Sunday, November 30, 2008

Maus II: A Survivor's Tale: And Here My Troubles Began

I read Maus about a month ago - it ends rather abruptly, just as Vladek is taken prisoner and sent to Auschwitz. I had to read the second one. The artist and author, Art Spiegelman, has brilliantly composed the books, drawing the Jews as mice, the Germans as cats, Americans as dogs and so on. As in the first book, Art has many painful conversations with his father to learn about his experiences during the war, not just because of the content, but compounded by their rocky relationship.

Vladek's experiences are, as you might imagine, horrible. Spiegelman adds to the documentation of Holocaust survivors with his father's story, and in the end, makes the story even more real by including a copy of an actual photo of his father. I must have stared at that page for ten minutes - it was so startling to see that photo suddenly in the midst of all those drawings. And the photo is so strange - he said he found a shop that had new, clean uniform from the camps, so he had a picture of himself taken in the uniform for his wife. He smiles, looking handsome, healthy, and so ironic. Another bit that really moved me was a conversation with his therapist that Spiegelman recounts - despite his success, Spiegelman feels guilty and small (he literally draws himself as a child). He says, "No matter what I accomplish, it doesn't seem like much compaired to surviving Auschwitz." His therapist asks him if he admires his father for surviving - of course he does. Then he says, "Then you think it's admirable to survive. Does that mean it's NOT admirable to NOT survive?... But it wasn't the BEST people who survived, nor did the best ones die. It was RANDOM!" They get down to the purposefulness/uselessness of telling any story. After all, it's fairly common to hear phrases like Never Forget regarding events like the Holocaust - a mantra, as if remembering will help us avoid repeating. And yet, horrible events occur every day. More unspeakable atrocities are occurring right now. Spiegelman quotes Samuel Beckett, "Every word is like an unnecessary stain on silence and nothingness." He and his therapist sit in silence for a moment. "On the other hand, he SAID it," he says. Spiegelman's voice is a powerful tool, he shows us his concerns, and proceeds with the story.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Homage to Catalonia

Homage to Catalonia is George Orwell's tale of his experience fighting in the Spanish Civil war. The book was first published in 1938, shortly after the 2 year war ended.

I read this book for my book club, and honestly otherwise wouldn't have picked it up, not being a huge reader of non-fiction and particularly war-based non-fiction. To tell the truth, I really didn't know a thing about the Spanish Civil War. I'm happy to learn new things, but it was a very challenging book for me to read. Something that became immediately apparent is that there's a lot of confusing information about the Spanish Civil War, and my efforts to do a little outside research were quickly abandoned because I just didn't have the time to become a expert on it. Turns out, all that conflicting information is one of the major reasons Orwell wrote the book, as he continually states throughout that it's his first-person account and attempt to set the record straight. Because there was so much propaganda floating around, especially about his (losing) side, he has a clear goal to make his truthful perspective known. I kept thinking about that old phrase, "History is written by the winners" while reading Homage to Catalonia, particularly when comparing it to some of the information I found about the war.

I found the book very readable, although quite a few in our club disagreed with me. To me, it read like a novel. Orwell's experience follows (or at least is written in) a fairly neat (by which I mean tidy) narrative arch, from his joining of the militia to getting shot and finally fleeing Spain altogether. Orwell's description of getting shot in the (goddamn!) neck is really something, as is his description of Barcelona for the brief period in which it was a completely communist city. It's fairly easy to see (or at least infer) how such events inspired Orwell to later write 1984. So many of his real-life experiences in the war were completely absurd, like being on the front lines without, essentially, a weapon, like being so close to the enemy and not fighting them. His describes a society with forced ideals (rather than slowly evolved over time), with all the strained ideology and (I think inherent) hypocrisy, that really couldn't sustain itself. It's as if you can draw a clear line from that description write to the society he creates in 1984 (although I have a bad habit of trying to draw straight lines when we all know they're more often circuitous).

A word on editions: my copy was published in 1952; a friend's copy from the 80's was quite different. In her book, several chapters had become appendices, supposedly at the request of Orwell, who thought those chapters disrupted the flow. The 1952 edition contains a ridiculous forward by Lionel Trilling that begins, "This book is one of the important documents of our time." which almost caused me to stop reading the thing right there! I thought it was a really fascinating book, and a great book for our club to read. There are also some parallels to Hemingway's For Whom the Bell Tolls (also about the Spanish Civil War), as you might imagine. And, it also got me interested in some other aspects, like propoganda posters and the role of women in the war.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Flora Segunda

I read this book (or, half of it, anyway), Flora Segunda, by Ysabeau Wilce, because I read a brief review in Salon that stated, "Weird in the best possible way, Wilce's novels are what girl readers graduating from the Harry Potter books ought to be reading instead of the insipid "Twilight" series."

Having been sucked unwittingly into the Twilight series myself, and a big fan of YA fiction (as the faithful reader knows), I was a sucker for just such a recommendation.

For the 50 or 60 pages, I was riveted. Flora Segunda is young woman who lives in some kind of magical universe where, like Harry Potter, some people practice magic, some people are not quite human, and often our silly little laws of physics don't apply. I was most fascinated by Flora's house, which Wilce is always describing - a decrepit house so large Flora doesn't know the half of it; a house that changes, where you might get lost of a week if the elevator takes you to an unknown area.

Because Flora's mother (the general of the army [shout out for the ladies!]) travels, Flora essentially lives alone, with the exception of a drunken father-type that she calls by his first name and who mostly stays in his room. The house does have a butler, however, who would normally keep this falling-apart mansion glittering, but he's been locked away for many years. The butler convinces Flora to breathe life back into him, literally by pressing her lips to his and blowing into his mouth.

Wilce's universe is like a bizarro San Francisco - Flora lives in "Califa" and folks like me that lived or live in SF will get a little thrill by local landmarks with a twist. Wilce also uses creative language, digging deep into her wing-dings to create words that made me pause and wonder how they might be pronounced.

For some reason the book got a little boring for me around page 200 hundred, and there I've stopped. I might come back to it later on. Possibly it's just me - I can think of a couple of friends who would probably love this book. And, I should think it's absolutely terrific for teens and pre-teens that have just finished Harry Potter.

Saturday, November 08, 2008

Vacation Reading

Part of being self-aware is knowing what kind of book is perfect for a vacation. Many a conversation have I had with friends about this very subject. "I'm going to a beach house for a week, what should I take?" That's easy - Bridget Jones' Diary, or The Nanny Diaries, or something else with "Diary" in the title. I like Carl Hiaasen for a week in Cancun, lying on the beach. Something complex for a night in the woods: Wallace Stegner or Carol Shields.

So, for our trip to Florence, I needed something special - not too gripping that I wouldn't want to leave it and go look at Donatello's Magdalene in the Museo Dell'Opera Del Duomo, not something about Florence, like A Room with a View, which would have been silly (plus Forster bores me to tears), not something I've been dying to read, which would be forever tainted by the memory of reading it on a plane. Not something chancy, because what if I hated it and then - horror - found myself with nothing to read at all?

Long did I stare at my (embarrassingly large) to-read pile, trying to figure out what to take. And then! Ah Ha! The Best American Short Stories of 1999, edited by Amy Tan. Perfect - a nice thick volume, short stories by Junot Diaz, Chitra Divakaruni, Pam Houston, Jhumpa Lahiri, Lorrie Moore, Annie Proulx, Alice Munro (and more)! And, if I ran into something I didn't like, who cares? I'd just skip over it.

Turns out it was the perfect book to take - the ones I expected to love, I did love, and yes, I did run into a couple of stinkers but just a few, and I found a couple of wonderful stories by writers I've never heard of that really captured my imagination - like The Rest of Her Life, by Steve Yarbrough, which was so amazing even now I think about it, and have created a whole movie about it in my mind.

The only lame thing is that about 5 of the short stories came from the New Yorker, which I suppose would have been kind of a drag if you had a subscription to the New Yorker in 1999 and then bought this book. Even though they may very well have comprised 1/5 of The Best short stories that year, I wish Tan had gone outside the New Yorker box. I mean, everyone knows that you're going to find a great short in the New Yorker - it would have been more fun to see something unexpected.

What do you like to read on vacation?