The Taser's Edge

Tuesday Reading Roundup

1. American Dream: Three Women, Ten Kids, and a Nation’s Drive to End Welfare by Jason DeParle–I checked this book out from Duke in May 2008, read a third of it, and then set it out down…for a year.  As the due date for all my items approached after I graduated this year, I decided that I would skim the rest of this book before returning it.   But then it was just too good, and I read the whole thing, including a lot of the end materials.

In this highly acclaimed book, DeParle follows welfare reform from Clinton’s promise to “end welfare as we know it” in his 1992 presidential campaign (a promise which DeParle claims raised an unknown Arkansas governor to national prominence) through about 2003.  To provide both the larger picture of welfare history as well as the smallest stories of individual people being affected by the reforms, he follows three cousins, all of whom have their genealogical roots in sharecropping Mississippi (and apparently lots of welfare research draws a connection between welfare and sharecropping structures), who come to Milwaukee in the early nineties, explicitly in search of higher welfare checks.

Under Governor Tommy Thompson, Wisconsin had become the state for welfare reform in the US, and Milwaukee became the city.  What was most strange to me about the whole idea is that all kinds of highly placed government officials, supposedly experts on welfare reform, were in fact just nursing pet theories and trying them out to see what worked.  The theories always seemed to have equal statistical likelihoods for failure and for success, and what actually happened never matched their models.

You might notice that you never hear about welfare reform in politics today, and that’s because the problem is now small enough that it has been largely considered solved.  Welfare reforms actually did shrink the welfare rolls dramatically, and not just by kicking people off the rolls as they reached the new federal and state time limits.  Wisconsin, for instance, created required work modeled on the public works projects under FDR.  The state created community jobs and paid minimum wage out of welfare funds.  If people didn’t find their own jobs, they could find themselves sorting pogs for 40 hours a week, with their checks docked for every hour missed.  And an unbelievable majority of people decided they could find their own jobs for a dollar or two more than minimum.  (This was actually possible in the late 1990s.)

But the big picture problem which DeParle leaves us with is not America’s welfare problem, but its poverty problem.  Of the three women he follows, one has her life destroyed by addiction to crack cocaine, losing her home, her children, and her lifelong friendship with her two cousins.  The other two women are considered to be “successes” of the system, women who moved from the welfare rolls to the workforce.  And while they miraculously (considering all the barriers) keep their own $7-10/hr. jobs, they also have to deal with violent neighborhoods and abusive lovers, their own addictions, and children whom they have to leave unattended in order to keep food (and there is still never enough) on the table.  And so they end up not receiving cash welfare, but still needing food stamps, having health insurance provided to their children, but lacking it themselves, simply surviving.  According to DeParle’s statistics, until a family reaches double the poverty line (still calculated using long outdated and always flawed formulas), survival is what they will be doing.

Highly recommended, even though heavy on statistics.  This was published in 2004, and I don’t know if there has been a text which has yet replaced it as the definitive voice on late 20th century welfare reform.

2. Reflections on the Psalms by C.S. Lewis–I have been choosing to read this slowly thus far, just a chapter or so each day.  And it’s very good.  One lamentable thing I have noticed are some problematic conceptions of Judaism in relation to Christianity, namely the classic Christian conception of Judaism as a religion devoid of grace.  (In fact, Judaism is grace-filled, although not in every iteration, similar to how Christianity is founded on grace, but grace is lacking in some of its iterations.)

3. Watchmen, written by Alan Moore, illustrated and lettered by Dave Gibbons–After this post I wrote back in March, celebrating the opening of the Watchmen movie with a list of graphic novels which I prefer to it, both of my brothers said they couldn’t understand why I didn’t recognize the greatness of Watchmen.  They have good taste, and so, even though I rarely re-read anything (there are just too many good books out there that I’ll never get to anyway), I decided to re-read it.  And in the midst of chapter 10 of 12, I have definitely been moved a lot more.  The problem before was a lack of emotional connection, not a lack of recognizing the book’s artistic merit.  This time, I am recognizing deeper layers of the art and feeling that I connect with the characters more.  With the emotional connection, Moore and Gibbons have better earned the grislyness and horror that sometimes marks his pages.

Still, for anyone who likes Watchmen, read From Hell, too, also by Alan Moore.  Unbelievable.  And also made into (apparently, as I’ve seen neither it nor Watchmen) a critically hated movie.  I should re-read it again.  It’s like if The Da Vinci code were amazing in conception and near perfectly executed.

Sure, watch the Watchmen, but then do some reading, too

So it’s coming out this Friday.  After long years of waiting for not a few die-hard fans:

To begin with, I have probably read a lot of comics/graphic novels, but I do not consider myself at all well read in the format.  To end with, in honor of the release of the Watchmen movie, I provide you with this list of nine comics/graphic novels (and one graphic children’s book) which are better than Watchmen, the book, in no particular order:

1. The Sandman by Neil Gaiman–Hopefully you realize by now that Gaiman is a genius writer.  Check out this series for proof.  If you go to Duke, check out the Absolute Sandman, Vol. 1 from Lilly.

2. From Hell by Alan Moore–See, I don’t hate Moore.  I just don’t understand why everybody’s crazy for The Watchmen.  I think it might be that it was about the first graphic novel that literary critics noticed.  Returning to From Hell, you might recall that a movie of the same name was made of this book, starring Johnny Depp.  I’ve heard that it’s awful.  This book, however, is amazing: Jack the Ripper, Freemasonry and occult stuff, meticulously researched Victorian England, tons of sex and gore.  For all I know all those things make a great synopsis of the movie, but they actually do all click on the page.  Watch out if you think illustrated sex and gore might bother you, because there’s a lot of it.  Furthermore, Eddie Campbell did the art here, and that deserves mentioning.  Huge parts of the book could have been done with no dialogue whatsoever, and you would not miss a thing.

3. Epileptic by David B–David B is a French writer, and this book is a memoir of growing up with his epileptic brother over decades of their lives, in which the two boys’ parents try absolutely everything (from dabbling in various occult groups, to visiting Catholic shrines, to brain surgery, to joining macrobiotic communes) to help their epileptic son, only to see him become more and more distant from them, unable to live a normal life.  If I had to choose one on this list which I think would appeal to ‘serious’ readers of all stripes, I would pick this one.

4. The Complete Maus: A Survivor’s Tale by Art Spiegelman–You know how I mentioned that Watchmen was one of the first graphic novels to be noticed by literary critics?  Well, this is the other big one.  So popular now that you might have had to read it in eighth grade or high school.  Please, film industry, if you absolutely have to make this into a movie sometime, do it right.  Oh yeah, the plot.  A very personal story of the Holocaust in which the Jews are mice and the Nazis are cats.  That might sound dumb or cheesy, but Maus is about as far from those two adjectives as you can imagine.  And if you’ve already read this, then check out Spiegelman’s In the Shadow of No Towers about 9/11.

5. Bone by Jeff Smith–The complete one-volume version of Bone was a wedding present to Holly and I from Aaron F., a high school friend.  Holly and I read it together over the first several weeks of our marriage.  Then we started Le Petite Prince but never finished it.  Bone is visually fairly cute, but then the plot becomes epic-er and epic-er.  Evil and good battling.  Dragons.  A princess, as I recall.  The outward cuteness makes this a good gateway book for those interested, which is I think why Aaron recommended it to people in high school.

6. The Push Man and Other Stories by Yoshihiro Tatsumi–Only a couple of the books on this list are anything less than incredibly well known, and this is at least halfway obscure.  Tatsumi is apparently a pioneer of serious graphic storytelling, and this is a book of graphic short short stories.  Incredibly dark stuff.  Perhaps mix Sartre,  Raymond Carver, and some dinginess together to do a graphic short story collection and you would get this.  Like From Hell, not for the faint of heart, although in this book’s case, that’s because of the intensely emotional subject matter rather than the visuals.

7. Get a Life by Phillipe Dupuy and Charles Berberian–Although all of the other books on this list are stories about very real and well-developed characters, this is the only one that can be described as celebrating the mundane.  Wonderful, gentle humor about day-to-day living in France.  As far as I know, this volume collects almost everything that these French comic creators have had translated into English.  I still don’t understand why the suits above haven’t made everything these guys do available.

8. Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic by Alison Bechdel–Bechdel’s memoir is about growing up with a mentally ill, closeted-and-raging-because-of-it gay father who lavishly decorates the family’s Victorian home and carries on gay affairs throughout his very much hurting marriage.  That’s a rather blunt and inartistic way of describing it, so I apologize.  But if you are a memoir fan (David Sedaris, anyone?), you would like this.

9. The Invention of Hugo Cabret by Brian Selznick–Yes, this might be a cheating entry, because it is a childrens’ book, not a graphic novel or comic.  Except that the story is told graphically, the book is over 500 pages long, and it is so good that I couldn’t help pausing from time to time to clasp it to my chest and just breathe in its wondrousness.  (I literally do that from time to time with certain books; it’s how I know how much I like them).  I very much doubt anyone has ever had that experience with Watchmen.  Now they should make this into a movie, and it should be with the book’s black-and-white drawings mixed in with live action scenes and starring Freddie Highmore (Peter in Finding Neverland) or Alex Etel (Damian in Millions).  I never notice child actors, but those two are great.

Honorable mention (better in my opinion, but not incontestably better, than Watchmen):  Blankets by Craig Thompson; Shortcomings by Adrian Tomine; David Boring by Daniel Clowes; Road to Perdition by Max Allan Collins

Notably missing from my list: Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid on Earth by Chris Ware; The Complete Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi.  This is due to lack of personal emotional connection, not lack of artistry on the books’ part.  The same critique might also be made of Watchmen itself.  But I have to admit, that trailer does look amazing.