Archives for posts with tag: memoirs

March Book OneMarch Book TwoMarch Book Three

Of all the treasures in the Smithsonian, the exhibit that sticks with me the most is a pair of petite, scuffed, rundown, women’s loafers worn during the 1965 civil rights march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama.  I found the shoes in a distant corner on the upper floor of the National Museum of American History, tucked safely in a display case with photographs and posters from the trek.  The case had been relocated due to renovations elsewhere in the museum, and I was lucky to run across it.  Those shoes mesmerized me.  They had been worn for all 54 miles of the march and showed it.  I can only imagine what it had been like to wear them.

I am equally mesmerized by March: Books 1-3, the graphic novel trio by John Lewis with Andrew Aydin and art by Nate Powell.  John Lewis, currently a U.S. Representative from Georgia, has spent his life in the civil rights movement.  As a young man, he chaired the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), a key group in the movement.  He organized sit-ins to desegregate lunch counters, participated in the Freedom Rides, helped organize the 1963 March on Washington, and helped lead the 1965 march from Selma to Montgomery.

March is Lewis’ memoir of his civil rights work in the 1950s-60s.  It’s an insider’s look at the movement from a less well-known perspective.  Lewis lays out the motivation for his actions and decisions as well as those of the movement’s student wing.  He provides insight into the internal politics of the various organizations behind the movement.  His descriptions and Nate Powell’s drawings reflect the brutality of the struggle for equality–humiliation, beatings, incarceration, bombings, torture, death.  March accurately reflects the times it depicts; as a result, it’s not always easy to look at or to read.

Lewis bookends the movement’s history with scenes from the first presidential inauguration of Barack Obama.  Book One opens with Lewis preparing for the event; as he stops by his Capitol Hill office, he meets a woman wanting her young sons to understand the significance of the day.  Lewis pauses to relate the history of the civil rights movement to her sons, and the story begins.  Although somewhat awkward as a narrative device–additional scenes with Lewis speaking to the woman appear to serve as transitions at different points in the books–the intensity and immediacy of the art and text make up for it.  Lewis anchors his experiences around the 1965 march from Selma to Montgomery, hence the title.  All 3 volumes echo the call of “We’ll march!”, building up to the Alabama trek’s successful conclusion at the end of Book Three.

Nate Powell’s drawings may only be in grayscale, but they make as much impact as full color.  He uses a mix of bold strokes and detailed shadings to convey a wide range of emotions.  He incorporates large swaths of black background (sometimes a majority of a two-page spread) to highlight text or fine drawings or grave subject matter.  Powell cleverly incorporates the sizable amount of text in his drawings without sacrificing space or emotional power.  He has a tremendous capacity to capture facial expression and body language, portraying with equal skill reflective thoughtfulness and intense hate demonstrated by both black and white figures.  The books have won multiple Eisner Awards (the graphic novel world’s equivalent of the Oscars) for a reason.

March: Books 1-3 is an intense, fascinating exploration of our nation’s recent history.  It’s a natural choice for graphic novel or memoir fans and history buffs.  It has plenty to offer a wider audience, however.  Give the first volume or all 3 to high school students and adults; the books are equally interesting as part of a broader discussion or enjoyed alone.  Be prepared to provide context for or an introduction to the civil rights movement for middle students who read March as it accurately portrays the events and language of the time.  Like that unassuming pair of shoes in the Smithsonian, Lewis’ memoir holds a powerful message.

 

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Gizelle's Bucket ListPerhaps it was too soon, I told myself as I picked up the book from the new non-fiction shelf here at the Joplin Public Library.

A little more than a month earlier, we’d had to put the family Collie, our beloved Molly, to sleep at the estimated age of 12. The house still felt quieter without her sweet presence, and my dog, Buster, seemed to miss her. But the book seemed like it would be a fast read, and the cute photographs were enticing. Determined to be strong, I grabbed it and headed to the library’s self-checkout machines.

“Gizelle’s Bucket List: My Life with a Very Large Dog” was a mixed experience for me. I found myself smiling at the familiarity and ugly crying by the time I reached the final page.

From the moment 19-year-old Lauren Watt and her mother meet the female brindle English mastiff puppy, it’s love.

“The puppy felt so right in my lap,” Watt writes. “I looked down at her and couldn’t believe this was real. Years later, I’d recognize this look as the way a few of my friends gazed at their shiny engagement rings, like they are about to start their lives, like their adventures were about to begin. … I felt as though I’d fallen under a spell, enchanted.”

(I felt a similar emotion when I first saw a picture of my current dog. I’d spent nine long months grieving the loss of my first dog, but the moment I saw a picture of Buster, I just knew he was the one. It was time to move on.)

A handful of cash and one check later, Watt and her mother head home, having named the puppy Gizelle, after the innocent princess in the movie “Enchanted.”

Gizelle fit right into the family pack, and she started to grow. And grow. Watt grows up with her, eventually graduating from college and heading to New York City, giant dog in tow. Somehow, she finds an apartment big enough for herself, her canine companion and a human roommate.

Life in the Big Apple is an adventure for Watt and her giant dog. Daily walks turn into encounters with colorful strangers, thanks to Gizelle’s attention-getting presence. The duo go for night-time runs in Central Park, Watt feeling totally safe in the dark with her dog by her side. Gizelle shows off superstar moves in a costume contest at a dog park.

When Gizelle develops a mysterious limp at the age of six, Watt begins to face the fact that her best friend won’t be around forever. The limp eventually leads to a devastating diagnosis: Gizelle has bone cancer. Watt is heartbroken: “Never, ever could I have imagined this news would hurt so badly, that it would take my breath away, that finding out would feel like I could not ever go on. I sat down, and I sobbed.”

Always a list maker, she resolves to write down things she wanted to do with Gizelle, as well as things Gizelle loved to do. She creates Gizelle’s Bucket List.

The pair take road trips. They eat the best lobster rolls and doughnuts. They enjoy ice cream while sitting on a wooden boat dock. They visit the beach. They ride in a canoe. They play in piles of autumn’s colorful leaves.

All too soon, Watt resolves that it’s time to say goodbye and make that final vet visit. The last pages of “Gizelle’s Bucket List” are difficult to read, especially if you’ve ever lost a pet. Watt doesn’t shy away from the realities of putting her dog to sleep.

Ultimately, “Gizelle’s Bucket List” is about learning to live in the moment and love as unconditionally as a dog does, lessons we all could benefit from. Take a journey with Lauren Watt and Gizelle; you won’t regret it.

 

The Joplin Public Library has a fairly extensive collection of graphic novels, many of which I’ve reviewed previously in these pages. Still, there exists a bias against graphic novels. Many people view them as childish, lacking in literary merit. If that’s your perspective, I ask you to consider the work of cartoonist Art Spiegelman.

In his ground-breaking works “Maus: A Survivor’s Tale: My Father Bleeds History” and “Maus II: A Survivor’s Tale: And Here My Troubles Began,” Spiegelman explores the Holocaust through the experiences of his father, Vladek, a Polish Jew. Part biography, part memoir, both works tell a compelling story.

“Maus,” which won the Pulitzer Prize in 1992 — the first graphic novel to do so – covers the mid-1930s through winter 1944. Vladek’s story begins in Czestochowa, a small Polish town not far from the German border. As a young man, he buys and sells textiles and describes a life of pretty girls who openly pursue him. Eventually, he meets and marries Anja, a clever but high-strung girl from a wealthy family. Anja suffers a breakdown after giving birth to their first son, Richieu, and the couple go to a sanitarium in Nazi-occupied Czechoslovakia so that Anja can seek rest and treatment.

After they return, political tensions rise, and there are anti-Semitic riots. Eventually, Vladek is drafted into the Polish army; he is captured by the Germans and becomes a prisoner of war. After his release, he reunites with his family.  But their happiness is short-lived, as the Nazi noose tightens around Europe. The Jews in Vladek and Anja’s town are moved from ghetto to ghetto amid worsening conditions. Families are split up. More and more people are sent to Auschwitz, a concentration camp in Nazi-occupied Poland. The couple arrange to escape to Hungary, but the smugglers betray them to the Gestapo, who arrest them and send them to Auschwitz.

“Maus II” picks up where its predecessor leaves off. Separated in Auschwitz, Vladek and Anja lead lives of starvation and abuse. But Vladek finds ways to avoid the “selections,” the process by which prisoners were chose for more labor or even execution, and hustles his way into working as a tinsmith and cobbler. He and Anja manage to exchange occasional messages, which keeps them both going. As the war progresses, Vladek and other prisoners are marched from Auschwitz in occupied Poland to Dachau in Germany. When the war finally ends, the camp survivors are freed. After a time, Vladek and Anja are reunited.

Woven throughout Vladek’s story is the tale of father and son, who share a troubled, tense relationship. “Maus” and “Maus II” are as much about being a Holocaust survivor as they are about being the child of Holocaust survivors. Art is eager to hear his father’s experiences so that he can write about them, but he has little patience for the older man’s anxious, miserly ways. Much of “Maus II” is devoted to their relationship as Vladek’s second marriage falls apart and his health deteriorates badly.

Spiegelman employs an animal motif to tell his story. In keeping with Nazi propaganda, Jews are represented as vermin, as mice. Likewise, Germans are characterized as cats, Poles as pigs, French as frogs, and Americans as dogs. This technique adds a surreal quality to horrific historical events, particularly when characters masquerade as others, such as when Vladek and others wear pig masks over their mouse faces to hide their Jewish identities.

 

 

If you have any qualms about “reading” an illustrated work, be assured that the story is text-driven. The artwork is black and white, and there is a fair amount of detail in the frames.

If you don’t mind the heavy subject matter during this holiday season, I highly recommend that you pick up “Maus” and “Maus II.” They offer a unique, accessible interpretation of a horrific time in history. You can find them in the Teen Department of the Joplin Public Library.

 

 

A popular genre at Joplin Public Library continues to be graphic novels – not just for the teens and children, but for the adults. In fact, on a regular basis, the library adds graphic novels to its adult collection. Below are some that I’ve been devouring lately.

Hyperbole and a Half by Allie Brosch

Although this one is more of an episodic memoir with lots of cartoons by the author, I regard it as a graphic novel because the illustrations convey so much of the story. I hadn’t read this prior to its selection by my book club, nor was I familiar with the author’s blog that is the source for most of this book’s material, but I fell for it from the first page. You have to love someone who re-creates a drawing she made when she was 5 years old because she doesn’t really know what else to use as an introduction.

The subtitle of “Hyperbole and a Half” is “unfortunate situations, flawed coping mechanisms, mayhem, and other things that happened.” This lengthy description pretty much sums it up. Brosch lays it all out there, from her quirky behavior as a child (obsessed with sugar, she once crawled through the window of a locked bedroom to gain access to her grandfather’s birthday cake, all of which she ate) to her battle with chronic depression.

Dogs figure prominently in Brosch’s world. When she was a kid, her family decided to adopt a Helper Dog to keep their other one, Simple Dog, company. Unfortunately, Helper Dog turned out to have some issues. This story’s title says it all: “Helper Dog Is an —hole.” As an adult, she acquired her own Simple Dog and Helper Dog. Her tale of moving across the country with them and their difficulty adjusting had me laughing with sympathetic understanding.

And if you’re ever having a bad day, flip to “Dinosaur (The Goose Story),” about a wayward goose that finds its way into Brosch’s yard and house. It’s epic. And lest you think she’s making everything up, she provides screen shots of video she took of the goose.

Over the past two decades, my love for National Public Radio has introduced me to some terrific authors. Now I can add another name to that list: Alysia Abbott.

 

A few months ago, I tuned in to my daily lunchtime treat, “Fresh Air with Terry Gross,” and became riveted by the story of a single father raising his daughter. It’s not an uncommon situation, but Alysia was a rare creature: She was raised by an openly gay father in San Francisco in the ‘70s and ‘80s, decades that saw tremendous advances but also great tragedies for the gay and lesbian community.

 

Years later, when AIDS claimed Steve Abbott’s life, he left behind a sizeable body of work – poetry, novels, essays and, perhaps most important, letters and journals. Those letters and journals, deeply personal glimpses into his daily life, would provide the basis for Alysia Abbott’s “Fairyland: a Memoir of My Father.”

 

Her moving account of their life together is not simply a story of growing up with a gay father. It’s one of “otherness,” born of the absence of a maternal presence after her mother’s untimely death, of moving almost exclusively in the adult world of writers and activists as a child, of living an itinerant, poor, bohemian existence.

 

“Dad and I weren’t just odd, we were set apart,” she confesses. “As ridiculous and pretentious as this might sound, I sincerely believed and needed to believe that our position in bohemia was born of our separation and that the pain of our separation could be redeemed by our brand of bohemia.”
Like many parent-child relationships, theirs was a complex one. Alysia loved her father fiercely, but she alternately pushed him away and pulled him closer. Even during her father’s final days in hospice, she profoundly resented his neediness and dependence on her, yet, understandably, his death devastated her.

 

Through Alysia and Steve’s navigation of life and their relationship, the reader witnesses history being made. Early in “Fairyland,” Steve Abbott is compelled to become a gay-rights activist in the wake of the Stonewall Riots. The city the pair chooses as home, San Francisco, becomes the epicenter for events that would shock a nation and change our world: the murders of George Moscone and Harvey Milk, the mass suicides at Jonestown, the appearance of AIDS and its explosion from a few mysterious illnesses to an epidemic that would decimate a community and a generation.

 

The Abbotts have front-row seats to the devastation AIDS would bring. “Soon the young men … would age before our eyes, shrinking beneath thick layers of scarves and sweaters and wool caps. They walked with canes or were pushed in wheelchairs, their vitality snuffed out, feathers plucked clean,” Alysia remembers.

 

Through it all, there is tremendous love between father and daughter, as well as tremendous loss. When Alysia describes the moment she realizes the severity of her father’s illness – he has sent her a letter detailing his plummeting T-cell count – I couldn’t breath for a moment as I felt a small portion of her grief. When she writes of his final hours, I wept, not just for her, but for so many, including myself, who have lost people to AIDS.

 

While I read “Fairyland,” it struck me how very lucky Alysia is to have her father’s journals and letters, a strange sentiment, I suppose, considering their challenging life together and her ambivalence about his obsession with writing. However, she does recognize the preciousness of her inheritance, acknowledging, “Until this chapter, I’ve relied on my father’s journals and published work to understand the nature of his creative passions, addictions, and relationships, but rereading these letters I feel him right here with me, like a beloved whispering in my ear.”

 

Like her father, Alysia Abbott has a gift for language. Sometimes her writing is painfully blunt. Other times, she crafts sentences containing such lovely imagery that I often stopped to ponder what I’d just read. In describing a discussion she overhears between her father, the daughter of Jack Kerouac and the writer Richard Brautigan, she writes, “I’ve held on to the memory of this conversation like a stone in my pocket, rubbing it between my thumb and forefinger until it’s become flat and smooth.”

 

I prize books like Alysia Abbott’s. They’re well-written and honest, and they move me. If that experience appeals to you, look for “Fairyland” at the Joplin Public Library. I don’t think you’ll be disappointed.