One-Minute Book Reviews

September 17, 2008

Graphic ‘Novels’ — Actually, Memoirs — for People Who Don’t Read Graphic Novels — Marjane Satrapi’s Tales of Life Under Islamic Fundamentalism

Not long ago, the nether parts of Hurricane Gustav hit my town and trapped me in a coffee shop just after I’d left a bookstore with Persepolis and Persepolis 2, Marjane Satrapi’s tragicomic memoirs in comic strips of her childhood and early adulthood in fundamentalist Iran. What a welcome diversion the books made as rain pelted the plate glass. Both have enough to offer teenagers — assuming there are any left who haven’t read these bestsellers — that I hope to review them on a Saturday soon. Until then Persepolis could be a good choice for adult book clubs that want to try a graphic novel, the industry term that’s a misnomer for nonfiction. Both memoirs are much more engaging than — but would make a fine complement to — the pontifical Reading Lolita in Tehran, a book club staple. You’ll find more on Satrapi’s work at www.randomhouse.com/pantheon/graphicnovels/catalog/author.pperl?authorid=43801. If you like the genre, you may want to explore other comic-books pages at Pantheon www.randomhouse.com/pantheon/graphicnovels/, the Tiffany’s of graphic-novel publishers.

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.janiceharayda.com

February 11, 2008

Inside a Hellish Iranian Prison — Zarah Ghahramani’s ‘My Life as a Traitor’

A young writer says she was locked up and tortured for taking part in student demonstrations at Tehran University

My Life as a Traitor. By Zarah Ghahramani. With Robert Hillman. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 242 pp., $23.

By Janice Harayda

Anyone who has followed the controversy about the credibility of Ishmael Beah’s A Long Way Gone may approach My Life as a Traitor with deep skepticism. Here we have another memoir by a young writer who had a hellish experience, wrote it up with the help of an established novelist and got it published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

Until recently the main question you might have about such a book was: Is it good? Now another question presents itself: How much of it can you believe? A tough call.

Like Beah, Zarah Ghahramani writes vividly and with what appears to be disarming frankness about a terrifying ordeal — a month-long incarceration in Iran’s Evin Prison that she casts as her punishment for taking part in student protests at Tehran University. With Australian novelist Robert Hillman, she tells a good story about her incarceration and torture and the restrictions that even well-off families like hers have faced since the Islamic Revolution of 1979.

But she doesn’t say whether her book includes composite or invented characters or dialogue, or whether she took other liberties with facts. Nor does she explain how she reconstructed in detail scenes that occurred when she couldn’t have had a pencil or notepaper. She offers pages of dialogue with a prisoner whom she calls Sohrab and identifies as “a madman” in the cell above hers, but we have only her word that he existed. Who’s going to ring up a few mullahs and ask them to confirm it? And if prison officials tortured Ghahramani, they may also have starved her or drugged her food until she was hallucinating about prisoners or holding imaginary conversations to keep her sanity. If she considered these possibilities, she doesn’t deal with them in her book.

So we are left with another interesting and well-written memoir that raises almost as many questions as it answers. Farrar, Straus could have eased some of the concerns by insisting that Ghahramani include a note saying whether she had changed any names, dates or places or used composites. In the absence of such information, you can only hope that over time her story will withstand scrutiny better than Beah’s.

Best line: Many scenes offer sharp observations on growing up in a country ruled by mullahs, especially during Iran’s war with Iraq. This passages describes a standard mourning ritual: “For example, the husband of a young woman living next door to us was killed on the battlefield, and this poor woman was expected to forsake smiling at anything from the moment the news reached her until years in the future, the actual number of years contingent on how long the war lasted … the proscription on smiling meant that she could not behave in any natural, human way for years to come – she could not even smile for her children.”

Worst line: Ghahramani says when she sees photos of herself that the authorities took before throwing her in prison: “I feel violated.” “I feel violated” is journalistic cliché right up there with “closure” and at times used in the same sentence in newspaper stories, as in: “Mrs. Smith said she felt violated by the break-in and wanted the police to catch the thief so she could have closure.” In My Life As a Traitor it sounds just bizarre. Ghahramani doesn’t feel “violated” by being thrown in prison but does feel “violated” by seeing photographs of herself that were taken secretly?

Reading group guide: The publisher has posted one at www.fsgbooks.com.

Black box warning: This memoir comes from Farrar, Straus and Giroux, publisher of A Long Way Gone, which has so far failed to provide persuasive answers to the questions about the credibility of that book that have been raised by reporters for the Australian, Australia’s national daily newspaper, and others.

Published: January 2008

Furthermore: Ghahramani fled Iran after her release from prison and now lives in Australia.

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.janiceharayda.com

October 31, 2007

Reconsidering Azar Nafisi’s ‘Reading Lolita in Tehran’

I’m severely computer-deprived this week and posting from the library, so some reviews may omit a few things you typically see at the end, such as the best and worst lines in the book.

Reading Lolita in Tehran: A Memoir in Books. By Azar Nafisi. Random House, 384 pp., $14.95, paperback.

By Janice Harayda

This overrated memoir is the kind of book that critics tend to love, a reminder that literature can glow in the darkest of regimes — in this case, that of the Islamic Republic of Iran, where Azar Nafisi taught a secret class in the Western clasics to seven female students. But Nafisi is right when she writes in this overrated memoir that she is at times “too much of an academic”: “I have written too many papers and articles to be able to turn my experiences and ideas into narratives without pontificating.” As she describes her students’ responses to novels such as Pride and Prejudice and The Great Gatsby, Nafisi slips into cliches and vapid acdemic locutions such as, “It is not an accident that …” Like a scholarly Nostradamus, she informs us that “it is not an accident that” the heroine of Washington Square wore a red satin dress at her first meeting with a dishonorable suitor, as though such a detail were ever an accident in Henry James’s novels.

Published: 2003 www.randomhouse.com

(c) 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

www.janiceharayda.com

The Rubric Theme. Blog at WordPress.com.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 357 other followers

%d bloggers like this: