting the political and personal complexities of the environment and individuals that oppressed them?