Sunday, July 12, 2015

Prof Thug's Books Review

In literacy education, there is often a heavy focus on finding books that kids can relate to in order to encourage them to read. I understand the thinking behind it, and it can help kids get into reading. I certainly enjoy some books (or movies/shows/music/etc.) in which I can relate to the characters or the situations. But I also love to read about things and people I can't relate to. That's what got me into reading: learning about other people, places, and times I wasn't familiar with. Of course, I didn't view it as learning, it was just interesting. Reading about people just like yourself gets old.

When I was a kid I read "Are You There God, It's Me Margaret." It's about a little girl getting her period. I read it when I was 12. I was fascinated because I didn't know anything about that. At all. Yet it gave me valuable insight into many important aspects of life. It also prepared me for watching Carrie.

I find that when stories are different from my own, I tend to search out the similarities. How can I relate to this young girl going through puberty? How can I relate to this woman who left an arranged marriage in India and started a new life in Iowa? Answering those questions helps to build a connection with people who don't look or act like you. It helps build empathy.

So here are two books I recently read that I enjoyed a great deal. The first one involved a story that most people, especially myself, can not relate to, which makes it interesting and even important. The second book centered on a character who I could relate to almost too much.

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This is a long-form comic/graphic novel. Art Spiegelman tells the tale of his father's life before, during, and after World War II. In the story, Jews are represented as mice, Nazis as dogs, Poles as pigs, and Americans as dogs. His father is a Polish Jew who spent part of the war as a prisoner in Auschwitz and Birkenau. Fortunately, he (and his wife) survived and eventually move to New York.

The story is told from the perspective of the son (Art) who is interviewing his father. We get a personal perspective of Poland before the Nazis came as well as an inside view of the concentration camps. We also get the perspective of a son who has to endure the almost unbearable personality of his Holocaust Survivor father.

The self awareness of the author puts the reader in his shoes, and he addresses most of the issues or questions readers may have. Nothing is taboo; there is no other way to tell a story of the Holocaust.

The fact that it is told in comic form makes some of the events and complex themes easier to take, but it doesn't lessen the impact of the story. In fact, it  magnifies the impact because it's such an unfamiliar way to tell a familiar story. The contrast between the medium (usually reserved for children or light-hearted comedy) and the horror which it depicts heightens the feelings of discomfort. We have all seen Schindler's List or similar movies and we have become desensitized to the tragedies of the past. This book makes us look at the horror in a new light.

It is impossible to truly comprehend the atrocities of the Holocaust. We know people starved and were worked to death or put in gas chambers. Many were forced to dig their own graves or the graves of their loved ones. There's no way to truly understand the psyche these experiences must have created in survivors. Spiegelman was able to give a glimpse into that psyche when his father talked about Jews who turned over other Jews to the Nazis, hoping for preferential treatment. Even within the concentration camps, some Jews would sell out others in order to get in good with the guards. That is the corrosive mentality created living under an oppressive regime.

Because of the weight of their oppression, some Jews started to believe that Jewish people as a whole were inferior. Except for themselves of course. It's similar to Samuel Jackson's character in Django Unchained. This is another effect of being oppressed for long periods of time: the tendency to take on the mentality of the oppressor. It is impossible for me to truly comprehend that mentality, but Maus captured how prevalent it was and helped me understand how and why that mentality existed.

Long after the war, in New York, Art and his wife take their father for a car ride. They see a hitchhiker and decide to pick him up. The father loses his mind and starts yelling at them. His problem? The hitchhiker is black. Surely, this black man will hurt them or steal from them.

Art and his wife are dumbfounded. The wife asks how he can be racist after all that he went through. Art tells his father he sounds like a Nazi talking about Jews. The father is outraged that he would compare Jews to blacks. As bad as Jews could be, they are never as bad as blacks!

It's an upsetting scene that perfectly illustrates the lasting, damaging effects of systemic racism and mental/physical trauma. The realities of the Holocaust are almost inconceivable, so its effects are unimaginable. The book was depressing, but only because life can be depressing. We shouldn't hide from the horrors of the past. However, we can not let the past control us either. The father served as a reminder that letting the past dictate the present can be detrimental to our health and the health of those around us.

The book tells an important story without being pedantic. It's educational and entertaining. I honestly believe it should be taught in school. This is a work of art in which children can learn about the atrocities of the war without having the visceral brutality of it shoved in their faces.

Lucky Jim

The other book is far more light-hearted, despite the fact that it doesn't have cartoon mice.  I could relate (sometimes scarily so) to much of the protagonists' thoughts, feelings, and desires. His actions were much more outrageous than mine, though. Mostly. It reminded me of Confederacy of Dunces in that way.

The titular Lucky Jim is a professor in England a few years after World War II. He doesn't particularly enjoy the subject he teaches, or teaching at all. More importantly, he doesn't appreciate the stuffiness and the pretentiousness that he sees in university life. He is an anti-academic academic.

He avoids his students and most of his responsibilities. He pisses off other instructors, especially Professor Welch, the department head. Jim woos Welch's son's girlfriend. He gets drunk and ornery at Welch's house during an employee function.  And when he finally is required to perform something resembling his job, he mocks Welch in front of a full auditorium before passing out drunk.

After all that, he ends up with the girl and the job he wants because of his honesty and his disdain for the establishment. The story is basically everything I want my life to be.

This book was enjoyable because the main character was so relatable, and not just for me because he was an ornery professor; he is the "everyman". Moderately successful but not very hard working. Charming at times, awkward at others. Friendly when he wants but not overly outgoing. Several vices, but nothing crippling or unusual. Although it takes place in England in the 1950s, his anti-establishment stance is a trait individuals of any era and area can appreciate.

It's written in proper British English, which makes the insults and shenanigans even funnier to me. Since I mostly just read tweets and articles on Cracked  nowadays, it took a little while to adapt to the style, but it paid off. The contrast between the writing style and the ridiculous actions of the main character is hilarious in itself. It's very much British humor. A middle class man working in academia ridiculing upper class elites in their own homes? Yeah. Peak British humor. I don't always love it, but when it's done right, it can be brilliant. Kingsley Amis nails it, which, considering his name, isn't that surprising.

I Love You All...Class Dismissed. 

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