Maus, Volume 1: My Father Bleeds History by Art Spiegelman
I’d heard of the Maus graphic novels several years ago and read the first volume in a gallop. So I decided, after being gifted both volumes from my sister a few birthdays back, that it was time to read both volumes this year. I was not prepared for the sobering similarities between 1930s Nazi-occupied Poland and 2016 America, but that’s what makes art so crucial in general, and stories like Vladek Spiegelman’s in particular.
Maus, Volume 1: My Father Bleeds History begins with comics artist Art Spiegelman trying to figure out his father’s life. His mother had committed suicide several years back, and his father Vladek, unhappily remarried, was just not doing well. During one of their conversations, Art asks his father about life before the war, and the narration flips back and forth on these alternating timelines. We hear about Vladek’s courtship of his wife Anja (Art’s mother), their establishment of a textiles factory in Poland, their first son Richieu, and the growing unease with the occupation of Nazis in Poland. It’s a slow burn of a story with a conclusion that we already know, but it gains even more traction with the details that Spiegelman fills in. The story ends on a startling note, which makes you wonder how Spiegelman will pick up the threads of the first volume and bring us out of the war into the present moment.
I’ve not even talked about the conceit of the comic itself: Spiegelman artistically renders the Jews as mice, the Nazis as predatory cats, the French as frogs, and the Americans as dogs. By masking identities in creaturely disguise, Spiegelman deconstructs the dehumanizing effects of war and torture on all individuals involved, not just victims or their assailants.
Behold the Dreamers by Imbolo Mbue
Because I’m a sucker for the new and shiny books, I ended up placing a lot of holds at my library at the same time—and getting them all at once. And with books that are brand new, you get less time to read them. And when Jonathan Safran Foer’s enormous new book must get read in time for a book signing, you panic. So that’s what happened in the month of September. We’ll not discuss the fact that it’s now November, and my reading has precipitously dropped off this semester (December edit: LOL JK, the procrastination only got WORSE). I did really like this debut novel, and while it narrowly misses the cut for absolute favorites of the year, it deserves consideration to be included in the conversation.
Behold the Dreamers is Imbolo Mbue’s debut novel, and it is both ambitious and original in the same breath. It focuses on the American Dream from the immigrant experience, after 9/11. Jende and Neni are Cameroonian immigrants to the US, escaping their years of separation and class stratification that forbade them to marry in Cameroon. They live in New York with their son and try to eke out a living. Jende gets a job chauffeuring for a senior executive at Lehman Brothers, Clark Edwards, and Neni is trying to pass her classes at the community college, work a full-time job, and do odd jobs for Clark’s wife Cindy. As Jende and Neni become entangled in the Edwards’ lives, their own marriage and investment in the Dream becomes fragile. Did I mention that it’s the years 2007-2008? Oh, yeah. You know how this story ends.
This is an incisive look at the 2008 recession, because it’s told from a new perspective, one untainted by white identity politics and class status. Jende’s blind faith that Barack Obama, a black man, will fix the country, mirrors that of my peers when we went to the polls and voted back in 2008. We surely had no idea how bad the recession had gotten or how low we still had to go. That’s Mbue’s strength: she brings you back to a time you knew well and she makes it new and unfamiliar. The one criticism that I have is that towards the end, there is an increased focus on camp or melodrama that cheapened the denouement of the book a little bit. That said, very much worth the read. I highly recommend it if you like reading literary fiction dealing with immigration, marriage, class, work, or discussion of the American Dream. 4.5 stars.
Somewhere, Among by Anne Donwerth-Chikamatsu
Several weeks ago, I was at a retirement celebration for my English education professor (and academic advisor) at my private college. It just so happened that one of my mentor teachers from student teaching was there—she and I fell into a terrific conversation about teaching, life, and books. Always books. An observation K had made (and I agree with, now that I notice it) is that young adult literature is kind of in a lull right now. Dystopian fiction has been the big trend, but many of the books coming out are starting to feel like copycats (case in point: I’m currently listening to Red Queen on audiobook, and it just feels like a Hunger Games knockoff, though I’m willing to hear it out). That said, I do think a trend is emerging in children’s and middle-grade literature: the novel in verse. Or, to be less fancy, fictional books written in poetic form. Somewhere, Among is part of this new canon.
Ema, our young protagonist, finds herself moving to Japan in 2001. Her mom is white American, her dad Japanese, and her Japanese paternal grandparents an enigma. Her grandfather is loving and accepting, her grandmother seemingly stern and stoic. Ema struggles to understand school, and she is taunted by a bully. Her mom is struggling with a pregnancy and feeling completely adrift from her beloved parents, while her dad is working hard to make enough money for the family—even worse, his job takes him away from home. All of this converges on 9/11, and family health scares force Ema into a new way of thinking.
I’ve read some truly fantastic novels-in-verse (favorites include Inside Out and Back Again, as mentioned in my previous review, Kwame Alexander’s Newbery-winning The Crossover, and Jacqueline Woodson’s National Book Award-winning Brown Girl Dreaming). This was not quite up to that caliber, but it was still a solid, heartwarming book. Recommended to kids and kids-at-heart alike.
The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness by Michelle Alexander
I had a student write about pop culture depictions of African Americans in my spring Composition course for online studies, and she used Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow as one of her sources. I was intrigued. I’ve done a bit of reading in African American studies, history and literary, and this was a good sociological balance to the knowledge base I’ve tried to create.
Alexander specifically examines mass incarceration of black individuals for nonviolent crimes. She further examines the way that nonviolent drug offenders are treated in the United States if they are individuals of color. It’s shocking, really. The things that “good white kids” get probation or no charge for, black offenders often get sent away for years at a time and then denied public aid when they re-emerge into society. This is something that Orange is the New Black has brought up, too. Seriously, if you get three meals and a bed in prison, how can you cope in a real world if you are forced to crash on someone’s couch and find yourself unable to get a job if you have a criminal record? It’s horrible. Alexander documents the political history of the “War on Drugs,” which was more rhetorical fearmongering than anything, and the presidential history of “cracking down” on drugs while not making families’ lives better.
There were instances of weak writing that made me wish Alexander had had a better editor, but it’s a strong and shocking book. I’m glad I read it, although its focus is much more academic. If you’re expecting a light and conversational tone, you will likely be disappointed, though if you like sociological books, you might appreciate it.
A Swiftly Tilting Planet by Madeleine L’Engle
When we read The Doomsday Book for Book Club, I was excited about the time travel aspect, though disappointed in the execution and plotting of it. So I was delighted to revisit my favorite in the L’Engle series, A Swiftly Tilting Planet, which features a move through time in order to save the universe from nuclear warfare (and yes, this book is a little dated by that feature, but it doesn’t matter in the end).
The plot has jumped forward about 9 years. Meg is pregnant with her first child, and her husband (I won’t tell, but it’s not really a surprise, squee!) is in London for a conference over Thanksgiving. Her mother-in-law, a taciturn, unloving woman, has finally agreed to join them for dinner. Charles Wallace, now 15, is still fascinated by the universe’s infinite variety, while the twins, Sandy and Dennys, are their usual basic pragmatic selves. When Mrs. MIL (named redacted to prevent minor spoiler) bursts into an old chant by the Star-Gazing rock, Meg and Charles Wallace know there’s a mystery afoot. A unicorn, Gaudior, appears to take Charles Wallace back in time while Meg kythes with him to figure out how her mother-in-law is connected to the dictator Madog Brazillo and how her fate is linked to the threat of nuclear warfare.
The time travel is just done so well, and the universality of the characters through time evokes David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas, but is more succinct and profound in its connections (for the record, I thought Cloud Atlas was okay not great, but your own mileage may vary). The kything is done to fullest effect here, and my only regret is that Meg takes a more sedentary role than her usual active self. But it’s a rapid page-turner, and the journey through time makes you wonder where the time modification is supposed to take place. Highly recommended, even above A Wrinkle in Time.
The Great Controversy by Ellen G. White
I’ve finally finished reading The Conflict of the Ages series. I’m ready to get back to reading the Bible itself for my evening devotion. While I am glad to have read a keystone series from our most prolific founding member in the Adventist faith, I’ve discovered that there’s nothing like the original source of faith itself to cement your faith.
The Great Controversy is an odd mishmash of Reformation History, the Millerite movement and subsequent founding of the Adventist Church, and exegesis of the Book of Revelation. I confess, I was not prepared for the merging of the three, and White’s transition is not entirely smooth. We hear a lot about end-time events, the rise of Romanism (aka, the Catholic Church), and other troubling impediments to God’s people before the return of Christ. The Adventist adherence to religious eschatology is on full display here, and if you’re not prepared for it, it can be really startling.
The writing in this book is okay, but White could have used a much better editor to help clarify ideas and arguments. As it is, I think she had a yes-person publishing her work, because my English teacher self kept asking, “So what? How does this connect to the Bible verse you just quoted? Why is this lengthy historical passage here without any explanation or context?” Not great.
I’m also embarrassed to note that world church administration seems to think that an effective evangelistic tool is to send out free copies of this book to major cities ahead of an evangelistic series meeting. Um, no. This is a highly theological book to be sending out to people who increasingly don’t identify with any faith. Also, let’s not scare people off. I personally recommend White’s small but wonderful Steps to Christ if you would like to read about Jesus Christ as the foundation of faith. And I’m sorry if you’ve received an unsolicited copy of The Great Controversy in the mail. Trust me, that’s not how I’d spend my church’s money. Or perform community outreach.
Empire Falls by Richard Russo
You guys. This book. It was the weirdest mixed bag of WTFery and blah and intrigue that I’ve read in a long time. It was deeply confusing to read, and I experienced a lot of conflicting emotions (anger, boredom, anger, fear, bemusement) while reading. Let’s dig in, shall we?
Miles Roby is a good ole American guy in the working class of Empire Falls, a Massachusetts hamlet that has seen its industries fading away until only the town stalwarts are left. Miles runs the Empire Grill, a greasy spoon that was supposed to be promised him by the town matriarch, Francine Whiting, as compensation for leaving college before finishing his degree. Obviously, he does not get the Grill. Miles is also impotent, self-conscious, and infatuated with Charlene, a waitress at the restaurant. Basically, you can play white man bingo and hit all the marks with Miles. His almost-ex-wife Janine has just discovered her orgasm with another man and is definitely interested in a divorce. His daughter Tick (derived from Christina, because apparently Russo thought Tina was too basic a nickname…?) is a sensitive artist who is on the outs of her high school’s inner circle. Add to this several rumblings of discontent and you have a rather shocking conflict at the end.
This was a genuinely interesting story, but Russo has no clue about female sexuality. I mean, the way Janine rhapsodizes about finding her orgasm at 42? And her G-Spot? And talking continually about her G-Spot? WE GET IT, RUSSO. Janine Roby has a G-Spot.
Apparently, Richard Russo consulted old issues of Cosmopolitan before writing those sections. Sigh.