Book Review: Maus by Art Spiegelman

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I read on PBS that Art Spiegelman will receive an honorary National Book Award for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters on November 16. Spiegelman is of the creator of the Pulitzer Prize-winning book “Maus” in 1992.

Maus is now a banned book in select schools. From the papers: “A Tennessee school board has voted to remove the Pulitzer Prize-winning graphic novel “Maus” from an eighth grade language arts curriculum due to concerns about profanity and an image of female nudity in its depiction of Polish Jews who survived the Holocaust.”

For international readers, in eight grade children are roughly 13 to 14 years old. For more information about the placement of eight grade in school systems and children’s ages, click here.

I am only going to address the two reasons given above for banning this brilliant work.

Does Spiegelman curse in the book? Yes, but very few times. I have seen worse and hear worse out the mouths of middle school aged children. Not just cursing each other but also how they refer to family members.

Cursing does not stand out in this book. What does are the raw emotions in which the author sketches the Holocaust. You cannot make the Holocaust less horrific, less graphic, or bone-chilling. Sugar-coating the Holocaust does not do justice to the many Jewish people who were brutally murdered.

Now let’s cover the female nudity. Spiegelman’s father finds his wife Anya nude in the bathtub. She had killed herself. In only two images in the entire book, do we see Anya dead. In one image, we see the top of her head, her breasts, and an upper arm dangling over the tub. In the other, we see part of her stomach, knees, and right toes sticking out from the bath water. Neither drawings show her private parts. There is far more more nudity in games, on TV, and in the movies. Here, see for yourself.

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As for the violence, as every quality author does, Spiegelman does not focus on violent details. His focus is on the emotions of the people who witness it and try to escape it. Do we see hangings, prisoners, and children being killed? Yes, because that’s what the Nazis did.

People who claim the book is all violence clearly have not spent any time looking at the drawings. We see dancing, tenderness, and very familiar family scenes. Just look at page 75. The adults at the table discuss coupons and the black market while one of the children at the table gets into trouble.

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Reading about the Holocaust is always a gut-wrenching journey. Many in our own family never came back from Auschwitz. But not reading about the Holocaust is not a choice.

Clearly, this isn’t a book for elementary school children. However, at middle school they cover many wars, have seen violence on TV or in games, and are used to a curse word or two.

Instead of banning Maus, a simple label on the book cover in the school library would have been sufficient to alert younger readers of the graphic content.

Highly recommended reading!

Book review: The Seeker Series by S. G. MacLean

Seeker series by S.G. MacLean/Photography AdS
Seeker series by S.G. MacLean/Photography AdS

The five books in the Seeker Series by S. G. MacLean carry you into a politically challenging period.

We meet Damian Seeker in 1654 when Oliver Cromwell is Lord Protector with almost unlimited powers.

There is general unrest everywhere. People fight for free speech and printers work overtime to make news pamphlets.

To stay ahead of riots, plots to restore the Royal Family to the throne, and attempts to kill the Lord Protector, Cromwell’s government has a Secret Service led by John Thurloe. One of his Intelligence Officers is Captain Damian Seeker.

In book #1, Elias Ellingworth, a lawyer and journalist, is arrest for first degree murder. Even though lawyers and journalists were despised and a threat to Cromwell, Seeker has doubts about the man’s guilt and goes to talk to him in his cell in the Tower of London. How easy it would have been for him to let Elias rot there. Nobody would question it. The case would be closed, and everyone would move on. But the facts did not add up and instead of doing what is easy, Seeker did what is difficult. He talked to someone he did not agree with on any subject.

Throughout the five books, Elias and Seeker continue to have a strained relationship. They differ in everything but somehow, mutual respect and even trust forms. There is of course more. Maria, Elias’ sister, manages to set into motion the slow awakening of Seeker’s frozen emotions.

He had his reasons to close his heart. He was publicly abandoned by a wife who took his daughter Manon away from him. Becoming a soldier just sealed the ironclad lock on his emotions.

Seeker is not made into a tall handsome guy who makes women swoon at first sight. MacLean also does not make excuses for his behavior. He is as flawed in the last book as he was in the first. But despite the flaws and the hard life he leads, bit by bit you warm up to Seeker because despite the rough appearance and ice-cold behavior, you start to see his humanity. Despite their criminal activities, he can still respect his suspects, and even like them, for the parts of them that are human.

The essence of Seeker is summed up best in book #4, the Bear Pit, on pages 203-204. Andrew Marvell, poet and trusted friend, wonders: “People didn’t just carry on regardless when Seeker turned up. There was a tendency to silence, a hiatus in movement, before everyone suddenly found reason to be elsewhere. It was not just amongst the guilty that such was the case. Those of blameless life were equally dumbstruck and guilt-ridden at the Captain’s arrival anywhere. Even in the guardrooms of Horse Guards Yard it was the same. Marvell wondered how it made Seeker feel, this power he had to arrest the motions of others, kill dead their conversations. He wondered if the man was ever lonely.

One of my favorite characters in this series is Lady Anne Winter. She has a very strained relationship with Seeker as well yet somehow a bond develops. Whatever she does as a Royalist spy, she is at her best when she is just Lady Anne Winter. She will loyally do what is expected of her as a spy. But when confronted with young people in trouble, especially young women, she does what is right.

I never like to read fight scenes in a book. I skip to the part where the story picks up again. Not so much here. I still do not care for fight scenes, but Maclean’s are brief, to the point, and every movement plays to the characters’ strength. There is not much embellishment with gory details or a flood of adjectives and that is something else I like.

MacLean has delivered. With a Ph.D. in History and specialization in 16th and 17th century Scottish History, she picked a challenging time period to set her series of historical fiction. She does not overwhelm the reader with too many details about the politics of the time. The reader gets just enough to follow the characters and to be comfortable in the story’s time.

Book five is the conclusion of the Seeker series. In the author’s notes and at the book’s ending, however, is a hint that the door is kept open, and I am all for it.

Maclean’s website is here and you can also follow her on Twitter. I look forward to reading her new book: The Bookseller of Inverness.

Highly recommended reading. 

*reposted from DCC

Book review: Blink

Stevie Winkler and his friends Chris and Lashaun love superheros. Imagine if one of them actually was one. What would they do if one of them does something heroic and somebody else claims victory?

Stevie and his mom live a modest life. Mom tries to make ends meet and that isn’t easy. Stevie helps where he can but doesn’t always go about it the right way. You see, he is a superhero and his power is teleporting. He ends up needing the help of retired superhero, Captain Heroic.

Larry Kollar wrote a great book explaining the superhero types.

Type One is born with superpowers that usually manifests around the age of twenty. The youngest Type One was seventeen. Stevie a.k.a. Blink is thirteen.

Type Two gains their superpowers after an external event which usually comes down to lab accidents.

Then there’s Type Three like Captain Heroic. Ordinary people with extremely good reflexes and insight.

The book follows Stevie as he attends superhero summer camp where he learns to control his powers. The pace is good and the chapters are well placed.

Kollar wrote a book about young people making a difference in their world and how hard it is to use power wisely. There is a thin line between doing something for good and doing it for evil. The intentions behind your actions are what matters, and that is a tough lesson for anyone.

We read about the conflicting feelings Stevie has for his father, how badly he wants to help his mom, how he wishes there was a course on how to talk to girls, and most importantly, how this young superhero must control himself in order to not become a bully.

Great for young readers. Alas, only available as an eBook.

You can follow Kollar on his personal blog, or on Twitter, or on his writing site. An overview of all his books is here.

Book Review: Estimated Time of Arrest (ETA)

The abbreviation ETA reflects the fate of one of the main characters,  Lorenzo Lartaun Izcoa. However, ETA of course, also stands for Euskadi Ta Askatasuna. The author, Delphine Pontvieux, gives us an overview of the Basque Nationalist and Separatist Organization in this book.

After he took part in a pro-separatist march that turned violent in January 1992, Lorenzo Lartaun Izcoa (21) is wrongfully charged with the fatal bombing of a police station in his home town, Irun. It is a small city located in the heart of Basque country between France and Spain. It struggles for independence. Lartaun is now on the Spanish Secret Service’s most wanted list labelled an active member of the Basque terrorist group ETA. He has no choice but to flee.

Delphine Pontvieux takes you on a breathtaking tour through Southern France and Spain. It is obvious that she knows the areas. The little details in clothes, culture, architecture, and especially rock climbing and rock formations show that she knows her trade.

She gives you insight in a family ripped apart by violence and forced to take a stand. The book explains how people became part of ETA, how people grew up powerless to stop the violence and one day, when the opportunity presented itself… 

The book makes no excuses for violence but explains the characters and the motivations from the people behind the campaigns. We see a human side in all of them. They care for family and friends and we see their strength when their loyalty is tested with torture.

We meet a variety of people who all stand for, protest, and strive for a better tomorrow. Each has their own way, their own method, definition, and through forces beyond themselves, they collide. Again, not condoning violence but describing the book. 

The book is well written, keeps a good pace, and has in-depth characters. The one moment where the author lost my attention was near the end. The book’s ending would have been stronger by simply displaying the note and then have Faustine call Haizea. Read it and let me know what you think. 

Book Review: Curtain

After I read Poirot by Mark Aldridge, I mentioned a few Christie books that I needed to either read again or buy. Curtain was one that I had never read so, I bought it, read it, and am now disappointed. Disappointed by Christi, not Aldridge, just to be clear.

Aldridge explained in his book that Curtain was going to be the final word on Poirot so that he would not live on indefinitely like James Bond.

And, Curtain confirms one last time that Poirot indeed used to be with the Belgium Police, something that is kept uncertain in the ABC murders series from Amazon.

We are back at Styles where Hercule Poirot is trying to strengthen. He had been to Egypt in hopes that his health would improve but alas.

Captain Arthur Hastings describes that Poirot is now wheelchair-bound, crippled by arthritis, has lost a lot of weight, hints that his heart is failing, but that his eyes are as sharp as ever.

Poirot is not accompanied by his trusted valet George. We are told that George left to care for his family as his father fell ill. Curtiss, we never learn his full name, is now caring for Poirot. A big, tall, strong man as he is described to carry Poirot in his arms around Styles.

Poirot quickly tells Hastings to not let his medical condition taint anything as there is work to be done. As he himself cannot move at will, Hastings will have to do all the legwork and then report back. Poirot gives his old friend a case file with clippings about five old criminal cases.

  1. Leonard Etherington, drugs and drink were his life, arsenic poisoning, his wife acquitted. Depressed by the stigma, she took her own life two years later.
  2. Miss Sharples, single, disabled, morphine overdose. Her niece Freda Clay cared for her, admitted an accidental overdose to stop the suffering. Insufficient evidence to prosecute.
  3. Edward Riggs, suspected his wife and lodger of having an affair. The pair was found murdered. Riggs turned himself in but he claimed to have no recollections. He was sentenced to death but it was commuted to life imprisonment.
  4. Derek Bradley, had an affair, his wife threatened to kill him. Bradley died drinking a potassium cyanide-laced beer. Mrs. Bradley was sentenced to death and hung.
  5. Matthew Litchfield, a tyrant father to four daughters, was attacked, suffered blunt force trauma to the head. The oldest daughter Margaret, confessed as she wished for her three younger sisters to be free. She was found insane and committed to Broadmore where she died shortly after being admitted.

In all cases, there was no doubt about who was responsible for the crime. That it could not always go to trial, is another matter. However, there was never an investigation for an alternative suspect in either of these five cases.

Poirot then blows Hastings’ socks off by stating that a person he calls X is responsible in all these five cases. The hunt for a serial killer begins as he/she is about to strike again, right here, at Styles. If Poirot is right, Hastings has a few things to hold on to:

  • the killer can be either male or female
  • in the above-mentioned five cases, the method to kill is not novel meaning that the killer can be from any social and educational background and age, widening the pool of suspects to basically everyone in or near Styles
  • as the killer is experienced, time is of the essence to search for patterns, inconsistencies, etc.
  • the killer’s exact motive is unclear as it ranges from revenge for betrayal to being an angel of death, and most importantly,
  • in the above-mentioned cases five people were held responsible. So, how does X connect to them or the victims? There has to be a common demeanor as to place, person, incident, etc. that attracts the serial killer’s attention. Which bring us to the last point
  • how did X communicate with all the five people who were held responsible for the previously mentioned five crimes and how could that communication have gone undetected?

The premise of the book is fantastic. My issues lies with the execution and the characters.

I didn’t warm up to or bond with any of the characters. I found them all superficial. Poirot was condescending, arrogant, and aloof. Hastings was the only one whose thoughts and feelings were well described.

As this was the last book with Poirot, in which he actually dies, I had expected a more well-rounded character portrayal with glimpses of him as a younger detective and maybe a reflection here and there about his life, his train of thought, his regrets, and maybe even some humanity with doubts and wishes for what his life could be like had he not been weakened and in failing health.

The plot is convoluted with too many small clues that nobody picks up on. This causes the reader to place their trust completely in Hastings as he is Poirot’s extension. As he tries to figure out X’s identity, he also has to deal with family issues regarding his daughter, who is also at Styles. It muddies the pool.

Hasting’s butterfly brain finds no rest in the book, not even at the end. There is no rest at the end for the reader either. For in the end, we only have Poirot’s high-and-mighty word for what really happened.

If you read Curtain, let me know what you think about it and especially about the postscript.

Book Review: Murder at the Farm

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Murder at the Farm; who killed Carl Bridgewater? is a phenomenal book by journalist Paul Foot. We may never know what happened but after reading Foot‘s excellent analysis of the police interrogations, I am sure that none of the Bridgewater Four were involved.

Even though the case dates back to 1978, I consider this book to be a classic to study how cases can go wrong fast. It reminded me of the Guildford Four and of course, the long hours of interrogation without a lawyer or help reminded me of the case of Richard Lapointe.

Foot painstakingly details how the case developed in tunnel vision instead of though a multi-pronged approach. His writing style appeals to me. He immediately shows where the case went wrong. He doesn’t flip back and forth between what happened and then indicate mistakes.

From the BBC: “Police have launched a massive manhunt for the killers of a young paperboy. Carl Bridgewater, 13, was shot in the head at close range yesterday afternoon at an isolated farmhouse near Stourbridge in Staffordshire. The farmhouse was one of the last calls on the paper-round the 13-year-old had done for only two months. The owners of Yew Tree Farm – cousins Mary Poole and Fred Jones – were disabled so Carl used to let himself into the house through the back door and leave their newspaper on a chair. It was then he disturbed the burglars who dragged him into the sitting room and shot him.”

Carl did not just interrupt the burglars or burglar, he knew them. The position in which the body was found indicates to me that someone asked or made Carl sit down. Then, he approached the boy and shot him at close range.

Also very disturbing in this case, is to read how clues were not acted on promptly and how some were disregarded. In this story, you can read how a bouquet of flowers confirmed an alibi and how a cardboard note did not reach the proper people.

If you love to dig into unsolved homicides this book is for you. Of course, it is dated but what happened to these four men involved, still happens to this day.

Book Review: The Killer of Little Shepherds

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The Killer of Little Shepherds by Douglas Starr is not just for readers interested in serial killers but foremost for those who love to read about forensic sciences.

It is a book about the evolution of society, how good trusting people changed into cautious people filled with distrust for strangers.

This is a book that signals how prejudice started to influence a community and how one person could incite a riot.

Of course, prominently featured are Cesare Lombroso and Alexandre Lacassagne. These two pillars and their schools of thought shaped forensic sciences.

The main story in the book is the case of Joseph Vacher, a man who was a schizophrenic psychopath. The psychopath in him killed many people. The schizophrenic in him made people believe that he was mentally disturbed. He claimed this had its source in his failed relationships.

This book describes in detail how autopsies were done in the late 1890s so get ready to read about autopsies without gloves, little sanitation, no refrigeration, and yes, Starr describes the scraping of the bones to measure their exact sizes.

This book held my interest from the start and not just because it hints at a serial killer at work. The case of Vacher is fascinating but the early days of CSI are a real treat for criminologists.

We learn about the work of Alexandre Lacassagne and Cesare Lombroso and how they tried to prove each other wrong. Lacassagne’s detailed descriptions of the circumstances under which the victims died is so meticulous that you can actually see the autopsy in your head.

Last but not least, we read about Vacher’s trial and how both sides tried to argue their cases. After he was arrested, Vacher claimed to be innocent by reason of insanity. He had once been bitten by a dog, so rabies might have made him do all these bad things, and the medicines he received to get better had lasting side-effects.

Vacher also tried to prove his insanity by proclaiming that God sent him to earth and when that didn’t work he tried to compare himself to Joan of Arc. Th experts found him sane and fit to stand trial.

Vacher was tried and convicted by the Cour d’Assises of Ain. Two victims were from Ain. He was sentenced to death on October 28, 1898. The method of execution at that time was the guillotine. The execution took place at dawn on December 31, 1898. Vacher refused to walk to the scaffold on his own and had to be dragged by his executioners.

The book has a table of contents, author’s notes, 8 pages with black and white photography, an epilogue, notes per chapter with sources, a bibliography, a cross-referenced index, a list of illustrations with credits.

Highly recommended reading.