Tag Archives: nonfiction

A Train in Winter by Caroline Moorehead

22nd November 2011

* I received this book through TLC  Book Tours in exchange for an honest review. Thanks to Trish for the opportunity to read and review.

Whenever I talk about World War II, the same question always pops up: How did it happen? And while the answers to that question could fill many volumes, Caroline Moorehead’s book A Train in Winter is an excellent example – at least in part – of how atrocities happen.

It’s 1940, and Occupied France is a mostly peaceful France. The first lines of the book emphasize this: “It seemed not an invasion but a spectacle. Paris itself was calm and almost totally silent….And when they stopped staring, the Parisians returned home and waited to see what would happen.”

Many did nothing, but Charles de Gaulle called for the French people to resist the Germans. A Train in Winter is the story of 230 women who did resist and who, in turn, were captured by their own government before being handed over to the Nazis as dissenters.

I have never before read such an in-depth breakdown of the changes in Occupied France and the effect on its people. Nor have I experienced a story of greater selflessness and hope. The 230 women originally captured are whittled down slowly to a small band of survivors who fared far better than those women without a support system within Auschwitz, bodily holding one another up during roll call and hiding sores and illnesses or broken bones, if necessary.

However, the part of this book that has left the most lasting impression on me – and the part I have discussed in greater detail than my mom, sister, aunt, or friends want to hear without reading the book, is the aftermath of the concentration camps. When these women are released, malnourished and physically and mentally scarred, they are in every sense of the word, displaced. They have no idea where to go or who they will see once they are there. Each woman arrives in the midst of a government trying to forget its own depravity after a war that ravaged the world in unbelievable ways, and each finds no one wants to hear about the unreality of a German concentration camp. This, to me, was and is one of the most real atrocities, our desire to forget and move on.

Coming home was, therefore, not the happiest experience, and Moorehead points out that “having lived so intensely together, depending on each other to stay alive, they were now forced apart: by geography, by families, by a world whose rules and ways they had forgotten and which, physically weak, quickly exhausted, prematurely aged, they had to learn again.”

Though I have read some great non-fiction this year (Manhunt, In the Garden of Beasts, The Paper Garden, Devil in the White City), this is by far my favorite and a must for anyone interested in World War II or the role of women in wartime.

Have you read this? Or is it going on your Christmas wish list? Also, does anyone have any recommendations for similar books?

Recommended for:

high school/college readers

book clubs

World War II buffs

women’s history buffs

Understanding Comics by Scott McCloud

12th April 2011

Spring. I love it for so many reasons including the really great texts my students and I explore. This week, we are reading Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi, but many of my students have never before read a graphic novel. In fact, last week one of them opened up the book, held it up, and asked: “Is it really supposed to be a comic book?” So, I thought it was essential to introduce them to the medium and made some copies of excerpts from Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art by Scott McCloud.

If you haven’t ventured far into comics/graphic novels and want a primer or even just a great, fun reference book, you could do much worse. McCloud uses the medium itself to define and explore the complex world of images and comics.

In an accessible manner, McCloud starts with the basics, using one of Magritte’s paintings and then explaining that the image you are viewing is not a pipe, or a painting of a pipe or a drawing of a pipe. Instead, it’s (in our case) a web page view of a printed page of a drawing of a painting of a pipe. Now that that’s clear as mud, take a look at the page (click to enlarge):

Why does any of that matter? Well, McCloud wants us to be able to break down images the way a cartoonist might, and he discusses icons and how icons and symbols are different from one another:

Thus, as a number or letter simply represents the corresponding number or letter (3=3; M=m), the icons above are indicative of an idea, though not the ideas themselves. McCloud argues that comics operate in icons and demand reader participation. Let me explain: he says photos only allow us to see what the photographer views. However, comics break down images to less complex levels, inviting the reader/viewer to better identify with the story.

This particular panel is an excellent experiment. From left to right, the images decrease in detail, leaving us with a simplistic drawing of a face. McCloud says we are more likely to see ourselves in the image on the right as opposed to the image on the left. In fact, McCloud says we are eager to see ourselves everywhere:

And it’s so true. Don’t you see faces in the images below? Fascinating. The rest of the book discusses panel choice, color, story, etcetera, and it’s really a great, fairly-quick read. If you’re at all interested in comic books and graphic novels, I think you’ll absolutely love this book.

If you’re interested, you can buy a copy here.

Well? Have you read Understanding Comics? Until I discovered graphic novels, I was always a fan of Archie. Are you a fan of comic books or graphic novels? What are some of your favorites?
jenn aka the picky girl

Maps and Legends by Michael Chabon

14th July 2010

Image from The Fire Wire

Is the cover of this book not amazing? I’m always inspired by Frances at Nonsuch Book; she posts the most intriguing books and book design. When I started blogging, I knew I would have to feature this book’s art first and foremost. The photos above really do not do it justice. This is one of the most intricate, beautiful books I’ve ever owned. If you’re lucky enough to land one somewhere, hang on to it. Jordan Crane did the cover art, and it truly is art. [Maps and Legends is a collection of essays published by Michael Chabon in 2008.]

Ah, the essay. I think about essays constantly. I teach essay writing. I write essays. I enjoy reading essays. However, over the last few years, I have noticed that essay writers can be the most pretentious, self-important writers out there. A well-crafted essay is probably one of the most difficult things to write. The writer must be succinct but engaging. Very often, the essay topic is interesting to only a small subset of the population. Most importantly, there is just enough space to diverge from the main topic to explore other tangents, but the writer must once again come back to his or her main point.

My most recent brush with Michael Chabon was in The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay. The experience was mixed as I really liked the story and some of the characters but felt Chabon’s voice was very present in the text, distractingly so. Of course, in this book of his essays, Chabon’s voice is ever present. While there were many points on which we agreed, that pretentious voice still irked the hell out of me. Overall, though, the essays did everything I require – they were entertaining, well written (although a bit wordy), and varied.

I almost wholly agree with his essay “Trickster in a Suit of Lights: Thoughts on the Modern Short Story,” wherein he explores genre, saying:

And so as with our idea of entertainment, our idea of genre …. is of a thing fundamentally, perhaps inherently debased, infantile, commercialized, unworthy of the serious person’s attention. The undoubted satisfactions that come from reading science fiction or mystery stories are to be enjoyed only in childhood or youth, or by the adult reader only as “guilty pleasures” (a phrase I loathe). A genre implies a set of conventions – a formula – and conventions imply limitations (the argument goes), and therefore no genre work can ever rise to the masterful heights of true literature, free (it is to be supposed) of all formulas and templates.

Bang on, Chabon. I’m right there with you, but wait…

Like most people who worry about whether it’s better to be wrong or pretentious when pronouncing the word “genre,” I’m always on the lookout for a chance to drop the name of Walter Benjamin. I had planned to do so here. I intended to refer to Benjamin’s bottomless essay “The Storyteller,” and to try to employ the famous distinction he makes…

Yeah – see, I did not even have to call him pretentious; he knows he is. And, he goes on to talk about Walter Benjamin… namedropper. Of course, before you think me moronic and incapable of reading his sardonic voice, let me skip to another section of the same essay:

I’d like to believe that, because I read for entertainment, and I write to entertain. Period. Oh, I could decoct a brew of other, more impressive motivations and explanations. I could uncork some stuff about reader response theory, or the Lacanian parole. I could go on about the storytelling impulse and the need to make sense of experience through story. A spritz of Jung might scent the air. I could adduce Kafka’s formula…

Aaand, we’re back to pompous ass. His voice, particularly in this passage, reminds me of oh-so-many insecure graduate students, just learning theory. No longer is a story a story. Suddenly, it takes on so many theoretical contexts that not even they are capable of finding their way out of the rabbit hole.

This is not to say that each essay is unfulfilling. The first, already referenced essay regarding the short story is wonderful. There are also several essays devoted to the writing process and Chabon’s first and second novels.He discusses Sherlock Holmes, Cormac McCarthy, and Will Eisner, while also exploring his fascination with Golems in an essay entitled, “Golems I Have Known, or Why My Elder Son’s Middle Name is Napoleon.” The Eisner essay is short but fantastic, and Chabon’s love of anything comic book related definitely comes through.

One of my favorite passages discusses a popular topic, the inevitability of lies in fiction.

There is a contract between the writer of fiction and the readers he or she lies to, as there is between a magician and the audience he hoodwinks; they are in it together. They are helping each other to bring a story to apparent life or an edible orange to grow from the branch of a clockwork tree.

And, in “The Recipe for Life,” he expands on this idea:

Literature, like magic, has always been about the handling of secrets, about the pain, the destruction, and the marvelous liberation that can result when they are revealed…. If a writer doesn’t give away secrets, his own or those of the people he loves…if the writer submits his work to an internal censor … the result is pallid, inanimate, a lump of earth….[T]he writer shapes his story, flecked like river clay with the grit of experience and rank with the smell of human life, heedless of the danger to himself, eager to show his powers, to celebrate his mastery, to bring into being a little world that, like God’s is at once terribly imperfect and filled with astonishing life.

I know there are many readers out there who steer clear of essay collections. However, I have enjoyed them for years. Similar to a collection of short stories, you can pick the book up for one essay before bed or on a lunch break, without losing the flow of the story, as in a novel. This book has been on my bedside table for weeks, and I have picked through it, skimming the ones that I couldn’t relate to (I’ve never read The Golden Compass, so his essay about it was not for me) and relishing the ones that piqued my interest. This particular collection was coherent and enjoyable, and I am curious if anyone else out there has read it. If so, what were your thoughts?