Archive for the ‘ Non Fiction ’ Category

REVIEW: “Sometimes in April” (film)

Sometimes in April

Directed by Raoul Peck

CHALLENGE(S): Social Justice Challenge

Since I haven’t been so great at keeping up with the books I’m supposed to read for the Social Justice Challenge, this month I chose to watch a film instead. In retrospect, perhaps this was a mistake. I spent a large amount of the time (over 2 hours) blinking back tears and wondering what the hell is wrong with humanity.

Sometimes in April is the story of two brothers whose lives are torn apart by the Rwanda genocide of 1994. The narrative skips between their life in the present – one on trial for war crimes, the other struggling to move on with his life after the death of his family – and the events that led to their current state. I will tell you right now that those events were horrific. They were not skimped on. This is a movie with bodies piled in the street, with authorities who stand by and do nothing as people die, with no mercy whatever for any of those who played a role in the tragedy or for the viewers who are watching it unfold.

I don’t know that I can necessarily recommend it as far as entertainment goes. It’s incredibly heartbreaking, and who wants to put themselves through that if they don’t have to? But it was well done, well acted, and thoroughly terrifying. If you truly want to know what it was like in Rwanda, or indeed in any similar situation, then this is the film to see.



REVIEW: “A Slant of Sun: One Child’s Courage” by Beth Kephart

A Slant of Sun: One Child’s Courage

Beth Kephart
W.W. Norton & Co. , 1998

CHALLENGE(S): Beth Kephart Challenge

Finished 25 Jun 2010

Wow, it’s been ages since I’ve posted a review. Sorry about that! I guess I’ve been a bit busy, as I haven’t finished many books lately either.

I chose A Slant of Sun as the final book for the Beth Kephart Challenge for the most arbitrary of reasons: it was the only other book of hers that our library currently possessed. I was hesitant to read it at first. Memoirs, like most non-fiction, do not tend to hold my attention with any kind of reliability, and as I expected it actually took me over a month to finish. However, once I got stuck in, the book surprised me.

A Slant of Sun is the story, as the title indicates, of a child: specifically, Beth Kephart’s son, Jeremy, a wonderful little boy who is diagnosed with Pervasive Developmental Disorder Not Otherwise Specified (PDDNOS) at a very young age. What this means for his parents is what Kephart attempts to show us throughout her book. Special schools; obsessions; social phobias; language disorders; lack of interaction or interest. It is extraordinarily difficult and heartbreaking, and the way Kephart tells the story is both honest and elegantly written. Her love of and commitment to her son is obvious from the very first page and sustains what might otherwise be a painful and distressing narrative.

While I can’t say that I loved the book or even really engaged with it to a great degree, this was not for any real fault on the writer’s part. I was impressed both by Kephart’s honesty and with Jeremy, who by all accounts was an amazing child in spite of his differences. This is one memoir I can happily recommend to others and feel enriched for having read.


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: “Fun Home” by Alison Bechdel

Fun Home

Alison Bechdel
Houghton Miffin, 2006

CHALLENGE(S): Graphic Novels Challenge, GLBT Challenge (mini)

Finished 18 April 2010

When I saw that this book had finally come in at the library, I actually did a little dance of readerly joy. I enjoyed Essential Dykes to Watch Out For so much that I was delighted to have the chance to read Bechdel’s graphic novel/memoir. I already had a deep fondness for her artistic style and knew she had a brilliant sense of humour, so I was pretty much guaranteed to enjoy this even before I turned the first page.

From the Goodreads summary:

Meet Alison’s father, a historic preservation expert and obsessive restorer of the family’s Victorian house, a third-generation funeral home director, a high school English teacher, an icily distant parent, and a closeted homosexual who, as it turns out, is involved with male students and a family babysitter. Through narrative that is alternately heartbreaking and fiercely funny, we are drawn into a daughter’s complex yearning for her father. And yet, apart from assigned stints dusting caskets at the family-owned “fun home,” as Alison and her brothers call it, the relationship achieves its most intimate expression through the shared code of books. When Alison comes out as homosexual herself in late adolescence, the denouement is swift . . . graphic . . . and redemptive.

I remember once discussing characters in a TV show with my mother. I felt particularly empathetic towards one of the male characters, and said so, remarking that I saw a lot of myself in him (sadly, I forget which show we were watching now). She stared at me for a moment, and said something which more or less boiled down to: “I’d never have thought of relating to a character that was not female.” Cue astonishment. She wasn’t exactly being judgmental, but her declaration brought me up short. Why did I connect with this character so much, when he was a guy (which, at that age, was pretty much akin to saying “another species”)? Did it matter that he was a guy? Eventually, I came to the conclusion that humanity is something so basic that it transcends those constructs like gender that we attach to it; something which had apparently sunk into my subconscious well before it actually filtered through to my conscious brain.

Reading Fun Home was like going through a similar experience, only this time from Bechdel’s point of view. Her discoveries about her father and his sexuality, running parallel to the acknowledgement of her own, were well told and conveyed significant emotional punch. The story was obviously centered on the father-daughter relationship, but it also spoke more generally about the parent-child bond and that moment when you realize, to your astonishment (and sometimes horror), that your parents are not demi-gods but human beings, with their own thoughts, feelings and secrets that you are not always privy to. It was also the story of Bechdel’s coming to terms with who her father was and who he wasn’t; accepting both his successes and his failures as a real, live human being rather than solely in his role as ‘her father.’

What particularly appealed to me was Bechdel’s manner of approach: level-headed, objective and analytical, with a dash of sardonic humour. There was no attempt to form arbitrary moral judgments or direct the reader’s opinion, just an open exploration of facts and feelings. I particularly appreciated her ability to relate her emotions without becoming cloying or cliche – she may be a tad cynical at times, but her unflinching honesty is as refreshing as it is entertaining.

Quite frankly, there is very little I can say against this book. Bechdel has an uncanny knack for cutting right to the heart of the matter, and her illustrations were wonderful (as always). The insightful literary analysis in the commentary and the deft intermingling of Bechdel’s own coming-out story was just the icing on the cake.

A book that challenges intellectually and emotionally, while still managing to make you laugh aloud. Definitely recommended.


REVIEW: “The Buddhist Conceptions of Spirits” by Bimala Churn Law

The Buddhist Conceptions of Spirits

Bimala Churn Law
Bhartiya Publishing House, Pilkhana 1974

CHALLENGE(S): World Religions Challenge

Finished 22 Feb 2010

Finally! Another book finished to review here. I really don’t know what’s been wrong with me this month; I just haven’t been able to get around to finishing anything, although I have three other (fiction) books that I’m part-way through. Here’s hoping I get through them by the end of the month.

Anyway, this is the first book I’ve read cover to cover for my research project this year. Naturally, I’ve read a lot of other material on the subject, but most of that has been chapters or sections relating to my topic, or journal articles, which don’t count. Buddhist Conceptions of Spirits is therefore the first that focuses entirely on the subject that I’m researching for my paper.

As you might have guessed from the title, this book goes into great detail about the various Buddhist beliefs relating to life after death. Specifically, for my purposes, it talks about preyta, or “hungry ghosts,” the ghosts of people who have died and been ‘reborn’ into a lower realm where they are tormented by perpetual, unquenchable hunger (and frequently thirst as well) as punishment for their misdeeds in their previous lives. The main highlight was a collection of stories about the preyta, how they came to be fallen spirits, their torments, and their eventual redemption. The entire concept is closely linked with the idea of karma, since good deeds lead to a happy fate after death and negative deeds (including things like adultery, lying, greed, stinginess and so on) lead to a miserable fate.

What fascinates me about these stories is the repeated use of hunger as a punishment. While it seems fairly logical, to a point – we all hate being hungry, and famine is a terrible threat, particularly in the time and area in which the stories originated – there is a more metaphorical twist to the idea as well. In some Hindu traditions, preyta are described as having throats the width of a needle’s eye and humungous bellies, which they are unable to fill because of the narrowness of their throats. This is described as a metaphor for the paradox of desire for physical things in general, and how it can never be quenched, unless one takes up the Buddhist path of meditation. Desire, then, is viewed as an obstacle to the attainment of enlightenment and nirvana, which in turn suggests that part of  the punishment for wrongful action is equivalent to perpetual distance from that attainment, an interpretation which is underlined by the fact that preyta are unable to obtain merit or accept offerings directly; food turns to filth or ashes, water turns to blood, clothing turns to rags or metal unless it is given to one of the living, who then transfers the ‘merit’ of the action to the deceased through prayer and releases them from their torment. (As an aside, this is interestingly similar to the Christian idea that hell is being cut off from God).

In any event, Law’s book went into some detail on this subject, which I greatly appreciated. He did suffer a bit from a tendency to skip around amongst different ideas without any logical reason – there was very little flow; sometimes he’d be talking about the etymological roots of the word preyta, next thing you know he’d be discussing the history of so-and-so or something, which was annoying. He also had a tendency towards what we might call Western/colonial arrogance, particularly in his closing statement, which described the aforementioned beliefs as “puerile” (about which I will refrain from making any comment; he is likely long dead and in any case can’t help the culture in which he was writing). Nevertheless, the book was very helpful, not least because the stories he related were translated from the original Sanskrit, which I don’t speak, and will prove very helpful for my research project.

Overall, three out of five stars. A useful book but lacking in coherence and objectivity.


REVIEW: “The Purity Myth” by Jessica Valenti

The Purity Myth

Jessica Valenti
Seal Press, 2009

CHALLENGE(S): Women Unbound Challenge

Finished 25 Jan 2010

This is a book which combines three topics I am very passionate about – feminism, sexuality and religion – so as soon as I heard about it I knew I had to read it. From the front flap:

“The United States is obsessed with virginity – from the media to schools to government agencies. The Purity Myth is an important and timely critique about why this is so, and why it’s problematic for girls and women. Analyzing cultural stereotypes and media messages, Jessica Valenti reveals the overt and hidden ways our society links a young woman’s worth to her sexuality rather than to values like honesty, kindness and altruism.

Valenti takes on issues ranging from abstinence-only education to pornography, and exposes the legal and social punishments that women who dare to have sex endure. Importantly, she also offers solutions that pave the way for a future without a damaging emphasis on virginity, including a call to rethink male sexuality and reframe the idea of “losing it.””

I wasn’t aware at first that this was written by the author of the blog, which I’ve been following on and off for some time now – I was recommended it through a livejournal community and was pleasantly surprised when I found out. The book is characteristically direct, and certainly pulls no punches. It is quite refreshing, actually, to find an author so willing to speak candidly about female sexuality and to attack head on the damaging social customs that affect women and girls in that respect. In particular, something she wrote about rape has stayed with me:

“Now, should we treat  women as independent agents, responsible for themselves? Of course. But being responsible has nothing to do with being raped. Women don’t get raped because they were drinking or took drugs. Women do not get raped because they weren’t careful enough. Women get raped because someone raped them.” (p.151)

This quote is basically characteristic of the whole book: it exposes implicit assumptions in both the media and in society about women and their sexuality (in this case, that women are in some way responsible if they get raped) and blows them right out of the water. It was like a punch right between the eyes for me, because I have never thought of things on quite those terms before. As far as rape is concerned, I would never blame the victim – but how often have I said, in correlation, that she shouldn’t have been there, or should have taken better care of herself? “It wasn’t her fault, of course, but…”? I do think that, on some level, given that rapes do occur people (especially women) should try to avoid those behaviours which make them most vulnerable; this seems like common sense. But when it comes down to it, no matter what someone was doing, if she gets raped, it’s because someone raped her. You may or may not have heard about a case recently where a woman’s rapists were acquitted because she had expressed gang rape fantasies online, regardless of the fact that in this case she did not give consent (full story here). This is the sort of thing Valenti is talking about. The blame is being placed on the woman in question, not where it really belongs: on the people who forced her to have sex against her will.

Of course, the book isn’t solely about rape – not even primarily, actually. The main focus is the so-called virgin/whore dichotomy that labels and values women according to their sexual history, and especially the religious influences on the “purity” ideal. Valenti explains clearly how the idea that women should be “pure” (i.e. virgins until marriage) is both incorrect and damaging. For the most part, I already agreed with what she was saying; when I was a teenager, I found a website (now lost to the ether of cyber-space, unfortunately) that detailed the way virginity was actually non-existent except as a social standard. I was a very confused and sheltered teen at that point, only gradually coming to accept and understand myself as a sexual entity, and a lot of my anxiety revolved around the idea of a “virgin,” what one was, how one could tell, and so on. As Valenti argues, in point of fact “virginity” is an empty word, a term that is virtually meaningless. There is no physical way of determining whether a woman is a virgin (and yes, it’s almost always a woman whose sexuality is under the microscope in this way). The hymen, which has historically been used as a measure of this exalted state, is unreliable at best – many women are born without them, lose them through non-sexual activity early in life, and can even grow them back. Without physical evidence, Valenti argues, virginity is reduced to the wishy-washy, “someone who has not had sex.” At which point, you’re left with the question of what constitutes sex in the first place.

Overall, I found the book to be an enjoyable read and I have to admit much of the content made me rage at the sheer stupidity of human society. However. Valenti gives us hope for the future and also helps to illuminate the way forward for women’s rights advocates, which was a much-needed antidote to such things as purity balls and the like. She also addressed the way these issues are damaging to men as well, which I thought was particularly worth reading, as it is an angle often missing in feminist work.

To be honest, I was rather too emotionally invested in the topic to give this one an objective review. I do however believe it is a very interesting, eye-opening book and well worth a read.