Book Reviews

Scribbling Scrivener Reads: The Complete Maus by Art Spiegelman

This month’s selection, The Complete Maus by Art Spiegelman, is a graphic novel that’s been out since the early ’90s. I had read part of back in college as part of a Holocaust Literature class and have wanted to read the complete story since. I picked it to read this month because April 15th was Holocaust Remembrance Day and felt it was an appropriate time to read it.

The Complete Maus is part memoir for Spiegelman and part biography of his father, Vladek. The story goes back and forth from Vladek recalling his life to the present as the author struggles with not only getting the story right, but also with his father. The novel is broken up into two parts. The first one starts with Vladek’s life in the ’30s and ends in 1944 as he and his wife, Anja, are sent to Auschwitz. The second part picks up with their arrival in Auschwitz and ends just before Vladek passes away in 1982.

It’s hard for me to pick just one thing I loved most about The Complete Maus. The illustrations are brilliant as Spiegelman portrays the Polish Jews as mice, German Nazis as cats, Polish citizens as pigs, and Americans as dogs. Whenever Vladek or any other of the Polish Jews tries to hide what they are, they are drawn as wearing pig masks to blend in. By telling the story through such a visual medium, it has more impact on the narrative. It also has more of an impact on the reader because it forces the reader to pay attention and think of the characters people even though they are drawn as some kind of animal. I think if Spiegelman had chosen the more traditional road of drawing the characters as human beings, I think the emotional impact of it would be lost. It would feel too typical when clearly Vladek’s story, and everyone who went through the Holocaust, is unique.

Another thing I greatly appreciated was Spiegelman’s willingness to include uncomfortable conversations. There is a lot of unpleasantness between Spiegelman and his father, between himself and his wife, and between himself and his stepmother, Mala. He was willing to share with the reader that his mother committed suicide when the author was twenty-years-old and that his father’s second marriage is not a happy one.

Spiegelman and his father have a very tense relationship because Vladek is a very difficult man to live with and growing up he made his son feel like he wasn’t good enough. He includes in the narrative a scene where he confesses to his wife that there were times growing up he was so angry with Vladek that he wished he had perished in the Holocaust. Then there is the constant arguing Vladek has with Mala. Why those two people got married is beyond me. I think it was a case of it being convenient for both of them so neither would grow old alone.

Yet despite this tense relationship, and Vladek’s tendency to manipulate others around him emotionally, there is respect between father and son. It develops over the time Spiegelman wrote and recorded his numerous conversations with his father so that by the time Vladek is dying, they have reconciled. That reconciliation, while not shown to the reader, is one of those things you know happened through read the story and seeing how their relationship changed. Why else would Spiegelman be willing to portray his father in a sympathetic, flawed light as well as himself? There’s no need for some big dramatic scene because that’s not the point of the graphic novel.

Overall, I loved The Complete Maus. It’s emotional, powerful, and shows the lengths people who are persecuted will go to try and survive. The Holocaust, like all systemic genocides, brought out the absolute worse behavior in people. Not just the Nazis, but the victims as well. Vladek recalls how prisoners lied and harmed each other just for an extra bit of food. Harrowing to read and see people being reduced to such a feral state.

On a scale of one to five pencils, I give The Complete Maus 5 pencils+. Wonderful book and an absolute read for everyone.


Weekly Musing: Book It!

Nope, not talking about the awesome program from the ’80s/’90s where you read a certain amount of books and got to go Pizza Hut (I think that was it) and make your own little personal pan pizza. I loved that program. Combine reading with food and I’m there.

What this week’s musing is inspired by is something I attend once a month: A book club. This is the first time I’ve ever been in a book club but it was something I always wanted to. Thanks to the internet I was able to find more than one. I tried a couple of others before settling on the one I regularly attend.

I really enjoy my book club. Our focus is on sci-fi, fantasy, or horror books. This isn’t unusual since most book clubs are centered on a particular theme. The people are fairly smart, someone brings baked goods (again food + book = good times), people’s t-shirts are interesting, and it’s just neat being around a group of people where we have at least one thing in common. I enjoy listening to other people’s thoughts about the book regardless of if I agree with people’s opinions or not. I enjoy the thought provoking questions asked by the group’s leader which usually revolve around issues today.

Yet for all the positives I get out of it, lately I’m beginning to wonder, as a writer, if it is good for me. I think it’s just my own neurosis but when I listen to what the average reader thinks of the story, the characters, the writing style, what have you, I start to wonder. Wonder about people’s critical thinking skills and if some people really, truly cannot grasp the idea of something must be impossible because it doesn’t jive with how they understand the world and therefore it’s a failure of the author. Heaven forbid the reader take some responsibility to think a little harder or admit “Hey, I just don’t get it.” I’ll readily admit I don’t get what authors are doing sometimes.

I guess as a writer and knowing authors I get a little bit defensive. Especially when I hear a reader criticizing a male author for trying something new like having a female main character and not writing her ‘feminine enough’ and that he should stick to what he knows. Or people not understanding that when the story shifts to a different character that the writing style should naturally change. What I mean by this is the grammar of the character changes, speaking and thought style, and how the character views their world. Some people apparently can’t appreciate this and quickly launch into how the author is a bad writer for doing this. I guess they prefer all their characters to sound exactly the same regardless of life experiences and origins.

At times this mentality gets to me as I’ll sometimes examine my own work and my own ideas and wonder if the average reader will ‘get’ it. Should I trust a story with ugly, unlikeable characters as the focus when it feels that so many average readers don’t like that? Will a reader truly understand the aim at realism which means the good, the bad, the ugly, and the uncomfortable? ¬†Does the average reader care about subtext and depth a good story should have?

Granted some of this is dependent upon genre and the expected tropes but I see online people up in arms over an author who dares to defy those tropes! Again, I think a lot of these thoughts and worries are a byproduct of my naturally anxious nature. It’s one of those things where I know intellectually to stay true to the story and the characters and the audience will be there for my work (hopefully). Or to not care if everyone gets it because not everyone will. I certainly don’t as a reader. Yet emotionally, and because of the chemicals which make up my personality, I want people to completely understand and appreciate nuances a writer has puts into a work. When someone doesn’t, it irritates me.

So are book clubs a good thing for a writer to attend? Those writers with thicker skins and who can separate the reader you vs. writer you, then yes. If you can’t, then perhaps not. For me I need to work more on just enjoying the discussions as a reader and leave the writer on the pages it is needed on.


Weekly Musing: Make Every Word Count

Word counts. A metric many of us writers become obsessed with. How many words did I write today, this week, this month, this year? Do I count new words for my revision when I’ve just deleted an entire page, scene, or chapter? Do I delete the cut words from my overall word count? Do word counts even matter? How the hell can one tell a story in just 500 words or less? How the hell can someone tell a story in more than 2,000 words? Those two little words sound simple but can cause a lot of anxiety for some.

To me there are two definitions of word count. The first one is the one which refers to actual word production or output. This year is the first year I’ve personally started to track my output. It’s kind of eye-opening in many respects. My own personal rule is to only count new words written in relation to a novel, short story, or blog post. I don’t count other stuff like FB posts or writing in my personal journal. At first I thought this made a lot of sense but whenever I revise, how the heck do I count that? I still haven’t quite figured it out and doubt I will by the end of the year.

Another thing that opened my eyes is by keeping track of my approximate production, I see just how much or little I write. I admit I don’t write every day since I like to let things sit for a bit, have an inability to juggle a bunch of stories at one time, or if I’m doing research. And occasionally real life wants in like knocking me down with a migraine or something else.

It’s interesting seeing how much I’ve gotten done by month. For example, for the first quarter of this year I wrote approximately 105,518 words. That’s a lot but doesn’t tell the whole story. January and February, when I was focused on working on my novel’s rough draft, my production was huge while March’s numbers were much smaller. But while March’s numbers weren’t big, that doesn’t necessarily translate into being less productive because I drafted, finalized, and submitted one story as well drafting two other stories for upcoming deadlines. That’s a lot more ‘storytelling’ if you will, then what took place in January and February.

The other definition of word count is one defined by guidelines from various publishers. Flash fiction is usually any story with a count of up to 1,000 words. To be considered a short story, the word count can be up to 20,000 words although I personally have yet to see any calls for stories anywhere near that length. 10,000 words max is the highest limit I’ve seen and that’s only be a scant few times. The average seems to be from 1,000 to 5,000 words. Within the novella camp, the word count definition gets even more confusing. Again, depending on whoever’s guidelines an author is looking at, a novella can be up to 40,000 words. Or more. Who knows. And when talking about novels, that’s wide open. Some shorter works like Eli Wiesel’s Night I’ve seen classified as a novel even though it’s about 100 pages. Yet there are plenty of books well north of 600, 770, 800, or 900 pages.

Numbers and writers don’t mix usually so throwing out that simple term word count is scary. It’s amazing to think regardless if a writer bangs out a ton of words in a year or relatively little that both paths can lead to success. Or those people I know who can easily tell a story is as few words as possible while I feel utterly incapable of telling a story in no less than 3,000 words can lead to success.

With word counts in all their forms, whether personal or professional, we once again see that there is no one correct, or easy, path to success. Just make every word count.