The Complete Maus – Art Spiegelman

July 8, 2009 Reading Nook, Review 39

The Complete MausTitle: The Complete Maus
Author: Art Spiegelman
Published: 1986/1991 Pages: 295
Genre: Graphic Novel/Memoir
Rating: 5/5

This is the type of book that I hate writing about—the one that I loved so much that I simply can’t do it justice or organize my thoughts in a coherent manor. So, here we go:

Go read it. The End.

Ok, I guess I’ll go into a little more detail. I’ll be honest, I was pretty resistant towards this book. I had some prejudices that were holding me back a little bit. What prejudices? Well, mostly the talking animals. I know, it’s weird, but talking animals are sometimes a turn-off for me. It almost seemed childish that the author would choose to portray the Holocaust using mice and cats and Jews and Nazis—part of me even though this was a children’s literature book. But I’m glad I finally read enough reviews to convince me to get this book. I waited patiently until my 40% coupon for Borders arrived so I could rush off and buy a shiny new hardcover edition—the complete edition.

The Complete Maus is a combination of biography and memoir—the story Art Spiegelman’s father’s survival of the Holocaust, particularly his imprisonment in Auschwitz, and Spiegelman’s own experiences with his father as he works on the book. I loved both parts of the book equally, but the dynamics between Arty and his father, Vladek, created such an intimate texture to the story. I can’t say I particularly cared for either Arty or Vladek as characters–Spiegelman often shows them with all their faults in plain view–but the creation of Maus gives the two common ground and helps each other understand one another better.

Spiegelman’s father’s story provides the meat of the book. It begins during Vladek’s youth and his increasing success in both his personal and business life. He marries into a wealthy family of Polish Jews and quickly rises in his various occupations. This all quickly halts, however, when the Nazis begin imposing laws and regulations aimed at denigrating the Jews. Vladek and his wife, Anja, are successful in keeping from imprisonment for a long time due to Vladek’s industrious nature and the strong ties they have to wealthy Jews, but eventually they are forced to enter Auschwitz along with hundreds of thousands other Jews.

Like any other book about the Holocaust, Maus is incredibly heartwrenching and oftentimes unbelievable. I was constantly angered and sicked by the crimes committed and the atrocities millions had to endure. What makes this book especially poignant is its illustrated form. I can’t imagine a more effective way for Spiegelman to share his father’s experiences. I’m constantly amazed at what authors can accomplish in the illustrated form–the emotions the drawings can portray, the multi-layered dimensions of the story, the action, the misery, the joy, the love. There is a lot to be said about words, and I am a lover of words, but the drawings in this book continually speak for themselves–conveying things that words simply cannot accomplish.

illustration from The Complete MausAs I mentioned above, I have a weird thing about talking animals, but I love how Spiegelman chose to portray the different races in the book–mice for Jews, cats for Germans, pigs for Poles, so and and so on. I don’t know for sure what Spiegelman’s intentions were with these depictions, but on the one hand I saw the stereotypical cat chasing mouse theme, but on the other–and more importantly, it showed the ridiculousness of distinguishing between different races. I don’t think I’m making sense with that thought, but it’s there in my head.

This review is already far longer than I wanted it to be and I still feel like I haven’t said anything at all. We’ve all read Holocaust stories before. We know the history and we know what happens. But this is different than anything I’ve ever encountered before and I can’t recommend it enough. I couldn’t be more glad that I put my prejudices aside and read this book. Although I’m haunted by what I read and saw in this book (what was I thinking children’s lit??), I am grateful that Spiegelman was persistent enough to get his poor stubborn father’s story to share with us all. It is not one that should be overlooked or forgotten. None of them are.

So what do you say? Are you going to read it? If you have read it, what did you think?

39 Responses to “The Complete Maus – Art Spiegelman”

  1. samantha.1020

    Of course I’m going to read it…especially if it garnered a 5 star review from you. I think it sounds like a really great book and I will be checking it out.

  2. Amanda

    I have to admit, I’ve had the same relunctance to read it as you, because of the talking animals. That nearly always turns me off. I’m glad to hear that it was well done from someone else who has the same issue.

  3. Melody

    Excellent review, Trish! I think you did a great justice to the book! I totally sense your feelings towards this book, and of course I’ll have to check this out. ;)

  4. shananaginsbooks

    Oh my goodness, I totally feel that way all the time when trying to recommend books. “You’ll love it, just go read it and thank me later.”

    I loved the use of different animals for different kinds of people. I liked when Art was conflicted about what animal to draw his wife as, since she was French. She simply responded, draw me as a mouse like you (I’m paraphrasing.)

    Great review!

  5. farmlanebooks

    I have a copy here, but for some reason haven’t got round to it. I know I should and your review has made me want to get it out right now…if only I had a bit more spare time today!

  6. Shanra

    “I don’t think I’m making sense with that thought, but it’s there in my head.”

    You are making sense, love, and I think it’s a common thread people notice in the book, judging by the reviews I’ve seen. I haven’t read it yet and I’m still not sure if I will. Because I know it will rip my heart out and tear it to pieces and probably more. On the one hand, I’m scared of starting this book. I’m very scared. On the other hand, I do want to read it. Which sounds weird, really. It’s not something to want to read. *word fail* Urgh, I’m hoping it makes sense. It’s one of those books that sounds like they ‘should’ be read, lest we forget.

    ANd I’m just going to shut up now…

  7. Trish

    *Samantha – I really hope you can get to it–it’s such a powerful book.

    *Amanda – I don’t know what it is about talking animals that makes a work seem childish to me, but definitely not the case with this one–the portrayal was perfect.

    *Melody – It’s really hard for me to vocalize my feelings on this book since there are so many. I hope you can get to it soon.

    *Shananaginsbooks – I also love that Art chose to draw his wife as a mouse, but the struggle to define her as an animal kind of goes towards that idea that it is too hard to pidgeonhole a person by race/ethinicity.

    *Farmlaneboks – The good news about this book is that since it is a graphic novel it is fairly quick reading–if you have a chunk of time one afternoon, you could probably read the whole thing.

    *Shanra – I know what you mean about feeling that you should read this book but not wanting to. It isn’t an easy read and some of the illustrations are simply horrific. It is heartbreaking, but it is one of the best books on the Holocaust I’ve read.

  8. Trisha

    This has been on my list for two years, and I have put it off for the exact same reason as you – talking animals bother me.

    I know what you mean when you say that the depictions of distinct animals somehow shows the ridiculousness of distinguishing between different races. Seeing groups of people identified as separate animals highlights the fact that in actuality we are all mice (or cats…). At least it does in my mind.

    I’ll definitely have to pick up this book.

  9. Debi

    Oh Trish, this was a wonderful, wonderful review!!! I have to agree with you about how hard it is to talk about this one…there are just so many extraordinary things to be said about it, but they all intertwine with one another in such a way that I find them hard to pull apart and put into words.
    I did convince Rich to buy this (I’d read it from the library), and it will be his first ever graphic novel. Pretty good introduction, don’t you think?

  10. Melissa

    “This is the type of book that I hate writing about—the one that I loved so much that I simply can’t do it justice or organize my thoughts in a coherent manor.”
    Yeah, I kind of felt that way too, when confronted with this book. You did an excellent job, though.

  11. claire

    Trish! I’m going to read it, too. My good friend recommended it and I’m still deciding whether to purchase or borrow from the lib. :D

  12. Trish

    *Bermuda – When I love a book like this one I try not to gush too much in my review, but this book blew me away. Hope you like it, too.

    *Trisha – Maybe pick it up from the library and just read through the first chapter–I’m guessing that probably the talking animals will not bother you so much.

    *Debi – This is a *great* first introduction to graphic novels, but everything I’ve read is so different I have a hard time choosing a favorite. This just might be it. I hope Rich likes the book! And he could count it towards the Non-Fiction Five!

    *Melissa – There’s just so much in the book to talk about, you know? Not only is there his father’s memories but also their relationship and then Art and Francoise’s relationship. Definitely a well-developed book.

    *Claire – I’m really glad that I got my own copy–and in one edition. It’s one that I’ll read again and again and hopefully pass on to others. I really hope you like it, Claire!

  13. Laura

    Of all the graphic novels you’ve read and talked about, this one appeals to me the most. It does sound like there are definitely difficult parts to read/look at though.

  14. Terri B.

    Nice review! I do have this book on my tower of things to read. I find the whole use of animals stereotypically thing an interesting bit to think on — whether the author meant to use them as stereotypes, what that means in context of the story, etc.

  15. Lisa

    I just can’t make myself want to read this. Your review is great and I can see exactly what you’re saying, but I do not ever enjoy reading comics. I’m sorry, graphic novels.

  16. Veens

    Awesome review..
    And when u say “it showed the ridiculousness of distinguishing between different races” – i felt it was so true! That makes sense!

    If i get to this book, I will definitely read it! Thnk u!

  17. joanna

    Yeah, talking animals don’t really do it for me either… I’ve heard so many good things about this though that I guess it’s worth a try! ;-)

  18. damnedconjuror

    I’ve always seen Spiegelman’s use of animals as a form of defamiliarization. We immediately have to process what we see differently. We’ve seen hundreds of films, and books etc on the Holocaust and WWII but what Spiegelman does is subvert our preconceptions and actually allows us to look beyond the surface. It’s strange, because paradoxically you’d imagine it would be hard to look beyond the fact that these are animals, but it works and we see this well-known subject in a new light.

    On another note, I’m not a fan of the word graphic novel. I see it being used as an alternative to comic because of the negative connotations that word has. If it’s called a graphic novel rather than a comic then it’s not just for kids. Also, the word comic brings up things like jovial, fun, happy while graphic and novel has a gravitas to it. Anyway, blah blah….

    Maus should be read. It’s an important piece of literature and it shouldn’t be rejected because of “talking animals”.

  19. Missy B.

    Your review is the first one I have seen on this book. I bought it brand new from Amazon and ended up letting it go on PBS. I couldn’t read it. I loved the cat/mouse theme, but I found it hard to follow…maybe because it is like a cartoon strip. I wish I had kept it now! Great review!

  20. Trish

    *Laura – I think this is the one that you’d enjoy the most, although I’m not sure enjoy is the right word. The pictures are pretty vivid sometimes, but if you’re interested I can bring it up for you.

    *Terri B. – I hope you’ll read this one soon, Terri. If you have a free afternoon, it would only take a few hours. I’d be really interested in hearing your take on the use of animals in this one. Honestly, I think an illustrated version using humans might have made this book too difficult to read.

    *JT Oldfield – Ya, it’s really tough to review something that creates so many emotions and thoughts! Glad you really liked this one, too.

    *Lisa – I think that’s OK that you don’t have any desire to read these. The more I read the more I enjoy them, but a year ago I didn’t have a big desire either. I guess kind of like how I have no desire to read most YA. :)

    *Veens – I hope you can get to this book, Veens—it is a pretty powerful story. Hard to read, but very moving.

    *Joanna – I think I’m mostly bothered when animals and humans are talking to each other, but that doesn’t happen in this book. I hope you’ll read it—I don’t think you’ll find the animals bothersome—it’s actually pretty effective.

    *Damnedconjuror – Defamiliarization is a good way to put it—I think you’re right about the use of animals allowing us to see things in a different way, but I think it also keep things at a distance. I’ve seen a lot of debate lately of the term “graphic novel.” I use it simply because that’s how I was introduced to the genre—I must be pretty sheltered because before blogging I thought comics were limited to superheroes in serial form. Glad my eyes were opened, but I do think that you’re right about comics having negative connotations. In terms of the talking animals, what can I say. I hope I’ve convinced those who have the same prejudice to give this one a shot. I agree that this book should be read.

    *Missy – I’m sorry that this one didn’t work for you. I read my first graphic novel (sorry damnedconjuror) last year and kind of struggled to get into it. Even with my second and third tries with this genre it took some time to get into the book. With this one I think I finally got the hang of it. It is an adjustment to try and read and look at the illustrations.

  21. damnedconjuror

    That is a good point. It is perhaps, paradoxically, both close and distance. The use of animals allows us to step back, to be in a position of behind “glass” but the very personal tale of his father and himself forces us to confront horror. If you get what I mean. I think I might have to read it again.

    I’m not really fuzzed about people using graphic novel or comic, I’m not going to scream and tear my hair out because of it :)

    I take more offence at people who say “I don’t comics they’re childish, I read graphic novels”.

    Comics have such a stunning diversity that it always annoys me whether people say it’s for children. It’s like saying all books are childish. Bah! ha ha

  22. Kim L

    It’s hard to say much about this book! I felt the same way when trying to review it. It’s such a powerful read, and what more can you say about the Holocaust that hasn’t already been said?

    I was pretty surprised how much I actually liked this.

  23. rusvw

    Wonderful review…I will most certainly pick it up, but not for a summer read…probably too intense for the type of summer I’m having. Definitely a late September/early October read….Thanks again for sharing! :)

  24. Literary Feline

    My dad had bought a copy of Maus years ago, and while I was home one summer from college I found myself reading it. I reread it when my husband and I first moved into our current house after pulling it out of a box as I unpacked. It is such a powerful story. Great review, Trish.

  25. Nymeth

    I’m glad you enjoyed it, Trish! You know, I think this – “but on the other–and more importantly, it showed the ridiculousness of distinguishing between different races” – was exactly his point. I actually don’t think this retells the Holocaust using animals. It seems that way from the outside, but once you read it, they’re human, all of them. Yet drawing different nationalities as animals helps bring attention to all the dehumanization that was going on.

  26. Lisa

    This conversation is getting me closer to wanting to read this. In particular, Nymeth’s last comment.

  27. TheBlackSheep

    You review makes me want to read it, but I’m afraid I won’t be able to brave it in the end. I took Holocaust Literature for my degree (studied German Lit.) and it gave me nightmares for months and now I’m chicken. Still, it’s good to get the books out there and have people reading them. We must never forget.

  28. Tracie

    I have read it; but a long, long time ago in college. I still have the book and I wasn’t too excited to read it, but then after I read it, I loved it. I can never really explain why I liked or why I’d recommend it, so I never told many people about it because I couldn’t as artfully explain it as you did :)

  29. Thoughts of Joy

    I bought a copy of the individual Maus books (I & II) after I read library copies. I just had to have my own! Never in a million years would I have ever thought that I would treasure such a book – a graphic memoir! Who would have thought? Glad you are in the same camp, Trish.

  30. Joanne ♦ The Book Zombie

    “Go read it. The End.” That basically sums up my thoughts! I’ve only read the first volume, it was in junior high social studies and what a great choice the teacher made. Our class had never been so into something before. It led to so many discussions and it was amazing to see 30-some students all enjoy the same thing.

  31. Trish

    *Damned Conjuror – Fuzzed seemed like a pretty good word to me. :P I do understand what you mean about the graphic novel/comic distinction and it is a shame that there is that snobbery involved. Although, I’ll admit that I have my own prejudices when it comes to certain genres. I guess sometimes those barriers are hard to break. And yes, closeness and distance is a good way to put Maus.

    *Kim L – I think it might be difficult to find different angles of the Holocaust, but there’s always a different person’s experience. I really liked how Spiegelman used the Graphic Novel genre (um, or comic) to portray his father’s story.

    *Rusvw – I really hope you’ll come back to this book. It isn’t light reading for any time of the year but definitely save it for a time when you can mull it over a bit.

    *Lit Feline – Had your perception of the book changed at all throughout the years? This is one I can see myself revisiting again and again and passing on to others.

    *Nymeth – You bring up an interesting point about not necessarily using animals to retell this story. Any way you look at it Spiegelman’s illustrations are powerful on so many different levels. And the humanity portrayed in the pictures continually moved me—there’s just so much emotion captured.

    *Lisa – Try the first few chapters and see what you think. I think you’ll be surprised. And when hasn’t Nymeth convinced someone to read a book? :P

    *Jenny – Thank you! I appreciate you dropping in and saying hello. :)

    *The Black Sheep – I’m not sure of the other books you’ve read in the past for your degree. They are all haunting to some degree or another—Wiesel and Levy stick out as being especially horrific—but you’re right that they are important. This one is a difficult one to read just because of the graphic nature of the pictures. Flip through a copy and see what you think?

    *Tracie – It’s difficult to put into words the emotions that this book stirs within people, I think. And see the above conversation with Damned Conjuror. Unfortunately there are many many people who simply don’t take this genre seriously. It’s a shame because it is such a powerful read, but I don’t think I’ll be getting my family or close friends to read it any time soon.

    *Joy – Yup, this is definitely one to buy and hold onto. I was very glad to get my coupon to Borders so I could buy the full thing at a nice discount. :)

    *Joanne – Gasp! Only read the first volume?? The second volume goes into a lot of detail about Spiegelman himself as he struggles to understand his father’s story and how he wants to write the book and why. It is an interesting companion to the first book that focuses a lot on their actual relationship. So, I repeat: Go Read It!

    *3M – Glad you feel the same, Michelle. This book is so powerful.

  32. tanabata

    Great review! Before I read it I had the same reluctance too. I couldn’t imagine a Holocaust story told by talking animals. But like Nymeth said, it goes beyond that and it’s actually the illustrations that make the story all the more moving and powerful.

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