What I’ve Been Reading — September 2006
Because of the sheer number of books checked out and received this month, I’ll be separating them into two groups. Also, if you’re looking for the actual review of what I read, you might want to scroll down to where I say “Begin the Review Here!” in bold. I’m incredibly long winded this month. You’ve been warned.
Housekeeping – Marilynne Robinson
The Work of Wolves – Kent Meyers
What’s the Difference? – Mental Floss editors
Scatterbrained – Mental Floss editors
Purple Cow – Seth Godin
Life After the 30-Second Spot – Joseph Jaffe
Marketing Plans (5th Edition) – Malcolm McDonald
Maus I and II – Art Spiegelman
The Dogs of Babel – Carolyn Parkhurst
Black Swan Green – David Mitchell
How to be Lost – Amanda Eyre Ward
Public Radio – Lisa A. Phillips
The Book Club Companion – Diana Lovely
The Treasures of Britain – John Julius Norwich (editor)
A Star Called Henry – Roddy Doyle
Public Radio – Lisa A. Phillips (not finished)
Black Swan Green – David Mitchell
Maus I and II – Art Spiegelman
The Mysteries of Pittsburgh – Michael Chabon
Jeez. The books didn’t stop coming in last month at all.
Well, I guess it was my own fault. A library trip blew up in our face as we brought home seven books in a week’s time. Two of them (The Dogs of Babel and How to Be Lost) were read by Kerrie, so I have no opinion on how they were, though I do want to read The Dogs of Babel some day. During the same trip, Kerrie and I picked up The Book Club Companion because are interested in starting a book club. Meanwhile, I attempted to scratch an annual itch by checking out The Treasures of Britain.
The Treasures of Britain is a photography book/encyclopedia put out by the National Trust, I believe. It’s full of pictures of British landmarks and buildings. It’s great. Usually, I’ll sit and pour over the pages of this book for hours, fantasizing about actually visiting these places I know so well. But this month I just couldn’t. I was too busy buying and checking out other books, I guess.
I purchased Housekeeping and The Work of Wolves at the Festival of Books, mainly because I was impressed by both authors as they spoke about writing and I wanted them to sign something.
In this same vein (of people talking to the public) I checked out and read sections of Public Radio, a collection of short bios for those who want to know the history behind their favorite public radio personalities. Unless you’re really curious about someone in particular, I wouldn’t worry about this book. Certainly don’t buy it. If you really want to learn about where Ira Glass went to college, or the history of the Car Talk guys, just check it out from the library or read the short section at the bookstore.
Earlier in the month, I received two signed books through work: Scatterbrained and What’s the Difference, two novelty books from Mental Floss Press. Mental Floss is a pretty cool magazine for smart people, and we get comp copies at work. Since I’m one of two people in the office that actually reads, I ended up with this schwag.
I also convinced my boss (at his suggestion, I might add) that we needed to purchase three books for my office. Thus, I ended up being able to write off three books in the name of business education: Godin’s Purple Cow, Jaffe’s Life After the 30-Second Spot, and McDonald’s Marketing Plans (5th Edition). Purple Cow and Life After look like interesting reads. Marketing Plans looks tedious and horrible, which is why I haven’t cracked it open yet.
* whew! *
Okay. I have one last thing before I get to the meat of this post. It’s about Maus, one of the most important books you’ll ever read. And so I’ll start the “review” here.
Begin the Review Here!
Maus is a two part graphic novel about World War II – specifically, about the trials that Jews were put through during one of the most horrific genocides in world history. It’s at times gruesome, though not visually. Instead, it shows the tragedy that fell over German and Poland during Hitler’s reign, and the pure emotion that drove the survivors to stay alive, to hold on to the only thing they had left – themselves.
What makes Maus so striking is how human it is. Not human in character, per se, as Spiegelman has given each race and nationality a specific animal proxy; Jews are mice, Germans are cats, Polish pigs, English dogs. Instead, it’s human in its story. This isn’t just a book about the Jews and Germans. This is a book about Spiegelman’s father – his personal hell, his current life, and how life in the concentration camps has molded his life and his relationships. It’s powerful. And it’s one of the book that I think needs to be revited every couple of years. Just to be amazed. Just to remember.
For the rest of the month I occupied myself with stories of young men growing up. The “coming of age” story. Coming of age stories have been around for as long as people have been coming of age. It’s a universal subject, one that many classics – J. D. Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye and Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird come to mind – embrace and ride towards literary masterpiece. After all, we can relate easily; we’ve all been through that point in life where innocence is lost and adulthood looms.
So I was pleased to find myself, completely on accident, reading three modern “coming of age” novels back to back: Roddy Doyle’s A Star Called Henry, David Mitchell’s Black Swan Green, and Michael Chabon’s The Mysteries of Pittsburgh. All three novels sent a couple of thoughts in motion: at what point do we come of age, and how do we know at the time? In fact, is it even possible to discover the exact moment we take one last look at youth and deliver ourselves into the unknown world of adulthood?
Of course, the problem was that after reading the first two brilliant books about growing up, I stumbled into the third one, and it didn’t match up. Which is why, after a long deliberation, I will consider The Mysteries of Pittsburgh an afterthought. Which is quite bad, actually, since Chabon is one of my top 25 writers, and really it wasn’t that bad of a story (a young man goes to college, struggles with relationships, falls in love with both a guy and a girl, sleeps with one, sleeps with the other, and both end up leaving him) but it just wasn’t my favorite Chabon book and, really, it didn’t hold a candle to Doyle and Mitchell. Then again, other people think it’s his best work. Oh well – they’re wrong.
In A Star Called Henry, a boy named Henry Smart begins life the hard way, living in the destitute areas of Dublin during the years of English rule before the Irish Revolution. Through a series of complications, Smart finds himself and his brother on the street, required to be an adult at an age when most kids are enjoying – or, more likely, trying to get out of – school.
Henry takes these hardships in stride. By the time we meet him again five or six years later, he’s earning his stripes on the front line of the Irish Revolution. He’s becoming a legend, falling in love, and traveling through true Irish history without even realizing it. He’s not out for his country – he was raised to be out for only himself. And so the idea of Henry Smart being so closed off from his own place in history is understandable.
Doyle isn’t just a master at narrating the events of war, though he does a wonderful job painting a picture of revolution, complete with dual-faced monsters and underground networks. He also is able to allow a human element to creep into a machine-like character. Henry Smart seemingly shows no feelings. But when you take a deeper look, you find the insecurities that linger from those first few years living on the streets – the love, the fear, and the uncertainty. Is he using Ireland? Or is Ireland using him?
In Black Swan Green, young Jason Taylor presents himself as the polar opposite of Henry Smart. He’s awkward, unsure of himself, and terrified of being made fun of. This is our coming of age story. We’ve all waded through this, whether on the cool, invited-to-every-party side or the dorky, playing-board-games-with-your-parents side. But like Henry Smart, Jason Taylor has an ability to transcend everything, to be brilliant and thoughtful and clever while being torn apart by the wolves that make up the popular group.
Of course, it’s never that easy. Jason Taylor is a virtuoso – a child who has mastered the art of words at a young age, to be sure – but he hasn’t quite mastered the art of fitting in. The main struggle Taylor has is that he can’t speak without stammering, thus making all of his word-ly talents null and void when it came to saying them out loud. And, he’s a poet, which is both wonderful and terrifying. Wonderful in that he’s incredibly smart. Terrifying in that he’s a boy in middle school. He might as well have told his classmates that he was a ballerina, or that he wore dresses.
Black Swan Green takes the pains of growing up – through puberty, dances, and first kisses – and brings them bubbling back to the surface. It’s as real a voice as I remember hearing inside my own head as I struggled to come of age; to finally be accepted. We’ve all been there, in one form or another, and it’s refreshing to hear it from another perspective. It’s easy to identify with Black Swan Green in this way.
The differences between Henry Smart and Jason Taylor are like night and day. One is a renegade, a killer, a warrior in a battle for freedom and dignity. The other is an awkward kid, too afraid to be different, but too brilliant to be like everyone else. Hard vs. finicky. Street smart vs. infantile. At 13, Smart was beginning to help Ireland in its quest for independence. At the same age, Taylor was still stammering, unable to understand life in his twisted, silly world.
But at the same time, they have one monstrous thing in common. They’re both attempting to figure life out, trying to grow up and pass childhood behind. Think back – when did you come of age? Can you remember the moment? Probably not – but that’s okay. As Henry and Jason show us, you’re never really sure of the exact moment. But you’re always assured that eventually – maybe three years down the line, maybe decades – you’ll turn back and recognize the moment that your awkwardness disappeared. And you’ll cherish it forever.