Saturday 19 November 2011

Persepolis - graphic

Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi (Vintage: 2008). A graphic novel following the story of the author’s life. She grew up in Iran and lived through the headlines. Persepolis gives an insight into the lives of a political family, and how the story of Iran shaped the outlook of one of its daughters.
I was watching Fresh Meat last week. At one stage, they took the mickey out of “geeks that read Iranian graphic novels and get around to talk about it” (or something like that, anyway).
This was about three days after I finished an Iranian graphic novel. And had decided to blog about it.
It was a struggle not to feel pretty small at that point.
To be fair to Persepolis, it’s also a “major motion picture”, which earns it a few more cool points, right? No?
Well, no matter, I read it and now I’m blogging about it, and if that means I get judged by the Fresh Meat crowd, well I guess I’m just going to have to live with that. So there.
This was my first graphic novel. Which, after a bit of thought, I’ve realised really is too wide a label to be a genre. I mean, it’s like saying this is my first movie, or this is my first cartoon. It’s a format, but the differences between each example can be huge. Persepolis, Watchmen, Sin City – they’re all graphic novels, but I’m willing to bet cold hard cash that they’re all very very different.
So I’ll not pause too much on the graphic novel factor. It was new to me, but I got used to it pretty quickly. I guess the big difference is that there are more tools on hand to create a distinct feel. Satrapi didn’t have to rely solely on the words on the page to develop the atmosphere of the book, she had the style of the drawings, the way they were arranged on the page, the expressions on people’s faces – all came together to signpost both the plot and the emotion of the book very effectively.
Perhaps most impressive about Persepolis was its consistency. The writing style, the pictures, the layout – they all chimed together, they all looked and felt and sounded the same. This is a book with a very strong personality, and it works well to tell a powerful story.
But there was a fairly major downside to Persepolis for me. The style is very simplistic, which means that it comes off as childish in places. Which is brilliant  and apt in the early and middle parts, where the world is being presented through the eyes of a child. But the kid grows up as the story moves on, and the style stays the same. When there’s high drama early on, the child’s voice and perspective makes it all the more heartbreaking. But when there’s similar drama later on, and we’re still experiencing it with the same style of narration, it comes across as flippant.
And a little annoying.
I don’t want to get too down on it. I enjoyed reading it, and it’s probably a little unfair to applaud the style of the book and then criticise it for staying true to that style from start to finish. I just felt that the story moved but the characters didn’t. The grown up Marji at the end of the book still feels like the child Marji from the start.
Maybe that was intentional. Maybe she’s trying to show that we’re the same people our whole lives, no matter what age we are. Maybe that’s a good point to make. But in making it, I think she’s sacrificed depth and development and richness.
Plenty good about Persepolis, but plenty bad too. Classic middle value score.
Next week, think I’m going to turn a little Doctorow. I’m sure the Fresh Meat lot would approve. Not that I care.

Sunday 13 November 2011

Death of an Ordinary Man - making up with Smuggy Smugerton

Death of an Ordinary Man by Glen Duncan (Scribner: 2004). A novel following Nathan Clark as he navigates the disorienting experience of being recently deceased. He follows his family and friends during his funeral and wake as he pieces together the facts of his life, his fate being revealed to the reader as his memory is spurred on by the thoughts and actions of his nearest and dearest.
This is the third Glen Duncan book I’ve read this year, and the second I’ve reviewed. He’s the only guy that I’ve read that many times since starting this blog. And, to be honest, I’d have read more if I didn’t think you’d get sick of reading reviews of Glen Duncan every week.
I saved this one up. It’s been sitting on my shelf for quite a while, but I saved it until I had a bit of time off work. I saw it as a treat that I wanted to enjoy when I had a few long days that I could spend with it.
And there’s good reason why I see Glen Duncan books as treats. I have my issues with them (which I’ll go into), but I’m always inspired by them. I always come away feeling that I’ve just read a book that justifies the art form. He creates stories that grow and grow from the very first page, and by the time you’ve turned the last one your head is just so full of ideas and people and emotions that it’s enough to make you want to pick up a pen and join the club yourself.
It’s not always been unconditional, my love of Glen Duncan Books. I’ve had my problems with them. And they are problems that this book wasn’t immune to. He has a tendency to be too clever sometimes. Every now and then, he shows off just a little bit too much. He writes confidently and with style, but there’s the odd point at which, between the lines, you can see him typing away with a smug look on his face. “God I’m swell at this writing stuff, everyone’s going to think I’m just about the greatest person in the world” he’s muttering as he’s thrashing his keyboard. “I think I deserve a cake.”
It keeps his writing from becoming relatable at times. You’re made to feel, (only very occasionally to be fair), that you’re trespassing on his story.
But, between you and me, I’ve decided not to care. When I first read him, it really troubled me. I loved the book, but I struggled to get past Duncan’s over-confidence. When I read him the second time, it seemed to matter less. And in this book, well I’ve decided to get over myself a little and just enjoy it. Because there’s a huge amount here to be enjoyed.
Death of an Ordinary Man starts with a great premise. A man haunting his own funeral. But (as I’ve said before) great premises are two a penny. Most of us can come up with great premises. It takes an artist to turn it into something more than that. And Duncan, love or hate him, really is a great artist.
He turns this premise into something beautiful.
He gives us so much time with each of the characters. They each become huge. They don’t quite become real – they’re too introspective and self analytical to relate to in any sort of a real world way – but they are compelling and they are, all of them, a massive presence.
There’s mystery in this book. And there’s sadness. There’s a little bit of Duncan smugness, but it’s overshadowed once and for all by his talent.
All things, considered, it’s bloody good.
Short of the 10 GBR mainly because of those chinks of smugness. I’m over them, but they’re still there and I still recognise them, and they irk me just enough to stop short of a ten.
That’s it, I’m cutting myself off of Duncan for the rest of the year. Three of his and two reviews is quite enough attention.
Next week, something very different. A first for me. A graphic novel.

Sunday 6 November 2011

The Sense of an Ending - award winning believability

The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes (Jonathan Cape: 2011) A short novel written in the first person. Tony Webster looks back on his life and the few key relationships that shaped it, memories triggered by the fate of one of his closest and enigmatic friends.
Got to try the big award winners, right? These are the books that all the pros reckon will end up being the lasters, the ones that survive time and end up being remembered. According to those in the know, these books are the best of the best of what’s around today. That’s why they give them the prizes (obvs).
Once a year, the Man Booker Prize is given out, and the book it’s given too presumably enjoys an ugly upward spike in its sales for a few weeks. I usually do my bit to contribute to that spike (it's nice to take part), the more so this year as the winner was a novella, so a quick read, which I like.
I’ve read a few Man Booker Prize winners (even reviewed one of them here), and they’ve all been quite different from each other. Which is good. And which happened again this time.
The Sense of an Ending has a really simple premise. A man looking back on his life, questioning the reliability of memory, the nature of history, and learning new things about himself and his past.
So simple in fact that it has the danger of being a bit boring. The tactics used to avoid that fate? Well, the usual ones to be honest. A sharp and engaging writing style. Thoughtful and intelligent insights. A few gentle twists sparingly but effectively used. A well staggered exploration of character.
My pulse never raced and my blood never boiled. I stayed well and truly in the middle of my seat throughout. But my brain was certainly engaged, and my heart was too. Barnes achieves a realistic and believable portrayal of a man preoccupied (but not overwhelmed) by the nostalgia of his life. I felt I was in a conversation with Tony Webster. I’m not sure I entirely liked the guy, but he was at least real.
And that’s a trick not to be underestimated. We’ve all read books that are driven by fantastic plots, but where the main characters take on the qualities of Hollywood stars – the kind that, were they to stand in front of you, you’d have to reach out and touch to make sure they were real, and even then they seem more natural on the pages of magazine rather than in the same world as us. Tony Webster is not like that. If he sat in my living room, I’d probably offer him a cup of tea. There’d be little (if any) awe. That I can imagine serving this entirely fictional character a cup of Tetley’s is testament to the powers of Julian Barnes.
But does all this make for a good book? Well, I think it makes for a great novella. Barnes told his story and gave it the right length. He didn’t stretch it out. If he did, he’d either have to keep true to the characters (in which case, it’d probably get boring after a while), or he’d have to give them new qualities, (in which case he’d sacrifice the believability of the book).
I enjoyed reading this. It made me think (more) about the nature of memory. It created connection between its pages and me that I felt strongly, which meant I cared a lot more than I perhaps should have about a relatively ordinary plot. And that’s important. There needn’t be explosions for a book to be good, you simply have to be made to care about what happens.
And I did.
Love this book? No, I probably didn’t. But I was very fond of it. A more pedestrian emotion, but a real one. Probably quite apt.
Next week, a book by an author I’ve reviewed before on here. Which is a first. I'm sure you're very excited.