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.

Teaser Tuesdays: Publishing by Gail Godwin

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

publishing

The plentifully published Gail Godwin looks back on her career in Publishing. She is charming and humorous as well as moving; and I think these lines begin to express that.

“What kind of editor would you like to work with?” was Robert Gottlieb’s first question to me in his office, and I replied rather pompously, “Well, it will have to be someone who appreciates great literature,” then burst into sobs.

and several paragraphs later,

…on that late 1970 December day, he waited out my sobs and then said kindly, in response to my Great Literature stipulation, “Well, Gail, I’m afraid that’s going to be me.”

Lest you think her, well, obnoxiously pompous, I assure you she had reasons to be crying that day. And this description of these events is, I think, sweetly funny. I do recommend her.

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

The Story of My Heart by Richard Jefferies, as rediscovered by Brooke Williams and Terry Tempest Williams

An exceptional meditation on nature and “soul-life,” republished after many years out of print and contextualized for modern minds.

story

In a dusty Maine bookstore, writer Terry Tempest Williams (When Women Were Birds) and her husband, Brooke Williams, picked up an unfamiliar book that they quickly came to love: The Story of My Heart by English naturalist Richard Jefferies, originally published in 1883. As Brooke writes, “classic works of literature need to be rediscovered and reinterpreted every age for their clues to contemporary issues.” This new edition of Jefferies’s autobiography includes an introduction by Terry and Brooke’s commentary following each chapter.

Don’t be fooled by its small size. This is a book to be taken slowly and savored, because all three of its wise and pensive authors demand and deserve careful consideration. Here is Walden, but more mystical, and with no room to criticize the author for returning to wealthy drawing rooms between his stays in the woods. Jefferies has been characterized as a nature writer and a mystic; in Brooke’s words, “Jefferies writes less specifically about the natural world surrounding him, but in great detail the path his mind takes through that original world.” The Story of My Heart is a philosophical, wondering and wandering, musing, personal ode to the natural world and human potential. The Williamses make his contemplations relevant by analysis–for example, applying the context of climate change–but also explore a more intimate connection, as Brooke ponders the nature of his obsession with this book.

Both literal and spiritually minded readers can appreciate this remarkable collaboration through the counterpoint of Brooke’s responses to each chapter and the timeless thoughts in the original work.


This review originally ran in the November 18, 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: 9 leaves of thyme.

Teaser Tuesdays: You’re Not Lost If You Can Still See the Truck by Bill Heavey

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

not lost

Bill Heavey has written for Field & Stream for a number of years; this is the third collection of his work (from F&S and elsewhere). He is a funny man. Hunting and fishing are not hobbies of mine, but this does not disqualify me from enjoying his work.

Every year, in celebration of the return of spring and fishing, I try to have at least one colossally stupid experience involving a canoe. Some people might call it a jinx, but I prefer to think of it as an involuntary tradition. All it takes to have a near-death experience in a small boat is to put aside common sense for a few moments. After that, everything takes care of itself.

Maybe I’m just a sucker for self-deprecation – and all the better in such a macho setting as this. Good stuff.

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

vocabulary lessons: Grizzly Years by Doug Peacock

If you’re interested: see other vocabulary lessons as well.


grizzlyUnsurprisingly, Peacock taught me a number of new words in this book, generally of the technical & outdoors variety.

“…grizzlies can walk lightly over a thin crust, distributing their weight evenly on their plantigrade feet…” plantigrade: “walking on the sole with the heel touching the ground.” Which makes sense, as Peacock later writes: “I squatted and traced the outline of the grizzly’s rear foot in the crusted mud. How humanlike it was.”

“Not a single tree decorated the lacustrine benches.” lacustrine: “of, relating to, formed in, living in, or growing in lakes.” A parallel to ‘riparian’, then?

“I dropped down to explore the little mountain, half evenly timbered, half steaming rhyolite and broken andesite.” rhyolite: “a very acid volcanic rock that is the lava form of granite”; and andesite: “an extrusive usually dark grayish rock consisting essentially of oligoclase or feldspar.”

“We passed two tiny azure tarns beginning to melt in the weak spring sunlight…” or “I wondered if anyone had ever visited those four lonely tarns.” tarn: “a small steep-banked mountain lake or pool.”

“High above, I saw the broad wings that had startled the bovid…” bovid: ” any of a family (Bovidae) of ruminants that have hollow unbranched permanently attached horns present in usually both sexes and that include antelopes, oxen, sheep, and goats.” I knew ‘bovine’, of course, but was thrown to see ‘bovid’ (here, referring to a mountain goat); I thought bovine meant cows, specifically. I guess this word is a little more inclusive.

“A spine of dolomite ran off the range of peaks and continued down the mountain as a bedrock ridge.” dolomite: “a mineral CaMg(CO3)2 consisting of a calcium magnesium carbonate found in crystals and in extensive beds as a compact limestone.”

“We set up our tent, locating it out of the wind on the carpet of Carex.” Carex: “a vast genus of almost 2,000 species[2] of grassy plants in the family Cyperaceae, commonly known as sedges.”

“On an island to the south, melanism has prevailed in a species of jackrabbit living among gray andesites and scabrous vegetation.” melanism: “an increased amount of black or nearly black pigmentation (as of skin, feathers, or hair) of an individual or kind of organism.”

“Grunion appear on the beaches of the northern Gulf from February to April after the big tides of the full moon.” grunion: “a silverside (Leuresthes tenuis) of the California coast notable for the regularity with which it comes inshore to spawn at nearly full moon.” Okay, but what is a silverside?? The “Concise Encyclopedia” entry, a little further down the same page, is more helpful: “Edible Pacific fish (Leuresthes tenuis) found along the western coast of the U.S. In the warm months, it lays its eggs in beach sand during a full or new moon when the tide cycle is at its peak. The young hatch and enter the ocean on the next spring tide, two weeks later. Grunion reach a length of about 8 in. (20 cm).”


What have you learned in your reading recently?

book beginnings on Friday: The Killdeer and Other Stories From the Farming Life by Michael Cotter

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.

killdeer

Michael Cotter was always a storyteller; but he didn’t get to grow fully into that role from the beginning.

“Cut out those damn stories and get some work done around here!” That was my most dreaded message from my dad. Our farm was a livestock farm and it was pretty labor intensive in the early years.

Happily for his readers, he did get around to it, however. I’m really enjoying this collection. The title story “The Killdeer” comes especially recommended.

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

Grizzly Years: In Search of the American Wilderness by Doug Peacock

I have a confession to make: I have been reading quickly lately. I’m busy – buying one house and selling another, getting rid of most of our furniture and one car, arranging to ship the other, planning a cross-country move and a goodbye party, and honoring social commitments with lots of friends because I don’t want to miss a chance. I’ve quit my full-time job, and now my employment consists of writing book reviews (and any additional editing work I can get). I’m reading with the finish line in mind: finish this book, write it up, start the next. One a day, ideally; and often it is that quick. I’m not unhappy with my output, and I love to read books and learn new things, and the more the better. But at some point I can’t take it all in…

And then there’s that one book that just forces me to slow down. This week, it was Doug Peacock’s searing, precise, deeply felt writing in Grizzly Years.

grizzly

After Vietnam, I caught myself saluting birds and tipping my watch cap to sunsets. I talked a lot when no one was around, especially to bears.

You recall that I was impressed by Peacock’s Walking It Off. And I recently enjoyed Great Bear Wild; which pushed me to finally pick up Grizzly Years, which has been waiting patiently on my shelf ever since Walking It Off more than two years ago now. As I neared the end of this outstanding read, a beautiful short chapter about the Sea of Cort├ęs makes me want to move straight on to Sea of Cortez: A Leisurely Journal of Travel and Research by Steinbeck and Edward F. Ricketts, which I have owned for a year or more but sits unread. (Actually, it’s packed now, so it will wait.) And that’s how my reading path develops, sometimes.

But what about the book itself? It has many things in common with Walking It Off, which was written and published later but actually feels like a fine book to read in preparation for Grizzly Years. Like that later book, this one studies the interplay between war and wilderness, and I was again struck by what I would have thought would be the unlikely duality there; I guess I thought war was inimical to nature, through it’s destructive power; but Peacock repeatedly and convincingly likens his combat experience to his behaviors in grizzly habitat.

After Vietnam, he was too upset by the “real world” or what he calls (with perhaps a nod to Huck Finn) Syphilization. As Peacock says best himself:

Vietnam gave us a useful pessimism, a pragmatic irreverence I can wear comfortably down any bear trail. No one can ever show me a photo of a mutilated body or dead child again and tell me it is the way of the world. I can’t live in that world, but I do want to live. If this is a wound, it doesn’t want mending.

I was surprised to learn that his local “rough” bar on the edge of the wilderness is mostly populated by Vietnam vets.

They were friends, naturally, as this particular drinking establishment was largely avoided by company loggers, grizzly bear poachers, and higher ranking officials of the Department of Interior.

He tells us that those vets naturally moved toward the edges of Syphilization, the wildest country they could find. In this chapter, Peacock approaches Abbey’s tone of humor, but then gets serious again quickly. He’s a serious guy.

I’m afraid I am implying that the book is largely about war and its personal aftermath, though, which is incorrect. As its title indicates, it’s really about grizzly bears. Peacock spent a few decades traveling seasonally to visit with the same bears year after year, observing where they bed down and den and eat and mate, learning their habits and finding in respect for their wildness some peace for himself. These are not tame bears, and he doesn’t live peacefully side by side them – he has to be careful, because these are true, wild grizzlies. But he knows well enough how to do that, how to live nearby for days or weeks without dying (although he comes close a few times).

Much of the book is grizzly sighting after grizzly sighting; but it doesn’t get old. Every time it’s exciting and beautiful and tinged with danger (which contributes that humility he needs), and the scenery varies, as Peacock travels from his fire lookout in the Montana high country, to what he calls the Grizzly Hilton (also Montana, a pocket of habitat where he consistently sees the best bears), to Yellowstone, the Madison River to fly fish, the Sonoran desert, then to seek out the last Mexican grizzly in the Sierra Madre. (Maybe next year he’ll try the north country again, Yukon or Alaska.) He subsidizes his sparse lifestyle with a little money earned for photographs and film of grizzlies, a commercialism he is ambivalent about. When traveling in the backcountry, he lives off granola, protein powder and (like the bears) huckleberries; but in his lookout cabin, he cooks chanterelle mushroom bisque and cracks open fine Bordeaux wines. Peacock is well named: he is a colorful character, but has none of the strutting associated with the peacock. Abbey is less present here than in Walking It Off, which is fine because Peacock doesn’t need him. I may have gotten here by way of Abbey, but Peacock is a very, very fine writer without help of his friend’s celebrity. In the same style that I appreciated in Fire Season, Peacock intersperses his personal narratives of grizzlies and war with explorations of the history of grizzlies, their place in native cultures, and Syphilization’s damage upon them. He exhorts us gently and briefly in support of preserving a little habitat to let these creatures live. But mostly it’s just simple, beautiful description of his grizzly years.

Beautiful writing, thought-provoking and poignant and important, a fine work of natural observation and consideration of people and grizzlies, war and wilderness: Grizzly Years is one of the best books I’ve read this year and one of the most important I could recommend to you.


Rating: 10 yearlings.
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