Maus I: A Survivor’s Tale by Art Spiegelman

mausI have heard about this book for years, and am glad I finally picked it up.

Art Spiegelman’s father was a survivor of Auschwitz. Subtitled (excellently) “My Father Bleeds History,” this book tells the elder Spiegelman’s story, as told to Art, complete with the dialog between father and son that constitutes Art’s research. The action therefore switches back and forth between late-twentieth-century New York City and 1930’s Poland. The father-and-son interview portions are humorous, although with a sad note: Vladek Spiegelman is unhappily married following the suicide of his first wife (Art’s mother), Anja. The flashback parts are, naturally, disturbing, as they tell the story of Polish Jews as Nazi Germany pushed into Poland.

There is also a love story, that of Anja and Vladek, and the family story of Art and Vladek, father and son, getting to know one another and setting boundaries (as in the question of calling in the middle of the night about fixing downspouts). As Art himself laments, Vladek makes for quite a stereotypical – or racist – image of an older Jewish man: he is stingy with his money, manipulates his son using guilt, and speaks in a broken English dialect that I found quite charming, actually. But the story itself is killer, of course. There is a part II, and why do I not already have it here in my hands?

I am no connoisseur of comic (or cartoon?) art (I don’t even know what to call it). I will say that the art is fine, good: lots of black, easy to read (remarkably easy to read – I don’t do many graphic novels, and this one flew by). Spiegelman plays with symbols by making Jews mice, the Nazis cats, and non-Jewish Poles pigs. When the Jews try to blend in with Polish society after they have been removed, they wear pig masks over their mouse faces.

I was reminded of Alison Bechdel, most obviously because of the graphic format, yes, but it doesn’t stop there: Are You My Mother? also dealt with a parent, and framed the parent’s story with the interview process (and the familial tensions that came with it). That framing, that in-and-out of the story by way of the interviews, was familiar, and it’s a technique I like.

I have a feeling that there is quite a bit here to be studied from a more academic angle. I raced through this read in a quick evening, and it probably deserves more time & attention, but I need guidance. Happily, I have not only Maus II to look forward to, but MetaMaus (if I can find it?) with background material. Stay tuned.

Any graphic format fans out there? What have you enjoyed?


Rating: 9 chandeliers.

Severed: A History of Heads Lost and Heads Found by Frances Larson

Strong-stomached readers will enjoy this accessibly written cultural anthropology of severed heads.

severed

The human head is remarkable. Not only does it boast receptors for each of the five senses and house the brain–the command center for the body–but it also displays the face, which (for better or worse) defines our identities to the outer world. In Severed, anthropologist Frances Larson (An Infinity of Things) examines a dark side of the human head–specifically, its separation from (and attempted reattachment to) the human body in myriad ways and with different purposes, intentions and results.

The Western world has balked at shrunken heads, trophy heads, headhunting and wartime brutalities, but still maintained a macabre enthusiasm for collecting these specimens, which, ironically, led to an increase in the practices. In Europe, beheadings for criminal and political offenses led to the development of the guillotine during the French Revolution. Despite its gore, this machine was heralded for its efficiency and arguably humane approach relative to other execution methods. Detached heads have served as religious and secular relics; scientific or pseudo-scientific tools; artists’ inspiration; soldiers’ souvenirs; and objects of ritual and political symbolism. In fact, much of Larson’s study considers the interplay between the head as part of an individual and head as object: it is necessary to objectify in order to decapitate or dissect. An overarching concern is whether the head alone holds the essence of each of us. The question remains unanswered, even as Larson investigates cryonic suspension of severed heads and head transplants (or as their practitioners prefer, “body transplants”) in one of her most intriguing and memorable chapters.

Larson’s examinations of the head’s place throughout history and the present are endlessly fascinating. Her writing is never gratuitously gruesome, but necessarily deals in grisly detail. (In addition to the myriad lessons within these pages, readers may well learn the threshold at which they become disturbed by such subject matter.) Severed explores the head in idiom, in its “linguistic ubiquity,” and as a tool for justifying racism: one major collector of skulls and related data rounded average skull size up for Germans and Anglo-Saxons, but down for “Negroid” Egyptians.

In this thoughtful survey of decapitated heads and their implications in history and across cultures, Larson is sensitive and thorough, allowing occasional humor while giving her subject the respect it deserves, offering entertainment alongside a truly engrossing educational experience. For readers of science, history, culture, anthropology and generally quirky nonfiction, Severed will be thought-provoking and unforgettable.


This review originally ran in the November 18, 2014 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 8 measurement tools.

Lives in Ruins: Archaeologists and the Seductive Lure of Human Rubble by Marilyn Johnson

This charming, accessible tribute to archeologists and their work will both entertain and educate a wide range of readers.

lives

Marilyn Johnson, who celebrated librarians in This Book Is Overdue! and obituary writers in The Dead Beat, here turns her attention to another underappreciated profession. She had long been captivated by the idea of digging in the dirt and bringing up treasure in the form of human history, and was awed by the men and women who do that work. Archeologists are plagued by low pay, scant job security and the pressures of a world that values many things–real estate, the pace of progress or simply the future over the past–more than it values potsherds and human remains. With Lives in Ruins, Johnson pays homage to and learns about these individuals and their often-dirty, often-uncomfortable, always-intriguing work.

In pursuit of archeology’s magic, romance, filth and smells, Johnson enrolls in several different field schools, working as an archeologist-in-training (with varying degrees of success). She attends conferences and travels to notable sites ranging from Peru’s famous Machu Picchu to the almost unknown, but historically indispensable, Fishkill Supply Depot in New York. She learns techniques and technologies, views artifacts and absorbs history, but her most important work comes when she meets archeologists. They are tough, intelligent, deeply committed people; they are “cultural chameleons” who work in dust and grit and heat and are also capable of attending formal affairs to advocate passionately for preservation. (One is a woman who cleans houses for the wealthy to support her nonprofit organization, and appears at fancy balls in the same upper-crust circles.) When archeologists and the U.S. military team up to defend cultural heritage from the violence of war, Johnson comments on the intersection of two “cautious, even paranoid professions.” She meets a young woman who sifted through New York City’s topsoil and sewage in the years after 9/11, and another who teaches forensic archeology using the carcasses of farm animals as stand-ins for human murder victims. She also investigates classical and prehistoric digs around the world.

Lives in Ruins will captivate a variety of readers: those who, like Johnson, dreamed of being archeologists; fans of history, anthropology or odd jobs; and people who respect the past and have an interest in preserving it. Johnson is merrily self-deprecating and funny in her anecdotes of the personalities she encounters, but also absolutely serious about the importance of their work. We are all the richer for Johnson’s eloquent ode to this dirty job.


This review originally ran in the November 11, 2014 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 8 sherds.

book beginnings on Friday: When Books Went to War by Molly Guptill Manning

Thanks to Rose City Reader for hosting this meme. To participate, share the first line or two of the book you are currently reading and, if you feel so moved, let us know what your first impressions were based on that first line.

books went

You can easily understand, of course, what attracts me about this book: history, even books in history, making a difference in the unlikeliest of places. I was very excited to receive this in the mail. It begins:

“Were you ever so upset emotionally that you had to tell someone about it, to sit down and write it out?” a Marine asked in a letter to the author Betty Smith. “That is how I feel now,” he confided.

And so it continues: confiding in nature, filled with primary sources, on the impact of books in war. Stick around!

This quotation comes from an uncorrected advance proof and is subject to change.

Halloween, or Dia de los Muertos, in book history

This post is part of a series.

To celebrate Halloween (today), or Dia de los Muertos (this weekend), let’s take a look at today’s date in authorly history.

reader's book of daysAccording to A Reader’s Book of Days, on October 31, 1795, John Keats was born, and in 2008, Studs Terkel died. I have not read much Keats, but I think I like him. I am very grateful to have a copy of Terkel’s The Great War on my to-be-read Britannica bookshelves, a gift from my buddy Gerber that I look forward to reading…someday.

In 1967, Richard Brautigan’s Trout Fishing in America was published. I am not sure why this resonates with me. Perhaps Maclean references him?

And in 1615:

Miguel de Cervantes hinted at the end of the first book of Don Quixote that further adventures might be forthcoming, but before he could complete his own sequel, a rival appeared that credited another author, Alonso Fernandez de Avellaneda, on the title page and insulted Cervantes as old, friendless, and boring. Cervantes, meanwhile, took advantage of being second by adding a scene in which Don Quixote and Sancho Panza themselves mock the false sequel. In the second book’s dedication, written on this day, he mentioned “the loathing and disgust caused by another Don Quixote,” and in the book’s preface he completed his revenge: humbly declining to abuse his usurper, he instead told a tale of a madman who, after inflating a dog from behind through a hollow reed, asks, “Do your worships think, now, that it is an easy thing to blow up a dog?” “Does your worship think now,” added Cervantes, “that it is an easy thing to write a book?”

And that is a sufficiently odd anecdote, I think, to recommend its being shared here.

You may recall that I read book one of Don Quixote several years ago, and solemnly promised to get around to book two someday. I have not. And I hear book two is better, too. Sigh. So many books…

Happy weekend, friends.

The Brewer’s Tale by William Bostwick

The influence of beer in history, and the more and less delicious forms it’s taken along the way.

brewers tale

In The Brewer’s Tale, homebrewer William Bostwick (Beer Craft) examines beer in history and the history in beer, brewing as he goes.

Bostwick follows the progression of human history, starting with primitive Mesopotamian bread and its immediate companion (rudimentary ale) and moving through the early European shamans who used beer (sometimes laced with hallucinogens) in their practices to the monks whose influence persists in abbey and Trappist ales. He visits the farmer who brewed with his leftover produce, and members of the London working class who passionately consumed the porters that were named after them. With each stop on this tour, Bostwick gives equal play to the past and to characters who maintain or rejuvenate these historic styles. He also attempts his own brews, with mixed results. Through grogs and meads; farmhouse ales like lambics, sours and saisons; porters, stouts and pales; and finally light (and lite) lagers, The Brewer’s Tale reminds us that beer is not only the stuff of frat parties or snifter-poured snobbery; it can be experimental, fresh and fun, and has always been at the heart of the human experience.

Bostwick runs a little heavy on symbolism, but his subject is heady and intoxicating, so why not the metaphor as well? The initiate will be well served, but even a well-read beer geek can be excited anew by these reflections, and the homebrewer may well be inspired to fresh projects. The Brewer’s Tale is history, a joyful celebration and a call to appetizing action in an easygoing, conversational tone.


This review originally ran in the October 21, 2014 issue of Shelf Awareness for Readers. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish fun!


Rating: 8 caves.

Teaser Tuesdays: The World of Raymond Chandler: In His Own Words, edited by Barry Day

Teaser Tuesdays is a weekly bookish meme, hosted by MizB of Should Be Reading.

chandler

Yes, it’s true, I just recently did a book beginning; but Chandler is just so quotable (thus this whole book, of course). I couldn’t let this one pass us by.

I write when I can and I don’t write when I can’t, always in the morning or the early part of the day. You get very gaudy ideas at night but they don’t stand up.

That first sentence is unclear: which condition happens always in the morning or the early part of the day? the can, or the can’t? I choose to believe that it is the can; many respected writers (ahem Hemingway) do or did their best work in the mornings. I am certainly a morning person myself. And I like this idea that our nighttime ideas are “gaudy”; I think that’s perfect. I get ideas at night, but they never stand up to sunlit scrutiny. What about you?

This quotation comes from an uncorrected advance proof and is subject to change.

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