I WILL BEAR WITNESS: A DIARY OF THE NAZI YEARS
by Victor Klemperer
The book I have been reading lately is described on the back cover as "one of the most compulsively readable books of the year" and "hypnotic... hard to put down." But everyone who sees the book or hears its title says, "Oh my, that must be hard going." The book is I Will Bear Witness: A Diary of the Nazi Years, a meticulous account by Victor Klemperer, a German Jew (according to the Nazi definition), of the incremental persecutions he suffered while wearing the Jew's star in Dresden.
I can see why it might not be a book you'd want to read. I have to admit, though, that I like reading memoirs of the Holocaust. Primo Levi's accounts of Auschwitz, Art Spiegelman's Maus, W. G. Sebald's cryptic memorials, the diaries of Klemperer, and of course Anne Frank: These are some of my favorite books. But taking any joy, or even interest, in those stories seems almost shameful. I feel a little like a cold-hearted ghoul, or worse--as I am neither Jew nor German--like an indulger in armchair righteousness over distant crimes. Isn't there something wrong in stomaching the horror of those events?
If you are going to give the events their due, it's not an easy question to answer. The people I know who are closest--by heritage or history--to what happened are often the ones who have the least appetite for reading about it, or for hearing that I am reading about it. The danger, especially for an American reader, is that the terrible events of the age will somehow be contained by the narrative that recounts them, passing Olestra-like through the reader without leaving any residue of their horror. They might be read, for instance, as uplifting dramas of survival (or worse, rescue), when survival was in fact rare and almost entirely a matter of chance. (That sort of sentiment is reinforced by the American titles of Levi's memoirs, Survival in Auschwitz and The Reawakening, which, with their focus on happy endings, may as well end in exclamation points. By comparison, the original Italian titles, which translate as If This Is a Man and The Truce, carry the less conclusive spirit of the ellipsis.) Or we USAers might find a certain hermetic satisfaction in reading about crimes committed so far from our prosperous little city by an enemy our armies defeated, an enemy so easily identifiable as evil by the swastika and the little toothbrush mustache.
The value of these memoirs comes when they resist the containment of history, of the magically victorious number "1945." As Levi writes of his liberation, in one of the most beautiful and devastating paragraphs I've read anywhere, "So for us even the hour of liberty rang out grave and muffled.... No one better than us has been able to grasp the incurable nature of the offense, that spreads like a contagion.... [It] swarms around in a thousand ways, against the very will of all, as a thirst for revenge, as a moral capitulation, as denial, as weariness, as renunciation." It's understandable that one might, like Stephen Dedalus in Ulysses, want to awake from the nightmare of history, and thereby resist the contagion of Nazism. Living as we do, though, in the country that tutors the world in forgetfulness, and that lives in terror of the taint of unhappiness, we would be better off looking for narratives like Levi's, like Klemperer's, that can't be easily swallowed. So, hungry for stories that stick in my throat, I read them. But I can't help but think that I will only know I've read enough when my understanding of what they describe has become so real that I, too, lose my appetite and turn away from them entirely. TOM NISSLEY
by Sophie Calle
Sophie Calle is a French conceptual artist, but it may just as well be said that she is a detective, archeologist, spy, and social scientist, especially if you are the type to attach the word "postmodern" to those terms. Her work inventories the outward signs of identity (objects, itineraries, friends and acquaintances) in search of an elusive something Calle is far too wise to name. One project involved shadowing a man she had just met through Venice, with camera and notebook in hand; in another, Calle took a job as a hotel maid and photographed the personal effects of the guests, noting changes from day to day. These works get right to the heart of who we are or aren't, and the narratives are left open, as if to point out that we are made more mysterious, not less, by the banal details of our lives.
In his 1992 novel Leviathan, Paul Auster based the character of a nutty, rather unpredictable artist called Maria on Calle, drawing directly from her work in some cases and inventing pieces for her in others. Now Calle has responded with Double Game, a book ostensibly meant to clarify where Sophie ends and Maria begins, but which actually tightens the complicated knot of identity, fact, and art. The book is divided into three parts. In the first, Calle presents the original work appropriated by Auster; in the second, she carries out the projects that he dreamed up for Maria (and the combination of specificity and absurdity proves that Auster understands Calle very well); and in the third, they collaborate on a project called (very Auster-like) "The Gotham Handbook," a set of instructions written by Auster on how to improve life in the city.
In collaborating, is Calle allowing the identities and choices of others to drive events? Or is she somehow, by the simple fact of her attention, orchestrating them? (Which sounds like a philosophical question asked in an Auster novel, after all.) After a week of eating chromatically coordinated meals (one of Auster's inventions), Calle mused on the gap between art and life: "Novels are all very well," she wrote, "but not necessarily so very delectable if you live them to the letter." EMILY HALL
CHANGE ME INTO ZEUS'S DAUGHTER: A MEMOIR
by Barbara Robinette Moss
Like Lucy Grealy's Autobiography of a Face, Barbara Robinette Moss' harrowing and indelible memoir Change Me into Zeus's Daughter is a self-portrait painted in words. While Grealy's story was about the cancer that disfigured her face and her self-esteem, Moss' tale is about the extreme poverty and neglect that devastated her appearance. Moss grew up dirt-poor in 1960s Alabama. She was one of eight children in a household terrorized by a sadistic, alcoholic father who couldn't hold a job, and drank what wages he did earn. She was so malnourished that the bones in her face "grew like a thin pine tree." Without any dental care she developed a grotesque underbite, and her teeth stuck out so far that her lips cracked and bled. At school she was called Monster and Dogface, and boys joked about putting a bag over her head. "There were times when it hurt so bad to be so ugly, that I wanted to douse my face in acid and be done with it altogether," Moss writes. In the most surreally sad moment, her mother eats pesticide-tainted seed corn and beans, telling the children if she doesn't get sick or die within two hours, they could eat it too. When the time passes without incident, they eat ravenously while she reads to them from Alice's Adventures in Wonderland.
Moss' bullying father inflicts pain "recreationally, both physical and emotional." He rouses the family at 3:00 a.m. to beat them, saying, "You belong to me and I'll do what I want with you." He shoots their pets and batters their mother unconscious. If these stories sound overly familiar in our benumbed culture, in Moss' hands we become lost in the cadence of her unfolding horror--the plainspoken language deepens the impact by underplaying the drama and focusing instead on the telling details and moments. Her hope makes this story more than a confession of the darkest secrets of an unhappy family. As Moss' child self turns her disfigured face to the night skies, yearning to be "the goddess of beauty, much-loved daughter of Zeus," her longing is heartbreaking and inspiring. NATE LIPPENS
by Mary Karr
When Cherry opens, Mary Karr is on the brink of psychedelia, ready to leave Leechfield in a pickup, with a handful of pharmaceuticals to guide her. Her anticipation is laced with desperation: "To disembark from your origins, you've done everything you can think to scrounge money save selling your spanking young pussy."
After the introduction, however, Cherry does pick up where Karr left off in her first memoir, The Liar's Club. Karr is lonely, bored, and flat-chested in a town full of numskulls with big hair and below-average IQs. Her social skills have not improved and she still swears like a sailor: "I want titties, goddamn it, Daddy. Not some bra." Her father's do-no-wrong sheen has faded, and her mother has lost her spunk. Her sister is popular and dates regularly. Mary reads books, writes poems, and gets called into the principal's office for deviant behavior. All the while, she is burning with a 12-year-old's desire for that first kiss. She finally gets it from her longtime crush, "And the time we move into is that slow-falling, underwater shampoo time."
Her heart gets broken a few times because she won't put out. "You get the feeling that, unleashed, this tender boy would throw you to the earth and boff you into guacamole." In the midst of this moral dilemma, Vietnam breaks out, letting loose a hurricane wind of paranoia and rah-rah patriotism. Karr takes up with a group of subversives; a night in jail cements her budding suspicion of right-wing patriotism, and it is then that you see the woman emerging from the teenager.
Cherry is a wild ride through one woman's adolescence, but it will strike a chord with anybody who ever felt like a freak in high school. It will take you back to the first time you ever kissed, cut class, or saw how small your parents really are. It will remind you of the first time you ever got high, and the release it brought. It will make you laugh out loud at your own self-conscious ticks. Mostly though, it will seem like Karr is telling you this story, in person, at her kitchen table. RITAH PARRISH
THE NIGHT MY MOTHER MET BRUCE LEE: OBSERVATIONS ON NOT FITTING IN
by Paisley Rekdal
This year's census was the first to allow checking multiple boxes for race. Paisley Rekdal grew up trying to assign her every trait to one of her parents' races: Temper, for instance, was Chinese, while mundane attributes, by default, were white. Rather than including both halves, the dualistic mindset put her outside both groups. Biracial identity is more complicated than checking two boxes; Rekdal marked "other" and wrote in Eurasian.
The Night My Mother Met Bruce Lee will be marketed as a memoir, but it is richer than that. As indicated by the subtitle, there is reflection too, deftly incorporating such far-flung elements as Shakespeare's Tempest and the Philippines' controversial Tasaday tribe. Rekdal is even absent from some narratives, just another character in this study of identity. "Being Asian in America is a fact that does and does not exist," she writes, and similarly the author herself wavers in and out of stories that span geography and time. There is still a memoir's voyeuristic reading: angry exchanges with parents, experiences of sexism, total loss of composure (one involving a traveler's check and a surly concierge in a remote Chinese hotel). And spikes of dark humor, such as the karaoke required of exchange students in Japan and the torture Rekdal administered on her white boyfriend, who was adored by her Korean students: During an emergency room visit, "I buckle with nausea again and aim for his shoes." The narratives reach beyond family history and visits to Asia. One daring essay examines a parochial school friendship with a black classmate--Agatha--who allowed Rekdal to confront her own racism. Natchez, Mississippi is the last destination in the book, fully American but very foreign to the Seattle native. Even the consideration of race is subsumed in larger issues of identity and otherness.
Over the phone, from the University of Wyoming, Rekdal explains that otherness is universal and contextual. In Laramie, she stands out by her ignorance of baling wire and by teaching feminist and gay poetry; "being half Asian is last on the list." Especially when membership in the dominant group is challenged, people reinforce their identity with truth or myth. Rekdal observes that vital discussions in America are precluded by "the idea that only people inside a group are allowed to talk about it." With its thoughtful consideration of cultural experiences and myths, this book opens up the discussion. BRIAN MILLER
Paisley Rekdal will be a panelist in "Taking It Personally: Your Life as Essay" at the Northwest Bookfest, Stadium Exhibition Center, 1000 Occidental Ave. South, Sat Oct 21 at 10:45 am.
THE LOST TWIN
by Peter Pereira
(Grey Spider Press)
$11.95 trade paper;
"Fetus Papyraceous" is a medical term for when a twin dies in utero without its mother ever knowing she had been pregnant with two. It is also the title of the first poem in Peter Pereira's gorgeous debut collection. Co-founder of Floating Bridge Press, Pereira is a doctor, and writes with the careful awe of someone who knows intimately the strength and frailty of the human body. These poems also show he understands the intricacies of the human heart. "Fetus Papyraceous" asks, "How many/of us are born half-/ignorant of our paper twin?" The rest of the book answers: all of us.
The idea of the twin, as poets from Dante to Dylan have written, can represent your doppelgänger, soulmate, lover, your better half, your shadow self, your Other. "Gemini Dreams" asks "Are we such an unlikely pair?" then describes the background of two lovers: one the grandson of Mormons, the other of Irish-Portuguese-Chinese descent. By the end of the poem this unlikely pair has, through their bodies' love, bridged their apparent differences. Even a pair of minor characters, like the two men riding a harrow tractor at the start of "Visiting My Father's Grave," suggest that each self has, if only for the duration of a shared task, a "twin." "Chambered Nautilus" begins: "At first it seems random, this leaving/one life only to re-emerge within another." In this poem Pereira talks eloquently about serial soul mates, how you fit so perfectly with someone at some point in your life, then you both change, turn into people, and move on. The "twin" of the book's title can be as constructed as it is given: "We construct our lives around us.../a set of conditions within which/we are satisfied/to exist for a while." These poems are about who we find and who we create to relieve ourselves, a while, of our loneliness. REBECCA BROWN
Peter Pereira reads Thurs Oct l9, 7 pm at the Frye Museum, 704 Terry Ave, 622-9250.