So What Are You Reading?

Reviews of Books.

Saturday, February 27, 2016

My Friend Dahmer

My Friend Dahmer by Derf Backderf
Having gruesomely murdered 17 young men, Jeffrey Dahmer is probably the most notorious serial killer in the USA. Derf Backderf went to school with Dahmer, and was even the president of the Dahmer Fan Club in their rural Ohio high school. Derf lost track of Dahmer in 1978 after graduation and went on to become a cartoonist. When he found out, along with the rest of the world, of Dahmer's 1991 arrest in Wisconsin he felt compelled to flesh out his memories and to write the story of the lonely, disturbed teenage Dahmer he knew. My Friend Dahmer is the result. In graphic novel form he tells all that he can of Dahmer's teen years. This is not the story of a serial murderer, instead it is the story of a teen age boy who never got any help from his family, his schools, or his community in dealing with the feelings growing inside him. In this book is the boy Derf knew in high school as he struggles with the challenges of growing up that for him were so overwhelming that they eventually lead to a murderous life.
Derf sees the teenage Dahmer as a tragic figure, but he has no sympathy for Dahmer the murderer, who he sees as a selfish coward who should have ended his own life rather than taking the lives of others. He draws from his own memories and others, as well as recorded interviews, FBI reports, newspaper stories, and Lionel Dahmer's book about his son. These are all listed in a 23 page section of "Sources" at the end of the book. While this book is called a graphic novel, it is more a biography than fiction, and is of great value in getting to understand the early years of a serial killer.

Tuesday, February 23, 2016

The Mother of God

The Mother of God by Leopold von Sacher-Masoch
Leopold von Sacher-Masoch was born on January 27, 1836 in the city now known as Lviv in Ukraine. At the time, the city was in the Galicia region of Austria-Hungary and was called Lemberg. His early books were mostly non-fiction historical treatises written while he was a professor at the University of Lviv while his later works were short stories and novels.
Sacher-Masoch's 1870 novel Venus in Furs is his most commonly available book in English. The Mother of God was originally published in Leipzig as Die Gottesmutter in 1883. This is its first translation into English. The translator, William Holmes, is a semi-retired anaesthetist from Northern Ireland. Not liking the abrupt ending, Holmes not only translated the book, but added three additional chapters to the end "to bring it to a more satisfactory ending."
I do not agree with Holmes decision to tack on three additional chapters of what can only be thought of as fan fiction to a 132 year old novel. His writing style is not the same, and he shifts the point of view from Sabadil to Mardona. I feel that Sacher-Masoch ended the story abruptly so that the reader would look back into the text for deeper meanings, not project a satisfying ending. Fortunately, it is very clear in the book that this was done and the reader can view the extra chapters as the translator's work and not the authors. Holmes' translation flows well and where there are references that might not be clear to a modern English-speaking readership, he provides helpful notes to explain them or their significance.
The book tells the story of Sabadil, a 30 year old introverted farmer from the countryside around what is now Kolomyya, Ukraine. He prefers to walk in the woods alone and listen to birds singing rather than to socialize with his neighbors. On one of these solitary excursions he meets and becomes enthralled with Mardona, the charismatic young female leader of a Christian sect of a neighboring village called the Duchobarzen. Known to her followers as the Mother of God, Mardona is treated by them with unquestioning devotion, and has become a spoiled tyrant, yet she feels a strange attraction to Sabadil and his infatuation with her.
The Duchobarzen may have been modeled on the Dukhobors who were a 19th century Russian sect known for pacifism, egalitarianism, and communal living that used the life of Jesus to guide their faith and practice. The Duchobarzen of this novel were a community of a couple hundred farmers who are guided by the wisdom of Mardona and who live a simple life of prosperity, hard work, and communal living.
Mardona's divine love for her community is all-encompassing and egalitarian but isolating. Placed above them, they worship her as a divinity in their midst, kneeling before her and kissing her boots, and treating her every word as sacred. Coming from outside the community, Sabadil's love for her is the human love of a man for a woman. This is a new experience for Mardona, whose other lovers have always been intimidated by her divine nature, and she likes it, but doesn't know how to respond. As she makes Sabadil part of the community, she treats him like a pet that she strokes and keeps by her side.
Through his eyes we see the tension grow between his unrequited love and her annoyance at his failure to fit into the community until it reaches an explosive and shocking ending. This is a novel filled with details of 19th century farming life in central Europe and it is a fascinating look at the experience of divine and human love.
Sacher-Masoch is known to modern readers for his writings on the theme of powerful women and the men who become fascinated and enthralled by them. He was also well known in his own time for his writings about the local ethnic groups of central Europe and their customs. The Mother of God combines these two themes and shows the author at the peak of his literary career.

Wednesday, February 03, 2016

Iola Leroy or, Shadows Uplifted

Iola Leroy or, Shadows Uplifted by Frances Ellen Watkins Harper
Frances Watkins Harper was born free in 1825 in Baltimore and was 67 years old when Iola Leroy was published. Before the Civil War she was a public speaker and political activist in the Abolitionist Movement and helped escaping slaves along the Underground Railroad. After the war she travelled the South speaking out for temperance, and the rights of women and African Americans, and other social causes.
Iola Leroy or, Shadows Uplifted is one of the first novels published by an African-American woman. It tells the story of a wealthy Mississippi planter who frees and marries his mixed-race slave. They have two children, Iola and Harry, that are raised without knowledge of their mixed background and educated in the North. In spite of his sincerest efforts to secure their future, after his death greedy relatives thrust Iola and her mother into slavery.
The book deals with Iola's emancipation and the period after the war when she tries to find her mother and brother and reestablish their lives together. As Iola and her brother are light skinned and highly educated, the book also deals with issues of passing and miscegenation. The concept of a single-drop of African blood making a person non-White and subject to ill-treatment by Society is a major theme. Written less than a decade before the Wilmington Massacre of 1898, this was a time when African-American prospects were still promising but were being threatened by racism and separatist thinking.
This novel is a great window on the era prior to the extreme racial repressions of the 20th Century, when Black people had hoped that education, hard work, and social responsibility could bring them social justice in the nation. As such, it is a great source of information written by a leader in the social justice movement of the time.