March, books 1, 2, and 3

I actually read all of these over the course of February, but I think I can cover them in one post.

This series is basically the story of civil rights in the US from the perspective of John Lewis. The story is framed by his interactions with President Obama as Obama is inaugurated.

I’m gonna say something a little heretical about these books. Although they’re excellent, for me they were somewhat victims of their hype. As a graphic way to tell John Lewis’ version of events, they were quite good, but at times, the story felt mildly disjointed. Some of this is, I presume, because the subject matter is just John Lewis recollecting things. But, I would’ve liked to see it organized in a way that carried the emotional arc more. I know this is asking a lot of a memoir, but compare it to, for example, Maus by Spiegelman. The latter is also a true story, and also a memoir of sorts, but every moment seems to be there for a reason.

One way in which the books are similar, yet different, is the use of framing devices. In Maus, it’s the son of the Shoah survivor’s attempt to make sense of himself and his relationship to his parents. I found it very strong, in part because it’s non-obvious – the father and son spend most of their time together fighting. It results in a beautifully nuanced character. The framing device in March is a bit more obvious and sentimental, and it’s not clear to me what it adds artistically.

That said, it’s still a fine series, and a great addition to your graphic novel collection. For me, it was kind of like Persepolis – great stuff, but it was missing that deeper note that the author seemed capable of.

March, books 1, 2, and 3 (Lewis)

The Complete Persepolis

This is a graphic novel about the author’s life growing up during the Iranian Revolution as the daughter of secular leftist parents. It’s not the most beautiful of graphic novels, but the art hits the right tone. Although I enjoyed it, and recommend it if you’re interested in the history, I have trouble putting it on the same pedestal as books like Fun House by Bechdel. Bechdel’s book both recounts stories from her life and weaves them into a sort of visual poem. Satrapi’s stories are fascinating (viscerally, they are more interesting than Bechdel’s), but they don’t really come together as something.

They are vignettes from her life, and that of itself is quite enjoyable, but I came away wanting something more. Perhaps it’s just my ignorance, but it wasn’t clear to me why a story or moment went in one place and not another, other than mere chronology.

The Complete Persepolis (Satrapi)

The Master of Auschwitz

What a weird and fascinating memoir. Basically, while the British held him after the war, Höss wrote out a memoir, a few short documents, and some letters. They are collected in this book, which through its strangeness becomes a sort of lesson in evil. It is remarkable how utterly banal much of his descriptions of Auschwitz are. Much of his writing dwells on what are basically HR problems, having to do with lazy employees or employees who did a good job but created a bad work environment.

When the methods of mass murder are described, they are done in a remarkably clinical manner, almost as if he’s describing any sort of factory equipment, in terms of its efficiency and effectiveness.

There’s also a sense of incompleteness borne of inconsistency here. At times Höss seems prepared to apologize and admit he lost his way. At other times, he reaffirms his commitment to national socialism, or makes comments about how dangerous Jews are. He also, perhaps most inexplicably, complains about the bad treatment he felt he was receiving as a prisoner.

Definitely worth reading, as it is a sort of window into a particular form of deranged compartmentalization.

The Master of Auschwitz (Höss, ed. Pastore)

The Undoing Project: A Friendship That Changed Our Minds

This book is a telling of the story of Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky, as they created prospect theory, and all that came with it. On the one hand, this ground has already been covered in other books (including one by Kahmeman himself!), but on the other hand… it’s Michael Lewis. I dunno. It’s weird. Like finding out there’s yet another book about Einstein, but it was written by Mary Roach.

In any case, it’s definitely a fine book, and it contains a lot of information I was not aware of, including in depth discussion of the intellectual love affair and later falling out between Kahneman and Tversky.

I’d have to say I recommend it if you’re not familiar with the topic. Lewis always writes well, and the subject matter is interesting. But, if you’re in any way up to date on this stuff, a lot of the stories will be familiar to you.

The Undoing Project (Lewis)

A Numerate Life: A Mathematician Explores the Vagaries of Life, His Own and Probably Yours

What a fun and strange little autobiography. Paulos is a mathematician and writer whose books I’ve enjoyed in the past. They’re word books, and they’re not for everyone. For instance, this book has a (quite clever!) section on transhumanist pickup lines.

You may ask what that’s doing in an autobiography. Well, this isn’t *really* an autobiography. It contains a few stories from Paulos’ life, but the bulk of the book is either digressions into topics that interest Paulos or discussions of why memoirs are probably mostly false, in that they rely on flawed memories and attempt to create cogent narratives of haphazard lives. In some ways it reads like a long chat with a beloved grandfather who’s quite quirky. All in all, the terrible puns notwithstanding, that’s a pretty good thing.

A Numerate Life (Paulos)

All the Gallant Men: An American Sailor’s Firsthand Account of Pearl Harbor

A great memoir and oral history about a man who was on the USS Arizona when the attack at Pearl Harbor happened. As these things go, it’s not necessarily a standout, but I always appreciate memoirs that give you a real sense of the person. Stratton talks about particular people and how he felt about them, as well as how he felt about certain political and social occurrences that followed the war. For instance, he talks about how he generally doesn’t like these attempts to get American and Japanese WWII vets together to make nice. To him, the memories are too horrific. Given what he saw on that day, and the year it took his body to recover, it’s hard to blame him.

All the Gallant Men (Stratton, Gire)

The Man Who Knew Infinity: A Life of the Genius Ramanujan

A great biography of Ramanujan, with the one caveat (for the potential buyer) that, well… from the perspective of storytelling, Ramanujan’s life just wasn’t that exciting. Of course, as a mathematician (in ways I’m sure I don’t understand) he was one of the most incredible in history. But, perhaps for that reason, his life consists of a lot of sitting around, having abstruse discussions, and making poor dietary choices. It’s a very good biography, but it can’t help but feel a bit tedious here and there, when describing minor flaps between Ramanujan and his relatives, for instance. This sort of thing is made doubly tiresome by the fact that it seems we often don’t actually know the full nature of this or that disagreement, because Ramanujan is treated almost like a God by those who knew him.

Still, quite good, and if you want to know about Ramanujan, this is probably the book!

Demerit: Kanigel repeats an incorrect etymology of the word “posh” in which it purportedly is a sea acronym for Port Outward Sea Home. This is known to be false.

The Man Who Knew Infinity (Kanigel)

Born on the Fourth of July

One of the great Vietnam memoirs, which I hadn’t yet read. This book is a bit more dreamlike than some of the others, dealing not just with war stories, but with his attempt to adjust back to society afterward despite an injury that leaves him paraplegic. In a sense, that makes this book a bit more unique (and perhaps timely) than a lot of other Vietnam memoirs, in that it’s really more about what war does to you *after* you get home.

Born on the Fourth of July (Kovick)