Thanks that are long overdue

Kids take a lot of things for granted.  It’s part of being a kid, to accept the world and its people as part of how life should be.   That’s a terrible thing for kids who live with pain or deprivation but for a lot of us that meant a childhood where we took bicycles, birthday parties, vacations and our family’s love and devotion as part of our just due. We rarely said thank you.  For example, I never thanked my folks for showing me why some stories are classics.  Still, I haven’t forgotten our time with Treasure Island.

I don’t know if Treasure Island is still one of the required books of childhood.  There are so many other stories now and Disney has such an imprimatur on the pirate world these days that Robert Louis Stevenson’s classic may get lost in the shuffle.  My folks had both grown up with the tale and I suspect they were a bit excited about sharing “their” story with me when I turned ten.  Perhaps I was a bit young, but I already had my nose in a book all the time so why not give me one they loved?  None of us expected I couldn’t get “into” it.

But I couldn’t, not past Section I, as I told my mom three months later when she caught me re-reading The Borrowers.  Mom didn’t fuss at me (as I feared) or remind me that I shouldn’t ignore an expensive present.   She walked away and the next evening told me that she and Dad had a new project: they would read Treasure Island out loud over the next several nights, one chapter per parent per evening.  All I had to do was sit and listen.  

How well I remember those evenings, Dad lying on the couch and mom in a chair while I perched in the rocker, listening.  Dad read with enthusiasm, enjoying the author’s writing style but my Mom touched greatness as a reader.  She had all the talent of an actress and a gift for mimicry so I recognized each character by their voice tone and accent whenever she read.  Squire Trelawney’s remarks had the drawl of aristocracy and Dr. Livesey used the Estuary English accent of an educated but self-made man.  The pirates, of course, all used cockney or West Country accents and Jim’s voice had the higher tone of a boy.  It was a wonderful performance.

My parents read every night, sailing through the dry area narrative where I’d stopped and into the sea-voyage, my excitement growing with each reading.  I asked mom to return the book to me so I could “read ahead” but my wise mother said no and hid the volume, knowing the wait would increase my desire for the story.  I took to wearing my winter boots for each reading, because they were the closest things in my closet to pirate garb and begged for extra chapters when we stopped at a cliff-hanger.  I hated it when the book ended.

I think we all enjoyed that wonderful experiment although we never repeated it.  My interest in reading rarely flagged after that and, though readers, my folks seldom liked the same books.  But when a loved one says some classic tale isn’t keeping their interest, I’ll volunteer to read it aloud.   My parents are gone now and it’s the only way I can thank them for those evenings of pirates and treasure. 


And now my month of steady blogging is done.  Have you liked it? What books did I miss that you like, which brought back memories for you, which books followed you home?   Having a blog is rather like throwing bottled messages into the sea and I’m curious to know where (or if) my letters wash ashore.  For everyone who has fished out a bottle by reading this blog, thank you.  I appreciate your trips to the beach.

If you don’t know Cannery Row, you don’t know Steinbeck.

“Cannery Row in Monterey in California is a poem, a stink, a grating noise, a quality of light, a tone, a habit, a nostalgia, a dream.”

So says John Steinbeck, the twentieth century novelist teachers forced you to read  high school and professors mocked in college.   Steinbeck who preaches in The Grapes of Wrath and makes you weep in Of Mice and Men, did you know he could be funny?   That man, so serious and biblical in  East of Eden (except for the scenes with the car), also knew how to relax.   You wouldn’t guess it but Steinbeck was a versatile writer who loved life.  Of all things, Steinbeck cared about people and that shows up in Cannery Row.

Cannery Row was and is a waterfront street in the town of Monterey and for a while was the hangout of Steinbeck.  Then, it was a rundown place full of abandoned buildings and homeless  people who sheltered there.  Other impoverished people such as artists, prostitutes and rejects from society lived on the row but, most remarkably, Steinbeck’s best friend, a self-taught naturalist named Ed Ricketts lived and worked there finding sea animals for university labs and zoos. All of these people made it into the novel Cannery Row.

In the novel, Ed Ricketts becomes Doc, the owner and operator of Pacific Biologicals, a marine lab and one of the few profitable businesses in Cannery Row.  The other primary businesses are Lee Chong’s Heavenly Flower Grocery (where any marketable item can usually be found because Lee Chong does not give up on merchandise just because it isn’t selling) and the Bear Flag Restaurant, a brothel whose madam funds or performs most of the civic projects in the area.  Wandering in between these establishments are a group of fellows known collectively as “Mack and the boys”.   These are men who Steinbeck says have “in common no families, no money, and no ambitions beyond food, drink, and contentment.”  This group of well-intentioned hobos get the idea they would like to thank Doc for all of his kindness by throwing a party for him.  A surprise party.   The ensuing adventure surprises a farmer, Lee Chong,  Doc, everyone on the Row, the police and more than a thousand frogs.  One of the funniest sections of this very funny book concerns the acquisition of those frogs and since I don’t have the rights to republish this and I don’t want to get sued for copyright infringement, I’ll add a link here to someone who has published the prose (A Frog’s tale)  If that page doesn’t make you smile, forget it.

But I can’t forget it, anymore than I can forget Lee Chong, Doc’s beer milk-shake or the woman who wants to hang curtains inside a boiler.  It’s a sweet place, Cannery Row, and I expect to find it one day in some place far away from ambition and close to the sea.  If you find it first, call me and get a six-pack of beer from Lee Chong’s.   It will be time to kick back and breathe..

A Pattern for Learning: Johnny Tremain

Every kid who is lucky gets one or two teachers in their childhood who seem to understand them, teachers they respond to.   All of my grade-school teachers were nice people and a few actually seems to care about me but my sixth grade teacher gave me the extra guidance I needed at that uncertain age.  She had an intuitive understanding of all the “outsider” kids in her room and found activities that made us valued members of the class.  During discussions, she treated us like we were reasonable adults and we responded in kind.  And she brought a great book into our lives, reading it aloud after lunch.  I will always be grateful for her introduction to Johnny Tremain.

Johnny is the story of a developing nation but more than that, it’s the story of a developing man, Jonathan Lyte Tremain.  In the beginning, Johnny is an apprentice in pre-revolutionary Boston, Massachusetts, a silversmith in training and one of those talented people you want to slap.   Yes, he is gifted and smart, probably the mainstay of his employer’s business but he’s also sarcastic, arrogant and an intellectual bully.  Some of this behavior comes from an over-inflated ego but part of it is a coverup for this isolation he feels as an orphan who has never made friends easily.  Two things cause Johnny to revise his character: first, a life-altering injury ruins his career and sense of identity; he’s cast away from the community that once valued his abilities.  Then, he finds that teacher we all need; the mentor who, by example, teaches us to value character more than talent and the worth of others as well as well one’s self.  This teacher gives Johnny the opportunity to overcome his injury and a front-row seat to history: the first blows of the American Revolution.

Johnny Tremain‘s author, Esther Forbes, was a historian who researched the lives of American colonists and she included real people as supporting characters in this book.  Well known figures such as Paul Revere,  Sam Adams and  John Hancock. and lesser known ones like Joseph Warren and James Otis walk across the pages as well as the fictional characters and the patriots bring Johnny into the Revolutionary War. Johnny’s struggle to develop his new life and identity parallels Boston’s and the colonies’ fight to reinvent themselves as parts of an independent country.    Both Johnny and the community face hardship and sacrifice in the battle for self-determination and it’s that battle that gives Johnny the purpose and community he’s needs to continue, not as the star apprentice in a small shop but as an American in a group of fellow Americans.  It’s an incredibly powerful lesson.

Teachers give lessons and homework and tests to get ideas and information into their students until the students begin to teach themselves.   A good teacher, like a good book, can take you into yourself but the best ones take you into the world.  At the beginning of this holiday season, let me wish you a lifetime of great teachers and great books.  Books like Johnny Tremain.

When you can’t pick a favorite: Dick Francis & Decider

I love the crime thrillers of the last century and one of my favorite authors in the genre was Dick Francis.  The man lived an incredible life (RAF pilot, champion jockey, best-selling writer, just look at his Wikipedia bio!) and if his novels run to a formula, each mixed a new field of information into an abiding love for horses and a solid block of principles.  I’ve read all of them at least once, I give most of them house room and I can’t pick a favorite.   So, I’ll give the first shot to one of his later books, Decider

In Decider, Lee Morris salvages ruins.  In today’s vernacular, he’s a flipper, one of those guys who buys distressed or damaged buildings and turns it into a marketable property.  Lee’s an architect and he specializes in reclaiming “listed buildings,” those structures the British government protects from bulldozing and developers because they have historic or architectural interest.  Lee’s business is to turn these often dilapidated buildings into marketable residences without destroying the characteristics that make the structure “listed”.  Lee’s learned how to work with a variety of people in order to do his job and right now he needs these skills to help a family that’s not quite his.  You see, Lee has inherited a few shares of a racecourse that’s primarily owned by the Stratton family and the Strattons can’t decide what to do with the property.  As a matter of fact, a lot of the family members’ energy (and some of the family weath) is devoted to infighting and or foiling the schemes of more outrageous relatives.  Against his better judgment,  Lee’s pulled into the Stratton disputes and by the end, he has to expose the Stratton secrets to keep his own family safe.

While this looks like just another Dick Francis mystery with chase scenes and horses, it’s a really a story about the stresses and structures that exist in both buildings and families.  The hero watches the Stratton power struggles and compares the destructive members to his troupe of growing boys, trying to anticipate the stresses his sons will face and reinforcing their characters.  Without saying so, the author draws a parallel between the damaged but salvageable buildings Lee rehabs for his livelihood and the damaged relationships he sees both in the Stratton family and his own.  While some derelict places or relationships can be revived,  Decider implies that salvage can be a dangerous game and restoration is achievable only to a degree.  Some breaks are beyond repair.

There are some delightful architectural asides thrown in such as the argument to using peach canvas when you need a fabric shade.  Light shines through the canvas onto the faces below and the peach tint is more complimentary than say, yellow.  Peach makes old faces look younger and healthier and since the older customers are usually the ones with real money to spend, choose materials that make them feel happier.  Another observation is that the smells in a pub are supremely important.   You can buy a pub with a great location, wonderful parking and a great wait staff but if the place smells like ammonia cleaner, you’ve wasted your money.   Get the smells right and your customers will come. Those observations are the kind of things that I love in a novel, the sense of getting insight from an expert.   Dick Francis did this in almost every book, researching subjects so his tales gave the reader insight on some new profession or industry.  They are fascinating as well as enjoyable.

Only you can say if you want to know more and whether you’ll pick up this book.  If you aren’t sure, make your list of pros and cons but listen to your instincts and heed what appeals to your heart.   Like Lee Morris, let that be your Decider.


The Spoils of Poynton or Why My English Teacher was right about Henry James

My English teacher said some writers often go in and out of fashion. A few, like some clothes, hardly ever go out of style.  You can like them forever and know they’ll always be available for discussion and the worst opinion you’ll hear is, “Well, of course, you like___, who doesn’t?”   For example, if Shakespeare was fashion, he’d be a great pair of leather loafers or a white, short-sleeved shirt.  Good for practically everything.  Oscar Wilde might be a burgundy velvet vest: (waistcoat for citizens of the U. K.)  dramatic, a bit sensual, fairly versatile but not the go-to choice in every situation.  Shame, because I really like burgundy velvet vests.  But the writer who seems a bit neglected these days is Henry James. Except for Halloween revivals of The Turn of the Screw and the occasional big-budget costume picture, his work is largely ignored and that’s a shame. He appreciated the complexity of human character and culture and he used it to create wonderful, memorable stories.   My favourite is The Spoils of Poynton.
Poynton is the story of four individuals who keep pairing off into irreconcilable teams.  Team One might be the Gareth, widowed mother and grown son, in trouble due to British probate laws.   Mrs Gareth and her late husband spent an incredible amount of time, effort and money to furnish their home, Poynton, with the greatest possible taste.   When the son (Owen) decides to marry, the house and everything in it become his property.  Legally, Mama doesn’t own anything. That’s hard on Mrs G, especially since she knows Owen didn’t inherit his parents’ taste or intelligence and she wants to make sure that his bride will be a better custodian.
Enter Team Two, the two main candidates, for Owen’s hand in marriage. Fleda Vetch, has wonderful taste but no money and Mona Bridgstock who has terrible taste but Owen’s interest.   Actually, Owen’s interest seems to vacillate between the two girls because (are you taking notes, children?) Owen and Fleda are basically nice people who try to think of others and the ethical thing to do while Mona and Mrs G. both focus on how to get their own way(s).  
Okay, now we’ve seen the Gareths v. the would-be brides and the nice ones v. the naughties and I’ve hinted at the third set of teams (the aesthetes v. the barbarians or the tasteful v. tasteless, if you prefer) and the plot wheel begins to spin.   Owen proposes to Mona who says she’ll wed when she gets the keys to Poynton and every stick of furniture inside it.  (Granted, Mona can’t tell Spode from a spade but she’s not about to let Owen’s mum run off with the silver and soft furnishings.  As far as Mona is concerned, Poynton and its fixtures are Owen’s dowry.)  Mrs G has developed a real friendship with Fleda Vetch and whenever Owen shows up wanting to talk about the wedding and mum’s eviction, Mrs Gareth sends Fleda to the meeting.  Now for the cherry on the Sundae: Fleda’s got a secret, world-sized crush on the son, Owen. She can’t tell Owen how she feels (he’s engaged!) and she doesn’t dare tell Mrs Gareth who would try to manipulate her. Fleda feels bad that Owen’s predicament and worse about her own role in this mess but she’s under strict instruction never to accept or turn down his suggestions about “What to do About Poynton.” 

Henry James
Now a couple of interesting side bits.  The plot of Poynton is partially based on legal case that Mr. James had seen in the news.  The dowager widow of an English estate didn’t want to turn over the house and land to her son when he came of age.  The son sued to get his inheritance and mum testified he wasn’t entitled to it because (wait for it!) her husband wasn’t the boy’s father.  When you consider how adultery was viewed in that culture, you’ll understand how desperate the mother must have been to come up with that defense!  The other thing you’ll notice if/when you read the book is that beyond one item, nothing in Poynton’s collection is described or documented.   The house is supposed to be an assembled work of art, a cohesive collection that brings out the best in each piece and every room but we really don’t know what it looks like.   Mrs Gareth continually refers to the contents of her home as “the things” (As in, “Has she any sort of feeling for the nice old things?”). The author originally wanted to call the novel “The Old Things” but he deliberately left most of the specifics of the collection off.   This allows each reader to conjure up a vision of what Poynton must look like to be worth this much trouble.
If you’ve been reading about these precious, immovable objects and teams of irresistible forces, chances are you’ve thought, “Something’s gotta give” and yes, it does.  Well, a lot of things do but not all at once and not the way you’d expect.  The Spoils of Poynton has a hum-dinging twist of an ending.  So pick up the book, brew yourself a good pot of tea and do not skip ahead to the ending.  This tale is wound up tight and you won’t appreciate the ride if you miss hitting most of the curves.   It’s the work of a master so appreciate it for what it is.   Intricate, archaic, wound up and beautifully designed, this work is the literary equivalent of a Victorian pocket watch.  And so is Henry James.  I hope he comes back into style.

When home is a place where you’ve never been: Cross Creek

William Shakespeare, that quotable fellow, said “Some are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon them.”   That’s how I feel about home.  Many people I know are raised with a real sense of identity, knowing who they are and where they belong long before they learn how to read.  That place of origin, for good or for ill, is home, undeniable as DNA.  Others have to make a place for themselves in this world and a few of us enter a strange site and realize with amazement that this place centers us like no other.  It’s a shock, like first falling in love, and it changes the folks who experience it.  That realization of finding home is central to Marjorie Kinnan Rawling’s book Cross Creek  because it’s not just about the first heady days of romance.  Cross Creek is the love affair between a discoverer and place.

The two were an unlikely match.  Mrs. Rawlings was a thirty-two year old journalist whose career and human marriage were both showing wear but not many signs of success.  She was educated, politically liberal and although she could write, she had not found her “voice”, that prerequisite of transcendent writers.  Cross Creek was an undisturbed pocket of the Old South populated by black and white families who eked out an living on the land, through farming or sharecropping, hunting, trading or fishing.  Probably no one believed she would stay.   The greatest trait both parties shared was stubbornness.

Well that, and a love of the place.  It must have held beauty beyond measure because Marjorie stuck there without friends, without encouragement and soon, without her husband (who couldn’t tolerate the isolation) or her dog (who hated the heat.)   Marjorie tolerated it all, including the bugs and the outhouse, adapted, repaired and plugged away at fiction that wasn’t getting published.  She was also writing to an editor about her neighbors.   Those letters mark the beginning of her voice.

A key part of the success of Cross Creek is Marjorie’s opinion of her neighbors.  She recognizes their residential seniority and values each individual for the merits in his or her own character.  She also recognizes her own fallibility and admits to her many mistakes.  That humility told the neighbors she might be be worth teaching.

From these new friends and the things they taught her, Marjorie gleaned the material for her best known work, The Yearling  (when her editor suggest she write a boy’s story set in the Florida scrub, she replied to his suggestion, saying, “How calmly you sit in your office and tell me to write a classic!”  Irony, thy name is Marjorie.)  Cross Creek was the follow-up, a love song to the area she loved.

As in so many romances, the one between Marjorie and Cross Creek did not make it to the finish line.  First, she remarried and living with her second husband meant living some seventy miles away.  Far sadder is the fall out that came from this book.  One of the people Marjorie wrote of with affection and respect took offense over the description and sued for libel.  The case went on for years, dividing the community and draining the parties.  Marjorie stayed away after that.

In the end, Frost described it best: “Home is the place where, when you have to go there, they have to take you in.”  When Marjorie died, she was buried in a cemetery less than five miles from the place she’d recognized as home.  Other Creek residents are spending their eternity there including the woman who sued her.  Thus far, the residents seem to be keeping their peace.

Marjorie wrote she was not the real owner at Cross Creek noting, “Cross Creek belongs to the wind and the rain, to the sun and the seasons, to the cosmic secrecy of seed, and beyond all, to time.” Instead, she belonged to this place that defined her, defied her and nourished her soul.  For good or for ill, Cross Creek became part of her, like DNA.  Call that what you like, I think it means “home”.

The past through a prism: A look at David Copperfield.

“I have in my heart of hearts a favorite child.  And his name is David Copperfield.”  That’s what Charles Dickens said in the preface of his famous novel and I believe he meant it.  History didn’t record how his wife or his ten human children reacted to the statement (that would have been a Jerry Springer show in the making!) but, as sad as the remark probably made them, I doubt if they were surprised.  A large amount of fiction comes from the writer’s re-imagination of his or her own past and much of the novel David Copperfield can be traced to the life of Charles Dickens.  The transfiguration of those experiences in David Copperfield redeemed a lot of the author’s own childhood. It also made a much-loved book.

Every fan of fiction knows Charles Dickens had an unsettled childhood.  His father was always in debt and the family moved continually, trying to avoid Dad’s creditors.  That ended when his father was thrown into debtor’s prison and all of the family (except 12 year old Charles and his slightly older sister) were incarcerated there for a time.  His sister managed to stay in her school but his parents forced Charles to leave his studies and go to work in a shoe polish factory to support himself.  Charles Dickens never got over the humiliation of those experiences or the anger at his mother for trying to keep him in the factory after the family got financial relief and freedom.  After his father tried to capitalize on the adult son’s fame (borrowing from his son’s friends and publishers) Charles banished his parents to the country.

Those experiences found their way into David Copperfield. Dickens’s  father becomes two characters, the terrible Mr. Murdstone who forces his orphaned step-son, David into child labor and the likeable, irresponsible spend-thrift, Micawber with his financial advice and unfounded optimism that “something will turn up.”  By splitting the sin from the sinner, Dickens managed to write of his father with some remaining affection. (Since the Micawber ends up becoming one of the unlikely heroes of the story, a suspicious reader might infer a lot of fatherly affection remained with the author, despite his father’s profligate ways.)

Reality seeps through the fiction in other ways.  Dickens examines his own experience as an impoverished child laborer in the book and the unrelenting shame he felt about that episode.  Like his creator, David is embarrassed about his familiarity with pawnbrokers, rats and extreme poverty and once firmly past it, he keeps it a secret from his new friends but fear of poverty fuels the ambition in both hero and author.  Reality also makes David Copperfield a more identifiable protagonist than some of the author’s earlier heroes like Nicholas Nickelby or Martin Chuzzlewit.  David makes mistakes the earlier protagonists avoid, like drinking too much in the chapter, “My First Dissipation (The line, “‘Agnes!’ I said. “‘I’mafraidyou’renorwell.'” is terribly funny) and falling for all the wrong people but that’s because David Copperfield, like Charles Dickens is human.  The novel’s weakest spot is that the David’s “right people” are still too impossibly good to be believable but Mr. Dickens was still developing as a writer at this point.  If you want a Dickens heroine that isn’t a saint, you’ll have to pick up Great Expectations.  That’s further down the line.

Yes, David Copperfield‘s an old-fashioned novel.  It has a million characters with silly names and everything works out for the best.  But that’s part of the art of story, creating redemption through imagination and giving everyone a “good enough” ending. It’s a way to resolve some old issues and keep alive those that we miss.  There’s the life that we had and the life we wish we had and fiction connects the two.  Blessed be the fiction that binds. 

A little-known tale of Disaster: Under a Flaming Sky

My husband collects disaster stories.   I think it goes back to his childhood when he read A Night to Remember.  The account of Titanic’s sole voyage was so researched, so well-written and evocative, he’s been chasing disaster accounts ever since.   Me, I like these books for the slice-of-life history that comes with each account, the context of how people lived in some different time and era and who they were.  For whatever reason, we both love disaster accounts and this summer I found a good one.  Under a Flaming Sky (by Daniel James Brown) is one of those books that flies under the radar until the author gets a hit later on.  Here’s hoping the author’s good luck with his current release will give this story a deserved second look.

UAFS is the story of Hinkley, Minnesota, a town on the edge of the prairie near the end of the Guilded Age.  Hinkley had done well as a town, booming along with the twin streams of business and labor.  Lumber was the town’s biggest business and a steady stream of immigrants kept it moving from forests through the sawmills to the trains.  Everyone was in a hurry to get up, get moving and make the product that brought a paycheck and that was fine, except there was rarely time to clean up. As the trunks of the trees went to the mills to be planed and sectioned, the extra got left behind.   Leaves, branches, pine needles and the wood shavings that come from lumbering were left in the fields with the stumps to dry in the air and sun.  A lot of debris had dried by September of 1894; less than two inches of rain had fallen since May. A fire was probably inevitable but Hinckley got an inferno.

Two wild fires started, one south, one southwest of town, each generating high convection winds and low-hanging smoke.  These winds (and the ground debris) fed the fires until they met and the combined flames beat up through the smoke into the cool air above.   It was like adding gasoline.  The wildfires became a gigantic firestorm, a moving wall of flame between four and five miles high.   The thermal winds produced blazing whirlwinds that broke away from the firewall and caught new things alight.  The heat on the ground melted barrels of nails and train rails and people.  In less than four hours,  480 square miles of Minnesota – almost a quarter of a million acres – were consumed.

No one knows how many died in the fire; officials weren’t counting the Native Americans back then and many folks just disappeared.  But hundreds of people survived because a couple of trains drove through the conflagration, picking up fleeing settlers along the way.   Every bridge they crossed had to be checked for safety because the rails were softening under the hideous heat and that meant letting the fire catch up behind you while the brakeman tested the tracks.  A few other people survived by jumping into water, either the river or the standing water in the town’s gravel pit.  But hundreds had no chance at all.

One nine year old boy survived the conflagration and moved to California, eventually becoming a family man and executive but he never really escaped from the fire.  Night after night, while his daughter was studying, the man dreamed of his Minnesota boyhood and woke up screaming.  His daughter couldn’t forget his screams.  Her son created this book.

Under a Flaming Sky, is, in the end, not the story of a disaster but the people who faced it, both those that survived and died.  And that’s why these stories are important.  The survivors inspire us to overcome our own low points and the lost are not forgotten.  We take all of them with us when we close the book and they continue because we remember.  And remember’s a fine thing to do.

Maus

I’ll admit it, I’m a snob when it comes to comic books.  Early in my reading career it became apparent that an inverse relationship existed between the number of illustrations in the book and the expected IQ of the reader.  (i.e., more pictures meant lower IQ).   As soon as I figured that out, I headed for chapter books at high speed.  Oh, I still enjoyed a great illustration once in a while but I knew better than to focus on them.  And I couldn’t grasp why so many males in my generation continued to buy, read and discuss comic books after they reached legal maturity.   It was like being trapped in a life-long, joke-less episode of “Big Bang Theory”.    People could call the publications graphic novels or comics, I didn’t care.  They were still just “funny books” for dorks.

So I didn’t see Maus coming.  Maus, if you haven’t seen it, is a graphic novel by Art Spiegelman about the Holocaust.   And it’s animated, because Mr. Spiegelman is an illustrator.   And, to put the icing on the cake, Mr. Spiegelman drew the characters in his work as animals.  It sounds crazy but, believe me, it’s a work of genius.

The story works this way: the adult mouse, Art, is trying to rebuild a relationship with his father, Vladek, also a mouse.  This is not easy because Vladek is a difficult old stinker with nightmares for memories and Artie is is no poster child for mental health either. Art finally gets the old mouse to start talking about his life.  After some prodding, we hear about (and see through Art’s imagination) Vladek’s early life in Poland when he married Art’s mother and settled down in a job in manufacturing.  Then Hitler knocked at the door.

Since the Jews are mice, it only follows that the Germans are cats (not nice kitties, either – all cat lovers here, beware) because cats hunt and exterminate mice.   Art’s father, Vladek and his wife, Anja, try to avoid the Nazi juggernaut overrunning Europe but are unable to escape, are split up for a time and eventually taken to Auschwitz.   They survive, but their first born son does not.  And the story makes it clear that while the active Holocaust ended with Germany’s surrender, the damage from that experience flows on for years.  Art’s mother made it through the camps but mental illness and PTSD probably induced her suicide in 1968.  Art’s father can never transcend his terrible experiences and Art himself needs therapy to adjust to life.  Maus‘s existence is proof that art is created in spite of trauma, not because of it.  It’s also a brilliant fusion of ideas.

The animal metaphor doesn’t end with cats and mice.  The non-Jewish Poles are swine, particularly those that end up fellow prisoners but still dangerous to the captured Jews.  And the American soldiers, black and white, are the species most likely to scare cats: dogs.  But the anthropomorphized illustrations allow Art to recount  his parents’ story so the readers understand the horrors of the Holocaust without facing the terrible(forgive the pun) graphic images that remain.  It’s a brilliant way to teach children about tragic events without creating more trauma.  Come to think of it, that’s what illustrations have been doing for a very long time.  I believe I’ve been wrong about comics.

Maus won the 1992 Pulitzer Prize, the first graphic novel to attain this high honor and since then, the field has exploded.  Some great graphic novels include Barefoot Gen, Neil Gaiman’s Sandman series and the brilliant Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi.   But these artists, great as they are, stand on the shoulders of Art Spiegelman and his terrifying, brilliant book, Maus.  Once there was a wall between graphic novels and literature.  Spiegelman kicked the damn thing down.

The Book in the Corner of my Soul: John Chancellor Makes Me Cry

I am not Southern by birth.  I was born in north Texas and raised in the west, in spaces known for harsh winds, wide horizons, and voices loud enough to get through the first and reach the second.  Because of this I was a stranger in a strange land when I moved to the South and  I worried I would always be an outsider.  Over several  years, I read a barrel load of books on how nuanced, complex and wonderful life here can be here, but no book taught me more or made me feel more at home  than Anne Rivers Siddons’s collection of essays, John Chancellor Makes Me Cry.

Mrs. Siddons was raised in a small Georgia town and graduated from Auburn before beginning a career in Atlanta, first in advertising and then as a novelist. Between those two jobs came the essay collection in this book.  It is a heartfelt account of adjusting to adult life after the raw newness (and gleam) of one’s twenties has disappeared but before the confidence that comes with seniority has set in.  In Passages, Gail Sheehy wrote of this as the age when 30-somethings double down on the mortgage/kids/picket fence paradigm and Ms. Siddons had her home off Peachtree Street and a collection of cats but she she also had the perspective of an outsider in a well-settled neighborhood.  As the educated observer, she became a guide I needed to understand modern Southern protocol.  From her, I learned to recognize the blue-haired doyennes and their good old boy husbands that still wield power in my city.  (The South is the only place I know where cut-throat businessmen and landed millionaires are known as Junior and Bubba).  I learned someone’s accent could not always predict their education, net worth or opinions.  I also learned that feeling unsure, frightened and unprepared is par for the course but it’s not enough reason to quit.

Anne’s essays detail facing troubles most of us confront sooner or later: fearsome weather, bad fights with the spouse, a lost job, the death of a family member. She also writes of the stresses that come of being a step-mother and second wife, a role I was learning to fill back then.  Each of these are explored with respect, sensitivity and gentle humor. There are also the odes to the good and everyday things in life such as the seasons, vacations, traffic,  the joys of work (her essay on advertising is hilarious) and the comfort of long friendships.  Her voice is intelligent, comfortable, and well-inflected with humor.  It’s impossible not to imagine her as a friend.

In the years since the publication of JCMMC, Mrs. Siddons has written many novels and they have sold well, as they should, although calling her the “the thinking-woman’s novelist” is still kind of left-handed compliment. Better is another reviewer’s observation, “One doesn’t read Anne Rivers Siddons’s books, one dwells in them.”  I’ve been dwelling in her fiction for a few decades now but JCMMC is different.  That’s the book that dwells in me.