Category: Biography

Maus

Cover image for The Complete Maus by Art Spiegelmanby Art Spiegelman

ISBN 9780141014081

“At that time it wasn’t anymore families. It was everybody to take care for himself.”

Polish Jews Vladek and Anja Spiegelman survived the Holocaust and immigrated to America with their son, Art, who was born in Sweden after the war. But the atrocities of the war cast a long shadow over their family. Beginning in 1978, Art Spiegelman interviewed his father about his experiences during the war, and serialized them in comic form. He would ultimately spend thirteen years of his life capturing this history, grappling with the legacy of the Holocaust, and his complicated relationship with his father.

Maus is famous for depicting the characters as anthropomorphized animals, in the tradition of Aesop’s Fables or Animal Farm. However, the visual medium really emphasizes this narrative choice, which allows Spiegelman to approach the unspeakable. Jews are depicted as mice, and Nazis as the cats that prey on them. Nazi propaganda often compared Jews to rats and vermin, so Spiegelman’s technique is an interesting way of turning that prejudice around into social commentary. The metaphor does occasionally become overextended, such as the scene where Anja is hiding in the dark, and is afraid that there are rats, while Vladek reassures her that they are only mice. Spiegelman also sometimes deliberately breaks the metaphor, as in the early pages of Volume II, where panels showing characters from the side show that the mouse faces are only masks.

Maus is certainly a story about the Holocaust, but it is also about Art and Vladek’s tense and complicated father-son relationship. Because he interviewed and recorded his father, the dialogue really seems to capture Vladek’s voice in an authentic way. The story of collecting and preserving the story is as significant to Maus as the Holocaust narrative itself. Maus includes material that Vladek asked Art not to put in the book, and this question of what to preserve is grappled with publicly rather than privately, since Spiegelman puts this scene in the book. On page scenes also show his worries about how to depict his father honestly when “in some ways he’s just like the racist caricature of the miserly old Jew.” Much of the power of the narrative comes from this grappling with the lingering effects of the war on those who survived it. The effects are multigenerational, as Art also confronts his own feelings about being born after the war, while the older brother he never knew did not survive.

If Vladek heavily defines the narrative by his voice, and combative relationship with Art, Anja’s influence on the story is largely a question of her absence. Because she died before Art began documenting the family’s history, the narrative rests squarely in Vladek’s hands, even if it is Anja’s story as well. Art can provide limited memories of his mother from his childhood, but we have access to her experiences during the war only through Vladek’s eyes. Seeing how Vladek behaves with his second wife, Mala, there is much to wonder about how Anja saw things, and what her perspective would have added to the story. Vladek’s destruction of her diaries only adds to that sense of loss, and wondering what more Maus might have been if her voice could have been heard.

Spiegelman’s unusual metaphor of cats and mice approaches the Holocaust in a unique way that lends a fresh perspective to a period of history that is much covered. But Maus stands out just as much for its complex depiction of familial relationships, and the inter-generational consequences of such tragedies. The story of the story adds context and depth to Vladek’s recollections.

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You might also like John Lewis’s March 

March: Book Two

Cover image for March: Book Two by John Lewis and Andrew Aydinby John Lewis and Andrew Aydin

Art by Nate Powell

ISBN 978-1-60309-400-9

“The fare was paid in blood, but the Freedom Rides stirred the national consciousness, and awoke the hearts and minds of a generation.”

Politician and civil rights leader John Lewis has been representing Georgia’s fifth congressional district for the past three decades. Before that, he enjoyed a long career as a civil rights activist and organizer, and served on the city council in Atlanta. The script for the March graphic novel was written with his congressional aide, Andrew Aydin, who wanted to capture some of the memories Lewis had shared with him in their time working together. This is the second volume in what has become a highly-acclaimed trilogy since its 2013 release. Catch up with March: Book One here.

March: Book Two opens on Inauguration Day 2009, and then transitions back to Nashville in November 1960. After successfully integrating the city’s department store lunch counters, Lewis and the Nashville Student Movement continued in the same vein by trying to integrate cafeterias and fast food restaurants. They also turned their attention to segregated movie theatres. However, the heart of the second volume focuses on the Freedom Riders and the March on Washington, as Lewis rises to national prominence within the civil rights movement. Despite covering several climactic events, tension remains high, as the volume closes with the bombing of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama on September 15, 1963.

Book two recounts the increasing force with which non-violent protests were met as the civil rights movement gained momentum. Powell continues to walk the fine line in depicting the events truthfully but without exploiting the horror. However, the severity of the violence undeniably increases in this installment. The violence did not come as a surprise to the activists. In fact, Freedom Riders signed wills before undertaking their journeys, which were designed to test whether the Supreme Court decision that integrated interstate buses was being upheld in practice. Lewis also describes watching news coverage of protests in Alabama, where activists faced fire hoses and police dogs, resulting in what “looked like footage from a war.”

As in the first volume, Lewis is not afraid to chronicle philosophical differences within the movement, and his worries that as the number of protestors swelled, the new recruits lacked the discipline to adhere to the principles of non-violence. At the back of the book, the original draft of his speech for the March on Washington is included. The comic itself depicts the intense negotiations that surrounded certain aspects of his wording, which led to him delivering a highly revised version. While Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech is the most famous address from this event, Lewis’ speech is powerful in its own right, and receives a six page spread. Yet the book also highlights the many other players and contributors, while also remaining Lewis’ story. Malcom X makes a brief appearance, though Lewis clearly disapproves of his philosophy. Dr. King is depicted respectfully but sometimes critically, without the idolatry that often surrounds his legacy. But Lewis is most interested in A. Philip Randolph and Bayard Rustin, the architects of the March on Washington. Rustin, in particular, was the logistical brains of the operation, but could not play a prominent public role because of his communist connections and homosexuality. March memorializes his key contributions.

March continues to move back and forth between Lewis’ life story, and Barack Obama’s inauguration. The first volume used a slightly stilted frame narrative of Lewis recounting his childhood to two boys who visit his office with their mother, who wants to teach them about the history of the civil rights movement. The second volume is purely Lewis reflecting alone on his experiences as the inauguration progresses, which works more smoothly, and also creates some interesting juxtapositions. Lewis’ election as chairman of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee is placed alongside Obama taking the oath of office. The scenes depicting famous speeches given at the March on Washington are followed by the opening words of President Obama’s inaugural address. Aretha Franklin sings “My Country Tis of Thee” in 2009 as Freedom Riders are beaten in the streets of Alabama in 1963. This creates an effect that conveys the breadth of history, even as the closing on the church bombing creates a sobering, cautionary finish. There is always a backlash.

March: Book One

Cover image for March Book One by John Lewis and Andrew Aydin by John Lewis and Andrew Aydin

Art by Nate Powell

ISBN 978-1-60309-300-2

“The thing is, when I was young, there wasn’t much of a civil rights movement. I wanted to work at something, but growing up in rural Alabama, my parents knew it could be dangerous to make any waves.”

Politician and civil rights leader John Lewis has been representing Georgia’s fifth congressional district for the past thirty years. Before that, he enjoyed a long career as a civil rights activist and organizer, and served on the city council in Atlanta. The script for the graphic novel was written with his congressional aide, Andrew Aydin, who wanted to capture some of the memories Lewis had shared with him in their time working together. This is the first volume in what has become a highly-acclaimed trilogy since its 2013 release.

March opens on the Edmund Pettus Bridge, as the march from Selma is about to be confronted by troopers armed for a riot, then flashes forward to Inauguration Day 2009, when Barack Obama is about to be sworn in as the first African American president of the United States. The frame narrative takes place in Congressman Lewis’ Washington D.C. office when a black woman from Atlanta arrives with her two sons to see the office of their representative. The congressman begins to tell the boys about his early life, and the beginnings of the civil rights movement, and continues through the desegregation of Nashville’s lunch counters in 1960. The transitions between past and present are not always smooth, but have the effect of emphasizing the currency of the narrative, and its continued relevance to the present moment.

March is part autobiography, and part civil rights primer. It both chronicles Lewis’ childhood on an Alabama farm with former sharecroppers for parents, and his early involvement in civil rights with the Nashville Student Movement. The early days are particularly interesting, as they show differences within the movement, and how the younger generation of activists made an impact by refusing to accept the more modest rollbacks of segregation that some older leaders were pushing for. The book also depicts the organizing and training that goes into building an effective and coordinated strategy for a movement. One particularly powerful scene shows activists roleplaying, insulting and abusing one another in order to prepare for the challenges they will face at the lunch counter sit-ins.

The graphic memoir format is particular suitable for illustrating the abuses faced by early civil rights activists, and Nate Powell powerfully captures the fear and tension in his art. The decision to illustrate the book in black and white renders these events in all their stark ugliness. The violence is not sugar-coated, but nor is it gratuitous. Notably, part of John Lewis’ introduction to the civil rights movement was the 1956 comic Martin Luther King Jr. and the Montgomery Story, which was an educational comic designed to teach the principles of non-violent resistance. March carries on in that tradition.

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You might also like The Outside Circle by Patti Laboucane-Benson

Becoming Queen Victoria

Cover image for Becoming Queen Victoria by Kate Williams by Kate Williams

ISBN 978-0-345-47239-7

“The newspapers fizzed with gossip about the wayward brothers who succeeded only at plunging the monarchy into disgrace. Through it all, Charlotte was their one hope: the blue-eyed, golden-haired girl who seemed so spirited and innocent. The public took to idealizing her as the perfect princess: sweet, reserved, possessed of a kind heart, and entirely unlike her self-centered father.”

Royal historian Kate Williams’ portrait of two British princesses has been published under the title Becoming Queen, as well as the somewhat less accurate Becoming Queen Victoria. While it certainly is an account of how Victoria gained the throne, it dedicates a nearly equal measure of attention to Princess Charlotte, daughter of George IV, the woman who would have been queen but for her untimely death in childbirth. The book is divided into two parts, first chronicling the life and death of Princess Charlotte, before moving on to the second part dealing with the childhood and early reign of Queen Victoria. The short interlude between the two sections follows the scramble to secure the succession that took place in the wake of Charlotte’s unexpected death at the age of twenty-one.

Williams begins her account with the marriage of the Prince of Wales—the future George IV—to his cousin Princess Caroline of Brunswick in 1796. Though Prince George had more than a dozen siblings, he was one of the few to make a legitimate marriage, and he was not pleased with his German princess from the outset. George III preferred to keep his daughters at home, refusing them permission to marry, and most of his sons chose mistresses over marriage, earning them a debauched reputation as they drained the royal treasury with their antics. George and Caroline managed to get along long enough to produce Princess Charlotte, securing the succession, but their animosity only grew, and Charlotte became the frequent subject of an ongoing tug-of-war between her estranged parents throughout her childhood.

The drama surrounding Charlotte’s childhood paints an effective picture of the unpopularity of the Hanoverian monarchs, and Williams spins out a dramatic vision of what the young princess endured. In addition to being a pawn in the cold war between her parents, Charlotte was also much more popular with the public than her father, who served as Prince Regent during his father’s periods of madness. The more the public idealized her, the more her father mistrusted her, having spent his own youth consolidating power and building a rival circle of support around himself. For this reason, her father hoped to marry her off to a foreign prince, and send her abroad so that she could not set up a rival court in London. Grasping after independence from her relatives, Charlotte married Prince Leopold, who hailed from the Saxe-Coburg family, rulers of a small German duchy. However, she was successful in making living in England one of the conditions of the marriage.

As one of Britain’s longest ruling monarchs, as well as the sovereign who presided over the British Empire, and the Industrial Revolution, Queen Victoria has received her fair share of attention. She is currently the subject of ITV’s television series Victoria, and features in many biopics and historical fiction novels. But her cousin Charlotte is a less well-known figure, the queen who never was. For this reason, I found myself more riveted by the first half of the book. Depictions of the turmoil of the Regency period usually focus on the mad king and the Napoleonic wars, but through Charlotte, Williams highlights another aspect of the tumultuous Hanoverian dynasty, a corrupt and licentious monarchy riven by a rotten family dynamic. And of course, all of this provides context to the famous Kensington System, under which the Duchess of Kent would eventually raise her daughter.

What Williams also makes clear by beginning the story of Victoria’s ascension more than twenty years before her birth is that Victoria did not become heir to the throne simply because Charlotte died; she literally existed because of her cousin’s death. The sons and daughters of George III had more than fifty children between them, and all but Charlotte were illegitimate. With George IV still married to Charlotte’s estranged mother despite repeated efforts to divorce her, Charlotte’s death set off a scramble amongst George’s younger brothers to procure suitable wives, and secure the succession. Edward, Duke of Kent, the fourth son of George III, jettisoned his mistress of nearly thirty years in order to marry Leopold’s widowed sister, Victoire. Alexandrina Victoria was born to the couple within eighteen months of her cousin’s death. And while the possibility remained that one of her father’s older brother’s might yet produce an heir that would displace her, Victoria was heir presumptive for much of her young life.

Like Charlotte, Victoria’s position meant an unhappy childhood. Whereas Charlotte was neglected and haphazardly educated, Victoria was highly controlled and abused in an effort to shape her into a popular heir, as well as one who would be obedient to her mother, and her advisor Sir John Conroy, after her father died in her infancy. Given the ages of her uncles, the Duchess and Sir John long operated on the assumption that Victoria would require a regency, and worked to ensure that they would have that power. They also worked hard to keep Victoria separate from her uncles in the public mind, so that she would not be tainted by their shenanigans. But the Kensington System destroyed Victoria’s relationship with her mother, and led her to oust both the duchess and Sir John from her circle immediately upon her ascension to the throne. The only advisor she retained was her governess, Baroness Lehzen.

For fans of ITV’s Victoria, Williams touches on the major events depicted in the series.  Notably, however, she agrees with most other historians that the relationship between Queen Victoria and her first Prime Minister, Lord Melbourne, was more paternal than romantic, a point of departure that series creator Daisy Goodwin leans heavily on. By profiling Charlotte and Victoria together, Williams succeeds in highlighting the perils facing a female monarch, particularly in the realms of marriage and family, creating a rather personal history. An alternative history can also easily be imagined, in which Charlotte and Leopold ruled over England together. Instead, Leopold was instrumental in facilitating the marriage of his nephew to the young queen, and the Victorian age was born.

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You might also like:

How to Be Victorian by Ruth Goodman

The Wars of the Roses by Dan Jones

Canada Reads Along: The Right to Be Cold

Cover image for The Right to Be Cold by Sheila Watt-Cloutierby Sheila Watt-Cloutier

ISBN 978-0-14-318764-6

“Climate change is about people as much as it is about the earth, and the science, economics and politics of our changing environment must always have a human face.”

Born in Kuujuuaq in the Nunavik region of northern Quebec in 1953, Sheila Watt-Cloutier has borne witness to tremendous change in the Inuit way of life over the past six decades. Her diverse career has included work in the fields of health and education before she turned to climate activism in the 1990s. However, all of these pursuits have a unifying purpose; the protection of Inuit culture and the well-being of Inuit people. Part memoir and part call to action, The Right to Be Cold combines scientific evidence and Inuit traditional knowledge, putting a human face on the impact of climate change, which has been acutely felt in the Arctic region Watt-Cloutier calls home. Focusing on the interconnectedness of all things, Watt-Cloutier positions Inuit as sentinels, sounding the alarm about issues that have already devastated the Arctic, but must eventually impact the entire world.

Watt-Cloutier does a wonderful job of putting a human face on climate change, both by giving accounts of traditional Inuit practices, and chronicling how they have changed as the Arctic warms. She also writes very understandable explanations of the scientific processes that are involved in climate change, including explaining why the poles are experiencing the phenomenon at a more rapid rate than other parts of the planet. By describing her Inuit childhood, Watt-Cloutier is able to illustrate how much has changed in such a short period. For the first the first ten years of her life she traveled only by dog sled, until the government executed most of the sled dogs in the 1960s. Today, travel by sled or snow machine is difficult because the texture of the snow has changed due to rising temperatures. Travel over once-solid sea ice has also been made dangerous by the changes wrought by temperature and pollutants. The traditional knowledge of the elders that once kept hunters safe is rapidly becoming obsolete in a swiftly-changing environment.

While humanizing the issues is certainly one of Watt-Cloutier’s strengths, the book does get bogged down in the middle, in the chapters “POPs and the Inuit Journey,” and “The Right to Be Cold.” These chapters chronicle her international political advocacy as the president of the Inuit Circumpolar Council, where she served for eleven years beginning in 1995. Her first major issue was Persistent Organic Pollutants which, due to weather systems, tend to gather in the Arctic and poison traditional Inuit food sources as they accumulate at the top of the food chain. After the Stockholm Convention, the organization turned its attention to climate change. Watt-Cloutier then advanced the argument that climate change is a human rights issue, because it directly impacts all of the other recognized human rights. Unfortunately, these chapters can be a little bit inside baseball, consisting of long lists of the many international players, which will not be relevant to the average reader. These chapters do serve to illustrate the immense difficulty and cooperation needed to orchestrate an agreement on an international issue, but this could have been accomplished with only a few of the telling anecdotes. For example, at a conference where the ICC was only an observer, the organization tried to get the Canadian delegation to mention the impacts on the Arctic in relation to climate change. When they dismissed the request, the ICC instead turned to the Samoan delegation, which agreed to mention that the flooding they were experiencing from rising sea levels was a direct result of the rapidly melting Arctic ice cap.

The Right to Be Cold was represented in this year’s Canada Reads competition by singer Chantal Kreviazuk, who had a couple of disadvantages representing this title. While all of the other panelists appeared live in the studio in Toronto, Kreviazuk appeared by video link from Los Angeles due to the fact that her son was in the hospital there. Kreviazuk did her best to try to turn this to the book’s advantage by pointing out that her son’s acute asthma attack was caused by increased pollen levels that are a direct result of a warmer climate. However, due to the slight lag in the video link, it was difficult for Kreviazuk to jump into the back and forth of the debate, although host Ali Hassan did a good job of ensuring that questions were addressed to her, and offering her opportunities to respond. Kreviazuk was also defending the only non-fiction title among this year’s selections, which has historically been a disadvantage. Since Canada Reads began in 2002, Something Fierce by Carmen Aguirre has been the only non-fiction winner in 2012, although the 2015 winner Ru was heavily based on autobiographical elements of Kim Thuy’s life.

Despite these disadvantages, Kreviazuk mounted a strong case for The Right to Be Cold based on this year’s Canada Reads theme, “the one book Canada needs now.” Climate change is a compelling and time-sensitive issue that fits well with this topic. Kreviazuk also gained a vocal ally when Candy Palmater became a free agent after The Break was eliminated on day one. Although Palmater cast a strategic vote against The Right to Be Cold in an effort to save her own book on the first day, she subsequently fought strongly for the book she initially voted to eliminate. In addition to bringing forth some Indigenous perspectives on aspects of the book, Palmater also pointed out the apples to oranges comparison of pitting one non-fiction title against the two remaining novels.

Throughout the week, the main argument against The Right to Be Cold centered on the amount of information provided and its readability as a result. Kreviazuk felt the wealth of information was necessary to ensure that the book was not dismissed as “just an opinion.” Jody Mitic felt that there was too much information not about Sheila herself. Measha Breuggergosman acknowledged that the topic was essential, but argued that The Right to Be Cold was simply not as engaging as the other books on the table. Humble the Poet also repeatedly raised the question of readability. The tension centered on the disconnect some panelists felt between the undisputed significance of the issue, and the accessibility of the manner in which it was presented. When it came time to vote, Palmater and Kreviazuk voted against Company Town, while Humble the Poet, Brueggergosman, and Mitic all cast their ballots against The Right to Be Cold, making it the third book to be eliminated from Canada Reads 2017.

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Need to get caught up with Canada Reads Along 2017? Start here with The Break by Katherena Vermette

Born a Crime

born-a-crimeby Trevor Noah

ISBN 978-0-385-68922-9

“The genius of apartheid was convincing people who were the overwhelming majority to turn on each other. Apart hate is what it was. You separate people into groups and make them hate one another so you can run them all.”

When Trevor Noah was born in South Africa in 1984, his existence was literally illegal, proof that his black, Xhosa mother and his white, Swiss-German father had violated the Immorality Act of 1927, one of the many laws defining the system known as apartheid. The crime carried a punishment of four to five years in prison, and mixed race children were often seized and placed in state-run orphanages. But Noah’s mother was determined and clever, and she managed to hold onto her son, refusing to flee her home country in order to raise him. But it made his childhood complicated, even after apartheid officially ended in 1994. Racial hierarchies and inequities persisted, and despite receiving a good education, his upbringing was anything but easy. In a series of essays, Born a Crime chronicles Noah’s experience growing up under apartheid and its aftermath.

Noah opens with an effective hook; when he was eight or nine years old, his mother threw him out of a moving vehicle. From there he relates his extremely religious upbringing, eventually circling back to the incident that led his mother to push him out of a moving minibus on their way home from church. By then the reader has a much better sense of the context, both political, and personal, that led to the event. In addition to an interesting life, Noah also has a good sense of pacing and narrative style that make his recollections particularly illuminating, as is clear from the first chapter.

Noah is observant, and able to clearly convey the absurdity of the system he was born under while also explaining its function for a North American audience that is probably not terribly familiar with the ins and outs of apartheid. Each section opens with some background history that helps contextualize the story from his life that he is about to tell. This means that the episodes themselves are not overly bogged down with explanation, and readers who are already familiar with South African history can skip much of the exposition. He also highlights important differences in the ways systemic racism has functioned in South Africa when compared to the United States. The most important point to note in terms of understanding his narrative is that the word ‘colored’ in South Africa refers to a mixed race person. Whereas the American “one drop” rule made anyone with any African blood black, mixed race people formed their own category in South Africa, separate from both black and white.

An aspect of the memoir that I found particularly interesting and revealing was Noah’s discussion of language and its power. South Africa has several official languages, including English and Afrikaans, as well as a variety of indigenous languages like Xhosa and Zulu. Noah grew up multi-lingual, criss-crossing language boundaries in the same way that he crossed racial ones. Describing the way language could make him into a chameleon, he writes “My color didn’t change, but I could change your perception of my color. If you spoke to me in Zulu, I answered in Zulu. If you spoke to me in Tswana, I replied to you in Tswana. Maybe I didn’t look like you, but if I spoke like you, I was you.” For white or colored people, it was considered demeaning to learn African languages, but a black person speaking good English could be considered uppity in the wrong context. Rifts between different African groups could be crossed by speaking their language. Children in schools in the tribal homelands were taught only their native language, the better to divide them from other black tribes. This is an interesting contrast to the strategy employed against indigenous people in North America, who were stripped of their native languages in order to divide them from their culture and heritage, and assimilate them.

Trevor Noah is known as a comedian, successor to Jon Stewart as host of The Daily Show. But while there is an understated humour present in Born a Crime, for the most part it is memoir, not comedy. The humour comes mostly in the form of sly comments, such as when he describes his mother’s determination to attend church three times every Sunday: “The more time we spent at church, she reckoned, the more blessings we accrued, like a Starbucks Rewards Card.” However, there are some episodes that are laugh-out-loud funny, such as the time when Noah’s fear of using the outhouse while visiting his mother’s family in the Soweto Township led to his family becoming convinced that there was a demon in the house. For the most part, however, these are leavening incidents in an otherwise serious account of his childhood. This memoir highlights the insightfulness that, while essential to any good comedian, can also be put to other purposes.

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You might also like Fire Shut Up in My Bones by Charles M. Blow

Audiobook Memoir Mini-Reviews

I listen to a lot of audiobooks, and I’ve written before about all the awesome ways they make my life better. However, I don’t usually write reviews, because driving, cleaning, cooking, or walking while I listen means that I don’t usually take any notes, which is a key part of my regular review writing process. But this year I’m trying out short reviews that will share my quick impressions of the books I’ve been listening too. These are admittedly not as in-depth or analytical as my usual reviews, but rather a quick record of what I thought about my latest listens.

Scrappy Little Nobody

Cover image for Scrappy Little Nobody by Anna Kendrick Anna Kendrick

ISBN 9781501117206

This memoir features a series of funny essays about Kendrick’s rise to fame read by the actress herself. She is best known for Up in the Air and Pitch Perfect, and forgotten for, but financially supported by, her bit part in the Twilight franchise. Scrappy Little Nobody shares Kendrick’s stories about being a theatre nerd, the weirdness of appearing on red carpets in borrowed dresses that cost more than your rent—which you can barely pay—and yet having everyone assume that you are rich because you’re famous. I especially enjoyed the story about the first time she realized she was being followed by a paparazzo, and her strategy for avoiding stakeouts of her apartment (use your introvert super powers to stay inside, watch Netflix and eat take-out until they go away).  Kendrick was both funny and relatable and this audiobook made for enjoyable company while getting my chores done.

Being Jazz

Cover image for Being Jazz by Jazz JenningsJazz Jennings

ISBN 9780735207448

Being Jazz is a sweetly earnest memoir by a trans girl who realized her identity at a very young age, and was blessed with the rare support of her family despite the difficulty they faced in finding any information about raising a trans child. Jazz has now featured in several TV specials, a children’s book, and a reality series, in addition to her own memoir. Honestly, I felt like a bit of a creepy snoop for getting this intimate look into the life of a very young person, who will probably be embarrassed by some of these stories down the road. Apart from her advocacy work, Jennings’ life is pretty normal, and while that is important for people to see, it isn’t terribly interesting, especially if you’ve already been a teenage girl once yourself. Jennings also touches on her struggles with depression, and evinces a sex-positive attitude with little room for shame. Her straightforward message focuses on self-love and acceptance.

In Other Words

Cover image for In Other Words by Jhumpa Lahiri Jhumpa Lahiri

ISBN 9781101875551

After completing her 2012 novel, The Lowland, award-winning author Jhumpa Lahiri largely gave up reading and writing in English, and moved to Rome to pursue her passion for the Italian language. After studying it sporadically for more than twenty years, she wanted to immerse herself in it to become truly fluent, something that she felt was impossible in New York. In Other Words was written in Italian (In Altre Parole) and then translated back into English by Ann Goldstein. The audiobook is read by the author, first in English, and then again in Italian. I was absolutely fascinated by these layers of mediation, as well as the process of learning another language, and I listened to the entire English half of the audio book during the January 24 in 48 readathon. Lahiri explains why she felt she had to give up English, the reason she chose to have someone else translate her book into English, and meditates on the experience of trying to express herself in a language she has only just begun to grasp with any fluency. The collection includes two of the stories she wrote during her time in Rome. One is the first story she wrote in Italian, and the other is one that came later. She also reflects on how her three languages—Bengali, English, and Italian—relate to her identity as the child of immigrants. If you find languages or the writing process interesting, or are curious about the relationship between language and identity, you absolutely have to check out this memoir!

The World’s Strongest Librarian

Cover image for The World's Strongest Librarian by Josh Hanagarneby Josh Hanagarne

ISBN 978-1-592-40877-1

“I finally had verification of something I had long suspected—there was a daily intensity quota that had to be met. I had to expend a certain amount of energy on tics each day. It could be meted out over many small tics, or a few dozen huge ones.”

Librarians come in many stripes, and a 6’7” weight lifter with Tourette Syndrome is just one of them. Raised Mormon in Utah, Josh Hanagarne was a bookish kid who developed uncontrollable tics when he was in elementary school, though it would take him many years to get a proper diagnosis. The World’s Strongest Librarian chronicles the many ways that Tourette Syndrome interrupted his life. It cut short the mission he was expected to serve for his church, dragged out his university career so that it took him ten years to graduate, and kept him from holding down a job for very long.  But the book is also a paean to libraries, and an examination of family and faith, as Hanagarne finds his calling, gets married, and comes to question the church in which he was raised.

If you look at the Quotes section of Goodreads for this book, almost every passage is about the power and place of libraries in our society. And while that aspect of the book certainly resonated with me, the most illuminating part was Hanagarne’s attempt to help the reader understand what it feels like to have Tourette’s. He does a good job of articulating the experience of these unexpected outbursts, which for him include both physical and verbal tics. He describes them as building up like a sneeze until they need to be released. But instead of dissipating, the next “sneeze” begins to build up almost immediately. He also explains what it costs him to supress a tic, which he manages to do in church or on airplanes, for limited amounts of time. The cost is very loud and violent outbursts later, as if a certain amount of energy must be spent each day, either in small doses, or larger outpourings. This has a significant effect on tendons and joints, which have to bear the violent, repetitive motions. The condition is such a large force in his life that Hanagarne has personified it, nicknaming her Misty.

What seems to be more difficult for Hanagarne to articulate is the method by which he sought relief. Although weightlifting was part of it, he was lifting long before he met Adam T. Glass, the autistic former air-force sergeant who helped him get a handle on the tics. I can’t say the method entirely makes sense to me, but if I was Hanagarne, I know that I would do whatever helped in order to get relief. Glass’s theory seems to have something to do with listening to the body in order to feel how it wants to move, applying this to both weightlifting and breathing, but I can’t say I exactly understood the concept, and Hanagarne also seems to have trouble explaining it clearly.

Another interesting area of Hanagarne’s memoir is his examination of religion and faith. He hits the nail on the head when he writes about the immersive culture of Mormonism. It isn’t just a religion, it is a way of life, with built-in community and social activities than can become all-encompassing. Hanagarne spends a lot of time describing this culture, which may be insightful for those who know little about the religion, or tiresome for those who are well versed. But if you have ever wondered about what Mormon missionaries do when they’re not knocking on your door, Hanagarne gives a good account, up until he had to leave his mission early due to an increase in the severity of his Tourette’s symptoms, which included punching himself in the face. Hanagarne provides a considered look at what it means to detach from such an immersive faith tradition, especially when your family is still involved.

The World’s Strongest Librarian is an interesting and well-rounded memoir, with aspects that may appeal to a variety of readers, whether you are looking to read about a fellow book lover, or to understand Mormonism or Tourette Syndrome better. Hanagarne tackles all these subjects with humour and self-deprecation.