Archive for August, 2012

I’ve written about the Wimpy Kid earlier, but I feel compelled to revisit the series after I recently read part of another similar diary-fiction series, Dork Diaries. Turns out that apart from using casual fonts and similar formats (text and images), they aren’t really all that similar.

I didn’t realize that even diary-fiction was gender segregated. Dork Diaries, with a female middle-schooler as protagonist, is supposedly for girls, the way Wimpy Kid is for boys. Personally, I’m not sure I recommend either of the two for girls or boys, and I certainly don’t consider them children’s literature. I am hardly the expert on child psychology and don’t know if I should necessarily be concerned if my child (or a child) reads a book that does not provide much in the way of positive messages or role models, but is simple fun. Actually, the fun part is what I have an issue with – the Wimpy Kid (to me) is unquestionably fun. Juvenile fun, but laugh-out-loud fun nevertheless. However, I’m not sure if this would be my choice of comic relief for the kids. In my mind, Greg Heffley, the Wimpy Kid, has a distinctly adult/near-adult-but-looking-back-on-those-awkward-middle-school-years voice. Or, it could be that I’m completely wrong, and Greg is the face of today’s middle-schooler.

I, an adult reader, was very amused by the Wimpy Kid. And not at all by the Dork. If anything, I was mildly appalled. In her book  Cinderella Ate My Daughter: Dispatches from the Front Lines of the New Girlie-Girl Culture, author Peggy Orenstein complains that girlhood has become entirely monochromatic. That was my problem with Dork Diaries – Nikki (the protagonist)’s life was so completely lacking in dimensions and in such a stereotyped way.

I read the first book of the Dork Diaries series – Tales from a Not-So-Fabulous-Life. In the book, Nikki starts life at a snobby private school because her father, an exterminator, has been awarded a bug extermination contract there. Nikki feels like a misfit and is embarrassed by her father’s occupation being the reason she is accepted into the school. She is surrounded by rich, fashionable girls and struggles to fit in and make friends. In the end, she realizes that she might not be the prettiest or most popular girl in school, but she has gifts she ought to be proud of and has friends who support her.

The book does offer a more obvious positive message to girls (I don’t remember sensing any subtle inspiration from the Wimpy Kid, but I could be mistaken), but either Dork Diaries presents a completely monochromatic picture of girls’ lives, or girls today really do have stunningly monochromatic lives, and I find both situations disturbing. Nikki’s life has predictable problems -wanting to be cool and popular, be friends with the cool and popular, own clothes and accessories that will make her popular, impress her new crush, and outwit the popular mean girl in school. While Greg also faces similar issues, somehow they don’t take up as many pages and as much focus as they seem to do in Nikki’s life. Also, Nikki’s diary is as un-funny as Greg(by no means a role model)’s is funny. In the absence of laughs, and also possibly since my being an adult puts a different perspective on teen-girl problems, I was a little irritated by Nikki’s whining, although many of her problems are real and legitimate. Nikki’s drawings and illustrations also didn’t seem to add to the story or to the humor, in the way Greg’s drawings mostly did.

I’ll be doing some more prowling at the children’s section of the local library to get hold of more Wimpy Kid. The Dork, I think I’ll pass. Nikki is shallow, but Greg, who is not much deeper himself, is funny.




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When Harry visited Mumbai

However, it was Harry’s experience that international airports told you little or nothing about the country in which they were situated. In Mumbai, India, there was total calm and efficiency, at JFK in New York paranoia and chaos.

– In The Leopard (2011) by Jo Nesbo

Hmm. Really?

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On my bookshelf – 4

Or more accurately, ‘On my bookshelf two weeks ago’. The giant Habibi has long been returned, as have The Ayatollah Begs to DifferSharp Objects and the two Jo Nesbo’s that I borrowed – The Snowman (not in the picture) and The Leopard. I loved and devoured Nesbo’s Headhunters, which also happened to be my first Nesbo, wisely recommended by a Nesbo fan as a great first book. Which it was, but it also set my (high, in any case) expectations for his other works, in my case, all part of the Harry Hole series. I liked The Redbreast, but found The Snowman a tad predictable, and The Leopard, wildly unpredictable, though a bit tedious and too long for my taste.

Also not in the picture are some young-adult diary fiction – Cabin Fever (Book 6) and The Ugly Truth (Book 5) from the Wimpy Kid series, and my first foray into the Dork Diaries series – Tales From a Not-So-Fabulous Life (Book 1).

After ignoring literary fiction for months (if not years), I’m finally reading some – The Marriage Plot (currently reading) and the mysteriously titled IQ84. For my non-fiction dose, I have The Status Syndrome (currently reading) and Columbine. This year, my reading has featured a lot more fiction than before.

The investment book, though technically on my shelf is more for the husband. Although I might just give it a try.

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I am always drawn to the ‘two-week book’ shelves in the local library, even when I know I cannot reasonably expect to plough through my current book load in four weeks, or even eight weeks, for that matter. I am always absurdly optimistic when it comes to the unread pile. So, while it was entirely within character to add a book from the said shelf into my canvas bag, it was perhaps a slightly unlikely choice considering it was an impulse pick. (In the interest of wisely expending my time (and my life energy), I usually carefully research books and authors before adding them to my list – alas, at an immoderately rabid pace). And it was no small book – possibly the heaviest I’ve read in years (it’s shipping weight is 3.5 pounds on Amazon), but my excuse is that it was gorgeous. Irresistibly so.

Smitten though I was by it’s beauty, I wasn’t entirely sure if I would love the book – Habibi (2011) by Craig Thompson (graphic novelist and creator of Blankets). Habibi, also a graphic novel, is visually stunning in its drawings, the calligraphy, and the Islam-inspired artwork. Unfortunately, Habibi reads like a chaotic fairy tale.

Habibi (‘darling’ or ‘beloved’ in Arabic) is ostensibly the story of Zam and Dodola. Twelve-year old, doe-eyed Dodola and three-year old dark-skinned Zam escape slave traders and spend nine years together in a boat, beached in the middle of the desert. During this period, Dodola tells Zam stories from the Quran to “soothe him to sleep’, “bring us closer together”, “nurture his imagination”, “distract him from his hunger”. “motivate him to help with chores” and to teach him moral lessons. As Zam discovers later, Dodola regularly prostitutes herself to passing caravans in exchange for food and supplies. When Zam is twelve, Dodola is kidnapped by the agents of the Sultan of Wanatolia (where much of the story is set) and is placed in his harem. The rest of the story deals with Zam and Dodola’s painful experiences, how they finally unite, and their changing relationship. Or to be more accurate, the rest of the story deals, among a million other things, with how Zam and Dodola’s painful experiences, how they finally unite, and their changing relationship.

Habibi is a complex story with multiple themes – racism, religion, and the rampant disregard for the planet we live on, and the consequences of our disrespect, among many others. Thompson also weaves the past into the present, going back and forth in time. He also generously employs parables from the Quran and the Old Testament, and (I assume) emphasizes their common roots, but as someone who is not familiar with any of the Abrahamic religions, I cannot pretend to have been able to completely understand or appreciate them. I am however familiar with Hindu religion and culture and was surprised to see a Dodola in a saree, and references to a Hindu Goddess Bahuchara Mata, in a work otherwise clearly dominated by Islamic/Arabic influences.

Admittedly, I hadn’t heard of Bahuchara Mata  before (though mata is a common name for Hindu Goddesses) and turns out she “is considered patroness of—and worshipped by—the hijra community in India” (from Wikipedia). In Habibi, Bahuchara Mata is mentioned in the context of the eunuch community where Zam lives for a while.

I was also confused about the period the story was set in. Alongside the slave markets, harems and eunuchs that guard them, Thomson’s story contains water bottling plants, and high-rise buildings.

Thomson is clearly a skilled artist, and I found his complex fantasy to be sad, exquisite, and utterly cluttered.

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In the antithesis of common notions of diplomatic style and sophistications, Hashemi-Samareh [senior advisor to the president] believed that Iranian diplomats’ trousers could not sport sharp creases, for if they did, it was surely a sign that the diplomats were neglecting their thrice-daily obligatory prayers, which comprise repetitive standing, kneeling, and bowing gestures.

– The Ayatollah Begs to Differ: The Paradox of Modern Iran (2008) by Hooman Majd

Although I have ventured into Iran through books, my explorations so far have always been through the eyes of Iranian (or Iranian-American) women, touching upon what it means to be female in Iran, and sometimes about what it means to be a part of the minority (Jewish or Christian), and always in the context of Iran’s post-revolutionary climate. While these books, which I’ve enjoyed reading…

Honeymoon in Tehran: Two Years of Love and Danger in Iran

Prisoner of Tehran: One Woman’s Story of Survival Inside an Iranian Prison

Journey from the Land of No: A Girlhood Caught in Revolutionary Iran


Reading Lolita in Tehran: A Memoir in Books

…mostly dealt with the struggles of Iranians, The Ayatollah Begs to Differ: The Paradox of Modern Iran (2008) by Hooman Majd, attempts to capture the character of Iran and Iranians. He hopes that his book…

…through a combination of stories, history, and personal reflections, will provide the reader a glimpse of Iran and Iranians, often secretive and suspicious of revealing themselves, that he or she may not ordinarily have the opportunity to see.

Majd, a non-resident Iranian, at the very offset, tries to establish credibility about his understanding of all things Iranian – he was born into a family of Iranian diplomats, living and studying abroad. When he says…

In 2004 and 2005 I spent several weeks in Iran as a journalist, and in 2007 I spent almost two months living in Tehran, working on what was to become the manuscript.

…I have to take his word for it and assume that this book was not the result of these several weeks and two months the author spent in Iran, but informed by his inherent knowledge of contemporary (and historical) life in Iran. I also hope that his status as a privileged Iranian-American did not impact his interactions with Iranians, who “viewed the Iranian-Americans as a privileged lot – Iranians who lived abroad in luxury and who suffered none of the travails of living and struggling day to day under a difficult system, as domestic dissidents and political activists do, but who nonetheless felt they had a right to opinions on the future of Iran” (although Majd does grow to a beard to disguise his living in the secular West).

Majd’s writing, though heavy with long-winded sentences, is descriptive, and he uses many examples to discuss the subtleties of social concepts that would be quite difficult for a foreigner to understand. The unique Shia Islam atmosphere, together with a sense of historical persecution, by Arab invaders, followers of Sunni Islam, to imperial oppression, and more recent antagonism with the United States, colors much of the fundamental beliefs and feelings of Iranians. I did appreciate Majd’s efforts to illustrate, with many vivid examples, the uniquely Persian social ritual of ta’arouf – a “great national trait…the exaggerated politesse, modesty, and self-deprecation” that involves endless back and forth niceties, in an unusual game of one-upmanship. Majd also offers his perspective on Iran’s political landscape and ponders the possibility of a uniquely Islamic version of democracy.

While discussing race consciousness in multi-ethnic Iran, which is home to Kurds, Arabs, Turks, Armenians, Zoroastrians, Jews, Christians and Muslims, Majd brings up a point that is especially interesting to me:

But some secular Persian intellectuals will not only exhibit racism towards Arabs or other minorities but reserve a special hatred for Ayatollah Khomeini, not just because he founded the Islamic Republic, but because to them he wasn’t even Persian. Since his paternal grandfather was an Indian who immigrated to Iran in the early nineteenth century, some Iranians feel that his “tainted” blood means that a true Persian was not at the helm of the revolution, the most momentous event in their country’s modern history, good or bad. And soon after the revolution, when the time came to change the symbol of Iran on its flag from the lion and the sub, Khomeini himself chose a symbol among those submitted by artists – a stylized “Allah” – which his opponents, at least the more race-conscious ones, continue to insist bears a remarkable similarity to the symbol of the Sikhs.

…today when Iranian exiles and even some inside Iran want to disparage him, they sometimes refer to him as Hindi (which happened to be his grandfather’s surname but it is also Persian for “Indian”).

Naturally, being Indian, this intrigues me, as does the fact that Hindi and Farsi have so many common words, but sound completely different.

Majd’s work is certainly illuminating, and in reading about social and cultural mores that constitute Iranian life, I certainly learned something new. Utterly fascinating, overused as it is, describes this book well. I would, however, also like an Iranian’s perspective on the picture that Majd paints

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