I didn't intend for my first book of 2018 to be so depressing, but MAUS is such a creative, important book. In MAUS, Art Spiegelman uses the medium of graphic novel to tell the moving, and sometimes hair-raising story of his father, Vladek: a holocaust survivor from Poland.
Juxtaposed against scenes where a now middle-aged Art is chatting with his elderly father in his home in Queens are scenes of the gradual chokehold that that Nazis formed around what later became Nazi-controlled territories. Vladek Spiegelman married into wealth with his first wife, Anja, and their lives before the war were rather luxurious. Slowly that all dwindled as their predominately Jewish area became one of the ghettos, and they were forced to run and hide for many years, until at last, someone promising to smuggle them both into Hungary betrayed them to the Nazis, and they ended up at Auschwitz.
Even though this is told biography-style, MAUS reads as being a little surreal, because Art chose to draw all of the "people" in his book as animals: the Jews are mice, the Nazis are cats, the neutral Poles are pigs, and the Americans of the present day are dogs. It was a really interesting choice stylistically, and I'm not completely sure why he did it - maybe to remove the reader one step from the horrors contained within the comic? There's a scene in here, one of the modern parts, about what happened when Vladek found a comic strip he did about his mother's suicide, which is included as an excerpt. This comic, "Prisoner on Planet Hell" is done with real people, which adds an extra layer of surrealism: a mouse, writing his memoir as a human.
If you're interested in WWII history and enjoy those "literary" graphic-novels that are about more weighty topics than capes and superheroes, I really recommend MAUS. Vladek is such an interesting man, and his firsthand account of survival is just that: firsthand. Really exceptional read.
This is the second over-hyped book I've picked up this month that actually pleasantly surprised me (the first one was Holly Black's THE CRUEL PRINCE, if you're curious). I'd actually been avoiding THE SEVEN HUSBANDS OF EVELYN HUGO, because it sounded like more of that gently-padded historical fiction I can't stand, where the past ties into the present of some plucky, Pinterest-and-yoga type, who has her uncertain future resolved by some personal revelation of the past (I am looking at you, SECRET HISTORY OF THE PINK CARNATION). It was only when I saw reviews suggesting that the subject matter contained herein might be darker, and weightier, than I thought, that I decided to bite the bullet and dive in.
My goodness, but this book was not only amazing - it turned out to be just the thing I needed right now. Readable. Suspenseful. A little light, yes, but in no way padded or fluffy. Beneath that attractive cover is a core of jabby metal spikes, and you can say the same of the titular heroine, Evelyn Hugo, who's a cross between Elizabeth Taylor and Marilyn Monroe (with a dash of Merle Oberon), with all the cunning of a Machiavellian prince. This is a woman who knows exactly what she wants, and will do anything to get it - and succeeds.
The narrator is a multiracial woman named Monique, who works for a Vogue-like magazine called Vivant. Monique is just a mid-level reporter, very low on the food-chain, and she's feeling depressed because her husband tried to force her to choose between him and her career - and she's having second guesses about the choice she made and the effects that it will have on her life. Nobody is more surprised than Monique when her editor grumpily tells her that she, and she alone, has been offered the rare opportunity for an exclusive interview with the now-reclusive actress. Even more shocking still - when Monique and Evelyn finally meet, Evelyn tells her that the interview was just a ruse: Evelyn doesn't want an op-ed piece, she wants a retrospective, written in the form of a book, and she wants Monique to publish it, and tell her story in the way that she, Evelyn, intends.
There are several "parts" to this novel, each divided by husbands. Evelyn's seven husbands each represent a significant milestone in her life, and it was really incredible how the author managed to make them all different, and yet all realistically flawed. Evelyn also talks about the mysterious "great love of her life" and the way that her sexuality defined her so much in her youth, and how chasing fame ended up leaving her feeling desolate and lonely at the end of her life. In some ways, TSHOEH reminded me of Jacqueline Susann's VALLEY OF THE DOLLS in how it provides a grim portrait of the way Hollywood chews up young starlets and spits them out, and the very short shelf-life of the attractiveness of women, and how this superficiality rules the people who chase it and abide by it. I was also reminded of this gorgeous Japanese film I love, Millennium Actress(2001), which is about this ordinary but beautiful girl in Japan who becomes a famous and iconic star, and as she makes film after successful film, the scenes from her movies end up serving as mirrors that reflect her pursuit of the one that she imagines that she loves. The actress in Millennium Actress also ends up as a recluse, who ends up telling her story to a low-ranked supporter in an exclusive retrospective about her life.
I think what makes TSHOEH really stand out, though, is the seriousness of the content. Sexism in the film industry, and institutionalized sexism, sure. But then there's also the topics of assisted suicide, domestic violence (and the trap of normalizing this abuse while living in this situation), racism, internalized racism, and sexuality. The Stonewall riots are mentioned, and the erasure of bisexuality actually plays a pretty huge role in the story. This is one of the few books I've read that really goes into what it's like being bi, and portrays relationships with people of both genders. I also really liked how Monique was half-black and Evelyn was Cuban-American, and how their cultures shaped them.
THE SEVEN HUSBANDS OF EVELYN HUGO is a really good book. The pacing is really well done, and like Monique, I found that this Interview with the Vampire-style format kept me coming back for more, because with every question answered, another immediately popped up in its place. Reading this is like reading one of those mildly trashy grand epics of the 70s and 80s that follow one character throughout their life, chronicling their loves, their hubris, and their sorrows. It was a fun, solid read with good characters, and a darned good (if bittersweet) story. You should read it!
In my review of THE FLAME AND THE FLOWER, I said that Woodiwiss is often credited with writing the first bodice ripper. While she was certainly one of the first mainstream authors to publish a widely read romance with an open bedroom door *wink*, THE SHEIK has a shockingly similar formula to the "modern" bodice ripper, and it was published in 1919. The only difference is a deliberate omission of sex scenes, but it's clear that they're happening (and it's equally clear that they're nonconsensual).
Diana Mayo (that last name kills me, by the way - I kept picturing her as a pasty white jar of mayonnaise rolling through the desert) is a tomboyish, independent woman of noble birth who enjoys gallivanting through exotic locales with her rather unwilling and prissy brother, who thinks that she ought to be more submissive and demure. She turns down a marriage proposal from a desperate admirer (perhaps the first recorded incident of someone being placed in the "friend zone" - and like most guys in the "friend zone", he doesn't get the rules), so you know she's independent, and then rejects her brother's suggestion that she perhaps oughtn't to ride through the desert alone, except for a caravan escort of "natives," because, again, independent.
Unfortunately for Diana, her escort has sold her out and she's ridden down and then captured by the eponymous sheik himself, Ahmed Ben Hassan. Who then rapes her. Many times.
While reading this book, I kept thinking to myself that this probably would have not just been banned but probably also set on fire if it had been published in the late 70s, when all those absolutely insane bodice rippers were being published and everyone was trying to out-WTF each other. This book desperately wants to be dirty, and since sex is off the table, it compensates with violence and racism. Horses are beaten bloody, a servant is whipped, Ahmed shoots Diana's horse to punish her - twice (once to wound, once to kill), a woman is killed by having a knife driven through her heart, and a man's hand is shattered when his rifle explodes while he was holding it. It was as if the author was like, "By God! If they won't let me write about the one bodily fluid, I'll just write about the other!" More disturbing still is that all that horse-breaking serves as an allegory for the hero and the heroine's unconventional relationship: by the end of the book she is utterly broken, a shell of her former self. She admits that she no longer has any pride where he is concerned, that she would die for him... and when she finds out that he intends to send her away (out of love for her), she decides to do just that by taking his revolver and attempting to shoot herself in the head. He misdirects the bullet just in time by whacking her hand. (That must be the slowest-moving bullet ever.)
But as disturbing as the violence is, it was the racism that I found most shocking. Granted, this was written in the 1910s, so it's not going to be imbued with the PC-friendly content we expect from the romances of today, but it was still quite a shock to see just how acceptable it was to write such casual racism in mainstream publications. The n-word is used several times (both kinds); the Algerians are repeatedly referred to as Arabs; phrases like "Oriental beast" and "primitive" and "uncivilized" and "savage" are casually thrown around every other page; and the biggest kicker was this - it turns out that Ahmed isn't actually Algerian at all! He's half Spanish, half English, and was adopted by a sheik who fell in love with his mother, and out of love for her, bequeathed to him his name and title.
One of the "conflicts" of the book is Ahmed's blistering hatred of English people, and his refusal to speak in anything but French or Arabic. It turns out that his father was abusive to his mother, and that's why he hates English people. When he found out about his English heritage, he threw a major temper tantrum, refused his title, ran off to the desert, and never spoke English again (even though apparently he can speak it and understand it). Part of the reason he was so cruel to Diana is because it made him feel like he was getting back at his father and his father's people, which is all kinds of messed up. Seriously, dude?
Also, Diana is kidnapped by a rival sheik named Ibraheim and of course he's ugly and dirty and fat and has blackened teeth and really dark skin (although not so dark, the book says, that you can't see the dirt all over him). I've never seen an author use so many adjectives to make a character as unappealing as possible. He even "speaks French villainously" and I'm not sure how one speaks a language villainously, but there you go. At this point, I was giving the book the stink-eye, and when I found out Ahmed wasn't even Algerian, I got even angrier, because it felt like the message was, "Oh, he's white after all, so it's not bad, and that's why he's better." This is why I tend to avoid reading bodice rippers about sheiks and Native Americans - they always do this. The alleged hero of color is always a "half-breed" (and yes, they do describe them that way in the blurbs sometimes), and while there is absolutely nothing wrong with being biracial or multiracial, there is something wrong with making a character part white for the purpose of suggesting that this "whiteness" makes them better.
This book was popular enough that a movie was created by the same name, starring Rudolph Valentino. The movie is supposed to be a lot better (no rape, I believe), and Rudolph Valentino is a babe and a half, so if you're interested in this story that seems to be the way to go (although if you're feeling masochistic, you can grab it for free on Kindle). I noticed that there is a sequel available called THE SONS OF THE SHEIK. It isn't available for Kindle in English, but I did find a Spanish version, so if I ever feel like I want to work for my masochism, I'll buy that and let loose.
Interestingly, the plot of this story is very similar to Johanna Lindsey's CAPTIVE BRIDE, from the escape attempts, to the rival sheik, to the fact that the sheik is half-white. I'm sure Lindsey was probably inspired by THE SHEIK, but wanted to write a modern, sexier version (now with 80% less racial stereotypes!). She succeeded - I vastly preferred CAPTIVE BRIDE to this. I'm giving THE SHEIK two stars instead of the one it probably deserved because the constant melodrama could sometimes lead to unintentional hilarity, rather like Louisa May Alcott's rather bodice-rippery and decidedly lesser-known book, A LONG FATAL LOVE CHASE. Yes, the Louisa May Alcott of LITTLE WOMEN fame. Talk about another book that also desperately wanted to be dirty...
P.S. Another way you can really feel the 1910s is the fact that everybody in this book chain-smokes, often at hilariously inopportune times. When Diana escapes the sheik, she stops under a palm tree and lights up. #SmokingBreak
Now I have finished the book and I am torn, because on the one hand, this was unintentionally hilarious. This book is an extended remix of her Vanity Fair article, The Suspects Wore Louboutins, and at times reads like a college student desperately trying to pad the page count of their end-of-year thesis. Interspersed with the admittedly juicy details of the thefts and break-ins is speculation aplenty on a wide range of topics, all with the same vaguely prissy, vaguely judgmental tone: is the attention seeking social media sphere to blame for making kids into selfish narcissists? is it rebellion? the desire to be rich and famous without actually working a day? There was a paragraph when she discusses the necessity of revolting against the status quo, because many of the people in our country's earliest wars were teenagers, but on the other hand, sometimes teenagers, like James Dean in Rebel Without a Cause, just seem to want to break their parents' hearts...without a cause! (These are actual examples from the book.) And yet, despite this argument that rebellion and self-absorption are perhaps age-old, she can't help but pose that irritating argument echoed by so many Baby Boomers: Why are millennials so much worse than any generation she came before? In the 60s, it was about peace and love, and in the 70s, it was about shaking up the status quo - but in the 80s and 90s, she argues, there was a shift towards - gasp - the pursuit of money and fame! This pearl-clutching really bogs down the narrative, and made me roll my eyes about as much as I rolled my eyes when I saw that article in Time: Millennials: The Me Me Me Generation. Using a single example of a high-profile theft to condemn an entire generation of people seems just a mite unfair, in my opinion, and trite, as well: it's high time we stop beating the "blame the millennials" dead horse. Please, I beg you. As a millennial.
Regarding the case itself, it's odd. Obviously. Stuff like this does not happen every day, because if it did, it would not be news. I guess I was surprised by the minimum security some of the celebrities allegedly had at the time (I imagine they've upped their game since then). I was also surprised - and saddened - by the number of people who seemed to think stealing from famous people wasn't that bad because they had so much stuff already. The most depressing part of this book was when Orlando Bloom was giving testimony and admitted that when he first noticed stuff missing, he initially thought it was his housekeeper; she ended up quitting her job as a result. But all of the celebrities' testimonies hit hard, because I feel like often, people forget celebrities are people with feelings, too. People treat celebrities like they're stock shares, as if they think that watching them on TV or reading about them in a magazine entitles them to a "piece." When Lindsay Lohan said she felt so uncomfortable after the robbery that she was never able to go back to her house ever again, my chest got a little tight.
The kids' stories also kind of made me sad, but for different reasons. I feel like you don't do things like this - thrill-seeking-type things - unless you have other things going on in your life. I don't think this means that they should have been let off, but all of their interviews and the incredibly surreal and disconnected way they described their crimes (such as referring to B&Es as "going shopping") was just...upsetting and weird, as was Alexis's relationship with her mom, Andrea, and the constant shouted back-and-forths, as portrayed in their interviews with Sales. It was like these kids didn't "get" the severity of what was going on (or maybe they just didn't want to). To me, this just feels like a crime of opportunity fueled by varying personal reasons and not the swan song of a generation.
Also, please tell me I am not the only one who thinks it's ironic that a crime committed by people who wanted to be famous against actual famous people spawned not one, but two movies (the Sofia Coppola one, and the Lifetime one) starring famous people. It's a little too meta for me. Kind of like a pop culture ouroboros.