Archive for the ‘ Award Winners ’ Category

REVIEW: “Maus” by Art Spiegelman

Maus: A Survivor’s Tale
I – My Father Bleeds History
II – …And Here My Troubles Began

Art Spiegelman
Penguin Books, 2003


CHALLENGE(S): 451 Challenge, Book Awards Challenge, Graphic Novels Challenge, Year of the Historical Challenge

Finished 25 May 2010

I have read Holocaust stories before. Like most people, I am familiar with the Diary of Anne Frank, and I have both read and watched several World War II novels and movies. There is something about such large-scale, institutionalized violence that makes me go back to that period again and again, trying to make sense of it – to really feel what it must have been like, on both sides. As Spiegelman himself notes, it is not something that you can easily get your head around, and in general I have come away from such narratives without really understanding.

That is, until Maus.

I was rather reluctant to begin reading it at first. The art is not a style I find particularly prepossessing, and in the beginning it seemed off-putting; oddly childish for such a serious subject. Spiegelman has drawn each character as a particular animal loosely corresponding to their race – the Germans are cats, the Jews mice, the Poles pigs, the Americans dogs, and so on. All of the panels are in black and white, and to my mind they are over-filled, which made it slightly tiresome to read. However, this is personal preference, and once I began reading my lack of affection for the aesthetic style simply ceased to matter.

Maus is the semi-autobiographical memoir of one man’s survival, from pre-war Poland to the dreaded Auschwitz to his final escape at the end of the war. It is also the story of one man’s conflicted relationship with his father, his guilt for his own lack of understanding, and the way the effects of the Holocaust have echoed for generations. The first part of the book covers from the mid-1930s to the winter of 1944, during which time we follow Vladek Spiegelman as he meets and marries Art’s mother, gets called up to the army and becomes a prisoner of war. The second part begins after his escape from the POW camp, when he is betrayed to the Germans and taken, with his wife, to a concentration camp. The narrative switches neatly and seamlessly from past to present, following the story of how the book was created as well as the tale of Vladek’s experiences.

From the beginning, Vladek is not what you might call an easy man to like. He is difficult, suspicious, money-oriented and perhaps a little bit arrogant. He is also resourceful, brave and intelligent. His character is written large across every page, in many ways – as Art himself later remarks – a Jewish caricature, and he only grows more cantankerous as the book winds on. Art’s narrative here is unflinching: he writes with compassion, love, and impatience, a conflicted mixture that any adult child of aging parents can identify with. It is clear his father drives him crazy – it is also clear that he loves and wants to understand him. He is forced to act as both the loving son and the objective chronicler, and this dual role is very difficult to handle, particularly after his father’s death. Nevertheless, he incorporates his personal struggles into the story with an honesty that is as surprising as it is touching.

The memoir itself is vivid and nuanced. There is no attempt to set this up as merely a victim-and-oppressor narrative; we meet Jews who are not necessarily nice people, such as Vladek himself, and his millionaire father-in-law – good people who nevertheless come to horrible ends – Poles who will help them, but only for a price – even one German shell-shocked by the extent of the brutality he encounters in Birkenau. Nor does the Vladek survive through a mixture of luck and his own good nature, as is at times too common in fictionalized accounts: Vladek takes an active part in everything that happens to him, always aware, always looking for a way to escape and to survive. Those attributes which make him manipulative and annoying in the present are the same characteristics which kept him alive in the past, and thus the relation of his experiences serves as an explanation for the current story as well as a story in itself. In short, Art Spiegelman gives us the real story of his father’s life, unencumbered by attempts to simplify the conflict or diminish the pain it inflicted.

I am fairly confident that Maus will continue to haunt me for a long time to come. It is a compelling, amazing read that ends on a beautiful note which (I confess) almost brought me to tears. It is also painful, shocking and uncomfortable: like seeing all the negative parts of human nature on display in excruciating detail. In spite, or possibly because of, this, I found it deeply moving and difficult to put down. Highly recommended.




REVIEW: “The God Box” by Alex Sanchez

The God Box

Alex Sanchez
Simon & Schuster, 2007



Finished 4 Jan 2010

I read this book directly after I finished Child of My Right Hand – the same day, actually – and I think it suffered a great deal from the inevitable comparison. In some ways, God Box could almost have been the flip side of Child: the main character has lived in a small, conservative American town since he was born and has consequently been denying his attraction to other guys since he entered puberty. He has a girlfriend, is deeply involved in the Bible Study Group, and goes to church religiously (pun totally intended). His carefully constructed life is shaken, however, when a new boy, Manuel, starts at his high school. Like Simon from Child of My Right Hand, Manuel is gay and he’s not shy about it. The only real difference (aside from personality) is that Manuel also claims to be a devout Christian. Naturally, his arrival stirs up a great deal of turbulence both for Paul and for the rest of the town, culminating in a brutal and unprovoked attack on Manuel one night in the theatre parking lot that nearly takes his life.

On an intellectual level, I found this book very interesting. While it didn’t break new ground for me, it did give a clear depiction of the way the controversy surrounding homosexuality can impact the lives of both gay and straight teenagers. I particularly enjoyed those conversations between Paul and Manuel where Paul tries to “deconvert” Manuel from homosexuality but finds all of his arguments neatly shot down. The author was very thorough and I think this will be a good resource for teens looking for ways to defend themselves on a rational playing field or to reconcile with their own religious beliefs.

Unfortunately, however, I really didn’t enjoy it as much as I’d hoped I would. I’ve rewritten this review about ten times trying to clearly express what it was that bothered me, and I think basically what it comes down to is both writing style and characterization failed, in my opinion, to give any suggestion of depth to the narrative. Paul’s only major character trait seemed to be his inability to accept his sexuality, while Manuel was the Perfect Christian, open and forgiving and (I’m sorry!) irritatingly flawless to boot. In addition, the issue of homosexuality was treated in a very black and white fashion: either a character was open to the concept, or they weren’t. Only Paul seemed to have any trouble coping – everyone else fell neatly into “For” or “Against” camps. Even after Manuel was attacked, I could only sympathize distantly with the main character’s pain and dismay, as the narrative kept me at arms length, telling me what was going on without letting me experience their emotional lives. Essentially, both characters and plot felt like a vehicle for the author’s message – exactly what you don’t want to do when writing message fiction.

Something I also disliked was the ‘reveal’ at the end that the main antagonist had been raped as a child. In the first place, a tragic back-story does not a well-rounded character make (hello there, Mary Sue!). More seriously, though, the whole thing seemed to be dropped into the narrative as a cliché afterthought to provide a convenient explanation for his behaviour and a way of allowing the reader to be impressed by Manuel’s forbearance, not because the rape was a legitimate issue which had any real bearing on the character or story. To my mind this risks leading readers to make the assumption that all homophobia has its roots in a single, negative experience which seems unrealistic and minimizes the cultural and religious aspect the rest of the story deals with.

I feel kind of bad for not liking this. It was obviously written with good intentions and anything which goes to such lengths to dismantle anti-gay arguments that kids probably hear on a daily basis can’t be altogether bad. However, I really think Sanchez would probably have been better off writing a non-fiction book on the subject, either a memoir or possibly an academic study. He clearly has a great deal of conviction, but I ended up feeling a bit browbeaten. It’s clear that I’m not the intended audience for the novel and while I’m sure they will get much out of it, I did not.

All in all, not as good as I was led to believe, although clearly a writer with the strength of his convictions. Worth reading if only as a way to explore the various arguments both for and against homosexuality commonly advanced by Christians.