The Complete Maus – Art Spiegelman

15195Containing both volumes 1 and 2 of Maus: A Survivor’s TaleThe Complete Maus tells the complete story of Vladek Spiegelman’s experience of surviving in Hitler’s Europe.

The first and most important thing to make note of is that this is a completely true story. It isn’t a piece of fiction based in the truth of Auschwitz, it is a true account of Art Spiegelman’s father’s life during World War II. It is a heavy and intense read, but completely incredible.

The second important thing you need to know about this book is that it is a graphic novel. It is masterfully drawn, with plenty of narration which makes it easy to read even if you’re not a regular graphic novel reader. The metaphorical representation of people is a massive part of this book. Jews are drawn as mice, Nazis as cats, the Allies as dogs, and Poles as pigs. This is an incredibly effective commentary on stereotypes, and highlights the absurdity of dividing people by nationality.

The brutal honesty about life as a Jew during the Nazi occupation is shocking and horrific, but truly, truly fascinating. On another level, the relationship between Art and Vladek is also explored, and it really shows how the children of survivors can be so affected by the experience of their parents.

Maus isn’t an easy or pleasant read by any means, but it is powerful and it’s essential. If you’re into graphic novels, you MUST read this book. If you’re into historical accounts and memoirs, you MUST read this book. If you read anything at all, you MUST read this book.

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I Remember Beirut – Zeina Abirached

20901532This short graphic novel tells the story of Zeina Abirached’s life growing up in Beirut while Christians and Muslims divided the city in war. It is presented as a collection of memories, collecting shrapnel, getting a taxi to school because the buses refuse to make the journey, and seeking refuge in other countries from time to time.

The artwork is very simple, and all in black and white. The style of drawing helps to make the story understandable and enjoyable, and there is very little text at all (although not in a way that makes the story difficult to follow). This is my favourite graphic novel that I’ve read so far, because it is very to-the-point and not at all self-indulgent or full of irrelevant ramblings like others that I’ve read.

Although the story has the potential to be quite upsetting, graphic details of war are not included, making this an easy read. It is short and straightforward, but the details of a regular life in a place split by war are still moving and poignant.

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Epileptic – David B.

39916.jpgThis graphic autobiography explores David B’s life growing up with an epileptic brother. What started out as an idyllic childhood playing on the streets of France with his brother, Jean-Christophe, and sister, Florence, quickly turned into a life of anger and frustration when Jean-Christophe is diagnosed with epilepsy. David and his siblings are dragged from place to place as his parents search for a cure, which always ends in disappointment.

David’s account is touching and incredibly honest. The way he talks about his feelings towards his brother is both brutal and compelling. I have to say I was impressed by the sheer openness. However, it didn’t do anything to improve my understanding of the illness. As he himself wasn’t afflicted by it, I’m not convinced David himself truly understood either (although it is interesting to look at an illness from the viewpoint of someone who is affected but not afflicted by it). The story is also quite difficult to follow in parts. The time frames jump regularly but in no particular pattern and usually without warning. I struggled to understand the relevance of some of the stories he included. The book is much longer than it needs to be.

That being said, this is of course a graphic novel and is therefore driven by images rather than words – a thing a graphic novel newbie like me struggles with. I did not find the images particularly skilful or attractive to look at, which I think is the main reason I did not get on very well with this book. The characters look the roughly the same throughout, which made understanding their age and progression almost impossible. I wouldn’t recommend this book to anyone who does not already have a strong interest in either epilepsy or graphic novels.

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Rise – Cara Brookins

29939316Rise is the incredible true story of a family who built their own house. Following multiple abusive marriages, Cara and her four children decided to start over – by building their house from scratch. Using nothing but online instructional videos and some serious determination, they constructed their new home and became stronger people, no longer afraid of what the world might throw at them.

It took me a while to get used to the structure of the book. Alternate chapters follow the construction of the house, while the rest look further into the past at the domestic abuse Cara suffered at the hands of one husband, and the emotional trauma inflicted on the whole family by another suffering from schizophrenia. Once I got the hang of the alternation, it became easier to read.

No one can deny that this is an impressive story. The details of Cara’s experiences with her ex-husbands and the feat of building an entire house out of nothing sounds like a work of fiction, but it really happened. However, putting it into a book must have been almost as difficult. The real problem is that it doesn’t read like fiction, because it’s not fiction. But it almost feels like it should. The writing style and flow is bumpy and imperfect, which helped to remind me that the events inside really did happen, but also made it difficult to get into. There were a few threads I didn’t get (Benjamin, an entity inside Cara’s mind, being the main one) and I found it difficult to connect with Cara. This may well be because I’ve never experienced any of the things she had to go through, but it left me disengaged.

It’s a difficult book to judge because it is the story of a person’s real life. An impressive story, but you can really tell that it’s not written by a professional writer. I honestly wish I could say I’d enjoyed it more, but I can definitely say I’m impressed by what they achieved.

I received a copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.