Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Maus - Art Spiegelman

“The Complete Maus” contains the two books:
Maus – A Survivor’s Tale – My Father Bleeds History – first published in 1986
Maus – A Survivor’s Tale – And Here My Troubles Began – first published in 1991
The complete book has 296 pages.
Art tells the story of his father, Vladek, during the World War II as a Polish Jew and his love to his first wife and the author’s mother Anja, and in the present, in Rego Park, NY, and his relationship with his second wife Mala and his son, Art, the author. It is a comic book. The Jews are painted as mice. The Polish as pigs. The Germans as cats and the Americans as dogs.
It is the first time I read a comic book as an adult. Telling a holocaust story as a comic book seemed like a very strange and unfitting idea to me, but I read a great review of the book, and read the first chapter online and liked it a lot, so I decided to try the book.
I thought the book was excellent. I can totally understand why it won the Pulitzer Prize. By moving from the present to the past, showing at the same time the story of the son who tries to learn the history of his parents and deals with a very difficult father, and the story of the Jews in Poland when their world collapsed and they struggled to survive in a cruel and senseless reality that seems too horrid to be real. The author also talks about the writing process itself, how he struggles to keep his father’s stories in order, to sway him from complaining about the present back to his past.
As the subtitle says, we have the story of a survivor, one of very few, while so many others didn’t come out alive from the holocaust hell. It is amazing again and again to learn how Vladek survived, how he had to use all his intellect, talents and resourcefulness to escape death and destruction. In the present story, we can see how all the qualities he had to adopt in order to survive make it so difficult for him and for others around him. Like someone says in the book, part of him didn’t really survive. He is extremely tight with money. He cannot see food wasted. He insists on doing everything on his own, or with the help he demands from his son, instead of paying for someone to do the job. It is so tragic to see how he cannot let go of these qualities that helped him stay alive even though it makes it impossible for people who love him to be at his side for long periods of time. The author also shows how, like many others who suffered from racial hate and discrimination in the worse possible way, he is blind to these qualities in himself, when burst in anger because Art’s wife takes a black hitchhiker – doesn’t she know better? He could have stolen all their groceries! When she confronts him and asks him how he can say that after all he’s gone through, he is shocked at the comparison of blacks and Jews.
The book also shows the desperate quest of the author to find out about his mother, who killed herself when he was 20 years old. He can only hear about her story indirectly from his father. It is much less clear how she survived the hell. Unlike Vladek, she was frail, thin, week. Art, and the reader, will never know for sure.
The story is very hard to read. No matter how much I read, hear and watch about these terrible years, every story is shocking all over again. What people had to go through, not by some natural caused disaster, but by the cold systematic cruelty of other people, is impossible to grasp. It doesn’t make it easier that this book is a comic book. On the contrary, since it makes the events so alive and real, it makes it worse. It is a hard read, but it is worth it, this is one of the best Holocaust books I’ve read.

Friday, June 11, 2010

Artemis Fowl - Eoin Colfer

Artemis Fowl is an Irish 12 year-old genius kid. He comes from a crime family. His father disappeared during a scheme to take the family's fortune and his mother did not recover since then. He decides to regain the family fortune by deciphering the fairies' secrets and get a hold of the legendary fairies' gold treasures.

He has a butler/body guard with impressing military training that helps him with his schemes with no questions. He knows he can count on the genius kid that masters all technology and gadgets.

I had mixed feeling about his book. It is a cute fantasy book that combines the fairy world with up to date technology and gadgets. It also has a nice portion of humor. However, the story wasn't interesting enough for me as adult (even as an adult who loved other kids' books like Harry Potter and Percy Jackson), but I cannot recommend it to kids because it is so violent,  contains too much military content, and presents criminals as heroes.

I guess that for parents who don't mind exposing their young kids to such materials it will be a good book for 9 or 10 year olds.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Wench - Dolen Perkins-Valdez

2010, 304 pages
Four women, Lizzie, Reenie, Sweet and Mawu meet at the Tawawa resort in Ohio. They are all black slaves coming from the south with their masters, allegedly to clean for them, cook for them and take care of them, but actually as their mistresses, or their sex slaves. That is, all but Lizzie, who is really in love with Drayle, her master, and sure that he is in love with her as well.
The visit to the slave-free state opens their eyes to things they didn’t know or didn’t want to think about before, and they all have to make some tough choices.
The story focuses on Lizzie, and after the first summer in the resort, we go back to Lizzie’s story and to her life in Drayle’s plantation and their relationship. The story then continues to the next summer visits to the resort and the meeting with the other women in the same situation.
The book does a good job in describing this side of slavery, not being the master of one’s own body, not being able to take care of the children that are born as a result to this relationship, children that are also the property of the master, who can sell them if he wishes to.
I found the story line a little confusing. Scenes don’t always end in a clear way and it feels like they are abruptly cut. The jump in time from the first summer to Lizzie’s past and then back to the second summer didn’t work well for me and I wasn’t sure what happened first and what happened next. Some parts were very interesting and touching but others were a little boring and I wondered what are they supposed to contribute to the story. In general it seems like a collection of drafts, some of them very good, some of them are less good, that now should be composed to one good story. Sometimes I felt the story slides towards the “yellowish” zone of sex and violence to attract attention.
I also felt the characters are a little stereotyped. Almost all whites were extremely mean, almost all blacks were extremely good. I wrote in my review of my previous book, “The Forty Days of Musa Dagh” about the Armenian genocide, that what makes this book excellent is that it does not fall to cliché and stereotypes where all good people are on one side and all bad people are on the other side. Too bad I cannot say the same about this book. It may not be fair to compare them but that’s how it turned out, that I read them one after the other so I can’t help it.
All in all I enjoyed the book, in spite of some weaknesses I mentioned above, and I recommend it.

Sunday, June 6, 2010

The Forty Days of Musa Dagh - Franz Werfel

First published in 1933, 817 pages, originally written in German.
On the back cover of this book, it is written that this book is a masterpiece. I see this title refers to too many books, but in this case, I totally agree.
Gabriel Bagradian was born to a rich Armenian family in the village Yoghunoluk in the Ottoman Empire, near the mountain Musa Dagh (“mount of Moses”), but he moved to Paris, and lived there with his French wife and son. He served the army as an officer, but he enjoys living the life of a care-free intellectual. After his brother’s death he comes back to the family’s house in the Armenian village with his wife and son. But it turned out it was a very bad timing. It is during the World War I, and the Ottomans decided to deport the Armenians from their villages, claiming they are not loyal and pose a danger on the Ottoman Empire during the war. The Armenians are supposed to be moved to a new location in the eastern deserts, but most of them die on the long way there, walking by foot all day long, with hardly any food.
When information starts to reach the villages near the mountain, the villagers decide to go up the mountain and besieged there. They know they don’t have much chance against the Turkish army, but at least if they die, as would probably happen, they will die a quick death as free men, instead of slow death of starvation and exhaustion.
The story is fictional but it is based on true events. If it were a fictional story written at a later time, I would think it got inspired by the Jewish Holocaust in Europe, and the story of Massada. It was horrifying to read descriptions so familiar from witnesses of the events that took place just a few years after the book was published.
The story could have lapsed into the cliché of good against evil, heroes against cowards. But it doesn’t, and that’s the greatness of the story. It tells about ordinary people caught in a terrible time. Some of them are brave, some are not, some are generous and good-hearted and some are cruel, some petty and some can think of the big picture, and they all exist on all sides. The characters can change, behave one way at one moment, and another way other moment. It shows very well with the character of Juliette, Gabriel’s wife, a French woman from Paris who finds herself in the middle of this turmoil. The story shows her coping with these extreme circumstances in a very real and touching way.
The story also shows how people’s behavior change when torn from their natural surroundings to an isolated unnatural location and situation, how true nature of people comes out, what the change of game rules does to different people. In this aspect it reminded me of another book, “Lord of the Flies” by William Golding. This book does not necessary says that all the bad sides of human nature comes out at these circumstances. But certainly everyone are tested, characteristics that were hidden under society rules can now come out on one hand, and talents that weren’t necessary before can be found on the other hand, but the drastic change that this situation forces on people is sometimes hard to accept.
It is not an easy read, and it took me a while to read. But it is well worth it. I found the book very touching at times and it even made me cry at some of them. There are so many clever insights along the book, about being different, about identity, about being a minority, about cooperation with evil or trying to fight it. Too bad history is bound to repeat itself.