Teaser Tuesdays: Dead Wake by Erik Larson

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

dead wake

Unsurprisingly, Erik Larson’s newest release is outstanding, a masterpiece of gripping narrative writing with its own momentum. No one would ever think to compare this to a standard, old-fashioned book of history.

One of the things I think he does well is juxtaposition. For example, read these few lines, and imagine them side-by-side with a description of life aboard a German military submarine.

Aboard the Lusitania, there was quiet. There were books, and cigars, and fine foods, afternoon tea, and the easy cadence of shipboard life: strolling the deck, chatting at the rails, doing crochet, and just sitting still in a deck chair in the sea breeze. Now and then a ship appeared in the distance; closer at hand, whales.

It’s the whales that do it for me.

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

MetaMaus: A Look Inside a Modern Classic, Maus by Art Spiegelman

Begin with Maus I and Maus II. And then move on to MetaMaus, filled with images from the book and discussions with Art, and his wife and two children, about what it all means, his process, his motivations, and the impact these powerful little books have had on all of them.
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At the outset, let me say, holy magnificent book. MetaMaus asks the questions (according to its back cover), why the Holocaust? why mice? why comics? And of course, the Holocaust is the easiest to answer, to me: the Holocaust because it was what he knew (“write what you know”), except that he didn’t know the Holocaust. He emphasizes that. (And I confess it surprised me, that a survivors’ son could have grown up with such a limited knowledge of what happened so recently, and so centrally to his own personal and family history. I had a fairly decent, basic grasp of the Holocaust in grade school. But then, I grew up a full generation after the author did. Clearly a lot had changed.) Still, it was what arced over him, what oppressed him or at least leaned against him; what else was there? In fact, my surprise was that it wasn’t that obvious – that he wasn’t driven to write (draw) about the Holocaust, at least not that he knew: “What consciously motivated me was the impulse of wanting to do a long comic that needed a bookmark.” He needed to make a full-length comic, as it turned out. Who knew. I am baffled by the visual arts, at least as much as I am stimulated and inspired by the written/verbal ones; most of the visual artistry of Maus escaped me before reading this book, which is part of why I found it so wonderful. Unlike many monographs meant to elucidate the visual arts for us plebeians, this really brought it home to me, exposed so much more, increased my understanding & appreciation.

But the real question I was here for: why mice? Honestly, this was my chief concern (followed by: why cats, why pigs, why dogs…) and all those questions are answered, happily. And of course there are only more questions behind them, much discussion of the imagery and symbolism that belongs to animals in different cultures, for example, and some of that taking-back of the derogatory where Jews were called rats by the Nazis, for example. MetaMaus follows these paths, and lets us get to know the author. I found it very satisfying, after getting to know a version of him and feel him so strongly. We should always be so lucky.

And then the CD! This book is accompanied by a CD with complete images of both of the books; over 7,000 early sketches & studies & the like; video and audio files including recordings of interviews with Vladek; and some of the pamphlets off his mother’s bookshelf that Art used in his research. I think there were about 4 hours of Vladek interviews – the man’s actual voice! – and an hour-long home movie made by Art and Francoise on a visit to Auschwitz. Holy smokes, the CD is chock-full of goodies. I did not exhaustively study it, I confess. There was just so much; and I felt so well-served by the reading of the book itself. I did enjoy listening to Vladek’s voice, though: it brought everything to life, and was an interesting counterpoint to the relative unreality of comics.

Of course another theme of the book is the power and faultiness of memory. I love memoir, and I love that memoir almost inevitably has to confront this obstacle: the ‘mem’ in memoir is unavoidably problematic, at least enough to raise questions. In Maus‘s case, the clearest example comes when Vladek describes leaving Auschwitz and denies that there was an orchestra playing at the gates. As Art has documented, there is substantial support for the existence of this orchestra: there are photographs, and there are eyewitnesses among the Nazis, the Jews, and the musicians. But Vladek is sure there was no orchestra. What to do? I love Art’s discussion of the problem: how he could have represented Vladek’s version, or the official one, or left the whole question out of his story; but he instead elected to show the actual question. There is a panel in which there is an orchestra – followed by Vladek’s denial of the orchestra – followed by a panel in which the orchestra is no longer present, except that if you look closely, you can see the tips and shadows of their presence behind the marching prisoners. This is really something. Of course, when I read the comic, I didn’t catch that visual shadow, just the discussion of the question.

I learned a lot of intriguing details. Who knew the size of these (quite small) comics was so important to Spiegelman? Or more surprising, that he drew the originals in that same small size? And the details about the different reactions to the books in different countries (it’s been translated into some thirty languages) were fascinating to me. I had innumerable little details of the comics pointed out to me and elucidated – things I would never, in 100 readings, have figured out for myself, but value greatly once they were explained to me. But I most enjoyed the feeling of greater intimacy with a very talented, and unique artist. And I remain boggled by the dual artistry of the composition of this book as narrative, next to the visual artistry of the comic aspect. Art Spiegelman is a special man. The two Maus books were special, and should be required reading (for, I don’t know, everyone). And then if you like those – do yourself a favor and immerse yourself in this behind-the-scenes look. If you appreciate art (in any format) and are interested in process, also check this one out. And for those of you who prefer other formats than plain old reading, the CD has a great deal to offer in formats all over the map. Major win!

Additionally, I had to mark many passages for further consideration, so many philosophies I found valuable…

On communication vs. High Arts:

I do like to communicate clearly. It’s a pleasure. And as soon as one is involved with communication, one’s already suspect in the High Arts. A lot of what happens in the more rarefied precincts of art is that the word “communication” gets replaced by “communion,” and one is involved in a kind of religious experience with the artist as shaman. And that’s really different than, “Hey, I’ll tell you a yarn.” Or even “I’ll tell you a parable,” if you want to be didactic. And it’s always been either a skill or a deficiency that I try to make contact with with people.

I appreciate this, because I think High Arts (his phrase, but I like it) can sometimes let us down a great deal when it gets religious, or mysterious, or snooty. I’m not saying everything has to be forever perfectly literal and transparent, and I do enjoy moments of inexplicable beauty. But I think it’s exclusive and elitist to shun honest communication.

On the authenticity of his way of story-telling:

Everything drawn in the so-called past in the story that Vladek is telling is very clearly an attempt by the son to show what the father is telling. And that offered a margin within which to operate authentically. The fact that you’re told that I’m trying to show you what I understand of what Vladek is telling me is built into the fabric of the narrative itself, and allows that narrative to get told.

This reminds me of one of my favorite movies, 2 Seconds. There is an extended sequence where Lorenzo is telling Laurie the story of his professional bike racing career and how it ended. He speaks, and we see the action he is describing – but we see it as imagined by Laurie as she listens – but apparently Lorenzo can see it too, because he corrects it here and there. For example, he’s describing walking down a country road, and we see a young man doing just that, and kind of waddling on his clipless cycling shoes, with the cleats on them. And then we skip back to Lorenzo and Laurie sitting and talking, and he corrects her: “no no, we didn’t waddle, our shoes were soft leather” (I paraphrase). Skip back to the young man walking down the country road, smoothly on his smooth soles. I love love love this effect. In the same way, for example, in the question of the orchestra at Auschwitz, Spiegelman makes it clear that his father is correctly his visualization as they go. And this makes it honest and clear that he is only telling a story as told to him and as he understands it, which I appreciate deeply for its honesty.

On nihilism and ethics:

One night, we’re going down to feed the cats after one of our snooze-and-probe sessions, and he’s carrying those scraps downstairs and he says, apropos of I don’t remember what, that basically he’s a nihilist. And I ask him how this involves getting up in the middle of the night to talk to dying AIDS patients, and being so available to patients way past the point of it being good for his health, and he says something that one might take as just an off-the-cuff remark, but I found profound: “Well, I decided that behaving ethically was the most nihilistic thing I could do.” It delighted me as an idea, as a way of living one’s life.

This quotation launched a lengthy discussion for my father and I of the different meanings of ‘values,’ ‘morals’ and ‘ethics.’

On stories:

[The word ‘story’] comes from medieval Latin historia. It refers to those very early comic strips made before the invention of newsprint: the stained-glass windows that told a superhero story about that guy who could walk on water and turn it into wine. This is how in English, the word ‘story’ has come to mean both story as in stories of a building and story as a narrative. And at that point one is steered toward an architectural model for what a comic is, something very basic about comics narrative. Comics pages are structures made up of panels, sort of the way the windows in a church articulate a story. Thinking of these pages as units that have to be joined together, as if each page was some kind of building with windows init, was something that often happens overtly in Maus, and sometimes is just implicit in the DNA of the medium.

Story as architecture was a little mind-blowing to me, too. Allow these few examples to show how deeply thought-provoking I found this book. It’s a really dense, exciting experience.

So, to sum up: I found each Maus book thrilling and touching it itself. MetaMaus was equally thrilling and touching, increased the experience of both Mauses, and additionally set loose all kind of thought threads for me, that I have listed here as briefly as I could stand so as to not ramble on all day. Clearly I’m a fan. Pick up this book, and keep your notebook handy as you go.


Rating: what the hell, 10 sketches.

Maus II, A Survivor’s Tale: And Here My Troubles Began by Art Spiegelman

Following Maus I, in a word: every bit as good.

maus iiMaus II picks up Art Spiegelman’s, and his father’s, stories more or less where they left us last. Art continues to have difficulty relating to his dad, but still needs to hear the story, and his father just wants him around at whatever cost. We get the full details of father Vladek’s stay at Auschwitz and Dachau (it is of the latter camp that Vladek gives the line that becomes a subtitle, “and here my troubles began”), and a vague sketching of mother Anja’s time at Auschwitz: she is no longer around to tell her side, and Vladek is a little blurry on that account. Art continues to mourn the loss of her notes on her own wartime experience – destroyed by Vladek in a quest for forgetfulness.

In this book we also get to know Art a little better, as well as his wife Francoise. We meet his therapist, another Holocaust survivor. We see some of the fame earned by Maus I, which was not a force for good in Art’s life.

The art is still amazing. Detailed, and so representative of so much, despite the characters being portrayed not as people but as animals. To review: Jews are mice, Poles are pigs, Germans are cats, and as we see here, Americans are dogs. Maus II opens with an exchange I found charming, where Art worries about how to draw his wife, Francoise: originally a frog, he suggests, since she is French, but she insists she is a mouse, having converted to Judaism to satisfy Vladek’s need for appearances in the marriage. The use of animals for people, and their categorization in this way, is one of the most striking, interesting choices of this book – after, I guess, the choice to make it a comic at all. More on that when I get to MetaMaus.

I digress. The art is still beautiful, impactful, and communicative. The storyline is evocative and strangely universal, even while it is the unique story of a Holocaust survivor and his family; most people have experienced these difficulties relating to their parents, who are loved but hard to understand. The dialog between Art and Vladek is funny, and heartrending, familiar and true, even while it is also disturbingly stereotypical of Jews – a tension that Art and Francoise discuss. They acknowledge that this is how Vladek really is, so this is how he must be portrayed. Okay. I’m good with that, especially after it’s been acknowledged, owned in this way.

This is an astounding book. I am a total amateur at appreciating the visual arts, so I can barely claim to understand that aspect of it, but I like it. And as a work of memoir, love, portrayal, language, and history, I am deeply impressed. Read these books.


Rating: 9 cigarettes.

When Books Went to War: The Stories that Helped Us Win World War II by Molly Guptill Manning

A heartfelt history of Armed Services Edition paperback books that helped save the sanity of many GIs in World War II.

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Molly Guptill Manning (The Myth of Ephraim Tutt) opens When Books Went to War by documenting the horrified response in the United States to Nazi Germany’s book burnings, beginning in 1933. Bibliophiles fought back in what was characterized as a “total war” of both military might and ideas.

To supply bored, lonely troops with reading materials, librarians in the U.S. organized the Victory Book Campaign, which collected more than 10 million books. To educate the public, the Council on Books in Wartime recommended relevant, topical titles for readers at home, but it found its stride with Armed Services Editions (ASEs). These pocket-sized, lightweight paperbacks, designed for use in the field, not only provided entertainment, escape and enlightenment to American servicemen, but also revolutionized the paperback book in a market that had previously shunned it, employed struggling publishers and helped to jumpstart the publishing industry after the war. Between 1943 and 1947, more than 120 million copies of more than 1,200 fiction and nonfiction titles were printed and efficiently distributed to American soldiers in every theater.

In her moving history, Manning fervently describes the many GIs who returned from war with a love of reading they hadn’t had when they left home, wrote impassioned letters to authors and council members and attributed their college educations to books they discovered as ASEs. For military and general history buffs and lovers of books and libraries, it is difficult to imagine a more inspirational story than this celebration of reading in a time of war.


This review originally ran in the December 23, 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: 7 letters.

hemingWay of the Day & Teaser Tuesdays: Hell and Good Company by Richard Rhodes

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Teaser Tuesdays is a weekly bookish meme, hosted by MizB of Should Be Reading. hemingWay of the Day is my own.

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I was drawn to Hell and Good Company because of my interest in the Spanish Civil War, which in turn was born of my love of Hemingway, of course. So it’s natural that I’d be drawn to the lines that concern him. Sorry I’m so predictable! Hem is not the main star of this book – far from it – but I had to share these few lines.

About the Hotel Florida:

Its primary attraction was hot water. Such comfort, hardly available anywhere else in Madrid, came at a price: the Florida was directly in the line of fire from the nationalist artillery on Garabitas Hill in the Casa de Campo. Ernest Hemingway recalls people “paying a dollar a day for the best rooms in the front” of the hotel. “The smaller rooms in the back, on the side away from the shelling,” where Hemingway stayed, “were considerably more expensive.”

I like this for its dry humor, but also for its evocation of the strange circumstances of the war in Madrid: that life was carrying on, that Hemingway and others were visiting the front & literally dodging bullets by day and holding champagne parties by night in this hotel, where the best rooms had become the worst but otherwise things were carrying on.

And more about Hemingway, from poet Stephen Spender:

“A black-haired, bushy-mustached, hairy-handed giant,” Spender describes him, adding that in his behavior “he seemed at first to be acting the part of a Hemingway hero.” Spender wondered “how this man, whose art concealed under its apparent huskiness a deliberation and delicacy like Turgenev, could show so little of his inner sensibility in his outward behavior.”

This captures Hemingway nicely, and perhaps what draws me back to him as well: that he is so macho, so obnoxiously obsessed with being his own hero, also has that sensitivity & artistic talent, but feels the need to hide it. There’s nothing so fascinating to me as that interior conflict.

Of course, stay tuned for my review of this book, which I assure you (despite the above) is not nearly as Hemingway-obsessed as this blogger is.

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

Dirty Old London: The Victorian Fight Against Filth by Lee Jackson

The muck of historic London, replete with colorful characters and wisdom for the modern age.

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The Victorian era, 1837–1901, saw extreme filth and considerable change in the British capital. Lee Jackson (Walking Dickens’ London; A Dictionary of Victorian London) turns his gaze toward this grime with Dirty Old London and divides his study by category of filth, not chronology. Chapters cover the ashes and cinders of domestic coal fires; “mud” in the streets (horse dung); “night soil” (domestic human excrement); sewers and drains; human remains buried close to one another; unwashed bodies and filthy homes; public toilets; and air pollution, largely from industrial and domestic coal smoke. He touches on major figures in sanitation and reform, such as Edwin Chadwick, who championed the idea that disease is traceable to environmental elements, and Joseph Bazalgette, credited with establishing London’s sewer system. Themes include the challenges of regulation, the tension between centralization and local control and the limits of contemporary science–germ theory hadn’t yet been widely accepted, and the notions of miasma and humors persisted.

While the subject of Dirty Old London is often, unavoidably, off-putting, it is also endlessly intriguing. Jackson is frank and matter-of-fact and occasionally entertaining, although his overall tone is more academic than playful. His research is reliable, with plentiful endnotes. He affirms that “this book is not about casting blame on the Victorians for their failure to manage the dirt of their great capital.” Rather, Jackson hopes that the Victorians’ filth can offer a lesson to the modern world that still struggles with how to handle its own waste.


This review originally ran in the December 19, 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: 7 drains.

Blue-Collar Broadway: The Craft and Industry of American Theater by Timothy R. White

A comprehensive academic study of the industries behind theatrical Broadway.

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Historian Timothy R. White considers an unexamined intersection of urban history and theater history in Blue-Collar Broadway: The Craft and Industry of American Theater. Broadway as his subject is both a geographical area in New York City and a representation of theater in the United States; his focus is the crafts and trades that have supported Broadway in both its meanings over the years. He writes, “This de facto ‘factory,’ churning out shows for national consumption, has yet to be given its due in history books and is little understood as the mighty industrial district it truly was [in its heyday].”

Just as a magician never reveals his tricks, actors and producers have never been eager to divulge to audiences what goes on behind the scenes. But as White shows, for every singing, dancing actor who treads the boards, myriad supporting players are necessary. Stagecraft covers the craftspeople (carpenters, painters, seamstresses, milliners, costumers and designers) who produce the backdrops, painted scenery, furniture, drapes, props, costumes, wigs and makeup, working with a variety of raw materials, such as lumber, paint, fabric. Later in history, lighting and sound riggers and technicians joined this list (in fact, the arrival of electric lighting prompted improvements in costumes and scenery, since they could now be seen clearly). These craftspeople were then challenged by the ascension of alternate media (radio and, to a lesser extent, film and television) to find new roles.

Blue-Collar Broadway details these trades, their history and their products, and the industrialization and unionization that came with the concentration of theater in New York City’s Broadway district. White shows how stagecraft industries played crucial roles in history, from early American theater’s geographic dispersal to the Broadway heyday, and through a growth of regional theaters that decreased Broadway’s dominance. He also offers new explanations for patterns of crime and prostitution in Times Square’s recent past, using the context of theater craft.

White’s voice is academic and no-nonsense, and a reader purely interested in the most entertaining angles of his entertainment subject may find his writing a bit dry. But examinations of specific plays (Evita, Oklahoma!) brighten the mood, and White is not without a certain subdued humor. Certainly any fan of theater history, economics, the patterns of urban New York City or general urban history will find his meticulous research stimulating. Blue-Collar Broadway is appealing for its sincere and thorough attention to a key, little-known industry.


This review originally ran in the December 8, 2014 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 6 proscenia.
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