Archive for February, 2011

Cannonball 17: Maus II: A Survivor’s Tale: And Here My Troubles Began by Art Spiegelman

Maus II: A Survivor's Tale: And Here My Troubles BeganMaus II: A Survivor’s Tale: And Here My Troubles Began by Art Spiegelman
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The second volume of Maus covers a lot of ground. It talks about Vladek’s time at Auschwitz. It talks about the author’s fears for the future of his relationship with his father — and his guilt over not wanting to have to take care of an ailing man who has suffered so much, but is unrelenting in his demands of his grown son.

Spiegelman paints a vivid picture of the horrors of a death camp, although these horrors are mitigated a bit by the cartoonishness of the animal characters. I don’t know if I’d be able to stomach them otherwise. His father suffered through horrors that I can’t even begin to imagine, no matter how many times I watch “Band of Brothers” and “Schindler’s List.”

But, as with his first volume, he doesn’t pull any punches with his father, either. It can be easy to almost deify Holocaust survivors, to think of them all as saints. It kind of reminds me of how, in the days right after 9/11, everyone kept calling the people who had died “heroes.” For the most part, they weren’t any different from anyone else on the street; they didn’t volunteer to die in this tragedy. They were mostly normal people with normal lives, and, had they survived, they would still occasionally have fought with their spouses and snapped at their children and ignored bums asking for change like most of the rest of us.

Vladek survived a terrible ordeal, and what happened to him should never happen to anyone. But he wasn’t a perfect person going into it, and he wasn’t perfect coming out of it, either.

cosby show

Obviously, Vladek didn't grow up watching "The Cosby Show."

Spiegelman describes one instance in which he and his wife pick up a hitchhiker on the side of the road. The hitchhiker is African-American, and Vladek is stupefied by what he sees as their foolishness. After all, this “shvartzer” (a Yiddish slur) could steal their money or their groceries! Art and his wife are horrified by Vladek’s racism, but when they try to point out that it’s tantamount to the German’s views on the Jews, Vladek just can’t see it.

It reminds me of an episode from my youth. Tom Bradley had just been re-elected as the mayor of Los Angeles. He was the first (and, to date, the only) African-American mayor of LA, and our teachers in school used the opportunity to teach us that anyone could be anything they wanted to be, no matter what their race. When I excitedly told my dad about it later that night, he said that he didn’t like Tom Bradley. When I asked why, he simply replied, “Because he’s black.”

Having been taught at school that racism was bad, I was shocked to discover that my father, when it came to civil rights, was one of the bad guys. It wasn’t until much later that I realized that the reason because my dad was racist was because he owned a market in the ghetto of Long Beach, and that most of the people who stole from the store were African-American and Latino. That was his only experience with other minorities; he disliked black people the way I dislke hipsters. He’d just never met a nice one.

hipster kitty

It wasn’t right, but I couldn’t say that, had my parents not bought a house in the nicer parts of Long Beach so that I could go to the district’s better schools, which taught that all people are created equal, regardless of the color of their skin, I wouldn’t be a racist myself. I didn’t agree, but I understood why.

And Here My Troubles Began is a worthy successor to My Father Bleeds History. It continues to explore all of the themes and tell all of the stories that Spiegelman set up in the first volume. My only nitpick was that the ending was a bit abrupt.

But, I guess, when a story’s over, it’s over.

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Cannonball 16: Maus: A Survivor’s Tale: My Father Bleeds History by Art Spiegelman

Maus I: A Survivor's Tale: My Father Bleeds HistoryMaus I: A Survivor’s Tale: My Father Bleeds History by Art Spiegelman
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

When I first heard the premise of Maus, my interest was immediately piqued.

Art Spiegelman’s father, Vladek, was a Polish Jew and Holocaust survivor. The graphic novel (the only one ever to win a Pulitzer, by the way) tells his father’s story of survival, depicting the Jews as mice and the Germans as cats. The Gentile Poles are pigs, Americans are dogs, and the French are frogs (cute one, Spiegelman).

I expected it to be a standard, harrowing tale of torment, starvation, brutality, and survival, but I got a lot more than I bargained for. Spiegelman not only tells his father’s story, but his own. Vladek’s story is told in the context of his son’s research. Art wants to write a comic about his father’s life during WWII, but it’s impossible for his research not to affect him because his subject is his father. His father is not perfect; he fights with his wife, constantly comparing her to his first wife (Vladek remarried after Art’s mother, Anja, took her own life), expects Art to help him do stuff around the house without asking first, and complains to his son about everything.

Spiegelman is brutally honest in his portrayal of his relationship with his father. When Art is so easily annoyed by his father’s pack-rat tendencies and miserliness, I can totally relate. Like Art, I grew up in the United States. We weren’t rich, but we never starved, and we never knew what it was to go without the basic comforts of life. But my parents lived through the Korean War, and saving random odds and ends helped them to survive.

hoarder

Okay, so my kitchen isn't quite this bad, but only because I'm vigilant about putting things away and throwing stuff out when my parents aren't looking.

I get annoyed with my parents for saving useless containers and using them as Tupperware, despite the fact that our cabinets are overflowing with actual Tupperware. I hate that there’s so much clutter and useless junk in our house. I recently noticed that my mother still keeps old Happy Meal toys in a curio cabinet in our living room. I hate that she gets so mad when I throw a pickle jar into the recycle bin after I finish all the pickles.

But I have no idea what it’s like to lose out on extra food for later because I don’t have anything to carry it in. I don’t know what it’s like to lose something and regret it because it’s not possible for me to buy a replacement. I change my clothes every day; I don’t know what it’s like to wear every article of clothing I own and still be cold.

And, yet, even though I know (objectively) what my parents suffered through, I still can’t help but think, But the war is over now! and get annoyed that my parents don’t seem to understand that.

Spiegelman sets up a fair bit of tension between his horror at what his father had to endure, his admiration for his father’s survival skills, and his inability to use that understanding of his father’s history to be nicer to him.

The first volume of Maus takes us right to the gates of Auschwitz, and Vladek has already lost a son to the genocide. And it’s not only the way that Spiegelman tells Vladek’s story that’s compelling, but also the way he shows his audience what it took for him to personally get that story to tell it.

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Cannonball 15: Batman: The Dark Knight Returns by Frank Miller

Batman: The Dark Knight ReturnsBatman: The Dark Knight Returns by Frank Miller
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I didn’t read many comic books as a kid. Growing up, my parents bought us tons of books to encourage us to read, but they never bought us comic books, which they didn’t think had any educational value. Yes, I’m Asian. Why do you ask?

By the time I as old enough to make my own decisions about reading material, I was too old to be interested in visiting a comic book store. I never did end up getting into comics, although I thoroughly enjoyed watching TV shows and movies adapted from comic books.

As a result of my childhood deprivation of comic books, I was initially leery of graphic novels, thinking of them as glorified comic books.

I read Watchmen a few years ago after hearing so much hype about it. I thought it was overrated, but was able to appreciate the graphic novel as a literary medium.

Batman: The Dark Knight Returns is my second foray into the world of graphic novels, and it was an interesting one.

The novel opens on an aged Bruce Wayne. He’s fifty-five and retired from his superhero duties. But his life is empty without his crime-fighting, and he’s really just staving off boredom while the city around him goes to seed.

Commissioner James Gordon, his old ally, is retiring, and the new commissioner that they’re bringing in is firmly of the opinion that Batman is a dangerous vigilante who needs to be brought to justice.

In the meantime, the city is being overrun by a gang known as the Mutants, a ruthless group of “droog”-like thugs (think A Clockwork Orange) whose anonymous leader has been making death threats against both Gordon and Batman.

batman and robin

Batman and the new Robin, Carrie Kelly.

Finally fed up with the state of things in Gotham, Wayne suits up. At first he goes it alone, but he’s soon joined by a new Robin: thirteen-year-old Carrie Kelly. He still carries a lot of guilt over the death of Jason Todd, who was killed by the Joker in A Death in the Family (incidentally, one of the two comic books I’d read as a kid. The other was The Death of Superman. I was fascinated by death as a kid).

This graphic novel explored an interesting question: what happens to a superhero when he’s no longer super? The novel dealt with Batman’s aging, as well as with a cynicism borne of having fought crime for so many years to little avail. It explored Batman’s motivations and even brought in familiar characters from other comics from the DC world without making it seem gimmicky.

I do think that graphic novel tend to get a bit cheesy when it comes to introspection, but I suppose it’s par for the medium. I did thoroughly enjoy the story, and I’m looking forward to reading more of Miller’s work.

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Cannonball 14: Black Swan Green by David Mitchell

Black Swan GreenBlack Swan Green by David Mitchell
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Anyone who’s ever watched Mean Girls knows that there are castes in school, the same way that there are castes in Indian society. There are the Brahmin, the highest caste, which everyone reveres. There are the Untouchables, the lowest caste, which everyone shuns. And then there are some castes in the middle which nobody really cares about unless you’re in one of them.

There aren’t many Brahmin. It’s an honor to be Brahmin, and if everyone were Brahmin, it wouldn’t be as much of an honor. There are plenty of Untouchables, but not so many that they’d overrun India and take it by force.

Most people fall into those obscure, in-between castes, and nobody cares much about them. Or so they might think, at least.

When I was in junior high, I was in that in painful, nameless, in-between caste. I wanted desperately to be popular, but my every effort to win the friendship of the popular kids was summarily rebuffed. Every once in a while, one of them would throw me a bone and be nice to me (sometimes so that I’d let them cheat off me), but it never lasted. I hated life in those days. I felt like a total loser, and I despaired because, in my heart, I believed it was true.

David Mitchell captured the essence of my despair, put it in a thirteen-year-old English boy, threw in a few other hardships, and made a masterpiece.

nicholas hoult

It's like About a Boy, but not as lighthearted.

Black Swan Green is the story of young Jason Taylor. Jason lives in Black Swan Green, a nice neighborhood in Worcestershire. He has a stutter, he’s unpopular in school, he just broke an antique watch of his grandfather’s that his father gave him, and there’s something weird going on between his parents that he just can’t figure out.

Jason’s story is, in many ways, typical. He has some disadvantages: his stutter, his unpopularity, his desperate desire for popularity. He also has a few advantages: his parents are well-off, there are kids even less popular than he is for the popular kids to pick on, he’s not a complete idiot.

And it’s Jason’s averageness that makes him so relatable. Most people have relatively unremarkable upbringings. Our parents had problems and sometimes took them out on us. We fought with our siblings. We got annoyed with our friends. We were tempted to do the wrong thing in order to look cool. And it’s the sincerity of Jason’s reactions to these situations that make the story so compelling.

phoebe prince

Most of us have been tempted to do what Phoebe Prince did at some point.

Mitchell is fair in his portrayal of Jason’s bullies through his eyes. We can feel Jason’s hatred and fear of these boys, but Mitchell also gives us short glimpses of what might make these kids they way they are. Jason, as a kid in the thick of this bullying, doesn’t think that far about it, but the adult reader has to consider it, if only for a moment.

There are several brilliant scenes in the book; the teacher’s class discussion about secrets, Jason’s visit to the House of Mirrors at the carnival, the episode with the gypsies. And there are plenty of laughs to be had, too. It wouldn’t be an accurate depiction of life as a thirteen-year-old boy without a few laughs.

Mitchell’s writing is pitch-perfect. He does an excellent job of communicating Jason’s thoughts to the reader, but still writing beautifully. Sometimes, you have to make your main character a poet in order to write poetically from a first-person point of view.

susie derkins

I used to have Susie Derkins hair, and wear khaki cargo shorts I stole from my brother under a Chicago Bears jersey I found at a garage sale. That was when I was nineteen. Now, try to imagine how much MORE awkward I looked at thirteen, and you'll understand why I didn't post an actual photo here.

This book called my thirteen-year-old self to mind so vividly that it was almost as though I were in the room with myself: hunched over self-consciously, wearing jeans and a Simpsons t-shirt because she didn’t have any sense of style, hair unmercifully permed by her mother, thick glasses made for American noses inevitably slipping down her face, which was screwed into a perpetual frown of dissatisfaction with herself.

This was a girl who, in her desperation not to lose the two more popular friends she had, went along with their cruel decision to ditch a third less popular friend. She wrote a really mean letter to that third girl and never explained herself and never apologized. She signed that letter with her name because she wanted the two friends she had left to be impressed with her courage. She forever regretted knowing that, whenever the third girl looked at her after that, she would always see the decisive signature at the bottom of that heartless note.

When that third girl was finally accepted back into the group, with no explanation and no fanfare, she never could bring herself to apologize for that note.

(Sue Mei, if you’re out there somewhere, I want you to know that I regretted writing that letter the minute I sent it to you, and I’ve been wanting to apologize for it ever since. I hope you can forgive me.)

If I could talk to that ill-adjusted thirteen-year-old girl, I wouldn’t tell her to just suck it up because everyone goes through this phase. I wouldn’t tell hug her and tell her that everything was going to be okay.

I’d just tell her I was sorry for her, and that I always would be, but that these are the things that you have to go through in order to grow up.

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I’m Just Here for the Food: John’s Hamburgers

john's hamburgers

Would that I could reach through my computer screen and grabs me a zucchini spear...

I have a soft spot for John’s. When I was eight, my family started going to church. Every once in a while, my parents would give us money, and we’d go with our friends to John’s on Cerritos and Denni in Cypress, which was just down the street from our church. To this day, eating at John’s reminds me of Sunday afternoon, hanging out with my friends (most of whom I still see every Sunday).

When they opened a John’s in my neighborhood, I was ecstatic: CHILI CHEESE FRIES every day!!

The quality of the food at this location is the exact same as the quality of food that I used to get at the old Cypress location. I love their Chili Cheese Fries and Fried Zucchini. Their burgersare all excellent, and their Club Sandwich is an old favorite. I used to eat their Fish Sandwich one layer at a time because it was so thick. I also love the Pastrami Sandwich.

Now, the food is a touch expensive, but it’s worth supporting a local small business.

John’s is the taste of growing up to me, and I’ll always have a soft spot for it. Now, excuse me. I think I want one of their famous Breakfast Burritos right about now.

John’s Hamburgers
622 E. Spring Street
Long Beach, CA 90808
(562) 421-3663