02 July 2011
All right, I am thoroughly ashamed of myself for not having posted for so long. My excuse--that I have been busy--is insufficient. Please forgive me! *pleads for mercy* I would like to try to post book reviews regularly until I go back to school. That's all I'll guarantee for now.
I usually review books with chapters on my book blog--a bit of a no-brainer there, right?--but today I am going to review a comic book instead. Why? Because Art Spiegelman's inventive, disturbing memoir/family history Maus is just that good. I have long wanted to read this Pulitzer Prize-winning comic book, ever since I heard about it in my freshman English Comp 2 class, but I never had a chance to until this past spring semester when my awesome roommate gave me a copy because she knows I like history.
As I have discussed at length on this blog before, World War II is one of my obsessions and, as someone who is part Jewish, the Holocaust is a subject that simultaneously fascinates and repulses me. I've read a lot of great Holocaust memoirs, but I have never read one quite like Maus, in which Spiegelman records his father Vladek's survival during the Holocaust, chronicling his often troubled relationship with his father some thirty years after the war as Art interviews Vladek about his experiences.
Rather than Art, who is a cartoonist, merely drawing his father and the other characters as realistically as possible, Spiegelman opts instead to draw the Jews as mice and the Nazis, as well as other Germans, as cats. The animal theme is carried over even further with the Poles as pigs, French as frogs, and Americans as dogs. The result is surreal and unnerving but also a bit more accessible than other Holocaust stories precisely because even though you know you're reading about something that actually happened, you're not faced with seeing human characters in those situations. The fantastical element does nothing to diminish the tragedy. In addition, the plot itself is gripping--I couldn't put the book down, even though I knew I had to be up at 5:30 the next morning for work.
I think what elevates Maus above other comic books, besides the somber subject matter, is the quality of the artwork and the depth of the characters. Even though the characters are all drawn as animals, their mannerisms are all too human and Spiegelman does a great job of portraying that. In addition, if you look closely, there's usually something happening in the background, whether it's funny, quirky, or sad. That attention to detail is exactly one of the reasons why I enjoyed this book so much. My inner English major likes to search for minute detail. . . .
Though Spiegelman makes his father and himself the subject of the Maus, he makes no effort to whitewash either of them. Sometimes his elderly father comes off as cantakerous and petty, though he also proves himself to be kind and clever. Art even draws himself as impatient with his father and unwilling to humor him. As you read Maus, you realize that the book is just as much a form of therapy for Art as it is a tale of his father's survival. It is my humble opinion that many artists and writers who embark on such a project often end up letting their emotions and close personal ties to the story overwhelm the piece and compromise its quality in the process. Not so with Maus. Art's central role in the story only adds to its complexity--and its complexity is exactly what puts this comic book leagues ahead of others like it.
If you're looking for a bit of variety in your reading list, add Maus. This book is one of the best, most inventive, and most haunting I've read in a long time. I think everyone should read Maus once.
Next Time: Probably Elizabeth Kostova's The Historian. I make no promises, though.
This Week In Literary History: 30 June 1936: Margaret Mitchell's Civil War epic Gone With The Wind is published. All right, confession time. I have actually never read this novel, but I have watched the 1939 Oscar-winning film adaptation, and I enjoyed it. That counts for something, right? RIGHT? Ahem. Anyway, this one is on my to-read list.