Holocaust stories are full of cliches. The train cars full of dead bodies, the gas chambers, the ovens, de-lousing, etc. Which is a shame, because tho...moreHolocaust stories are full of cliches. The train cars full of dead bodies, the gas chambers, the ovens, de-lousing, etc. Which is a shame, because those cliches are real things that happened. Terrible, horrible, no good, very bad things. And I hate to belittle such mass tragedy, but you know what to expect in literature about the Holocaust. Elie Wiesel's Night is important for high schoolers to read as an introduction to Nazi horrors, but it doesn't hold up against the good stuff. Reporting terrible things that have happened may be affecting, but it does not make a great work of art. Which is what makes really great Holocaust literature stand out from the rest. I'd put Sophie's Choice and Maus in the category of "really great Holocaust literature".
What sets these two books apart from their inferior relatives is that they embed the tragedy of the Holocaust, which is beyond human comprehension, within a much smaller story. In Sophie's Choice, Styron reveals bits and pieces of Sophie's experience in Auschwitz within the framework of a passionately lived summer in New York. Likewise, Spiegelman has the audacity to take what could be a run of the mill Holocaust memoir and make it a story of his relationship with his father. In Maus, the telling of his father's story is just as important as the story itself.
What does not completely work about this book is the art. Having finished the book, I feel more like I've read a novel, whereas when I finish a great graphic novel, I feel like I've experienced a long-form piece of visual art. The pictures are largely unmemorable and add little to the text. Spiegelman's choice of representing Jews as mice, Germans as cats, etc. is ineffective and a little too obvious. I think that he was using it as an ironic device to show the ridiculousness of division between races, but he took no pains to explain that to the reader.(less)
It takes a lot of narcissism to write a memoir like this, and that's okay with me. I love the intensely narcissistic books of A.J. Jacobs, who does si...moreIt takes a lot of narcissism to write a memoir like this, and that's okay with me. I love the intensely narcissistic books of A.J. Jacobs, who does similar "look I did something crazy for a year and you should read about it" things. They're a guilty pleasure of mine; actually, they may just be a pleasure that I don't need to feel guilty about, because I learn a lot when I read them, like how hard is to live life without telling any lies, or that Ullyses S. Grant would have liked Venice if someone drained it. I'm better off after I read them.
But after finishing this book, I ask myself "so what?" and I come up empty. Wild consists of shallow introspection into the author's sadness, and the same themes are explored throughout, to no end and to no satisfying revelations. Her mom died, which makes her sad; her marriage ended, which makes her sad and confused, so she shoots heroin, is sad, but then decides to fix herself by hiking the Pacific Crest Trail.
This book is not self-help and it's not an inspiring memoir. It's simply a not-so-exciting story of a lady who went against social norms and went hiking on her own, was thirsty, had sex with a couple strangers, and carried a backpack that was too heavy. It's basically Eat Pray Love masquerading as Into the Wild.
Instead of wasting your time reading this, just listen to the interview with the author on the Diane Rehm Show. You'll get an condensed version of the book that is actually worth your time.(less)
It's fitting that each chapter heading of Fun Home is a sketched rendering of a photograph from the author's childhood, because the book itself is a d...more
It's fitting that each chapter heading of Fun Home is a sketched rendering of a photograph from the author's childhood, because the book itself is a dual portrait of the author and her father, written with photographic quality. It's a hyper-literate memoir of a young girl in the midst of self-discovery who has grown up feeling completely at odds with her father, only to reach maturity along with the realization that she is more like her father than she could ever have realized.
Fun Home is a prime example of the legitimacy of comics as literature. Bechdel uses both pictures and words to great effect, employing metaphors and literary references (including greek myths, Proust, Oscar Wilde) and allusions as if she were a Franzen or an Updike, rather than a humble comics artist. And in it's this literary virtue that distinguishes herself among even the best comics writers. Marjane Satrapi, author of Persepolis for example, writes a wonderful story, but it's essentially a story without much embellishment; Bechdel has the intuition to dig deeper, the way that Dave Eggers writes "creative nonfiction", connecting her and her father's story to the larger story of the world.
Oh, and the art is really great, too.
Good things can only last so long, and unfortunately Fun Home falters when it's nearing its close. Bechdel used up all of her revelations in the middle of the book and by the end was left retreading old material without much to add. Still, it's well worth a read; and read it slowly, like you're reading a novel, not just a comic book.(less)
If you stop to read about the environment or even just to think about the way we use the world, the thought that we're totally screwed is unavoidable....moreIf you stop to read about the environment or even just to think about the way we use the world, the thought that we're totally screwed is unavoidable. In our lust for power and comfort, we have created an unsustainable system of consuming. I don't even need data support this* - if you burn and destroy and throw away, eventually you're going to run out of stuff to burn, destroy, and throw away.
This guy Colin Beavan realizes this and furthermore realizes that he is a hypocrite for realizing this and continuing to live his consuming lifestyle. So he decides to change his life in the most dramatic way he can imagine - to live a year without any environmental impact, which yes, is very hard to do, especially if you live in New York City and have a family to support.
Spoiler alert: he fails. Ten minutes into his year-long project he blows his nose and realizes he just used a dead tree as a snot-disposal device.
So it's hard. It's very hard to make no impact on the environment. But the point of the No Impact Project is not to get everyone to join in and make no environmental impact whatsoever for the rest of our lives. It's simply a gimmick to prove a point - that we are wasteful creatures living in disharmony with the earth. Just use some common sense in your life, be thoughtful about what you're doing. Does it make sense to throw away a paper cup after every cup of coffee you drink rather than drinking out of a reusable mug?
Beavan has an optimism that I find charming but naive. He believes that through grassroots organization, we can change the world, that by saving one coffee cup at a time, we can stop the destruction of Earth's precious resources. That just isn't true, but I appreciate the sentiment. In some existential way, I believe that even though we're all going to hell in a handbasket, we are each responsible for the way we live. It's a lot like voting. In the American system of electoral colleges and corporations buying the loyalty of candidates, your ballot means nothing. But you still have a responsibility to cast it.
"No Impact Man" is really a misnomer. After all, every living thing makes an impact on the world and they are not wrong for doing so. But every other organism on the planet gives and gets. Why is it that humans seem to be the only ones to get without giving back? Instead of being No Impact People, let's just shoot for No Waste People.
*But statistics are powerful, so here is one good one: In the past 50 years, humans have consumed more resources than in all previous history. (U.S. EPA, 2009. Sustainable Materials Management: The Road Ahead.) If this doesn't blow your mind or if you have trouble seeing the problem with this kind of rampant destruction of resources, I worry for your mental health.(less)
I rarely abandon books, and I don't rate books I don't finish, but I really, really want to click that single star so the world may know what I though...moreI rarely abandon books, and I don't rate books I don't finish, but I really, really want to click that single star so the world may know what I thought of the first half of this incredibly self-indulgent, relentlessly navel-gazing, tedious, sluggish mess of a book.
I read Fun Home and thought it was really good. Four stars. I called it a "hyper-literate memoir", which is praise. "Hyper-literate" is a fitting description for this book as well, but this time I mean that not as praise, but as a synonym for "insufferable". When I asked my brain computer, "When you remove the literary references and symbols and dream analysis and parodically intellectual psychoanalysis, what are you left with?", it responded with a blinking cursor. Thinking... thinking... Then the cursor stopped blinking. Then my brain computer crashed - the result of discovering that a graphic memoir, the follow-up to a great graphic memoir no less, written by an obviously talented cartoonist, can be so devoid of surprise or delight or meaningful reflection.
When you strip away the intellectual facade, you are left with an unbearably self-obsessed woman and her book about nothing.
But then again, I only read the first half. The latter half is probably amazing.(less)
This is a perfect storm of heartbreaking literature. It's what you get when you throw an average (albeit unusually clever) girl into the most terrible...moreThis is a perfect storm of heartbreaking literature. It's what you get when you throw an average (albeit unusually clever) girl into the most terrible circumstances this bloody world has seen in recent history.
It's a very unusual document in the field of Holocaust literature. For one thing, there are no gas ovens or train cars crammed with bodies. There's very little suspense and it's filled with quiet moments of happiness. Whereas most Holocaust memoirs are permeated by death, Anne Frank's diary documents the budding of a precious life. Our heroine experiences her first kiss, her sexuality awakens, she looks forward to things this world will teach her. It's an oddly optimistic tale of one of the darkest periods of history.
Anne was a very perceptive young woman and it is our fortune that she was a great writer, even at thirteen years old. She realized that the Annex in which she and her family lived was a small bubble surrounded by death: "I see the eight of us in the Annex as if we were a patch of blue sky surrounded by menacing black clouds. . . . [They loom] before us like an impenetrable wall, trying to crush us, but not yet able to. I can only cry out and implore, “Oh ring, ring, open wide and let us out!”
Of course, Anne died. She and her family were carted off and everyone but her father was killed or died from disease in concentration camps. But all of that is extrinsic to this diary. What we are left with is a perfectly intimate record of youth—so perfect that it is hard to believe it is a real diary written by a real girl—which is enriched, both in spite of and in virtue of, its historical context.(less)
I didn't love Ben Affleck's Argo like everybody else seemed to. Actually, it mystifies me that it won such critical acclaim, being that it feels very...moreI didn't love Ben Affleck's Argo like everybody else seemed to. Actually, it mystifies me that it won such critical acclaim, being that it feels very much like a run-of-the-mill historical thriller. It has all the genre cliches - the down on his luck, familial turmoil-ridden protagonist (Ben Affleck), the fast talking hot shot (Alan Arkin), the suspense of an official checking the credentials of one of the good guys and holy-crap-they're-going-to-get-them, etc. The point is, it felt like a very standard movie to me.
But the fact that it's a real story is what makes it good. It's what made me want to read this book. And now I wish I hadn't. I learned a lot of stuff, but mostly that stuff I learned is summed up thusly: Ben Affleck is a liar!
The bones of the movie and of the true story are the same. There really were six Americans stuck in Iran during its revolution who were hidden Anne Frank style in a Canadian ambassador's house. They really were exfiltrated by a man pretending to be the director of a cheesy sci-fi movie, scouting locations in Iran. I'm sure someone even said at some point: "it's so crazy it might even work!"
But everything that made the movie good and suspenseful was made up. All of the suspense was the result of inserting the genre cliches that both made the movie watchable and predictable. Anyway, because this book isn't particularly well-written or fascinating, I'd recommend just watching the movie and then reading this article from Slate to learn what's real and what's made up.(less)
So this was a lotta fun, a lotta more fun than I 'spected.
Joshua Foer (of the illustrious Foer family, of whom I am envious) ran into some weird peopl...moreSo this was a lotta fun, a lotta more fun than I 'spected.
Joshua Foer (of the illustrious Foer family, of whom I am envious) ran into some weird people who call themselves "memory athletes". They do things like memorize 20thousand digits of pi or memorize the order of a deck of cards in a very short amount of time or memorize a long sequence of numbers or letters or words or pretty much anything for almost no reason at all. There's even something called the US Memory Championship (which the author won and that's not even really a spoiler) and also the World Memory Championship (in which Americans always do poorly, to my ever-expanding shame.)
Foer escorts the reader on not only a stunt journalism-type memoir of his time training for and competing in these competitions, but also on a journey through the brain, in an Oliver Sacks-esque exploration of all the weird, quirky things a memory does or can do.
Did you know that the guy from Rain Man is a real guy? You probably did. He is not the same person as Dustin Hoffman, though. He is his very own person and he is named Kim Peek and despite his ability to multiple huge numbers in his head and to calculate the dates of all the Easter Sundays in the history of Easter Sundays and despite his incredible memory, he had an IQ of only 87. And only just now am I realizing that Peek is now dead, which makes me sad. The point is, Peek was a savant, sometimes even called a megasavant, which is like a savant². Did you know there is another guy named Daniel Tammet who claims to be a megasavant but is probably just a faker?
And now you, yes YOU, can fake being a savant if you read this book. You can learn how to construct imaginary things called memory palaces which will give you the incredible power of nigh-perfect memory. Do you want to be able to memorize the order of decks of playing cards? I don't know why you would—but the point is you can. (less)
Check out how awesome this Joshua Slocum dude is. He's old, he's on a boat, he's got a badass straw hat. He doesn't care that he looks like a doofus w...more
Check out how awesome this Joshua Slocum dude is. He's old, he's on a boat, he's got a badass straw hat. He doesn't care that he looks like a doofus with it on, which makes him that much cooler. He was the first person to circumnavigate the world alone (and that means to sail all the way around it, for you greenhorn scallawags out there).
When he was nearly a few scores old, he shoved off from Newport, Rhode Island (without his wife/cousin Henrietta or his many children) in his trusty Spray to reenact some of the Robert Louis Stevenson and Daniel Defoe novels he loved. He Old Man and the Sea-ed it up, if you'll allow me the liberty of verbing nouns.
There are people today who do cool stuff like this. But they don't do it with nearly the style of this guy. Katie Spotz is a person, barely a score old, who rowed across the Atlantic Ocean by herself. But the difference is that she is merely accomplishing a feat of endurance. If she ever writes a memoir, this is what it will be: "I rowed across the Atlantic and it was really hard. My arms got tired and I got sunburned and I was really thirsty too and lonely."
But this guy... Let me just try to summarize a few of the highlights: "I was married to my cousin and I left everyone to sail around the world by myself. I tried to keep a goat on board but he ate the only map I had. I met a group of savages who had never seen a white guy and some of them wanted to eat me and some of them wanted to worship me. I met up with Fanny Stevenson (wife of Robert Louis Stevenson in Samoa. I don't even use a compass; I just point myself in the direction I think my destination is and hope I get lucky."
What happened to that pure sense of adventure? Is there nothing left to explore in the world?
P.S. I almost forgot to mention one of the most compelling things about this dude. In 1909, he joined the People Who Have Disappeared Without a Trace Club. He was on a routine voyage (alone) to South America and he never returned. Everyone thinks his ship must have been sunk by a whale, because he was too great a sailor and his boat was too seaworthy for any other explanation to be conceivable. But my guess is that he just decided he didn't want to come back. I'm willing to bet that he's still out there, sailing the seas and if you were to run into him today, he'd be 169 years old, but he'd look no more than a day over 120.(less)
If you've watched the Netflix original series Orange Is the New Black, you know exactly what Piper Kerman's year-long stint in prison was like: Russia...moreIf you've watched the Netflix original series Orange Is the New Black, you know exactly what Piper Kerman's year-long stint in prison was like: Russian mess hall cooks who deprive our protagonist of food, lesbian trysts in the chapel, murderous meth-heads reveling in the Holy Spirit, porn star mustachioed guards with a penchant for drug smuggling and mechanical room rape, cell phones hidden behind a tile in the commode, et cetera, et cetera.
Sike! That's nothing like Piper Kerman's stay in prison. I have no doubt that the things listed above have happened in the history of prisons, but from what I have learned by reading this memoir, they are not the norm. Big surprise: a tv show sensationalized a woman's experience among the penal colonies.
It's easier to name the similarities between the memoir and the show than it would be to number their differences. The framework of the story is basically the same: as a young twenty-something, the author was led astray by her girlfriend, who convinced her to transport drug money internationally. Ten years later this crime comes back to bite her in the ass and she finds herself with a year-long sentence in a minimum security women's prison. But that's about it. She serves her time and gets out.
So, while this memoir is nowhere near as exciting or titillating as the tv show, it rings much more truly. Kerman gives a good eye into what a life in a women's prison is like, but she did squander the perfect opportunity to try to enact social change. She mentions several injustices within the system, but it's as if it does not occur to her that she has any power to expose or change them. She touches upon the problem of women serving long sentences for minor drug offenses, the financial toll this incurs, and the emphasis upon punishment rather than reform, but she draws no firm conclusions. This is not to say that every memoir or work of nonfiction must be oriented for the betterment of society, but it would fit naturally here.
And then there's also the moral problem that occurred to me halfway through reading this book: what's the reason I'm reading this? How is it that this woman's story came to be written down and then printed on paper millions of times? The answer is, of course, that this woman looks like this:
She's white, blonde, and pretty. What this book needed to be published was to be written by a Martha Stewart lookalike (because Marty Stew refused to write the memoir herself). One thing that this book does make clear is that she was a total misfit (at least physically) in prison. Pretty white women are the vast minority in the prison population—it's a shame, but unsurprising, that Kerman is the one to get the book deal while so many others remain voiceless.
This is an interesting, quick read about a guy who decides to save his family farm by converting to a completely organic, free range cattle operation....moreThis is an interesting, quick read about a guy who decides to save his family farm by converting to a completely organic, free range cattle operation. I recommend it for anyone who has a dream similar to mine, that of getting out of the city and doing some old-style farming.(less)