april 2014 books.

Marjane Satrapi
This is a graphic memoir of a Persian woman's life growing up during the Islamic Revolution and then the Iran-Iraq war. A small child when the revolution happens, she is sent to Europe during the war. Her parents want to get her out of the war zone and allow her to grow up a liberated woman. Being alone in a foreign land comes with its own hardships.

My knowledge of Iran is pretty nil. This book had some history in it - ancient history, and also events leading up to the revolution and the overthrow of the Shah - plus we see more recent events through Marjane's eyes as they occur. From this and another book I read a while back, Reading Lolita in Tehran, I can't imagine going from a fairly liberal society to one that restricts people so harshly. And of course, the rules becamse far stricter on women. There is a scene in the book where Marjane, as an adult student completely covered from head to toe, is running to catch her bus. Some guards call her down because her running makes her butt wiggle. Angry from missing her bus, she yells at them to stop looking at her butt, then.

I guess what's amazing is that life continues, no matter what. She goes to school, she has friends, there are parties even though drinking is illegal.

My Name is Red
Orhan Pamuk
This was really lovely and amazing, and I'm probably going to do a very bad job of trying to explain it.

Just in terms of the reading experience, it was a bit hard to follow at first. The point of view switches around by chapter, and sometimes the narrator is rather unorthodox - a corpse, a fake gold coin, a picture of a tree (not a tree, a picture of a tree). The action centers around a group of miniaturists in the Ottoman Empire who work for the Sultan. The pictures are extremely intricate, and it is considered an honor for a master miniaturist to go blind from working so long on such tiny pictures. Since the pictures are copied, a master should be able to paint without being able to see, as he is now painting from memory. The point of art is not to reproduce reality, but to attempt to show what God sees.

Some of the masters just end up blinding themselves, which seems like cheating, but I guess it's on their own heads.

It seems to be cheating that these guys are painting anything at all. Art is a tricky thing in Islam, and it seems like the only reason they are allowed to do this job is because they are illustrating stories, often religious ones. Of course, there is plenty of black market art (lots of dirty pictures). Even this sanctioned art is all kept locked up in the palace.

The miniaturists are working on a book for the Sultan that is being kept secret because it is possibly immoral, because it is illustrating anything. In fact, the pictures were drawn first, and a writer has been hired to make up stories to go with them. This is new and crazy and reeks of Western influence, therefore it's probably evil. The plot of the book revolves around someone who is murdering those who are working on the book. There is particular obsession with portraits, which many see as evil as they could be idols. Previously, people in pictures had been drawn as archetypes - an villain, a soldier, a pretty lady, a king. But with a portrait, it is an individual. You could see the portrait and then recognize the person in a crowd.

I am sure that I missed/misunderstood a lot in this book, but it was a fascinating to see how cultural assumptions can become like facts. I never thought about whether the subject of a painting should be in the center and what that meant. I knew Islam had restrictions about portraying the prophet, but apparently there are fundamentalist interpretations that forbid painting completely. The book takes place just after a golden era of Islamic art. There are long discussions about style and how having a style is vanity. The artist is supposed to be anonymous. The miniaturists' work basically amounts to copying art done by previous masters.

Did that make any sense? I'm sorry, but it's hard to explain God and Art at the same time. Maybe I should've spoken from the point of view of a picture of a tree.

The Bellarosa Connection
Saul Bellow
This was a short little book about a guy who was saved from a concentration camp by a benevolent and anonymous helper, who turns out to be a successful American Jew. Now a moderately successful businessman in America, he wants to thank his savior. However, his benefactor wants nothing to do with him and won't even consent to have his hand shaken. He doesn't want to be reminded of it at all. The narrator, a third Jew, also American, talks about how he thinks it is a form of guilt or shame - the Jews who did not have to survive the Holocaust felt guilty for being in that position. There is a lot of discussion of memory, and how the only escape from regret is forgetting, and sometimes the only way to forget is to die.

I'm not sure this book had a point.

The Husband's Secret
Liane Moriarty
Our book club selection this month was okay. Plotwise, there was a lot of romance and mystery and typical thriller elements, but unlike some of the other thriller books we've read, there was some substance to it. Mostly, it was an exploration of what happens to long-lasting relationships in the kinds of circumstances that come up in thriller novels. The conclusion I got from it is how little we really know each other. We think we know each other completely, and so we don't talk or listen to each other, and therefore the person we think we know and the person that exists continue to grow farther and farther apart. And then we wake up one day and realize we have no idea who this person is.

Something that I found interesting - this book was very prominently set during Holy Week, that is, the week before Easter. It is centered around a Catholic school and the community of children, parents, and employees. But it was completely secular. There are Easter events at the school, such as a hat parade, but there is no churchy stuff and nothing about the religious significance of Easter. At one point, a character talks about Hell and whether a murderer would be condemned there, but then she stops and thinks, what am I talking about, I'm not that kind of Catholic. No one else in book club found this at all remarkable.

Someone else stepped up to be the Wednesday night moderator, and this month, I handed over the reins. I am not interested in next month's book, so I'm just not going to read it. Fantastic. There are a couple of books coming up that look interesting, so I may read those. Or I may not! Whatever I feel like!

If Not Now, When?
Primo Levi
This book was about Jews during World War II. But wait, it's not what you think it is!

It follows a band of Jewish partisans. I had never heard of partisans of any kind, at least not by that name. Partisans are fighters who are behind the front line, challenging control of an area that has ostensibly already been conquered. The many resistance movements during the war could count as partisan forces.

The book follows Mendel, a Russian Jew who was an artillery man in the Russian Army before being cut off from the rest of his regiment. He lives in the woods until he meets another stranded soldier. Together they wander, and their duo groups into a community as they pick up people along the way. They live with a community of Jews living in an abandoned monastery, then join up with a series of partisan bands. They cause mischief for the Germans, walk a lot, and are cold and hungry most of the time.

What makes their position so tenuous is that they are foreigners everywhere. The Russians and Poles are fighting the Germans, but no one really likes the Jews. Mendel says that after the revolution, you had to choose between being a Russian and a Jew. Nor could you be a Communist and a Zionist. Their aim is to survive the war and then get to Palestine, where they won't be foreigners anymore.

The title is taken from an old rabbinical saying: "If I am not for myself, who will be for me? And when I am for myself, what am 'I'? And if not now, when?" I'm not sure about the original meaning, but in this form, it was turned into a song that was a sort of battle cry for the partisans. At the end of the war, they become part of the sea of refugees. Only then do they find out about the gas chambers. They seem to come out of it in better shape than those who were in the camps, having retained their humanity throughout. So even when you get to the end of reading a pretty awful tale of woe, you're reminded that this was better than some other guys had it.

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