Biography, Books for the News, Literature

UCP Best of 2012 Staff Picks, V. 2

More staff selections for your holiday favor—today we asked Carol Kasper, marketing director extraordinaire, and Jeff Waxman, promotions manager/literary gadabout, to chime in about what moved them most this past year. Their picks for the Best Read of 2012 follow below:


Prague Winter:  A Personal Story of Remembrance and War, 1937–1948 by Madeleine Albright

When I became an adolescent, I learned that our family boogeyman was (rather remarkably to me at the time) the interwar British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain.  All my grandparents had immigrated to the United States from Austria-Hungary at the very beginning of the twentieth century, and they nurtured their ties to “the Old Country” even after the Slovak and Ruthenian regions of that empire became the nation of Czechoslovakia. When Britain signed the Munich Agreement in 1938 and gave Hitler the Czech area known as the Sudetenland, Chamberlain infamously implied that stopping another war with Germany was worth the price of those Slavs in “a far away country” populated by “people of whom we know nothing.”

In Prague Winter, Madeleine Albright does a brilliant job of explaining the ethnic complexities in central and eastern Europe that made the area vulnerable to Hitler’s manipulations, the complicity of major European nations that voted to appease a dictator and sacrifice others in the name of their own security, and the horrific aftermath of their actions for the people of Czechoslovakia. Albright remains a masterful diplomat and her explanations of what was at stake politically and diplomatically are fascinating, although, in the end, perhaps the greater value of her book is the human and moral tale she tells. Born in Czechoslovakia, Albright’s father was a Czech diplomat and a major part of Prague Winter is her effort to tell his and her own family’s story. To protect themselves from the Nazis, Albright’s father had them all convert to Catholicism and buried their Jewish heritage, a heritage that Albright only discovered well into her maturity.  As we know, things did not go well for Czechoslovakia for a long time. After the war Stalin’s troops marched in and kept the country under totalitarian rule for four decades. But that has changed, one hopes, for the better.

The reason I liked this book so much is Albright’s spirit—her refusal to be stymied by the overwhelming complexity of the global challenges we face, to be stymied by the force of evil, or to be stymied by the frailties and inadequacies of our human nature. Near the end of Prague Winter she notes that “the goal we seek, and the good we hope for, comes not as some final reward but as the hidden companion to our quest.” Powerful words, Madame Secretary. —Carol Kasper



Folly: The Consequences of Indiscretion by Hans Rickheit

Contrary to a popular saying, I’ve often felt that a thousand well-chosen words are and should be preferable to a picture. But not today. Today I am proposing to the reading public that they close their thick books and put aside their glossy magazines and instead read some really dirty cartoons.

When I look at Hans Rickheit—at a picture of him, not a thousand words of him—I see nothing particularly unnerving. He’s just another white guy with glasses. An intelligent gaze, a kind face made a bit larger by his balding head, but also made a bit smaller by his beard. He wouldn’t look out of place at either a comic-con or a Cubs game, in a dive bar or at a renaissance fair. Ah, the treachery of images!

In truth, somewhere beneath this unassuming exterior, dwelling someplace beneath his t-shirt and on the other side of some undoubtedly pale flesh, there’s something filthy and gangrenous and throbbing about this human being. Somewhere behind his sweet demeanor, there lurks a thing so festering and foul that I cannot tear my mind’s eye away. I speak, of course, of Hans Rickheit’s heart.

This collection of Rickheit’s graphic stories is so depraved as to make the reader question ever putting pen to paper again—except in praise of Hans Rickheit. On these pages, the cartoonist serves a potent cocktail of perversity that’s equal parts H. R. Giger, Georges Bataille, and Lewis Carroll. Through Rickheit’s looking-glass, twin nymphets in scanty negligees trespass on the home of a fish-faced gentleman, plundering his bizarre treasures, but accepting from him an obscene lollypop; Here, a (teddy) bear- faced man cautiously pursues music through hellish landscapes like those abandoned by a careless Escher; And then there’s Jeffrey, a demented and flatulent dwarf who wears only a clown hat and welding goggles, who possesses a cannon-like pistol that he fires indiscriminately from his balcony into an enthusiastic and adoring crowd. Do narratives like these bear recommendation? Are they not the pornographic etchings of a possibly dangerous lunatic? Should I be ashamed of my enjoyment? My answer to all of these is an emphatic yes.

But I’m not ashamed and I do recommend them. Whimsical, organic, and at times strangely gentle, Rickheit’s clever little brood occupies a world full of hairy tentacles, dripping bodily fluids, and monstrous sexuality, but it is also a clever and curious place full of pleasure and amazement. Many, many good things bear the caveat “not for everybody” and it’s true that a reasonable and well-adjusted person might suspect that some tastes just aren’t worth cultivating. But if you adore the insane and delight in the transgressive, this particular hairy tentacle might tickle you too. —Jeff Waxman