Wednesday, August 27, 2014

One More Theory About Happiness by Peter Guest

When Peter Guest was only twelve years old, he was riding a borrowed bike which he belatedly discovered did not have working brakes.  The accident that followed resulted in a cervical break and months of hospitalization as doctors tried to mend his broken body. 

One More Theory About Happiness reads like a novel, offering a lot of insight into what it was like for the author to go through the physical trauma not only of the accident but all that followed.  Through his often poetic prose, the reader becomes intimate with the isolation that comes with paralysis, the embarrassment of relying upon the kindness of others, including strangers, and the complications that come with being in a wheelchair. 

The memoir falls short only because the reader never gets to know anyone else in the book.  We know he has parents and siblings but know little about them by the time the book is done.  The same holds true for the other patients in the hospital where Guest spends many months.  There are other characters who enter the story but remain as two dimensional as the page upon which they appear.  Only Guest himself is fully realized, showing he can write honestly. I would guess that he hesitated to write about others to protect their privacy.  The other possibility, of course, is that he himself never connected closely with any of the people in his life, withdrawn into his own experience as much as he is within his own body. 

There are other things he seems to avoid as well.  The book begins with his explaining he was raised in a Christian home but he never explores how the accident affects his faith.  There is no anger so much as a tolerant acceptance, a coming to terms with the implications of his life.  In fairness, perhaps he never struggled with the things one would imagine a twelve-year-old boy would rage against.  Not everyone’s experience will be the same, after all, but I found the lack of any real passion—anger, depression, or any of the other expected emotions—off-putting.  I came to learn Guest’s story but remained unsure that I knew him. 

This isn’t the first memoir like this I’ve read.  Happy by Alex Lemon covers similar territory, while being honest about his fears, his anger, his hopes, all without vilifying those around him.  Perhaps his book was not as easy to read as Guest’s.  Still, I appreciated the more complicated story Lemon offered if only because the spectrum of emotions allowed me to believe I’d gotten to know the author and, with Peter Guest, I never felt fully connected with anyone in his story, including the author himself.

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Maus and Maus II by Art Spiegelman

I’ve been wanting to read Maus: A Survivor’s Tale ever since the first graphic novel was published.  These books are so popular that, almost as soon as my public library would obtain a copy, they would be borrowed and not returned.  As a result, I could only keep requesting them, placing them on hold hoping I would get my hands on them before anyone else could.  And finally, the library sent me a notice saying that they were available for pick-up.

The timing is emotionally charged.  Things in the Gaza Strip have been distressing to anyone paying attention.  I’ve consciously chosen to say nothing about it, not sharing anything on google+ or twitter because the topic is too large for me to touch.  Which is why I am in awe of anyone who can write about the Shoah.  After reading these books, I am not surprised that the author/artist won a Pulitzer Prize.

The first book, Maus: A Survivor’s Tale: My Father Bleeds History begins with Art Spiegelman as a child, being bullied then comforted by his father.  Speigelman’s drawings are highly stylized.  Simple black and white, with a raw energy in the lines.  He makes himself and his family rodents, specifically mice.  This choice becomes a metaphor for the rest of the story, with Nazis drawn as cats and Polish citizens as pigs.  Rather, stories, because there are two stories told on the page.  First, there is the frame story in which the author goes to his father wanting to know about what happened to their family during World War II.  The second story is, of course, the father’s narrative about his surviving the war.  The first book ends where the reader knows it is inevitably heading: with Spiegelman’s parents arriving at a concentration camp.   

As if the remarkable story of how the author’s father managed to keep himself and wife one step ahead of the Germans weren’t compelling enough, the complicated story the man has with his father is revealed.  The sympathetic prologue to the graphic novel sets things up beautifully, setting up a time when a boy admired his father.  But now, the man can see his father’s flaws and struggles with them even as he wants to know as much as he can.  The first book ends with an explosive and painful revelation.

Maus II: A Survivor’s Tale: And Here My Troubles Began picks up sometime after the first volume was published.  Spiegelman is struggling with his own version of guilt, trying to get his father’s story on the page but knowing that some of what he is revealing makes his father a cliché.  The conflict between father and son grows even as the crisis of the past progresses.  His father and mother are separated but his father manages to maneuver things to his personal benefit as best he can under extreme circumstances. 

It is impossible to praise this pair of graphic novels enough, especially because Spiegelman is ruthlessly candid about his own ambivalent feelings.  Family secrets are revealed and nobody comes through this story unscathed, unrevealed.  Everyone is flawed and, in fact, everyone carries scars of the Holocaust, including the author himself.  I could not put these books down and am only sorry it took me so long to get around to reading them.   

Monday, August 25, 2014

Such Good Girls by R D Rosen

You know how, when you lie down on your ear a certain way, you can hear your blood pulsing?  When I was very little, it sounded to me like soldiers marching.  This fear was ingrained in me from infancy because I was only 3 when I would wake up, panting in fear, desperate that my mother would be gone.  Much later in life, I would see archival footage of German soldiers goose-stepping and recognize them as the soldiers that scared me when I was little, the ones I could hear marching, the ones I knew were coming to take my mother from me. 

This early fear may be the reason I have read several books on the Shoah.  Anyone who has read The Diary of A Young Girl or The Upstairs Room or other books about Jewish children hidden during World War II will appreciate the focus of Such Good Girls: The Journey of the Holocaust’s Hidden Child Survivors by R. D. Rosen.  The concept for the book happened almost by accident when the author happened to meet a child survivor at a dinner, a story shared in the introduction of the book.

The first three chapters introduce the reader to three different women who were each hidden under unique circumstances.  Sophie hides with her mother who teaches her young child the Catholic catechism all the while trying to keep their true identities a secret.  Flora moves from situation to situation, and from religion to religion.  Carla’s story also includes being taught another religion and her story overlaps that of still another child survivor.

By beginning with personal stories, Rosen puts an emotional “face” on the experience but the three stories also expose how each woman’s experience is unique.  So when the book shifts in the second part to focus on how conferences were eventually organized for these particular survivors.  The survivors share their stories as they find things in common.  It was interesting to me to learn that these children survivors were not considered by concentration camp survivors to be true Holocaust survivors.  Nonetheless, the psychological repercussions that their individual experiences have on them as adults suggests that trauma is trauma, that one person’s suffering is not necessarily more or less than another’s, and what we do to cope in the face of horrific circumstances.

There are some redundancies in the book because Rosen will allude to something, then tell the story in more specific details, and later still make another reference to the same story.  As the book itself points out, memory can be a peculiar thing and what we think we know clearly to be true, even something we recall in great detail, may not in fact be what happened.  Perhaps he extrapolated and assumed his readers would forget things from one page to the next. 

As horrifying as the stories are, they are handled with a delicate hand, allowing the reader to hear the stories without being overwhelmed.  There are aspects of these children’s experiences that are not often discussed by others but should come as no surprise.  The book closes, as it began, with a personal story, first that of the author’s and another from one of the survivor’s, bringing the book full circle, back to where it began, in a way. 

Time is relentless and there will be fewer living survivors then eventually none.  Their stories matter and the difficulty one experiences in hearing the stories is nothing compared with the pain of living them and telling them.  They, the survivors and their stories, should be honored.  This book does a good job of doing precisely that.

Monday, August 18, 2014

Writing a Woman’s Life by Carolyn G. Heilbrun

Writing a Woman’s Life by Carolyn G. Heilbrun kept showing up in my other books either cited in “for further reading” or directly quoted.  After a certain number of times, the urge to read a book becomes irresistible.  And even when Holly ate the copy I borrowed from the public library, I had no choice but to actually read the book.  Of course, truth be told, I was enthusiastic to do so because the book sounded interesting.  The blurb suggests that writers conform to societal expectations and the ways in which some women writers worked to  break out of the expected norms.  Sounds great, right?


Early in the book, Heilbrun explains she will be “omitting, for the most part, an analysis of the fictions in which many women have written their lives” (11).  This is precisely what I had hoped to read.  Unfortunately, and for some reason I cannot explain, this is not at all what the author does.  When writing about Woolf, she refers to the novels rather than the essays.  The same is true of Dorothy Sayers.  In the confessional poetry of Sexton we come close to an exploration of something other than poetry but, in the end, most of the literature explored by these women is their fiction.  This was off-putting for me; having my expectations unmet is one thing but when an author explicitly states that she will not analyze the fiction and then spends the bulk of the book focusing on the fiction, I find it hard to get behind the book.

Setting aside my expectations and the “contract” the author set up with the reader, this is an interesting book that does look at how women are limited by societal expectations.  Even within literature that is trying to break the mold, there is evidence of a sublimated conformity, a caution that presumably is not as confining for men as it is for women.  Published in 1988, it sometimes feel a little dated or, at least, not as provocative or confrontational as it could.  It may be that the author was an older woman and writing from a more polite place, trying to be academically precise sacrificing brutal truth.  Women have been limited throughout history in every facet of society and, in holding back as the author does because she’s being academically polite or whatever, she herself is a testament to just how women restrict themselves so as not to seem caustic, or angry, or shrewish, something women have been accused of being when they try to shine a harsh light on the cold truth. 

This is a good book but it didn’t live up to the author’s own intention and that was reason enough for me to like but not love this book.  And I truly wanted to love it. 

Monday, August 11, 2014

Kidding Ourselves by Joseph T. Hallinan

I love Rob but you know, sometimes, his confidence can slip into arrogance, especially when he’s driving.  I am not saying he is a bad driver but he seems to think he’s a flawless driver which makes his driving experience less enjoyable than it could be.  He’s constantly complaining about the way other people are driving.  So while he cannot see his own mistakes, arguably less heinous, the frustration he feels is sometimes exhausting. 

Of course, he is not alone in doing this.  I know I’m just as guilty of seeing in others the very flaws in myself that annoy me most in others.  Self-awareness is a work-in-progress, a lifetime effort, and not something that will ever be mastered.  Kidding Ourselves:  The Hidden Power of Self-Deception by Joseph T. Hallinan is an easy to read book that explains the various ways we delude ourselves, the research that explains why we do the things we do, and why, maybe, kidding ourselves is not necessarily a bad thing. 

The book has many examples with different implications.  For instance, although we consider ourselves to be independent and unlikely to follow the crowd, that we subtly mimic the gestures and facial expressions.  Perception is likewise challenged in research that shows how rats are tricked into thinking they are consuming something toxic.  Not all of the research is easy to read. I struggled with parts about rats and dogs being used experimentally; thankfully most of the research used to support the very human observations was not so inhumane.   

I found myself enjoying this book far more than I had anticipated.  The ideas were well presented and even (mostly) pleasurable to read.  I learned so much, mostly about myself, which is what I had hoped to do all along.  Certainly, I am guilty of cherry-picking ideas to support my perceived beliefs.  Not that this book left me feeling despairing or discouraged, picking myself to pieces as I conceded how very flawed I am.  Rather, it gave me some insight into why it isn’t necessarily a mistake to not to blame myself for everything, that sometimes being “overly” optimistic in the face of overwhelming odds isn’t a recipe for disaster, and, yes, exposed areas in which I could grow if I wish to live a more fulfilling life.  Hallinan manages to take a broad subject, touch on a variety of talking points, and present relevant information in an engaging manner, I almost didn’t want it to end, especially since I don’t feel the final chapter was a strong note on which to do so.  The conclusion, while not insightful because of its inevitable touchpoints, wraps up his argument nicely.  I’d definitely read another book by this author and have already recommended it to a couple of people I know.

Monday, August 4, 2014

Hobbit Lessons by Devin Brown

My introduction to Tolkien is rooted in three things:
Mr Sandy Shaller’s English class in IS 44
My best friend Pia’s brother Dion
The original D&D boxed set

Mr Shaller would have us write book reports and, to decide what book we wanted to write our report on, we would receive a long list of books. Beside each title there would be an E/M/H to say whether the book was easy/medium/hard.  On the first list he handed out, The Hobbit was one of the “hard” books.  I didn’t choose it the first time but I remember Pia reading it at some point.  She had borrowed her brother’s editions and read all of the books before I ever did.  Not long after I finally got around to reading The Hobbit, I was hanging out at my friend Alexis’s house and her older brother Mark introduced me to Dungeons & Dragons.  It didn’t take me long to recognize Tolkien’s influence on this game of which I had never heard and I enjoyed it.  I don’t even remember when I first read the one book and The Lord of the Rings.  I’ve read books that are inspired by Tolkien as well, including Lord of the Rings and Philosophy: One Book to Rule Them All, which I enjoyed very much.   

In other words, I’m open to reading books about books I love and fully expect I’ll love the book almost as much as I love the books that inspired the book.  (Does that make sense?  I sure hope it does.)

Hobbit Lessons: A Map for Life’s Unexpected Journeys by Devin Brown is an adequate and slender volume that explores The Hobbit and applies the story in ways that will “bring the book alive in a new way,” or so says the blurb on the back cover.  If by new they mean to make a delightful and charming story seem dull and uninspiring, then I guess this book is a success.

For one thing, I was baffled by the blurb purporting to draw lessons from The Hobbit when Brown has no problem making his points from The Lord of the Rings as well.  A misleading problem from title to blurb and I don’t know who is responsible for being so careless but it makes me wonder if the whole purpose of this book’s publication is to not, somehow, make money off the anticipated popularity of the films.  That’s fine but, in the end, the title and blurb become a disingenuous, misleading the reader.

The lessons themselves are banal.  The only redeeming quality is that they are complemented by lessons from the Bible.  This would make sense if Tolkien had not repeatedly insisted that his books were not Christian.  And shouldn’t he, himself, know? After all he was a devout Catholic (aka Christian) and a scholar; I think it’s safe to say he’s a reliable source on his own creation.  But that doesn’t stop Brown from finding parallels between Tolkien’s “lessons” and the deeper truth of the Bible.  In the end, much of his meaning feels forced and unnecessary.  If The Hobbit and/or The Lord of the Rings were not already overflowing with brilliant inspiration, a book like this might be beneficial.  And after reading, in the Art of Storytelling how important it is for the storyteller to leave the reader room to draw their own lessons from the story, this book becomes all the more extraneous.

Yes, I was disappointed and, yes, I’m sure other people would love this book.  But if you, like me, find this book superfluous and not meaty enough, I recommend The Lord of the Rings and Philosophy.  If you haven’t read this book, skip it and reread Tolkien.  Definitely the better choice.  

Note:  The author, Devin Brown, has written several books about Tolkien, his writings, and CS Lewis so this is not about poor scholarship.  Alas, this is more about dumbing down content for the masses which, to my mind, is an insult to the primary source texts.
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