Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Banned Books Week: Most Challenged Books 2010

Courtesy of the American Library Association, I offer for your reading pleasure:

Top ten most frequently challenged books of 2010

Out of 348 challenges as reported by the Office for Intellectual Freedom
  1. And Tango Makes Three, by Peter Parnell and Justin Richardson 
    Reasons: homosexuality, religious viewpoint, and unsuited to age group
  2. The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, by Sherman Alexie 
    Reasons: offensive language, racism, sex education, sexually explicit, unsuited to age group, and violence
  3. Brave New World, by Aldous Huxley 
    Reasons: insensitivity, offensive language, racism, and sexually explicit
  4. Crank, by Ellen Hopkins 
    Reasons: drugs, offensive language, and sexually explicit
  5. The Hunger Games, by Suzanne Collins 
    Reasons: sexually explicit, unsuited to age group, and violence
  6. Lush, by Natasha Friend 
    Reasons: drugs, offensive language, sexually explicit, and unsuited to age group
  7. What My Mother Doesn't Know, by Sonya Sones 
    Reasons: sexism, sexually explicit, and unsuited to age group
  8. Nickel and Dimed, by Barbara Ehrenreich 
    Reasons: drugs, inaccurate, offensive language, political viewpoint, and religious viewpoint
  9. Revolutionary Voices, edited by Amy Sonnie 
    Reasons:  homosexuality and sexually explicit
  10. Twilight, by Stephenie Meyer 
    Reasons: religious viewpoint and violence
How many have you read?  I have read four and a half.  (Guess which ones!)

Tell me which ones you have read.

Monday, September 26, 2011

Banned Books Week: What's the Big Deal?

Every year, the American Library Association reminds us that freedom is not free by holding Banned Books Week.  And every year, I get the same questions: What's the big deal?  Books aren't really banned, they're just challenged — and shouldn't I have the right to tell my kids what they can read?

Well, here's the thing: parents have the right to tell their own children what they can read.  However, they do not have the right to tell other people's children, including me and mine, what they can read.

I was among the more fortunate children: my parents didn't curtail my reading.  I showed my folks what I had checked out from the library; in the off-chance they weren't around or available when I got home, the books were stacked on my nightstand in my bedroom.  They were books, for heaven's sake, and everyone loves books, right?

That doesn't mean I didn't make my parents uncomfortable with what I read.  When I asked Dad about a phrase in Sonnets from the Portuguese that included the phrase "pregnant lips," he gravely suggested I was too young to read it — which translated to "Dad the engineer doesn't want to discuss poetical lips."  I was six, and I was learning to judge what was the best resources for research.

This understanding that some language was "hot" made the reading of Very Special People a little confusing a couple of years later.  One set of conjoined twins was described as having separate upper bodies but sharing a lower body.  I knew about lungs, intestines and anus, but penis?  Whether I had heard that word before (during Mom's "facts of life" discussions) was immaterial: I had never seen it written.  It seemed rather "lip"-y in nature, so I went straight to the dictionary.

Try reading the definition of any word when you haven't a clue as to what it is. 

That definition included another word I couldn't understand, whose definition was equally puzzling, which led to another definition... I surrendered, extrapolating from the sentence enough information I needed to move on.

However, I did encounter a book I didn't understand — and when Mom saw it on my stack of library books, she wondered aloud if it was a little "old" for me.  I told her I didn't know, and we left it at that.  I found the first few pages tedious and terribly boring, so I returned it rather quickly.  The title? Helter Skelter. I was eleven.

In short, I read anything I wanted.  I read all of the exciting, titillating books girls my age were read, swapping amongst each other.  My friend Carole remembers the same list, her copies fat and swollen from repeated droppings in the pool, where she and her friends shared and read them.

Whether I should have read Audrey RoseThe Reincarnation of Peter ProudSybilGo Ask AliceForever or Are You There, God? It's Me, Margaret isn't the real question.  (If it was, the answer is unequivocally "yes.")  The question is: who should have decided what I should read?

I always respect a parent's wishes regarding their children's exposure to books, music and movies.  However, they're not my parents.  They're not my kids' parents.  They have no right to tell anyone but their own children what they may consume.

Library funds are so limited, the broad array of books once found in the library already is dwindling.  Don't use that to control your own children's — and, inevitably, everyone else's children's — reading material.  Go with your family to the library, help them choose, and steer them away from books like And Tango Makes ThreeThe Perks of Being a Wallflower and The Earth, My Butt, and Other Big, Round Things. That is your perogative.

Just don't decide for me what those things are, and I won't do that for you.

Happy Banned Books Week, people.  Choose your reading materials, and read something that might or might not be objectionable.  Be your own judge.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Fall for the Book: Conor Grennan

When Conor Grennan tells his audience that his actions were not heroic, that anyone could and would have done them, he honestly believes that.  His explanation makes sense.

All it takes are baby steps.

All he planned to do was volunteer at a Nepalese orphanage: baby step.  After that, it was only one step to helping these children find a safe home.

When a parent came to claim her sons, it was a step to help her become reacquainted with them and help her find the resources to feed and clothe them in the city.

That led to the question: were they all really orphans?  Next step: find out whose parents are alive.

When children became "lost," it was only a step to try to find them. 

Just baby steps.  Putting one foot in front of the other.  In fact, he noted, "This book has one message: there is nothing extraordinary about the person I was going into this."

It's a truth I hold very dear: you don't have to be a hero to do heroic things.  You just have to do them.

Of course, had Conor told me clouds were gummi bears, I'd have believed him.  His self-deprecating approach to everything, his willingness to show his failures and foibles, made him someone I could trust.

I met him first on the pages of his memoir, Little Princes: One Man's Promise to Bring Home the Lost Children of Nepal.  He was funny, charming and utterly trustworthy.  Anyone who confesses to having been petrified of an orphanage full of children gets my vote. 

At the 2011 Fall for the Book Festival, he was exactly the same.  He pointed to the title of his book, the cover of which reached 12 feet high on the screen behind him on stage, and confessed, "I wouldn't read this book."

(I concur: I began reading it only because it was Fairfax County Public Library's 2011 selection for the community reading program, "All Fairfax Reads" — and the author was going to be at the book festival.  I am so glad I did.)

He also confessed that he doesn't trust those darned Canadians after being told by some of those countrymen that he didn't really need to read the guide books (which wrote of Nepal as a pretty dangerous country in the midst of a civil war).

He confessed that he signed up to volunteer at the orphanage because it made him look less self-absorbed.  Plus, it was a great way to impress women, which was "a pretty low bar."

In other words, he wasn't special.  Quite the opposite.

And yet, this man helped save at least 50 trafficked children in Nepal from slavery, starvation, abandonment and almost certain death by creating a home for them.  He created a non-profit organization to fund his efforts.

And he trekked through the mountains of Nepal searching for the parents of the children in his care.

He's right: you don't have to be a hero to be heroic.  And he took lots and lots of baby steps.

Meet Conor on the pages of his memoir.  (A portion of the proceeds fund Next Generation Nepal, his organization.)  Then see if you can't take a baby step of your own for something that matters to you.  If a guy intent on impressing chicks can wind up helping save children on the other side of the world, just think what you can do in your own neighborhood.

Saturday, September 24, 2011

National Punctuation Day: Name That Seat

On National Punctuation Day, let's salute Portland, Oregon's sense of whimsy.

Scattered around TriMet's Yamhill platform are seats like this: question marks, exclamation points, semi-colons, commas — all properly used.

Look around you at all of the ways punctuation helps us understand what is being communicated.  And take a minute to appreciate art as Portland has used it — and think of how you can do the same in your world.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Fall for the Book: Abraham Verghese, Cutting for Stone

First of all, if you're in a book club, Abraham Verghese salutes you: it was you who made his debut novel a success.

"Book clubs made this book happen," he flatly stated during his appearance at the 2011 Fall for the Book Festival.  It was the widespread reading by those very book clubs that propelled Cutting for Stone onto the New York Times bestseller list, he freely admitted.

Myself, I know it was more than that.  Cutting for Stone is a thoughtful, sensitive, thought-provoking book — which started out as a glimmer of a story to an exhausted, nearly burned-out physician treating HAV/AIDS patients in a small town in Tennessee. 

"All I knew is that there was a beautiful South Indian nun who gives birth to twins," he said.

He needed to take a break from his medical practice.  He had written two books already, both non-fiction, My Own Country and The Tennis Partner.  He had an idea for a story, and he wanted — no, needed to try his hand at fiction.

When his application to the Iowa Writers' Workshop was accepted, he found himself in the writing community he needed.  Once a week he spent time as a doctor with AIDS patients in a nearby hospital; the rest of the time, he was writing fiction, reading, recharging.

He admired Émile Zola, whose novels weren't "about" Paris, but "of Paris." He wanted to create "that atmosphere, that verisimilitude" in his novel.

His readers will agree: he succeeded.

The story spans the lives of two generations and takes place primarily in Addis Ababa.  First, there are the professionals who wind up at Missing hospital: doctors and nuns who administer more than just medicine and the people who help them provide this service. It's the shocking arrival of unexpected twins that sends everyone's lives into a direction other than they would have anticipated.

The characters in his novel are complex, interesting and surprisingly likeable.  Even the general whose actions affect Missing's obstetrician so profoundly is one to be respected.  When I asked Verghese if there were any characters he didn't like in his story, his response was immediate: "No.  If I hadn't liked them, I would have cut them."

His respect for fiction is unequivocal, so his foray into it makes sense.  "I have no patience for people who do not read fiction," he stated flatly.  "Uncle Tom's Cabin ended slavery."  Books speak to readers, he insisted.  "That's what is so magical about books: they speak to each of us differently."

Verghese's novel spoke to me of a rich life outside of the boundaries I know.  Cutting for Stone took an exotic "other" and turned it into a familiar location: of people, of situations, of life and love.

I am almost afraid to talk about it because I approached it without knowing anything about the story.  All I knew was that Verghese would be at the 2011 Fall for the Book Festival, and that my friend Pat found it one of the best books she had read in years.

What I will tell you instead is how books affected the author.  "I read Lolita when I was nine.  I read Lady Chatterley's Lover when I was ten.  When I came across a book titled Of Human Bondage when I was eleven," he paused as the audience laughed, "I discovered it was not at all what I anticipated."

And therein lies the magic.

I strongly recommend Cutting for Stone — and don't be surprised if you wind up purchasing multiple copies for friends and family.

Friday, September 16, 2011

Fall for the Book Begins September 18: I'm Ready!

There are some great authors scheduled for this year's Fall for the Book in Fairfax (and beyond).

I have two words for you: Stephen King.

Two more: Amy Tan.

Actually, that's not even my immediate reading list.

Every year, the festival has many great authors, and I have to pick and choose which events I can attend.  For this year's festival, I plan to attend the events featuring Abraham Verghese (Cutting for Stone, the author's first novel) and Conor Grennan (Little Princes, a memoir). 

I already read Natasha Tretheway's 2007 Pultizer Prize-winning poetry collection, Native Guard, multiple times, and it is in my library collection.  (If I don't excavate my copy this weekend, I shall be purchasing another copy for her to autograph at her reading next week.)

Needless to say, I have read books by the "headliners."

My first exposure to 2011's Fairfax Award-winner Amy Tan was The Joy Luck Club, which was touching yet sweeping.  I followed up with every single one of her books, saving the latest (Saving Fish from Drowning) for when I settled into my new library.  (Had someone told me it would take nearly a year after packing away most of my books, I wouldn't have waited.)

Equally imprisoned in my storage unit was dozens of books by the festival's 2011 Mason Award-winner.  I won't list every Stephen King novel I have read, but let's just say I wore a cross for a year when I was in junior high because 'Salem's Lot scared me so much.  (We don't discuss the 1979 TV movie.)

Take a look at this year's event schedule and let me know what you think I should see — or what you'd like to see.  Am I missing your favorite author, or an undiscovered gem?  Tell me!

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Review: Tunneling to the Center of the Earth

I have become a fan of short-story collections.  I have enjoyed the works of John Connelly, not enjoyed the works of Kelly Link — then I encountered Tunneling to the Center of the Earth.  Please stop what you are doing (yes, reading this review) and go purchase a copy, read it and return to this review.


Holy cow.  This begs not only the question of who thinks of this kind of stuff, but how can someone make the telling of it so right?

Like with other collections, the first story had a wow-factor of 11.  The idea of a "professional" grandparent is intriguing, and a business that would be really pretty win-win for all parties involved.

If that's where Kevin Wilson left it, I'd be impressed.  No, it's where he goes with "Grand Stand-Ins" that haunts me now, weeks after my first encounter with it.

And "The Shooting Man" may not have been a total surprise, but — again — it's where the story travels after it leaves my imagination that rocks my world.

Not to brag, but I have a pretty twisted mind, having grown up on Stephen King and book after book of hauntings and spirits and the like.  I have scared myself awake from a dead sleep more times than my husband cares to count, and I have kept myself awake in total fear more than once.  And yet, Kevin Wilson surprises me in the best way possible.

Every single story is unique, every single story is different — and yet, every single story enchants, startles, frightens, unsettles... whatever path Wilson intends it to take, that's where it goes.

I, for one, will follow him wherever he leads, including his new novel, The Family Fang.

By the way, if you need just one more push: Tunneling to the Center of the Earth won a 2009 Shirley Jackson Award.

Alright, if you're still reading, I appreciate your dedication, but I release you from those bonds.  Go get this book.  However, you must tell me what you thought.  Okay?

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Review: The Happiness Project

Do we need to be taught to be happy?  Children, usually not — but adults... We need some help in that area, Gretchen Rubin decided one day.  She saw a harried woman with a child, and no one looked happy.  She wanted to change that in her own life.

And, with the help of a publisher and marketing department, she turned it into a movement: The Happiness Project.  It comes to you with daily quotes, a book, a daily blog (maintained by the author herself!) and a whole lot of discussion.  Making a mint off the idea that she should be nicer to her family may not have been her original intention, but I am sure it made her happy.

From this writing, you may think me a skeptic — and you would be wrong.  I fell for this idea: hook, line and sinker.  I didn't think I needed to be happier for any particular reason, but the idea intrigued me.  Walking by the stack of books in the bookstore, I wondered to myself exactly what one does to make herself sing in the morning and clean her closets.  So I checked it out from the library.  (Some skeptical habits are hard to shake.)

It started out strong, and was interesting.  Everyone needs to get out her/his own mindset from time to time, reassess and become the person s/he wants to be.  Happiness is a mindset, and I have consciously re-set my happiness dial from time to time.  It can be done.  But a lifestyle re-set?  Rubin sets out to do that very thing for an entire year, breaking up her evolution into month-size bites.  The book was as much a how-to as a memoir of a year in the life.

I was with her, lock, stock and barrel — until April.  

You see, she launched her blog in March — and she used content from it rather liberally beginning in April.  Until then, what she wrote was personal, interesting, self-revealing.  Afterward, however, she turned to the studio audience for their reaction — too often for my taste.  If I wanted to know what random, unnamed strangers thought, I'd have found my own resources.  

My interest started to wane around summer, when she spent a month reading sad memoirs and biographies.  She explained how it wasn't to laud her great, easy life over another's short, sad one, but that's exactly how it felt.

Her repetition was tedious. She established in January that she had fabulous, involved in-laws who live around the corner (and who, as Jews, alleviated the pressure of "which family gets Christmas this year"); a patient, loving husband with Hepatitis C; supportive parents; and young, brilliant, beautiful daughters.  I got it early on.  

She liberally quoted famous and obscure authors, which made her sound just this side of know-it-all, at least in the beginning.  By July, I wondered if she had an original thought in her head.

By September, I was scanning chapters, skipping the blog excerpts, looking for "interesting parts."  

That might have been me reading too much too soon, not pacing myself properly for that type of book.  Fast-moving fiction can be swallowed nearly whole; instructional memoirs, maybe not so quickly.

Add with that the fact that her life already was completely off the charts: as a Yale alumna and successful lawyer who clerked for U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor who happens to be the wife of a successful laywer-cum-private equity investor, with a home on Manhattan's Upper East Side.  

Let's leave out the influential parents on both sides and apparent wealth for at least a couple of generations, because we know those things do not guarantee happiness.  It's the ability to do what we want that makes us swoon with envy.  (I wonder if the publishing house took that into consideration before publishing the irony of a happiness book by someone with that bio.)

In the end, I took away a couple of great ideas, such as, "If you aren't going to do something about what you're complaining about, STFU" (which wasn't even her idea) and starting a children's literature reading group. I might find my own Truths and Commandments, and hers (and her reading public) offer a good place to start.  I am continuing to make a conscious effort to be positive (which I started before reading Rubin's book).  I will try to get to sleep earlier.  I'll get rid of that which I don't need (which may be easy, what with all of my recent unpacking).  It's a worthwhile read.

If asked, I'd recommend reading the book, but read it critically.  Take what interests you with a liberal grain of salt and cheerfully discard that which doesn't apply to you.  It's what Gretchen would want you to do.

Thursday, September 1, 2011

Books Without Borders

I have seen the future without Borders, and it is Target.

And it makes me wish to weep.

David and I stopped by Borders the other day to indulge yet again (and to say "hello" to our future shelves).  We had a stack of goods we literally could not carry without each others' help.  Between coffee table books on music and guitars, a Jackie Chan video, Game of Thrones, The Anubis Gates, another Flavia mystery novel and a few novels and DVDs that will be gifts, our arms were full.

While we were there, I could not find some of the more recently published books, but I suspect most of the newer items had been snatched up quickly.  There was a biography I had tried for the better part of a year to pick up at the bookstore, but was again unsuccessful.

Today I encountered a book trailer that made me want to race out and purchase said book (thanks to Harper Collins Canada).  I knew I wasn't going to risk another encounter at Borders so soon — it's too exhausting to see such a loved bookstore in such disarray and disrepair.  I was going to Target, anyway, so figured I'd try my luck there.

"No luck" doesn't quite describe it.

There was room for for 12 books in the young adult "section."  Three slots were taken up by the first Harry Potter novel.  The top row was all Rick Riordian novels.  The rest of the collection was composed of whatever teen vampire romances are hot to teens.

I wanted to cry.

I knew I'd miss Borders, but I didn't realize the vast wasteland that awaited me.

It is in part my own fault.  I have a thing about Barnes & Noble: I don't like paying for a "club" discount.  I'm not a member of those big box warehouse stores for that very reason (well, that, and  refusing to buy a vat of mayonnaise I'l never finish, if only because I can't reach the bottom of the 10-gallon barrel to finish it off).  Paying what is a comparatively paltry sum to receive reasonable discounts shouldn't rub me the wrong way, but it does.

I'll be a member of a free discount club to the end of time, and they are free to mine my purchasing history for their marketing programs; it's only fair to help them sell me what I may (or may not) need.  For that information alone I deserve a discount, and I'm glad to take it at what seems like no additional cost to me.  (I am not foolish enough to think anything is truly free.)  However, to pay for that same "privilege" offends me.  Both I and the company in question will benefit, them more so because they can use my data to further their sales, market to their customers and determine their inventory.  I just want to buy at the "member" discount without having to pay for it up front.

However, if Target makes me weep over books again, I might give up bookstores altogether.  Amazon serves me well, gives me recommendations, sells to me at a reasonable price and delivers it at lightning-quick speed — and I can shop in my underpants.  (Sorry for the visual — and no, pouring bleach in your eyes will not help.)  I love my library and have been voraciously consuming those books at an alarming rate.  I just want to hand a book I love to a friend, who then can love it, too — and the library frowns on that.

I cannot go cold turkey, so I'll still hit up my thrift stores and used bookstores, which are my true passion.  However, as it stands, sparkling new bookstores may be a thing of the past.

Hopefully Barnes & Noble will come around to my way of thinking, especially since the competition is shrinking (for the time being).  If not, I'll have to totally change my book buying habits which, while a benefit to my wallet, will take its toll on my bookish soul. 

Tell me: what are you doing for your books these days, now that the Age of Borders is waning?