Zahra’s Paradise (Amir & Khalil*)

I auditioned this graphic novel as a kind of bookend for Persepolis. It’s a compelling story, driven by a brother’s search for his brother who (was?) disappeared after a protest in Iran in 2009. After a first read through, I was struck by my inability to find a pattern in what the authors (and the names are pseudonyms; the book flap says they’ve chosen to remain anonymous “for political reasons”) chose to explain. As for the graphics, the responsibility of ‘Khalil,’ I didn’t see many that merited a second look, but I am not an experienced graphic novel readerand I recall having the same reaction after my first read through of Persepolis. After much consideration and conversation, I have many more thoughts about the artwork in that book. The few frames that initially invited a second and third look are astonishingly powerful. Equally powerful is the mother’s prayer near the end of the book. No kidding. Tears and chills.

Though there are some difficult images in Persepolis, the nudity here is more prevalent and seems – again at first glance – less essential.

This book does contain a fair amount of reference material at the back that would definitely supplement any efforts to teach this book. And the Omid Memorial, replicated at the end of the book, will absolutely break your heart.

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The Night of the Hunter (Grubb)

Though there are dead bodies in this one, this does not come across as your typical noir piece. There’s not a crime to be solved, and the (anti)hero is, depsite his profession, no saint. There is a mystery, though, or at least a question, and I don’t want to spoil the resolution, but there is a tremendous amount of intensity in the writing and a serious inquiry into the meaning of religion. I’m told the movie is quite good. In fact, my edition is part of the ‘Vintage Movie Classics: Novels that Inspired Great Films.” I’m sure you know at least one piece of this book, something that has transcended the novel itself. Our anti-hero has a tattoo on each hand, one says ‘LOVE’ and the other ‘HATE.’

This is a good, gripping novel.

Turtles All the Way Down (Green)

John Green just gets it. This story, from the name of the protagonist (Aza) and the reason for that name to the honesty of her best friend, is just remarkable. Both in form and content, Green captures the anxiety of the teenage mind in ways that resonated with me. Perhaps a side note and perhaps related – it took me over 100 pages to even begin to think about that this was a male author writing in the voice of a teenage girl. And then I promptly forgot about it. The voice came across as so honest.

At first, I thought maybe the plot twist that sets the story in motion – the disappearance of the wealthy father of a former friend of Aza’s (a peer from what she refers to as ‘Sad Camp’) because of impending criminal charges – was a bit extreme. But in the end, it didn’t really matter except in broad strokes. The money is an issue, similarly to the way it so often is in John Hughes movies, but what’s keep here are the very honest relationships Aza has with her mother, her friend, her Sad Camp companion, her very well-depicted therapist, and herself.

I don’t know how John Green does it. Or how he keeps doing it. But I hope he will continue to do so.

Warlight (Ondaatje)

I find Ondaatje’s prose hypnotizing. His sentences always keep me pleasantly and slightly off-balance, the gaps in them just as meaningful as what is present. His language and plot move like memory, full of gaps because of both time and a kind of deliberate forgetting. Warlight, a term I want to believe is his own creation, is the atmosphere that hangs over his characters and their world. World War II forces them to operate in this dimness. Even after the war, they choose and are forced to retain their limited view of the world. Life, for the protagonist, becomes a quest for illumination, one that is inevitably incomplete. Ondaatje continues to have a knack for establishing a setting. Place matters, especially the map room where Nathaniel spends his time doing research. As with a good play, most of the violence here is off-stage, but its presence lurks in the warlight.

The book starts slowly, more reporting than narrative, as though Ondaatje knows where he wants to get, but feels like he has to bring us to a certain point first. Overall, though, the impact of the book is hypnotic. Ondaatje’s research (see the Acknowledgements) informs the canal off of the Thames that symbolizes this story. If the Thames is World War II, the story is that canal – secret and easily (and purposefully) overlooked.

Wise Blood (O’Connor)

I still remember my first encounter with an O’Connor story in high school. I remember that I botched my written response to it, but there was something freeing about that story – an awareness that with O’Connor I was experiencing something new. I’ve remained a fan ever since. There’s no shortage of things to discuss and write about when it comes to her stories, and her view of religion is as complicated as it is original. Call her writing what you will – Southern Gothic, tragic comedy – whatever. It jumps off the page like the work of few others.

Still, I remember a colleague asking me what kind of image Southern literature gave to those in the North, and I’ve been struggling to think of an example that would not confirm for Northerners what they think they already know.

I just realized that there’s not much here about plot. Young men trying to find themselves and their God; people who once were blind and then become Blind.

Fish in a Tree (Hunt)

When I saw a youngster clutching this like a treasure and read the blurb comparing it to Wonder, I figured I’d give it a try.

And I can see how it’s aiming to capture the spirit of Wonder, but there’s just one problem, one that I’m particularly sensitive to because I’m a teacher – none of it rings true.

The long-term sub turned miracle worker is the stuff of movies-of-the-week, not life. The characters are all paint-by-numbers and Hunt even stifles her own attempt to tinker with one stereotype (Shay’s conversation with her mother, for those who have read the book).

Every plot development is emblazoned in neon lights. There’s nothing here to surprise or intrigue. The ‘right’ answer is always evident; there is, unlike in Wonder, only one point of view.

Sing, Unburied, Sing (Ward)

I was going to wait for the paperback, but then it won the Anisfield-Wolf Book Award, I couldn’t wait any longer. And for 130 pages, this National Book Award Winner is a very good book. And then on p. 131, it became a great one, one of my favorite books of all time. I think what amazes me about Ward, both here and in Salvage the Bones is the way her writing comes off as so straightforward (Ernest Gaines is like this too), but once you begin to peel even one layer off, the nuance and complexity of both her form (the pacing, the journey and the architecture of this novel are incredible) and content are astonishing. And after just one read, and reading as a Northern, city-based, white male, I am sure I only got a limited sense of the story, but despite the current urgency of the challenges Ward’s characters face here, I finished the novel with a remarkable sense of hope. I also admire the way Ward creates flawed characters, but does not blame them for their flaws. There are no angels here, but there are no devils either. Or maybe there are, but not in the way we expect. (I am trying to avoid spoilers here.) Flirtations with the supernatural in fiction often put me on guard; here, I believed.