Book Response -- Art Spiegelman's "Maus"

My selected book for this week was Art Spiegelman's Maus: A Survivor's Tale. I know that Maus was supposed to be one of the choice books, and I said in my previous response that Brian Wood and Riccardo Burchielli's DMZ was my favorite graphic novel ever, but Maus is definitely in my top five and I jumped at the chance to read it again.

Maus combines two interwoven stories revolving around the Spiegelman family. In the 1970s, Art Spiegelman (as a fictionalized version of himself) interviews his father Vladek, a Jewish veteran of the Polish Army in World War II and a Holocaust survivor, over a period of several years or his new book. The events Vladek recounts to his son are then portrayed through Vladek's own eyes as they happened in 1939-1945. Normally a story like this would be unremarkable, given its similarity to many other accounts of the Holocaust, but Spiegelman makes one vital change: he draws all the characters as animals. Jews are portrayed as mice (Maus is German for mouse, unsurprisingly), Nazis as cats, Poles as pigs, Americans as dogs, and so on. There are even permutations of each group, such as an African-American being drawn as an all-black dog, German Jews being drawn as mice with cat's stripes or cats with mouse whiskers, or Jews posing as non-Jewish Poles being drawn as mice wearing pig masks.

I love Maus not only for its rich symbolism, which I'll get into later, but also for its fundamentally relatable quality. Art and Vladek don't get along; their relationship has been strained ever since the death of Art's mother Anja (also a Holocaust survivor) during his teen years, the aftermath Art recorded in a short comic in the middle of the book (with human characters, not animals). Art notes to his wife at one point that Vladek displays all the stereotypes of "the miserly old Jew". Vladek is so distraught with guilt and grief over Anja's death that he withdraws into his own little bubble, irritated by any intruders. When Art stirs up his father's painful old memories for his book, the tension comes to a head as Vladek relives his days as a concentration camp inmate. As the interviews progress, Art realizes that the Vladek he knows--a bitter, cantankerous, penny-pinching old man whom he at least partially blames for his mother's death--is completely at odds with the historical Vladek's extraordinary feats of perseverance, selflessness, and survival. I say this situation is relatable not because I know a Holocaust survivor, but because Art and Vladek's relationship is so much like the one I have with my own father, it's eerie. Just as Art and Vladek bicker over insignificant things like using wooden coat hangers for guests when a wire one would do perfectly, so too do my dad and I not see eye-to-eye on petty issues. Vladek's use of the word "shvartser," the Yiddish equivalent of "nigger," to describe a black character--which comes as a shocker, since Holocaust survivors should be experts on the evils of racism--parallels with my dad, who I've heard make occasional derogatory comments that I don't agree with about other racial groups. By the end of the book, the trials and tribulations that Art and Vladek go through--Art by dealing with his father's eccentricities and foibles, Vladek by reliving traumatic memories of his time in Auschwitz--help them understand each other better, just as my own dad and I had to get into a few major fights before we understood each other better.

That said, I'd like to jump back a little in the discussion and delve a little deeper into Spiegelman's liberal use of symbolism. As I said earlier, the Jews, both during Vladek's flashbacks and while Art interviews him, are portrayed as mice. This falls directly in line with the Nazis' view of the Jews as vermin to be exterminated. However, this is also a nod to the Jews' need to hide from the Gestapo in German-occupied territory: mice must hide from cats or be killed. On the reverse, the portrayal of Germans as cats shows the cruel nature of the Holocaust: cats don't just kill and eat mice, they capture and toy with them first. In the Nazis' view, Jews were the natural enemies of all true Aryans, just as cats are the natural enemies of mice, and thus did they justify the systematic murder of any European Jews they could find.

Masks are an important symbol as well. While in the Polish Army, Vladek wears a pig mask to pass himself off as a non-Jewish Pole when he is captured during the German blitzkrieg at the outbreak of World War II. Upon his release and repatriation, he and Anja must walk the streets of their hometown, Sosnowiec, wearing pig masks in order to evade the cats of the Gestapo. Spiegelman has said in interviews that this technique, along with his general portrayal of humans as animals, was intended to show the absurdity of racial profiling. However, I also took away a second meaning--that, at the end of the day, humans and animals really aren't all that different in behavior.

The most significant symbol, however, is that of Vladek's exercise bike. Whenever Art interviews him in the '70s, Vladek hops on the bike and begins to pedal as he recounts the events of his Holocaust experience. The faster he pedals, the more intense the memories get. For example, there is a scene in the book about Vladek and Anja's first son (Art's older brother) Richieu, who was born before the war and was only a small child at the time of the German occupation. He was poisoned by an aunt out of fear of capture by the Nazis and deportation to a concentration camp. As the focus shifts back to the '70s, there is the older Vladek, furiously pedaling away while Art looks on with his tape recorder. The use of a stationary bike, rather than some other form of exercise equipment, is key: Vladek wants to leave the past behind, but no matter how hard he tries, no matter how fast he pedals, he simply can't outrun it. The memories will always remain, and rather than confront them, Vladek shuts them out--until Art pushes him for more information.

Finally, the drawing style is simple, yet effective. Spiegelman uses no colored ink in Maus; everything is drawn in black and white, with the single exception of the aforementioned mid-book mini-comic "Prisoner on the Hell Planet: A Case History," which is drawn mostly in varying shades of gray. Characters are told apart only by their clothing. The lines are sharp, almost angular. This serves a twofold purpose: first, to show the stark contrast between Art and Vladek, as well as the contrast been the former's perception of the latter and the reality; second, to once again show just how absurd it is to divide a population along racial lines. Almost all the characters in each group of animals are indistinguishable from their fellows, except for clothing. According to an interview he gave in 1991, Spiegelman stated that he purposefully intended to make every character of a given nationality look alike, because "these metaphors...are intended to self-destruct in my book--and I think they do self-destruct."

This was not the first time I read Maus, but at least for me, this book never gets old. Rich in symbolism, heartbreakingly tragic, wryly funny, and poignantly written, this ought to be required reading in every high school literature class. At least in my opinion, it's that important.

Book Response -- Gene Luen Yang's "American Born Chinese"

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Our required book for this week was Gene Luen Yang's American Born Chinese. As a graphic novel aficionado, I can't say this was my favorite book in the genre (that honor goes to Brian Wood and Riccardo Burchielli's DMZ), but I still enjoyed it anyway--especially the ending.

American Born Chinese is really three parallel stories that don't intersect until the very end of the book. The first is a retelling of the Chinese fable of the Monkey King, who defies the gods in order to prove he is their equal. The second is about the life and trials of Jin Wang, a young Chinese-American boy who faces latent racism at school. The third is the tale of Danny, a regular white American kid who is suddenly forced to deal with his blatantly stereotypical Chinese cousin Chin-Kee. These stories all run parallel to each other, but finally intertwine in the closing pages, in a surprising way that I'll discuss later. For now though, I'll just talk a bit about the way Yang tackles the issues faced by Asian-Americans.

Discrimination against Asian-Americans has been a problem since...well, since Asian immigrants have been coming to this country. The railroads across the West were built by primarily Chinese laborers who amounted to little more than wage slaves--men working long hours in oftentimes dangerous conditions with no benefits, for a daily wage we would consider insulting today. President Chester A. Arthur even authorized the passage of the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, which suspended the immigration process for Chinese immigrants and threatened any who stayed without the proper credentials with imprisonment and deportation. This law remained on the books until 1943, a shocking 61 years.

Today we would consider such practices to be morally reprehensible, but at least in Yang's eyes, the racism of yesteryear is still ingrained in the national consciousness today, albeit latently. Jin's story in particular showcases just how those attitudes are still prevalent. Jin, a young second-generation Chinese immigrant, is bullied by his classmates in his new school due to his race, leading him to internalize feelings of disdain for his mother culture, which still has a profound effect on his life. Some kids, when exposed to messages like that, will develop feelings similar to Jin's--they see their racial, ethnic, or cultural difference as a social handicap, and will do anything to assimilate into whichever culture they feel pressured to join. In my opinion, not only is this a disservice to that child's home culture, but it also exposes the prevalent culture--usually the stereotypical "American" life--as nothing more than a vast conglomeration of people without identity. There's no reason why anyone should be bullied or picked on because they are different. Think about how many cultures have been carried to the U.S. by immigrants over the years, and how many new ones have developed in the melting pot. It's just not right that any culture should be singled out as inferior; be proud of it, I say. I'm fiercely proud of my Irish and German heritage, for example. So while I empathized with Jin's feelings of discomfort when faced with his "Asian-ness," it was hard for me, as a person who takes their heritage seriously, to understand why he felt that way. You should always be proud of who you are; "fitting in," as far as that term goes, is for people who are too scared or too lazy to take pride in where they come from.

But maybe that's why Yang included that facet of Jin's personality. That inner conflict--who you are versus who you think you should be--drives his storyline. Of course, the flipside of that is Danny's storyline, a sitcom in which he must deal with his walking, talking Asian stereotype of a cousin, Chin-Kee (and isn't that interesting, that Yang, himself a Chinese-American, would include a character like that?). Chin-Kee doesn't seem to have a problem with who he is, yet his behavior is so outrageous that you can't help but feel sorry for Danny, whose life gets progressively worse as Chin-Kee's antics destroy his social life. Danny's discomfort around his cousin serves as a counterpoint to Jin's, and that's where the ending ties everything together. Jin goes to bed one night after a fight with his friends (the only other Asian kids in his school) and wakes up as Danny, who tries to stop Chin-Kee from embarrassing him yet again. In the ensuing fistfight, Chin-Kee is revealed to be the Monkey King from the first tale, who changes Jin back to his normal form and tells him that he came to serve as his conscience. Jin, afraid that he appears to the people around him as Chin-Kee, feels like Danny (as evidenced by his initial treatment of his friend Wei Chen) even while he still lives his life within a heavily Chinese-influenced culture. An old Chinese woman earlier in the story tells him, "It's easy to become anything you wish...so long as you are willing to forfeit your soul," but the Monkey King does indeed serve as Jin's conscience: he reminds him, and the reader, that he is not his own stereotype, and that he can still be who he wants to be while maintaining his cultural identity.

Even though this won't replace DMZ as my favorite graphic novel ever, Yang's delightful use of the twist ending really made this read enjoyable. I thought the way Yang tied all the loose threads together to show Jin, the protagonist, how to deal with the latent racism he faces at school and his consequent inner fear of being stereotyped. The simple drawing style, a reflection of Jin's childlike perspective, was just the icing on the cake. I may very well use this book in one of my classes in the future...although sneaking a character like Chin-Kee past the school board might prove to be a challenge.

My selected book for this week was James Cross Giblin's The Life and Death of Adolf Hitler. Having written a review about this book for last week's class by accident, I feel that this is my opportunity to get more in-depth with my thoughts on this biography of one of the most hated men in history.

Before I get started, I'd like to go on record saying that as a history buff, none of the information I read in this book surprised me. Hitler's boyhood in Austria with his distant father and doting mother, his multiple rejections from the Vienna Academy of Fine Arts, his formative years in the army--none of that is new to me. But that doesn't make it any less fascinating. Hitler, despicable though his actions were, was nothing if not a complicated, multifaceted man. After reading Giblin's book, I did a little browsing on Wikipedia and found the following lines from Mein Kampf:

"There were very few Jews in Linz. In the course of centuries the Jews who lived there had become Europeanised in external appearance and were so much like other human beings that I even looked upon them as Germans. The reason why I did not then perceive the absurdity of such an illusion was that the only external mark which I recognized as distinguishing them from us was the practice of their strange religion. As I thought that they were persecuted on account of their faith my aversion to hearing remarks against them grew almost into a feeling of abhorrence. I did not in the least suspect that there could be such a thing as a systematic antisemitism."

Did my eyes deceive me, or did I just read that Hitler actually felt sorry for the Jews at one point in his life? Of course, in the next few lines of that excerpt, he goes into detail about how passing a Hasidic Jew on the street made him an anti-Semite on nationalistic grounds, which says all kinds of interesting things about Hitler's psychology. I love those "what-if" scenarios, where Hitler (although he didn't know it at the time) reached a crossroads in his life, and what might have happened if things had gone the other way. For example, he was rejected twice from the Vienna Academy of Arts; reproductions of his artwork are included in the book, and I have to say, they're not bad; not amazing or groundbreaking at all, but not bad. What interests me is what would have happened if he had been accepted. Most likely, he would never have joined the army, which means he would never have acquired his martial fetish, which probably would result in his being much less of a German nationalist and much more of a law-abiding Austrian citizen. Giblin, unfortunately, doesn't really explore those scenarios, but since this is a biography and not an alternative history novel, I'll let it slide.

But all that aside, what really struck me about this book was its evenhandedness. Giblin takes the position of what one of my history professors called "disinterested scholarship" (as opposed to "uninterested"). That can be a precarious approach with books about Hitler and the Nazis; you have to be careful not to cross the line into praise or you're likely to be ostracized by the scholarly and literary communities, but you can't just write a fiery condemnation because anyone can do that. Ripping on Hitler is the easiest thing in the world to do. This, in my opinion, is where Giblin succeeds. His approach of "just the facts" helps paint a more even portrait of Hitler by revealing him for what he was: a charismatic, conflicted (some would say tormented), passionate man who loved dogs, painting, and military history. This was a guy who could laugh at a Mickey Mouse cartoon one day and order the extermination of thousands non-Aryans the next. The dichotomy is astounding on its own, and in Giblin's straightforward portrayal of the facts (all meticulously researched, by the way) the stark relief is all the sharper.

Although Giblin's evenhandedness is admirable, in my opinion, he goes a little too far; The Life and Death of Adolf Hitler often reads almost like a history textbook. Since Giblin wrote the book for a middle school/high school reading level, you would think he would know to avoid clinical descriptions of historical events. If there's one thing kids hate to read, it's academese (even academese written for their reading level). I'm not exactly saying he should dumb down the language of the book or anything, but let's be honest: history bores a lot of kids. I'm just of the opinion that it's better for them to understand a concept in simpler terms that they can better understand, than for them to be forced to memorize a complex explanation of the concept that they probably won't retain anyway.

That said, Giblin's tendency to air on the academic side does come in handy in one respect: the photographs. Everything in Hitler's life, from the Nuremburg rallies to Hitler's baby photos, is represented, and though all are in black-and-white and some are pretty out of focus, they serve to not only break the tedium of the text for young readers, but also to drive home for them that Hitler actually existed, and the things he did actually happened. I'm sure that to many young history students, Hitler is merely a name and a face that they associate with evil because they've been told to do so. Seeing his entire life documented in photo form allows the middle school history student for whom the book was intended to absorb the material differently--by including a photo of Hitler as a child, for example, Giblin allows his intended audience the opportunity to realize that Hitler was real, not just a name, a photo, and a few lines of description in their textbooks. The old adage that a picture is worth a thousand words is used to brilliant effect here, and I know it probably sounds bad, but I wish more biographies written for younger readers would include more photos.

Giblin, despite his rather dry writing style, really got my attention with this book. I used to read history books all the time, even when not required to at school, and The Life and Death of Adolf Hitler made me want to get back into it again. If I were a history teacher and not a literature teacher, I might hesitate to add this to my students' reading list due to its slow pace, but as I said earlier, this isn't a novel, it's a biography, and an extremely well-researched one at that, so I suppose that can be excused.

Book Response -- Francisco Jimenez' "The Circuit"

Our required book for this week was Francisco Jimenez' The Circuit, a collection of short autobiographical stories about the author's childhood experiences as the son of migrant farm workers and illegal immigrants in the 1940s. Touching and poignant, I think this book really drives home the problems faced by today's migrant workers. In my opinion, it gives a tangible human face to the people we now refer to only as "illegal immigrants."

Francisco Jimenez is the son of Mexican farm workers who emigrated illegally from Guadalajara to southern California in the '40s, and he grew up in a series of labor camps as his family moved from job to job. His experiences, here presented in the form of short vignettes from throughout his early life, form the basis for The Circuit. I've long thought that too many Americans refer to illegal immigrants abstractly--that is, we refer to them as one shadowy entity, a faceless group of vaguely unpleasant boogeymen that is somehow holding America back economically and socially. In my opinion, that's a totally wrongheaded approach. I'm not sure whether Jimenez intended to send a message to white America with this book or not, but I certainly picked up something. After reading it, I thought Jimenez is trying to say, "Yes, we exist. Yes, we are human. We're just trying to find a way to make ends meet."

The right wing in this country has long demonized illegal immigrants (a term which, in the political parlance of today, is unfortunately synonymous with "Mexican"), telling horror stories of illegal aliens coming here simply to mooch off the healthcare and education systems without having to pay a dime in taxes. One of my former roommates (who I don't speak to anymore, partially because of sociopolitical issues like this) told me once about how an illegal Mexican immigrant crashed a car into one of his friend's cars and fled the scene of the crash for fear of being caught by the authorities and deported; he then had some choice words about "border jumpers." Not only do I think it's unfair that immigrants, illegal though they are, are treated and spoken about in this fashion, but I also think that the people saying those things seem to have an extremely short memory. We are a nation built on immigration, both legal and illegal. If you don't have any Native American ancestors in your family tree, you are a descendent of immigrants, and that's a fact. Jimenez knows this, and I think he sought to humanize those people who are so often marginalized by right-wing pundits simply because they came here for a better life. Jimenez' parents (indeed, his entire family) worked long, difficult days in the fields picking vegetables, a job no American worker would to do, yet today they would still be ostracized simply because they jumped the border. That's what I don't understand about people who constantly scream about how all illegals need to be deported: these are people who have families to feed and support, just like us, and they do the jobs no one else wants to do. In a way, illegal Mexican immigrants work harder than most natural-born American laborers, and for less pay, fewer benefits, and no recognition. Like Jimenez and his family, they work their fingers to the bone for a few dollars a day and nary a complaint is heard from them. But when a white, natural-born American citizen has to take a small pay cut, he goes crazy...then rants that night at the dinner table in his suburban McMansion about "those lazy Mexicans" who are just here to leech off "hardworking Americans." The duplicity is mind-boggling.

Jimenez, however, doesn't use The Circuit as a soapbox to expound on the myriad problems faced by immigrant workers. Rather, he uses the book as a way to put a human face on an issue that many Americans vaguely refer to as a "problem." The stories, which are sequential (though they do not necessarily take place one right after the other), show not only what life was like for Jimenez and his family in their adopted country, but also how one family perseveres in the face of adversity that would tear most families apart. There are no stereotypical lazy Mexicans here; on the contrary, the work ethic shown by Jimenez' family and their fellow workers is astounding. Even while heavily pregnant with another child that the family almost certainly can't afford, his mother continues to work as the camp cook, thus satisfying her own desire to be useful as well as providing a necessary service to the rest of the camp. His father, when plagued by back problems, wants to keep working, but his fellow workers keep him off his feet and assume his workload of their own accord. Jimenez himself writes heart-rending passages about how upset it made him to leave school every time his family moved to another camp, and eventually he becomes a field worker like his parents, striving each and every day to earn enough money to eat and buy a few other necessities. Each family member contributed to the survival of the overall family unit, and as a result, they grew even closer than before. Jimenez does his best to emphasize mutual love and support, faith, and hard work in order to break the stereotype of the freeloading illegal alien.

After reading this book, I will never understand how so many people can say that illegal immigrants are just here for a free ride. The struggles that the Jimenez family encounters in The Circuit are legion, but somehow they emerge as a tighter, more cohesive family unit than ever before. Something tells me that a white, suburban, middle-class family from the Heartland wouldn't be so lucky. The Circuit is Jimenez' defiant reply to all proponents of locking down America's borders. But rather than accusing the American public of being ungrateful--instead of saying, "What would you do without us?"--Jimenez instead says, "We are really not that different from you." As I said earlier, he puts a human face on a group of people that too many natural citizens view as an abstract problem, and that is where The Circuit succeeds so beautifully.

Giblin, James Cross (2002). The life and death of Adolf Hitler. New York: Clarion Books. ISBN 0395903718.

The Life and Death of Adolf Hitler tells the life story of the twentieth century's most feared and reviled dictator. Beginning at Hitler's birth in Austria and covering his stint in the German military during World War I, his rise through the ranks of the obscure National Socialist Workers Party in the 1920s, his election to the post of Chancellor of Germany in 1933, and ending with his fall from power and suicide during the closing days of World War II, Giblin paints an intimate, unbiased picture of what made one of the most hated men in history tick.

Giblin makes a point of not passing judgment on Hitler--history has done a good enough job of that already. Instead, Giblin takes a Dragnet-like approach of "just the facts." The opening chapter of the book is a concise two-page explanation of what Hitler did during his years in power, but passes no judgment. At the very end of the chapter, Giblin asks several questions not about Hitler, but about the climate that produced him--how was he able to gain widespread support for his policies? What kind of psyche does it take to construct a plan to eliminate an entire race? Why did he nearly succeed in his crusade? "Those are the questions for which countless biographers, historians, and psychologists have sought answers in the years since Hitler's death," Giblin writes, and his book, written for adolescents in the middle school/high school age group, endeavors to answer those same questions in an age-appropriate manner.

Giblin's writing style throughout the book is clear and to the point; you will not find any grandstanding or loftily worded passages about the evils of Hitler's regime here. All the details are presented in the disinterested manner of a historian in search of "just the facts." This could make for ponderous reading at times, especially for the book's intended audience. But the inclusion of numerous photographs from Hitler's early days, his stint in the German Army during World War I, and his early activities with the Nazis, as well as several of his sketches and paintings, help break the tedium; young readers may be surprised to learn that Hitler was indeed an aspiring artist and loved to draw. (Note: what might have happened to the world if Hitler had been accepted to the Vienna Academy of the Arts instead of being turned away multiple times and joining the military instead is a thought that should give the reader pause.)

Giblin's book, though perhaps a bit tedious, is highly informative for any young reader seeking information on one of the worst tyrants in history. The inclusion of period photos and Hitler's own artwork help drive home the point that this man was just like anyone else; the text reinforces the idea that he was, to a greater extent than many realize, a product of his environment. If young readers can think critically about that concept, they can also draw conclusions not just about Hitler and Nazi Germany, but their own environments as well.

Our required book for this week was Jennifer Armstrong's Shipwreck at the Bottom of the World. While a quick read (less than 150 pages), the book is both an excellent example of nonfiction for adolescents and an amazing but true story of survival against all odds.

Shipwreck at the Bottom of the World retells the story of Sir Ernest Shackleton's ill-fated 1914 expedition to traverse Antarctica (the South Pole had been reached for the first time two years earlier by Roald Amundsen). After their ship, Endurance, was frozen in and crushed by the pack ice thousands of miles from any form of civilization, Shackleton and his 27 men spent five months camping on the open ice, trying to stay alive in the face of a vicious Antarctic winter. Shackleton himself and a handpicked crew of five men eventually made a harrowing 800-mile journey to desolate South Georgia Island in the Atlantic Ocean in an open 20-foot lifeboat to secure help for the rest of the crew. All 28 men survived, and Shackleton returned to England a hero. Hollywood couldn't have written a better ending.

I love stories like this. They seem too incredible to be true, but there they are, staring you in the face with facts. Shackleton and his men did survive, and indeed, he returned to the Antarctic seven years later at the head of another expedition. He died of a heart attack on South Georgia, the site of his rescue, in 1922, and was fittingly buried there. It's a story that, by all rights, sounds like it was dreamed up by some Hollywood screenwriter in a corner office in sunny California, but we humans have a way of surprising even ourselves with our indomitableness and will to survive. It's a story that's too good not to be true.

I've always been an avid history buff, and while I was growing up I went through a long fixation on the sinking of the Titanic. I read every book about the ship that I could get my hands on: firsthand accounts of the discovery of the wreck by Dr. Robert Ballard, collections of survivors' tales, and even some of the sizeable body of apocrypha that the disaster generated (Captain Smith committing suicide and the band playing "Nearer My God to Thee" as the ship took its final dive, for example). Most, if not all, of these books sought to impart to the reader some kind of lesson--whether with historical facts or with admonitions on the hubris of man--and, as I recall, were age-appropriate (this was around my fourth- and fifth-grade years). It's in that respect that that I think Armstrong succeeds. Where the story of the Titanic was essentially a Greek tragedy, where if any one thing had gone differently, the ship might have escaped disaster, Shipwreck at the Bottom of the World seeks to entertain as well as inform and instruct, and a 22-year-old college student can pick it up and be just as engrossed in the story as a 12-year-old sixth-grader. Both individuals can absorb the same lessons and draw the same conclusions about hubris, nature's fury, and the human spirit with equal ease.

One of my favorite novels is Dan Simmons' The Terror, a fictionalized version of the 1845 Franklin Expedition to the Canadian Arctic in order to discover the location of the fabled Northwest Passage. Simmons' description of the biting cold, the otherworldly effect that three months of total darkness has on the polar landscape, and the mounting desperation and hopelessness of the men of the expedition really brought home for me what Armstrong was trying to convey. As I said earlier, human beings, fickle and fragile though we are, have an incredible hidden capacity for resourcefulness and a boundless will to survive when faced with overwhelming odds and almost certain death. Armstrong expertly captures that fierce determination with this story. Reading about the cold, the howling winds, the lack of food and other supplies, the ever-shifting ice--I may just have an overactive imagination, but Armstrong's descriptions put me right there in that lifeboat with Shackleton and his men. It wasn't hard at all to imagine what must have been going through those men's minds when their expedition leader told them that some had to stay behind while others had to make a not-at-all certain bid for rescue in an open boat in the most desolate and empty area of the world.

I think Armstrong and other writers of nonfiction for adolescents should be given some kind of special medal. Not only does their work entertain readers with seemingly impossible but entirely real feats of human achievement, but it also educates. How many schoolchildren had never heard of Ernest Shackleton before reading this book? Luckily, I did, but others might not be so fortunate. Shackleton's story is one of the greatest exploits of leadership and survival ever recorded, and as we all know, history holds all kinds of lessons for those who know to look for them. But again, how many kids don't know this story? How many of them, having never been exposed to such a tale, might read this and feel the same fire that Shackleton and his men surely felt deep within their chests when they resolved not to just give up and die in the Antarctic cold? That's another thing about stories like this: they inspire. I'm not going to rush out and organize my own Antarctic expedition anytime soon, of course, but reading Shipwreck at the Bottom of the World and other books like it really makes you wonder what you would do if placed in a situation like that. Nonfiction, particularly tales of survival, allows you to hold a mirror up to yourself and ask, "How would I react?" After inwardly asking that question, I find that the reader, more often than not, not only gains a little extra insight into themselves and their own spirit, but also gains a deeper appreciation for the historical facts of what happened and the human factors that brought about the outcome. If Shackleton and his men had simply given up, they would've become just another footnote in the history books, casualties of mankind's never-ending pursuit of going as far as possible. But their survival has become a celebrated story of the inexhaustibility of the human spirit, and not only willingness, but also readiness to endure the hardest of hardships.

Book Response -- Libba Bray's "Going Bovine"

My selected book for this week was Libba Bray's Going Bovine. I accidentally posted my response to Lois Lowry's The Giver as the fantasy selected book, but after talking to Beth about this, I've decided to rewrite my response appropriately. So apologies to my blog partner (and to Beth), but here it is. I'll start off by saying that mad cow disease is not something we normally joke about, since we're less than ten years removed from the fatal outbreak of 2001, but somehow Bray manages to take a topic we normally take seriously and turn it into a hilariously warped tale of one boy's quest for a cure.

Cameron Smith, the sixteen-year-old stoner protagonist, is diagnosed early on in the book with Creutzfeld-Jakob disease, variant BSE--the incurable human form of mad cow. The book is a darkly humorous journey that may or may not take place entirely in Cameron's mind as his brain slowly succumbs to his illness, but regardless of whether or not the events are real, I thought it was funny.

While it certainly seems like the events of the story are the product of a fever dream--and many online reviews seem to agree with this--I'm not convinced. Bray never specifically says whether it's real or not, and let's face it--adolescent literature, particularly fantasy, is getting weirder every year. I'm not sure if that's just a ploy to keep young readers engaged or what, but it worked on me. I like the idea of being sent on a quest to find a cure for a supposedly incurable disease by a punk-rock angel, and have it written as if it were actually happening. That's what fantasy literature is--fantastical things are supposed to happen as if they were everyday occurrences. In my opinion, people who read this book and thought Cameron's adventures all happened in his head kind of missed the point. Whether or not a weird road trip happens in your head during the course of a fantasy book is totally irrelevant. The way I see it, Cameron's trip (and that word can be taken in more than one context) is more a search for his own personal meaning, rather than a mere hallucination. They say that perception is reality. If you can see, hear, touch, taste, or feel something, it's real...right? I certainly think so, and I think Bray does, too, which is why she never explicitly states that the things Cameron experiences and the people he meets are real or not. It's implied.

That said, Cameron himself is an interesting case study. One review I read said that he was cut from the same cloth as Holden Caulfield, the whiny and self-important protagonist of The Catcher in the Rye and, as I said way back at the beginning of the semester, one of my most hated literary characters of all time. I have to disagree with that statement wholeheartedly. While Caulfield (at least from what I remember) never takes the time given to him by J.D. Salinger to do a little self-reflection, Bray makes Cameron do just that for the whole length of the book. Cameron begins as a stereotypical teenager: a disaffected, disconnected, sarcastic, pot-smoking underachiever, complete with a popular sister and well-to-do parents. He's a lot like me as a teen (minus the pot, which came later, but that's a story for another time); our families are even similar. His personal motto is "no expectations, no disappointments" (even that sounds familiar). Like me, Cameron is not dumb; he just doesn't apply himself. The initial symptoms of his incurable brain disease are chalked up to his drug use and "bad attitude," but when he finds out that he is inevitably going to die of mad cow disease, he falls into a coma--and embarks on his whimsical quest to find a cure from the mysterious Dr. X. The people he encounters along the way--Dulcie the punk-rock angel, Gonzo the video game-obsessed dwarf, the undercover revolutionary Library Girl, even the Norse god Balder (who is trapped in the shape of a lawn gnome)--teach him a valuable lesson: that reality is what you make of it.

Some people found it troubling that Cameron could not make that connection in his "waking life," only in his dream state. I think that's the point: Bray took a character who treated life as if it were a chore, and made him realize that that one life is the only one you get, so it's important to appreciate it while you have it. It's sad that Cameron had to contract a fatal disease in order to recognize that fact, but in my opinion at least, it was necessary. Cameron was so apathetic that he needed to stare his own impending death in the face to realize how valuable life is.

Cameron isn't the only one who comes to a realization; Library Girl also makes an interesting observation about the nature of self-worth. She explains to Cameron that "a lot of the stories or words or even ideas contained in most books could be negative or hurtful or make you question your happiness or even question the concept of happiness as an ideal." She continues by telling him that Don Quixote, for example, may be enjoyable to some readers, but it frustrates others because they don't understand it right away, "so it had to go." I thought this was highly important to an understanding of the book's themes: just because you don't get something doesn't make you stupid or inadequate. You have to consciously tell yourself that you are good enough, even if you don't quite measure up to other people's standards. What are other people's standards worth, anyway? In Bray's eyes (and mine), the answer is "not much." Library Girl's removal of Don Quixote from the shelves in order to avoid inducing a "nonpositive experience" in readers is the embodiment of the idea that some people aren't good enough, so standards must be lowered. But she's missing the point: there shouldn't be any standards. Standards themselves create a sense of inadequacy, and they shouldn't be a measure of self-worth.

Book Response -- Suzanne Collins' "The Hunger Games"

Our required book for this week was Suzanne Collins' The Hunger Games. I have to say, this book was really intense--and I loved it for that. The idea of two children fighting to the death as punishment for a rebellion that happened before they were born is so full of tragedy and pathos that I couldn't help but be sucked in.

The Hunger Games (which is apparently the first book in a trilogy that also includes Catching Fire and Mockingjay, both of which I'll have to check out now) takes place in a post-apocalyptic future, in the nation of Panem, which rose from the ashes of what used to be North America. Panem is divided into thirteen areas: the Capitol, where the affluent live in luxury, and twelve poorer surrounding districts. At some point before the story begins, the districts staged an unsuccessful rebellion against the Capitol; the Capitol responded by forcing each district to send one boy and one girl between the ages of twelve and eighteen (called "tributes" in the story) to the Capitol to participate in the Hunger Games, a deathmatch in an outdoor arena where each child must fend for him or herself until only one is left standing. The tributes are chosen by lottery, and when young Primrose Everdeen is picked to go to the Games, her older sister Katniss volunteers to go in her place.

I read an interview with Suzanne Collins in Publishers Weekly, in which she talked about her inspiration for this book. She claims her inspiration came from channel-surfing on TV one day, and the lines between a reality show and coverage of the Iraq War "began to blur in this very unsettling way." She also says she drew inspiration from the ancient Greek myth of Theseus and the Minotaur. Now that she mentions it, I can see those inspirations come out in the story. Katniss is totally a futuristic version of Theseus, but that brings up a whole other point that I'll get to in the analysis section of my response.

Anyway, getting back to Collins' inspiration, I love moments like that. You'll be sitting down, not really being creative or whatever, and then something will just appear to you, whether in front of your real eyes or in your mind's eye, that makes you say, "How come I never thought about X like that?" It quite literally hits you like a thunderbolt: everything is illuminated for one glorious instant, and that instant is what produces ideas. It happens to me every once in a while, when I'm working an overnight shift or otherwise up late doing nothing. Something will just click, and I'll write lyrics for my band or a story for a class or whatever comes out. Collins took a moment like that, and crafted it into an entire universe with its own history, landscape, and norms. Something like that doesn't just happen every day.

I especially liked this story's themes of rebellion, and Collins makes effective use of that theme by filtering it through her adolescent characters. I've said in previous responses that growing up and going through puberty is one of the scariest, most confusing times in a person's life. You don't know why you're angry all the time; you don't even necessarily know who you're angry at. All you know is that you feel like something's wrong and has to be changed. I think that's why this book appealed to me so much. I never lost touch with the angry fifteen-year-old I used to be, and I still cheer inwardly when I read a book or see a movie in which a wrongfully persecuted kid outsmarts his adult oppressors. Katniss' defiance of the Capitol's wishes at the end of the book--to kill Peeta so there is only one winner of the Games--spoke volumes to me. It told me that Katniss was not content to just do what she was told, but to make her own way. It's also an excellent example of an adolescent taking adults to task for their behavior. Over the course of the Games, the leaders of Panem change the rules several times in order to make the Games more exciting for viewers at home to watch. Since audience support can be critical to a tribute's survival of the Games, and Katniss and Peeta band together to give themselves a better chance of survival, the authoritarian leaders change the rules to say that two tributes from the same district can win the Games as a pair. But when the rules are changed again in order to force Katniss to kill Peeta to increase viewership, the former threatens to commit suicide instead. This supreme act of defiance is imbued with a subliminal message of reversal: kids change the rules mid-game, whereas adults are supposed to abide by the rules no matter what. It speaks volumes about Katniss that, at least in this one way, she is more mature than her leaders.

That brings me to the point I was going to mention earlier. The fact that Collins chose the myth of Theseus as a basis for this book raises all kinds of interesting questions, particularly about human nature. The foremost observation in my mind was that not much has changed since Theseus entered the labyrinth and slew the Minotaur. People are just as obsessed with blood now as they were then, and may very well still be far into the future. In ancient Greek legend, Crete required Athens to send youths of both sexes to be devoured by the Minotaur as tribute after losing a war. Today, we watch UFC and other mixed martial arts on TV. In the future (or at least the future that Collins envisions), we will have the Hunger Games. The main point I'm trying to make is that human nature does not change, not even after a catastrophe that quite literally changed the world as we know it. Katniss, her family, and her friends exist in a world that is very different from ours, but also so alike that it's uncanny. In both worlds, the government is the ultimate authority; people have very little actual say in what happens to them (all illusions of freedom, choice, and independence to the contrary). In both worlds, people still watch bloodshed for amusement; the desire for entertainment at the expense of someone else's well-being is the same, and only the venue has changed. I think that was one of the main points Collins was trying to make in writing this book, and indeed, the whole trilogy: that no matter how advanced we think we are, we haven't changed much since leaving our caves thousands of years ago.

Book Response -- Lois Lowry's "The Giver"

My selected book for this week was Lois Lowry's The Giver. Unlike our required book for the week, Neil Gaiman's The Graveyard Book (which I ranted about extensively in my other response), The Giver is a classic which I've read several times and enjoyed every single time. Not only is it fun to read, but I also think it raises some important questions for kids to ask about individuality and the importance of asking hard-hitting questions.

I talked with my roommates about this book quite a bit over the weekend. All of them had read it at some point or another in school (I read it for the first time as a freshman in high school), but not within the last five years. I was excited to revisit it for this class because a) I described it to my roommates as "Nineteen Eighty-Four for kids," and b) I've matured as a person since the first time I read it, and my attitudes on being an individual (as cliché as that sounds) are pretty firmly cemented on the side of "free expression for all." Jonas, the protagonist, lives in a world without memory or strife, where everyone is happy but identical to one another. All emotional depth has been eradicated from this seemingly idyllic world where society has taken the act of "blending in with the crowd" to an extreme with the Sameness doctrine, and Jonas becomes the apprentice to the Giver, the old man who stores everyone's memories from before Sameness. When Jonas experiences vivid pre-Sameness memories via the Giver's telepathy, he realizes that the world he lives in is devoid of everything beautiful: love, music, even color. He must then make the decision of staying and acting out his place in society as he is told, or breaking out and living life as it was meant to be lived. Ultimately, he chooses the latter, and that's why I love the book: it's a snapshot of a kid (Jonas is only twelve) standing up and making a conscious decision not to follow the herd, to make his own way.

If you went to a private Catholic school like I did, then I'm willing put money on the fact that, like me, you had a dress code or uniforms at your school. I grew up wearing nothing but navy blue, white, and red shirts, the only colors we were allowed to wear in elementary school. In middle school, it became green and white. In high school, we could wear any color, but it had to be a tucked-in collared shirt or sweatshirt, and khakis were a must. Guys' hair could not be longer than their shirt collar, and piercings and facial hair were out of the question. Girls were allowed only one piercing per ear, were not allowed to wear skirts above the knee, and could not dye their hair any unnatural colors (not even black). No one could wear clothing deemed "offensive" by the dean of students and principal, which could be whatever they wanted (I thought I was being rebellious by wearing AC/DC and Led Zeppelin T-shirts under my collared shirt to class every day). Basically, everyone had to look more or less the same. One girl in my class actually transferred schools in our sophomore year because she dyed her hair bright red and would not dye it back to her natural color when ordered by the principal; we had to sit through a long, school-wide assembly where the principal told us (and this is a direct quote) that "if you want to be an individual, go somewhere else." That really stuck with me, and having read The Giver the previous year for freshman English, I thought it was really ironic that a school so obsessed with conformity would require all its incoming freshmen to read a book that did nothing but rail against conformity.

Jonas was easy for me to relate to in high school. He had the special gift of being able to hear music and see color when no one else in his society could; my talent was being a natural on the drumset in a school that placed much more emphasis on sports than music. He began as a regular kid in his conformist society, while I conformed to the fashion and religious practices of my school. Finally, we both made a conscious decision to leave that conformity behind after experiencing something that opened our eyes to how hollow that life was: his impetus was experiencing memories through the Giver, while mine was listening to heavy metal for the first time.

That said, I believe that Lois Lowry fully intended to write this book for disaffected adolescents like me. While The Giver is not a feel-good story, she forces readers to ask themselves how they may be conforming to whatever society they live in. In other words, she uses Jonas to turn the mirror around and show it to the reader, which (in theory) should make them wonder: if that were me, how would I react? I think the message is especially powerful when the reader is under the age of 18. It's a well-known fact that kids are easily swayed by the herd mentality; it's hard to stand up and be an individual at a stage in development when not following the crowd is seen as weird or uncool. I know--it happened to me. But Lowry's choice of a 12-year-old boy for her protagonist is a telling reference to her intent in writing this book (at least in my opinion). The way I see it, Lowry chose to make Jonas a preteen and put him through the worst crisis a preteen can go through--being viewed as "different"--in order to show that, yes, it is possible to not only buck the trend everyone else follows, but also to make your own way. Jonas' choice to flee his home with baby Gabriel at the end of the book represents the final break between him and his old life; he has fully separated from the herd and, for better or worse, makes his own way. The ending is ambiguous--does he or does he not freeze to death? But there is a glimmer of hope in the music that floats from the houses Jonas sees through the snow--the promise that the grass is, indeed, greener on the other side of the fence.

Book Response -- Neil Gaiman's "The Graveyard Book"

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Our required book for this week was Neil Gaiman's The Graveyard Book. I have to be honest, reading this was like reading the screenplay of a Tim Burton movie. And since I can count the number of Tim Burton movies I enjoy on one hand and have fingers left over, you can safely assume that I didn't really like this book.

I've never read any of Neil Gaiman's other books (I've seen the Coraline movie but that's it), but if they're anything like this, he may be the biggest closet Nightmare Before Christmas fanboy ever. The protagonist is Nobody "Bod" Owens, a young lad whose entire family was wiped out in a brutal triple murder when he was just a toddler (which carried out by a mysterious figure identified only as "the man Jack"), and who ends up being adopted by the ghosts of a friendly (of course) Victorian couple in an abandoned graveyard. He grows up learning ghost tricks like fading into invisibility, befriending various graveyard denizens, and having various morbid (but kid-appropriate) adventures. Looks to me like someone watched Corpse Bride a few times too many.

It doesn't surprise me that The Graveyard Book came from the same man who wrote Coraline, which was adapted into a Tim Burton-style 3D movie directed by Henry Selick, the same man who directed The Nightmare Before Christmas. In my opinion, that's not a coincidence. There seems to be an enormous market out there these days for macabre literature and movies marketed towards children and adolescents. The Twilight craze is only the latest manifestation of this fad; fangirls were drooling over Nightmare and Edward Scissorhands way back in the early 1990s. Now that Twilight is at the apex of its popularity, with new adolescent-themed books with cheap knockoff plots appear in bookstores almost monthly, Gaiman is cashing in on his success with Coraline, and giving Twilight fans something to read while waiting for Stephanie Meyer to finish her latest thesaurus-abusing novel in the process.

I may be a bit strong with my opinion here, but authors like Neil Gaiman do very little to help adolescent literature. I don't think that because I think macabre children's books are bad for their moral development or something equally crazy; that's not what bothers me. What bothers me is that The Graveyard Book came out during the peak of the biggest surge of horror-related children's media yet in American pop culture history, and in my opinion, The Graveyard Book and its contemporaries (every teen vampire novel ever written, for example) are transparent cash-ins, attempting to get their slice of the pie before the kids get bored and move on to something else. It's not that Gaiman is a bad writer (whereas Stephanie Meyer couldn't write her way out of a wet paper bag, and even Stephen King said so); it's that, at least in my eyes, he is wasting his talent. Robert Cormier managed to be edgy and even downright morbid without being kitschy in his books. Why is it so hard for Gaiman?

I suppose it's time for me to stop ripping on the author and get down to an analysis. Gaiman makes extensive use of sequential, but not always related, vignettes to portray Bod's upbringing in the graveyard. Some have likened this to Rudyard Kipling's The Jungle Book; in fact, Gaiman himself admitted that he thought it would be fun to write The Jungle Book as if it took place in a cemetery. Here again, though, I have to interject my opinion that Gaiman could make much better use of his talent than "updating" a literary classic for the MySpace generation. I knew Hollywood was running out of fresh ideas for movies, but I never thought I'd see the day where novelists would do the same.

I found a lot of literary parallels to Lemony Snicket's Series of Unfortunate Events books as well. Having read much of that series myself, and realizing that the plot devices get more and more repetitive with each successive book, I can say this for a fact. The protagonists of both books suffer traumatic events early in their lives, are taken in by various kooky and spooky characters, get into all kinds of macabre mischief, and all the while are pursued by a mysterious murderer with a network of agents who is bent on eliminating them. Gaiman's writing is again highly derivative here; although Lemony Snicket did not invent the "clever child outwits evil mastermind" by any stretch of the imagination, and although he too is guilty of a variety of miscues in his books (repeating plot devices, recycling characters/situations/lines, etc.), he did it before Gaiman.

I don't mean to offend anyone who liked this book with this response. I'm just not a fan of this kind of literature. I'm sure at least a few people in the class enjoyed it, but I'm very choosy when it comes to supernatural-themed adolescent media. I will admit that I liked the film version of Coraline, but that choosiness comes out especially in books. Authors like Gaiman are fantasy writers, and I'm a huge fantasy fan, but I just can't get behind something like this. I prefer "realistic fantasy" (it does exist, check out George R.R. Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire series), which is most often marketed towards adult readers. I wasn't even a fan of children's fantasy growing up; Disney movies and the like were not for me. Now, at 22, that choosiness has solidified into a deep suspicion of fantasy books that come out at the height of a fantasy craze, one that has lasted over a decade and is inevitably going to run out of steam. I wonder what Gaiman will jump to next.

Recent Comments

  • gold0307: I think you did a great job analyzing the plot, read more
  • gold0307: I agree with your admiration of Armstrong's ability to so read more
  • gold0307: Your comparison of The Graveyard Book to the Lemony Snicket read more
  • gold0307: I think the parallel you draw between your experience as read more
  • gold0307: I find it interesting, yet a bit disturbing, that you read more

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