Maus: A two-for-one graphic novel review

Maus I cover

Maus II cover

During my research last semester on graphic novels three pieces of information kept recurring: (1) Maus by Art Spiegelman is an amazing graphic novel that everyone–even the ones who don’t like graphic novels at all–love. (2) Maus is amazing and, having won a Pulitzer Prize special award in 1992, is one of the main reasons graphic novels have gained so much more mainstream appreciation as a legitimate format for literature. (3) If you read, write, or otherwise enjoy graphic novels you should be profusely thanking Spiegelman and Maus. (In all honesty I did make up that last part, but I think it was really implied in the subtext of all of my sources.)

Find it on Bookshop.

Hearing all of that, of course, I felt like I had to read it. Technically speaking, Maus: A Survivor’s Tale can be seen as two separate books. The first book (Maus I) is titled My Father Bleeds History (1986). The second, Maus II, is called And Here My Troubles Began (1991). Eventually, the two volumes were published together as one book. I had initially planned to review the two books separately however after reading both I decided that, really, the stories are so intertwined it really makes more sense to review the titles together. (Amusing aside: I’m including the covers for both titles in this review, but they’re in German instead of English. Because this is my blog and I can do things like that if I want to.)

The entire Maus saga is very meta (dictionary definition: “referring to itself or to the conventions of its genre”)–very aware that it is a book and willing to make readers aware of that fact. The story begins with Art asking his father to tell him about his youth, specifically his experiences during the Holocaust. The structure here is smart and possibly too complex to have been pulled off with traditional prose. Spiegelman shifts between past and present with ease, deals with time lapses, and tells a compelling story all while illustrating (literally) the process of researching and creating that story.

He also does it all with allegorical animals standing in for people.

In this book the Jews are represented by mice while the Germans are cats (get it?). There are other animals represented in the story as people from different countries. While they are trying to pass as Poles, the Jewish mice are often shown wearing pig masks (Polish citizens are drawn as pigs) in order to blend in. Later in the story, once again creating a meta moment, Spiegelman shows himself wearing a mouse mask while promoting the book in “real life” (as a man). It sounds crazy when you try to explain it, but it also makes a crazy kind of sense.

Illustrated in black and white, the panels are on the small side and jump around the page. In other words, Spiegelman plays around with the sequencing to keep things interesting and fill the page in the best possible combination of panels.

Of course, this isn’t always a happy book. Much of the story deals with Vladek and Anja Spiegelman’s time in the Auschwitz concentration camp and what they had to endure there. And it’s depressing. At the same time, watching Vladek keep his head on his shoulders and survive disaster after disaster, the story has uplifting moments. At the risk of sounding trite, it shows that people really can triumph in the face of adversity. Not to say their experiences in Auschwitz had no effect on Vladek’s later life. It does. By extension it also greatly impacts Spiegelman’s life and how he and his father relate to each other.

Maus isn’t the type of book I usually read, largely because its necessarily depressing. I noticed my mood dipping as I worked through the book as I became invested with the characters. I also found myself feeling guilty while reading it. Here I am, half-Jewish (in so far as anyone can be half of a religion), and I know so little about that part of myself or that side of my family. My own ambivalence might explain why I cannot love this book as much as all its praise and supporters suggest I should.

To call Maus an ambitious piece of work is an understatement. Spiegelman takes on a lot in this relatively slim volume and , for the most part, delivers.

Possible Pairings: Alan and Naomi by Myron Levoy, Number the Stars by Lois Lowry, Tamar by Mal Peet, Cures For Heartbreak by Margo Rabb, Hitler’s Canary by Sandi Toksvig

The Business of Fancydancing: A review

The Business of Fancydancing: Stories and Poems by Sherman AlexieThe Business of Fancydancing: Stories and Poems
(1992) by Sherman Alexie (Find it on Bookshop.)

After reading The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian last summer, I decided to work my way through Alexie’s oeuvre since I had already also read and enjoyed Reservation Blues. Two short story collections and one novel later, I was done. Not in that my task was completed but in that I couldn’t take anymore. Then The Business of Fancydancing (1991) came into my possession after waiting about six months for it. Unwilling to let the book go after waiting so long for it, I decided to see what the first page was like. Ten hours later I had finished it.

The Business of Fancydancing: Stories and Poems is Alexie’s first published work. As the subtitle suggests, the book is considered a collection of stories and poems. However, since most of the stories are less than five pages I think a fair argument could be made that the five stories are actually prose poems instead of stories. That might just be me though.

Like any of Alexie’s other writing, this collection includes instances of beauty as well as sadness. In the opening story “Travels” a hungry youth is told to make a jam sandwich by taking two slices of bread and jamming them together (unless a wish sandwich is more to his liking). This image recurs often in the collection.

After reading The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven and The Toughest Indian in the World, I must admit I had my doubts about Alexie’s short stories–they never seemed as engaging as his novels. That isn’t a problem here even though all of the stories are much shorter than anything found in his later collections. Very like the poems, Alexie’s stories here are bare bones. Instead of full stories (in the sense of having a conventional plot) most are vignettes painting brief, eloquent pictures of what life can mean for a Spokane Indian on and off the reservation.

The bulk of The Business of Fancydancing is comprised of poems. The English major in my wants to make some kind of comparison to illustrate what these poems are like, but no quick comparisons come to mind. Suffice it say, the lines are long and the poems deeply grounded in the concrete. One of my favorites in the collection is “Distances” which is literally a series of vignettes along with aphorisms like “Remember this: ‘Electricity is lightning pretending to be permanent.'”

Familiar characters who turn up in one of Alexie’s later story collections as well as Reservation Blues also make their first appearances here. Thomas Builds-The-Fire, a personal favorite, even has a story all to himself.

I don’t know how illustrative this book is of Alexie’s current style since his latest work has been novels, but that detail aside The Business of Fancydancing is a superb collection of poetry and serves as a good introduction to Sherman Alexie and his unique style/themes without the visceral, harsh details so often found in his newer writing.