Thursday, June 13, 2013

Praise ("The Miracles of Father Kapaun" by Roy Wenzl and Travis Heying)

At 140 pages, Wenzl and Heying's The Miracles of Father Kapaun is a slim book by any standard. What's more, the authors have managed to make it two books in one. The first, which occupies the book's first hundred or so pages, is the story of Father Emil Kapaun, a Kansas-born Catholic priest who volunteers for service in the Korean War, despite having served in World War II, and is captured by the Chinese military, along with hundreds of other American POWs. As he and the other men are slowly starved, humiliated, beaten, and killed by their captors, Kapaun works tirelessly to keep the men alive, their spirits high, and their faith--in God or any higher power, in each other, in themselves--in tact. Kapaun dies before the prisoners are freed, his body wracked illness and starvation, and the men mourn his loss more than perhaps any of the other POWs. These hundred pages, written in a matter-of-fact way that eschews literary flourishes and relies almost squarely on the first-hand accounts of the men who served with Kapaun in both war and imprisonment--in Hell and Purgatory--are a fascinating read, both engrossing and historical without being overly sentimental or concerned with literary entertainment.
It's the second half of the book--those last 30 to 40 pages--that are the problem. In hoping to support an ongoing attempt to get Kapaun canonized by the Catholic Church, which would make him forever a saint, his supports--a vast number of veterans, Catholic worshippers, and non-Catholic supporters--have worked to document evidence of miracles performed by Kapaun.* And while the three stories they have found are both heartbreaking and inspiring--in one, a young man who has fractured his skull and is expected to die from brain trauma is healed "miraculously" and can now walk; in the other, a girl with a mysterious degenerative illness is saved "miraculously" from certain death and now lives a full life once again--they are a marked contrast with the book's beginning chapters. The first hundred pages are the story of Kapaun's struggles, as detailed by the men who served with him; there is no emotion other than in the men's memories, and the authors remain almost entirely neutral and objective in their reporting, which gives the events surrounding Kapaun's capture and ongoing strength even more credibility. The last 40 pages, however, are the opposite. The events depicted have no clear scientific explanation according to the physicians involved--and in the case of the girl, both physicians are non-Catholics professing a miracle--and are written about as such:  Wenzl and Heying's bias towards Kapaun and his potential canonization is on clear display--they want these events to be the miracles they're seen as, and their fawning over the possibilities they entail becomes tiresome.
That's not to say authors can't be biased, especially in a situation like this. After all, this book was written because of Kapaun's move towards sainthood, so it seems only natural to highlight how the man is still affecting people today, even if it's less about the flesh-and-blood man feeding them as they starve in a POW camp and  more about the long-departed man being the recipient of a desperate--and fulfilled--prayer. But when both stories--his role as soldier, based in objective detail, and his role as a saint, based in emotional bias--are combined into the same book, it muddles the message and detracts from a story that, regardless of current events, needs to be told the way it happened, if for no other reason than the sake of history.
*Kapaun's supporters were also working to get him the Medal of Honor. On April 11 of this year--after Wenzl and Heying's book was finished--President Obama bestowed the honor posthumously on Kapaun, bringing to close a mission that has been ongoing for the last half-century.

Sunday, June 2, 2013

Sanity ("American Savage" by Dan Savage)

Dan Savage saved my life.

Until I was seventeen years old, the only openly gay people I knew of beyond fictitious characters in the books I read were stereotypical TV queens:  Paul Lynde, Charles Nelson Reilly, Alan Sues...all of them on reruns. And while I relished those short 22 minutes I spent watching them wisecrack with other game-show panelists and skit-show performers--after all, any gay role models were better than no gay role model--they existed in a time and place I didn't. They were from Hollywood in the 1970s, where they were protected from the 99% of the country that was comfortable laughing with them--or at them--but not living down the street from people like them. There, in the glitzy sound studios and down the gated boulevards, they could wear their strange clothes, speak in sly innuendo, and be out with a wink-wink if not an overt statement to that effect without fear of repercussion; they wore their sexual orientations on their sleeves. For most of my young life I didn't know much about being gay, especially growing up in small-town Wisconsin--there was no Facebook, no YouTube, no LOGO or Glee or It Gets Better--but I did know one thing:  I wasn't like them.*

Unfortunately for me, that meant I had no guide for how I was supposed to live my life. If every gay person I knew of was a flamboyant, limp-wristed, lispy master of puns--even on TV shows from decades ago--and I wasn't any of those things, how should I have acted? What should I wear? Did I have to like Madonna? What exactly did a gay person do with their life if they weren't destined for Los Angeles? What I was looking for was confirmation--from anyone, anywhere--that I could still grow up to be a normal person and live a normal life, that I didn't need to memorize show tunes, deck myself out in blazing fabrics, or haunt disgusting gay bars for companionship. I wasn't the first gay kid to grow up in my small town, I knew that, but the gay kids who came before me did what every small-town gay kid does:  they graduated and got the hell out of there, hopefully to somewhere nicer. And once they were gone, they stayed gone. That was great for them, but that left me--and kids like me--growing up without someone there to tell us it would be okay, that there was hope.

When you're stuck somewhere you don't belong without any sense of hope, unable to be yourself and with no guidance or support from those around you, you tend to ease the pain in any way you can find. A lucky few are able to channel their anguish and pain into positive endeavors: they find refuge in art, writing, music, community service. But for others, the only refuge is self-destructive:  they drink, smoke, or do drugs; they sleep around; they become sullen, withdrawn, and depressed. I found solace and comfort in food. Compared to the other options, I suppose it was the best possible crutch--after all, no one crashes their car into a tree because they've eaten too many Big Macs that night, and to my knowledge no one's ever contracted an STD through Diet Coke and Twinkies--but looking back, all that eating had an affect beyond my diet. Finally, I looked on the outside the way I felt on the inside--disgusting, strange, unlovable--as though I were using my physical appearance as a fortress against ever having to deal with who I was. After all, it doesn't matter what your sexual orientation is if no one will ever find you attractive anyway. The more I ate, the more weight I gained, and the more I gained the worse I felt about how I looked...which meant I had to eat even more to feel better about myself, even momentarily. It was a sick cycle, and I was in the middle of it.

The end of high school alleviated the pain somewhat--I began coming out to people, first to friends and eventually my parents--but I still couldn't resolve my own issues, and the eating continued. Gay marriage had become legal in Massachusetts a week before I'd graduated from high school, and there were finally more positive portrayals of gay men and women in popular culture--as well as even more stereotypical ones, especially Queer Eye for the Straight Guy--but none of them were the kind I was looking for:  a gay person who lived in a boring house in a boring city and worked at a boring job while dealing with the same boring problems every other adults has to deal with. No clubs, no parades, no snark, no fashion emergencies...just, boring.

And then, one summer, I found myself opening an Amazon package with two books written by the same man:  The Kid and The Commitment, both by Dan Savage. I'd been a fan of Savage since I was 17 and found my first copy of The Onion. Savage, who'd grown up in Chicago and lived in Seattle at the time, dispensed no-holds-barred sex advice to anyone who wrote in--straight, gay, bi, pan, asexual, trans; single, engaged, married, divorced; teenager, college student, middle-aged, retired--and about any topic, much of which couldn't be printed in any other newspaper. I'd always enjoyed his advice, his sense of humor, his love of common sense and reason over sentimentality and canned responses...but until his two books arrived, I'd never thought of him as anything other than another far-flung gay man whose life had little to offer my own.

Then I read The Kid. On a porch. In one sitting. When I finished the sun was beginning to set, so I moved indoors and read The Commitment, again in one sitting. By the time I finished that book, it was already midnight--or close to it--and I was flabbergasted. I'd spent the last 5 to 10 years of my life looking for this exact thing--the story of a gay man who, despite his ridiculous job, lived one of the most boringly normal lives imaginable--and now, suddenly, I'd found it almost by accident.

And so I read The Commitment again. Savage's life was filled with outrageous letters from his readers, sure, but otherwise his life was dominated by his long-time boyfriend, their adopted son, tiresome family trips, diaper rash, wedding expos, a meddlesome mother, articles in The New York Times, cake, bars, hypocritical religious figures, buying a other words, boring adult things. It was all there, in black ink on white paper:  I could be gay and lead the same kind of life my parents led. Hell, I could be all of that and still have time to have a little weirdness in my life, too. It was the closes thing to a revelation I could've had.

My outlook changed in that instant. I began exercising, eating right, looking at myself and the world in a much more positive light. Over the next year I dropped almost 100 pounds; all the foods I'd seen as a refuge when I was younger--potato chips, cookies, soda, candy, donuts--were gone from my diet, to the point where even looking at a donut now makes me slightly nauseous.** They no longer hold any power over me, and the rush I used to get from emptying a bag of chips is now the same rush I get from biking 40 miles across Northern Wisconsin or hiking 20 miles through a national forest. I own a juicer, dehydrator, and food processor, have started growing my own vegetables, and walk to work instead of driving. I don't know where I'd be now--or where I would have ended up--had it not been for those two books, or if I'd ever found the strength to make those life changes on my own. All I know is that I'd probably be unhappy, I'd probably be filled with the same amount of self-loathing that I was filled with in high school, and I'd certainly still be overweight, if not climbing towards morbid obese and maybe even diabetes. But I'm not--I'm better now.

And all it took was two books.

Savage begins his newest book, American Savage, with a story about his mother, a woman whose fierce independence and outspokenness is clearly alive and well in Savage himself, and his love for her is unfaltering. He writers about coming out to her and her subsequent ultimatum to the extended family, how her Catholic devotion didn't mean strict allegiance, and the ways in which she spoke about prayer to the unpraying. The story isn't new--it appeared in a slightly different form on NPR's This American Life a few years ago--but it's refreshing nonetheless to see Savage write about something so personal, which is where he's always at his best. There are other moments like this throughout the book--his dinner with Brian Brown, which inconveniences his son and angers his husband; being walked out on high school journalism students for speaking honestly about the Bible--and those are the moments in American Savage that are its most memorable and endearing.
The rest of American Savage is filled with essays about a slew of different topics, some religious and some political--Obamacare, guns, abstinence education, the pope--and all of them dripping with Savage's usual cynicism, sarcasm, and utter devotion to reason. American Savage is a good book, without a doubt--again, I read it in one sitting--and some of the chapters, particularly those that break down the religious justifications for hating LGBT people--spoiler: they're all bullshit--are worth the price alone. But--and this may just be my personal bias towards his other two books, or perhaps it's because I've now been following Savage's work for over a decade--American Savage feels a little less complete than his other two. Still, a book by Dan Savage, even one filled with diatribes against the status quo, is still better than most of the books out there right now. Hell, it might just save someone's life. 

*Savage, as I would learn much later, had a similar experience growing up, though his unshakable albatross was a stereotypical gay character on Barney Miller.

**Full disclosure:  I still eat cookies and candy, but only occasionally, and always in moderation followed by exercise. I'm only human, after all, and being healthy doesn't necessarily mean being miserable.

Style ("Batman Volume 2: The City of Owls" by Scott Snyder, et al.)

When I was younger--seven, maybe eight years old--my parents bought me a box of Marvel comic books for my birthday. It was a random assortment of heroes--Spiderman, X-Men, Iron Man--the kind that comes when the person choosing is doing so indiscriminately from a bulk-bin of cast-offs. But I was young and infatuated with heroes and reading, so it must've seemed to my parents like a perfect match. Unfortunately, after reading the first issue I pulled out of the box--Captain America #325--I realized that I really didn't like comic books. And just as quickly as it began, my flirtations with comic books came to an abrupt, bittersweet end.*

Jumping forward almost two decades, I find myself in the same position as before--still a voracious reader, still interested in superheroes, still uninterested in comic books. Even though I'd evolved to appreciate graphic novels to the point of including some in my classroom curricula, I couldn't bring myself to pick up a comic book, just for the sake of seeing if my attitude had changed, until I read about Scott Snyder. The specific article eludes me--most likely it was a "Best Of 2012" list I stumbled across somewhere--but the way in which Snyder was depicted as not just a gifted writer but damn near the only person who grasped the possibilities of the Batman franchise and could rescue it from a tiring slump peeked my interest. I found a copy of Batman Volume 1: The Court of Owls, read it in one sitting, and was hooked by what Snyder and illustrator Greg Capullo had pulled off. Not only was the storyline interesting--a secret society of villains lurking not just in Gotham City but in the 13th floors of buildings built by Wayne Family money--but the way in which Capullo had used the comic-book format to his advantage, inverting the pages in one scene to mirror Batman's disorientation and gradual loss of sanity as he pursues the titular court in their own labyrinthine lair--made me realize why I had so often dismissed comic books as uninteresting: very few of the men and women who created comic books used its format--constricting cells and blocks--to the story's advantage in the same way novelists use sentence structure, paragraph breaks, and extraneous print.**

A year later, Batman Volume 2: The City of Owls marks the continuation of the series, and on the surface it promises to be even more thrilling than the first volume:  the mysterious Owls are growing in strength and power, to the point where they begin eliminating the city's most important people and even make their way into the Batcave. (As we soon discover, this is not the first time the Owls have set foot inside Wayne Manor, not to mention the lives of the Wayne family and their butler, Aflred Pennyworth.) As the book progresses, Batman becomes increasingly outnumbered and out-gunned, his own strength and ingenuity sapped to the point of utter failure; even when he is backed up by a half-dozen other superheroes, the danger grows and grows. We've seen this before--a hero backed up to the edge of a cliff, to the point of no return, and pushed over the side--and we know in the end the hero will find a way out. At the end of Volume 2, however, the cliff lies at the heart of Bruce Wayne's own family:  a secret that will reveal all and, possibly, mark his end.

Unfortunately, all of this comes at a cost to not only Bruce Wayne but the storyline, as well. Where the first volume was focused almost exclusively on Batman's fight with the Council of Owls, Volume 2 takes great pains to confuse that simple conflict by introducing a whole new slew of villains--Victor Fries, The Penguin ("Mr. Cobblepot"), Mrs. Powers, a gang of homophobic hoodlums--as well as backstories and flashbacks for at least a half-dozen of the characters, not to mention action sequences involving Gotham's other heroes, a tableau of Wayne Family-owned buildings worthy of Architectural Digest, a subplot involving an electrician and her bullied brother--both still in high school--and plot devices that are meant to clear knots in the action but only succeed in making it all the more infuriating and overblown. (One specific scene I'm thinking of involves a dinosaur.) By the close of the second volume, the entire volume feels like a wasted 200+ pages...not because the artwork is bad or the writing is lacking--neither is true--but because every cell seems as though it was sacrificed in the name of setting up the issues that will comprise Volume 3. There were no moments like the page inversion in Volume 1, in which the creators used the format to add dimension to their story, and to be honest, there were very few memorable moments at all. The creators spent 200 pages piling heroes, villains, weapons, and backstories onto a storyline that didn't need it. Batman was facing down the Council of Owls, and the Owls were winning because they were stronger, smarter, and more resourceful...and they were using Wayne's assets and lineage against him. It was simple but complex--a storyline that could offer its readers much more than what is found here.

But like I said before, I'm someone who knows very little about comic books.

*Only recently have I learned that this one issue (#325) contained what is one of, if not the, most ridiculous villains in all of comic-bookdom: The Slug, a morbidly obese crimelord who has zero powers and spends much of the issue on his personalized hovercraft. So, of the millions of different comic books I could have read as my first, I apparently chose one of the absolute worst.

**I'm thinking specifically of Robert Grudin's Book, in which a group of footnotes becomes annoyed by some of the novel's characters and take over an entire chapter, and of Ishmael Reed's Mumbo Jumbo, which begins before the copyright page.