30 September 2010

Banned Books Week: His Dark Materials

                                 Into this wilde Abyss,
The Womb of nature and perhaps her Grave,
Of neither Sea, nor Shore, nor Air, nor Fire,
But all these in thir pregnant causes mixt
Confus'dly, and which thus must ever fight,
Unless th' Almighty Maker them ordain
His dark materials to create more Worlds,
Into this wilde Abyss the warie fiend
Stood on the brink of Hell and look'd a while,
Pondering his Voyage; for no narrow frith
He had to cross. 
~Paradise Lost, Book II, John Milton
Thus begins Satan's descent to Earth and his mission to cause the Fall of Man.  Phillip Pullman uses the epic battle of Heaven and Hell as an underlying theme in his fantasy-steampunk-coming of age trilogy, His Dark MaterialsThe Golden Compass introduces the reader to Lyra, Pantalamion (her daemon), and her alternate-history world of Oxford, London, and Lapland; there are some spectacularly bad people in Lyra's world (Lord Boreal, Mrs. Coulter, and Lord Asriel, just to name a few) as well as some spectacularly good people and giant, talking, armoured polar bears to boot (Iorek Byrnison, FTW!!).  There is also Dust, a strange particulate that is attracted to adults but not children.  The Subtle Knife introduces a new protagonist, Will Parry, who lives in our Oxford.  He meets up with Lyra in a strange world, Citt'gazze, and becomes the posessor of the Knife; the Knife has such a fine edge that it can cut through the fabric of space to make a window into another world.  The children also meet Mary Malone, a former nun who researches mysterious particles (the Dust of Lyra's world).  The Amber Spyglass (awarded the Whitbread Award in 2001, Pullman is only children's author to have received the prize) finds the major characters of the series readying for a battle between the Kingdom of Heaven and Lord Asriel.  At the heart of the conflict is Lyra, who must "fall" or grow-up to save all the worlds and prevent Dust from disappearing forever.
There are many thematic elements in His Dark Materials.  Pullman's Church is obsessed with the prevention of "sin" aka knowledge; this is why Dust is attracted to adults and not children.  Dust is self-awareness and knowledge through experience (also, the difference between innocence and experience, expressed in the poetry of William Blake).  The Church is trying to rid the world of "experience" - hence the insane project to separate children from their daemons.  The Church of Pullman's novels also abhors physical pleasure, whether through the enjoyment of foods or physical comforts or sexual awakening.  Lyra is a second Eve, one who must "fall" to save knowledge and self-awareness from becoming lost forever.  She is destined to do this even though she herself is not aware of this destiny until almost the end of the trilogy.  Although Lyra and Will are the Eve and Adam of the story, they must ultimately part because neither can live in the other's world for extended periods of time. 
Pullman comes down hard on absolutist religious dogma; although His Dark Materials uses a largely Judeo-Christian background, the message about absolutism applies to any fundamentalist religion.  It doesn't set well with some people - the Catholic League went after the trilogy for promoting atheism when the 2008 film adaptation of The Golden Compass was in theatres (books aside, that was a terrible adaptation, just awful plot adjustments).  If someone wants to have His Dark Materials removed from public school classrooms and libraries, I think Paradise Lost should go as well as The Chronicles of Narnia.  Turnabout is fair play; not everyone drinks of the communal wine and the parent, not the school district, should be the one who decides whether their child should read a more philosophical work.  I said public school because a private school of religious affiliation is allowed, under freedom of religion, to have a tighter grip over materials at the school (and one wouldn't enroll his/her children at a religious school unless one agreed with the curriculum/religious viewpoint and, besides, public libraries can suffice if a parent wants his/her child to read a book the private school finds questionable in that instance).
I'm all for children reading His Dark Materials.  Pullman's writing is very sophisticated and he doesn't dumb down any of the philosophical elements just because the series is meant for children.  The Golden Compass is more straightforward than The Subtle Knife which is more straightforward than The Amber Spyglass; by the time younger readers reach the third book they will be ready for the themes introduced.  I found myself reading very carefully by the time I reached the third book of the series because I didn't want to miss anything (there's a lot going on in The Amber Spyglass).

29 September 2010

Banned Books Week: The Handmaid's Tale

Scene: Lazy afternoon in our family room around my freshman year of high school.  I am sprawled all over the couch reading a book.  My mom walks in.
Mom:  Missy, I need you to...Missy?  Missy!  [I finally look up.]  What are you reading?
Me:  The Handmaid's Tale
Mom:  What's it about?
Me:  It's really crazy - an accident happens, and some women can't have children anymore, and so the government decides to force the women that can have children to have children for the women who can't.  The government thinks this is OK because of the part of the Bible where Rachel gives Jacob her handmaid so he can have kids.  That's just wrong.
Mom:  That's awful.  I need you to gather up your dirty laundry if you want it washed.
Me [whines]:  Now?

And that was that.*  It was also my introduction to Margaret Atwood.  I was in Biology one day and one of the seniors (who for whatever silly reason had not taken the science GER previously) had a copy of a book with a woman in a red robe and white headdress on the cover sitting on the lab desk.  I asked what it was - The Handmaid's Tale - and was then told that it "sucked" and was "really hard to read" and was for "English".  Bonus, guess that means I'll like it, so I borrowed my first Margaret Atwood novel from the school library and snarfed it down.

I loved it.  LOVED.  IT.  What utter crap, that some skeezy government officials can come along and kidnap you and force you to have sex with some guy that you don't even like just so he can have a kid and YOU CAN'T EVEN READ!!!!  THEY TOOK AWAY BOOKS!!!  I think I'd have tried to escape to Canada, too.  And, wait, all these guys can go to a brothel???  Arrrgghhh.  I bet you can guess that I was already into women's rights even if I didn't formally know that it was called "feminism".

The Handmaid's Tale was on a the reading list for one of my English classes later on (I can't remember if it was BritLit or APLit) and, even though I chose another book as my "official" assignment, I read Atwood's dystopic novel again.  By this time sexual harrassment, feminism, and abortion rights had come into play in my vocabulary and I understood how tenuous at times are the rights of a woman to her own body.  How a boy is "cool" for sleeping around but a girl is a "slut" for even thinking about having sex, how a girl who gets pregnant is extremely visible at school but the guy who got her that way can just slip into the background.  It all played into the fundamentalist atmosphere of the novel.

Although an extreme form, The Handmaid's Tale says "This is what happens when you take away a woman's right to govern her own body."  The book also comes down hard on totalitarianism/fundamental religion.  It's depressing as hell, too, because the reader is left wondering Offred's fate when the book ends - did she escape with Mayday or did the Eyes get rid of her?  Is she pregnant and is the baby OK?  How did the tapes survive?

Even though The Handmaid's Tale dropped from 37 to 88 on the ALA's challenge lists by decade, it still pushes buttons.  A recent challenge in Toronto objected to the language, sexual violence, and "anti-Christian" attitude.  When I talk about banned or challenged books, I usually talk about "truth" because a book portrays the "truth" of a situation.  In the case of The Handmaid's Tale, this is a dystopian novel, not a realistic novel or memoir, and instead of a "truth" it presents a "what-if" - Atwood uses the metaphor of a frog in boiling water to illustrate her point about gradual change.  One must be aware of gradual changes, how they can chip away at freedom.  Women need to be vigilant or agency over one's body can be compromised - be it from a government agency or otherwise.

*Not exactly what happened, but pretty darn close.

28 September 2010

Banned Books Week: I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings

I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings was a hard book for me to read when I was a teenager.  Not vocabulary-wise, but understanding-wise.  I am about as opposite from Maya Angelou as you can get - white, middle-class, privileged, two loving parents, a happy and uneventful childhood in Iowa - and it took a huge mental adjustment just to visualize her childhood and the events she describes in her memoir.  I have to confess I that I thought it was a novel at first; I was so unbelievably naive.  How could people act like that?  Hate someone just because of skin color or hurt a little girl?  Then I started putting together all sorts of other information that I'd learned in school and read in books....yes, Maya Angelou's story was real, as real as my own, and holy crap.

Slowly, I started to find bits that connected me with the little girl and teenager of Dr. Angelou's memoir.  She loved to read, so did I.  We were both dancers and liked the stage.  Even though horrible things happened to her as a child (and I later learned that she had a very hard time of it for quite a while, working through poverty to raise her son), I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings tells one woman's story of how she gained courage and tried to overcome her past.  For those who have read Laure Halse Anderson's Speak, the protagonist Melinda Scordino becomes as selective-mute after her assault; Dr. Angelou tells of her fear of speaking after her attacker is found beaten to death, that she felt her voice caused the man's demise.  Both the fictional Melinda and the real Maya learn to find their voices.

I no longer remember how I happened to be reading I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings; I know it was my personal copy, not borrowed from the library, and I was just reading it for fun.  My mother is a huge reader of biographies, we had shelves stuffed full of bios and memoirs, so reading a memoir "for fun" and not "for school" was pretty normal at my house.  I also suspect my mother had already read I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, although I've never asked her, so she knew what I was getting into.  I really think that was her way of introducing me to a situation that we just didn't experience ever in Iowa, so that I could begin to understand racism as a concept and understand how treating somone as less-than-a-person on the basis of skin color is absolutely ridiculous.  African-American History Month was always celebrated in school but we never got into the gritty, dirty parts of history.

It's the gritty bits that get people up in arms.  The book covers all manner of "hot-button" subjects: racism, sexism, sexual violence, child abuse, heterosexual sex, homosexual sex/confusion over sexual orientation, teen pregnancy, and "vulgar" language, to name a few.  I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings is the third most challenged book of 1990-1999 and the sixth most challenged 2000-2009 according to the ALA so people are getting their knickers in a twist all over the place.  It's like failing to see the forest for the trees.  Y'all want to stick your head in the sand and act like it's going to traumatize teens (and I'm talking an average of twelve and up here, the actual structure of the writing is too complex for younger kids), then you go ahead, stick your head in the sand and pretend that nothing bad ever happened to anyone.  But then you miss the truth - and the beauty of Dr. Angelou's writing.  She is a true storyteller - she sings loud and clear.  Dr. Angelou is an inspiring woman.  Young men and women need inspiration.

27 September 2010

Banned Books Week: The Judy Blume Edition

If there ever was, or will be, a writer forever beloved by tweens and teens everywhere...it will be Judy Blume.

Just look at her books!  Who else writes about how to be loved for yourself, not just your looks?  Or how to stand up for yourself, even if that means going against the crowdFrecklesDealing with pesky - and I mean pesky - little brothers (I have two)?  Finding someone as goofily creative as myself?  Trying to grow into your own body then learning how to be a grown up in that body?  The books are funny, and Judy tells great stories, but there's always a little bit of a lesson in there (even if the lesson is that your kid brother will always be a pest so you'd better love him for it because you can't get rid of him).

I read the Fudge books in grade school (the first three - the last two came after I was in middle school) and had graduated to Blubber by around age nine.  I read that book a lot.  I had a secret wish to be one of the "cool kids" - even in fourth grade there are "cool kids", then everyone else, then the losers - and Jill Brenner was friends with the Queen Bee, Wendy, the one who decided that Linda, the overweight girl, looked like the whale she was presenting about.  The whole class gots in on it and bullied Linda in increasingly terrifying ways.  I got teased a lot in grade school and middle school and I would have given almost anything to be cool.  My copy of Blubber had a frumpy-looking girl on the cover who resembled me in a scary way; I was growing my hair out and I looked super-frumpy and old-fashioned in my barrettes while everyone else looked like permed Madonnas and Cyndi Laupers.  However, everytime I read the book, I always cheered when Jill stands up to Wendy and protects Linda at the cost of her own "coolness" - I understood what Linda went through and always wished someone would stand up for me (I solved it by standing up for myself).  I hoped that if I were in the same situation as Jill, I would stand up sooner rather than later.

Shortly after Blubber I received a copy of Are You There God? It's Me, Margaret as a gift from my parents.  That's right - my parents.  It was a lovely edition, a blue hardcover with a yellow dust-jacket, and I read it and read it and read it.  The "this is your body on hormones" talk all the girls got in fourth grade only covered anatomical changes and never prepared me for the emotional rollercoaster that comes when your pituitary gland flips all the switches.  My copy of Margaret served as my touchbase whenever I started to doubt whether all this crazy stuff (odor, mean girls, rumors about slutty girls, having breasts/your period vs. not having breasts/your period, shopping for a bra with your mom, deciding what you think about God, etc) happened to other people and not just me.  I was lucky in that I didn't grow breasts until almost junior high, unlucky in that, when I did, they went from flat to eye-catching in a blink.  I also talked to God in my head, which I never mentioned to anyone in case they thought I was nuts; people prayed in church but never mentioned having a one-on-one relationship with Him.  The keel evened out after a few years but I always looked to Margaret when I needed a boost and wasn't at the level of sobbing to my mom about the unfairness that is teenagehood.

Meanwhile, I had read a book, kind of a naughty book for a ten-year-old at least - Forever....  My parents didn't buy this one for me; I borrowed it off a friend who "borrowed" it from an older sister.  I think my eyes were as big as saucers when I read about Katherine and Michael and....what the heck are they doing together?  I was pretty up on the anatomy of the human body but I wasn't quite sure what all you did with it.  With a boy...oh my.  I think if my mother had caught me with it I would have probably gotten an "is-there-anything-we-need-to-discuss" and an "I-think-you-need-to-wait-to-read-this" set of lectures but that would have been it.  As it was, a book that talked about blow-jobs and first-time sex, while fascinating, was actually kind of icky because boys my age were smelly, knuckle-dragging apes...no way did I want to be around any of them.  For any length of time.  With no clothes on...yuck.  When I did come back to Forever..., this time a copy legitimately borrowed from the library, I had graduated from "boys are icky" to "boys are OK but they have commitment issues".  My reaction to Katherine and Michael this time around was one of "oh no, they're not going to stay together??????" - because your first real boyfriend is the one that will last "forever"...and then it doesn't.  I thought my first boyfriend was "the one" and then he turned out to be a cheating turd (I didn't date again until college); Forever... helped me finally understand why there is an ellipsis in the title.

I've read almost everything written by Judy Blume and owe her a great debt of gratitude for writing about tweens and teens and reality in a way that is truthful and accessible.

Unfortunately, there are many people who just don't agree with me.  They want to censor Judy's books.  They don't think that middle school girls should understand what is happening to their bodies or that high school students will do silly things like have oral sex because they think they love their boyfriend (or, these days, have oral sex "just for fun").  Tweens and teens are far ahead of the curve anymore and a parent or educator who just sticks their head in the sand and worries more about what kids are reading than actual reality needs a wake-up call.  Judy writes eloquently about her experiences with censorship and book-banning, as well as cases of educators and writers caught in similar situations, in the introduction to Places I Never Meant to Be

Instead of banning and challenging Judy's books - because they talk about God, or sex, or masturbation, or divorce - use those books to open up communication.  READ THE BOOKS, don't make a snap judgement.  Kids need access to Judy's books; keep them accessible.

I should have titled this post "A Love Letter to Judy Blume" - but the post really isn't addressed to Judy (although, I hope she reads it because I love her books).  It's addressed to all those people who want to keep other children and teens from reading her books because those parents/educators/whoever object to their own child reading Judy Blume.  You parent your own children, I'll parent mine (whenever I acquire some, I'll settle for my nieces for now).

26 September 2010

Banned Books Week: Johnny Got His Gun

This is the book that set me in the war-is-so-not-worth-it camp.

When my class entered ninth grade, the high school decided to create a course for Talented and Gifted (TAG) students that would combine the English and history curricula.  "Humanities" combined ninth and tenth grade English and "American Cultures" (aka US History, post-Civil War, aka "9th grade history") into a two class-period, one academic year long course.  I was invited to take the class and, hellz yes, I would be MORE THAN HAPPY to combine three classes into one big one; I was thirteen and thought I was pretty hot stuff if I got to play in the smart kids' sandbox.  We read all sorts of books for that class - Sister Carrie, Maggie: Girl of the Streets, The Jungle, The Great Gatsby - as the time periods we studied moved from Reconstruction, to Industrialization, to the Gilded Age, then World War I and the aftermath.

Johnny Got His Gun by Dalton Trumbo was assigned after The Great Gatsby - although Trumbo's novel was published in 1939, we read Johnny in conjunction with the rise of the Jazz Age since it is set during/immediately after World War I.  Johnny takes its title from a popular recruiting slogan used by the US military and incorporated into popular songs.  The narrator is Joe Bonham, an injured World War I soldier, who wakes to find that he can no longer see, hear, taste, or feel anything but doesn't know where he is or how he got wherever he is at currently.  We are trapped in Joe's head with him as he slowly recovers his memory and realizes that he has survived the blast from an artillery shell but is left completely disfigured, with no face, no arms, no legs, no senses.  However, he is neurologically intact.  As he struggles to try and communicate with his caregivers, Joe flashes back to life with his parents and girlfriend before the war.  Ultimately, Joe wishes to become a symbol for the horrors of war, a reminder of the human cost and sacrifice made by the average man.  Joe's desire is never fulfilled.

It is safe to say that this book blew my little teenage, John-Wayne-movie-watching mind.

I was a freshman in 1992-1993.  The US was ending the first Gulf War - Operation Desert Storm.  In junior high, we were asked to write to US servicemen (and it was servicemen, no mention of servicewomen) to help support them - I have no idea anymore what that program was called, it just happened - and a few kids got letters back (I didn't - what does a twelve year old female nerd and dancer have to say to an adult male about to get into a tank in the middle of a desert?  Not much, I can tell you, that would make the adult male want to start a pen-pal relationship without feeling like a skeeze).  We had Channel One (raise your hand if you remember Channel One) and it occasionally had news shots of Desert Storm.  Nothing too scary.  I watched a lot of John Wayne movies; war isn't very scary there, either (I hadn't yet seen Born on the Fourth of July, Patton, The Deer Hunter, or Full Metal Jacket).  Also around this time, I developed a knee problem and I trawled through the medical section of the public library looking for information about knees; I found a book of surgical procedures that had pictures of traumatic wounds and not just any wounds, historical photographs from bombing victims in World War I undergoing cosmetic reconstruction.  Oh my God.

Johnny Got His Gun captured my imagination.  What would it be like to suddenly be trapped in your own body (this was before I'd ever heard of "locked-in syndrome")?  To be an object of revulsion, to be entirely at the mercy of the world for food, for care, for everything?  To be horribly and painfully injured because you did your "patriotic duty" and no one told you this might happen?  You would look like those pictures and worse.  Would anyone truly tell your story as you would want it to be told?  As my humanities class continued forward in history I thought "What about other wars?"  World War II - I looked for pictures of victims of the atomic bombs, of soldiers who died in Pearl Harbor.  Korea - I found information about the advances in mobile surgical hospitals (MASH units - oddly enough, I loved M*A*S*H as a TV show, but never thought of the reality before).  Vietnam - I saw pictures of monks immolating themselves, legless US servicemen, I watched Born on the Fourth of July and The Deer Hunter.  I didn't become a fervent anti-war protester but I did start to realize that there are many, many other things to think about than just a date and the winner of the war.  There ought to be an honest accounting.

Johnny Got His Gun was awarded the National Book Award in 1940.  Although the novel itself was not initially divisive, Trumbo himself was.  Trumbo was aligned with the Communist Party in the US throughout World War II and eventually formally joined the Party in the 1940s.  When Germany invaded the USSR in 1941, Trumbo and his publishers suspended reprinting of Johnny Got His Gun because Trumbo feared the subject was inappropriate for the time period; inquiries sent to Trumbo (many concerned that his book was suppressed by "fill in the blank") were turned over to the FBI.  In a rather nasty turn of events, the FBI came to investigate Trumbo himself because of his Communist sympathies.  In 1947 Trumbo was one of those called before the House Un-American Activities Committee as an unfriendly witness.  Trumbo refused to testify, was convicted of contempt of court, and was blacklisted in Hollywood (Trumbo covers his decision to suspend printing of Johnny in his introduction to the book, last updated in 1970 with an statistical accounting of war injuries).

The challenge history for Johnny is not extensive - I can really only find one dated to 1977 in Michigan where it was challenged for being profane, graphic, un-patriotic, and un-American.  I really don't remember anything that graphic and, FYI, the truth is not un-American.  These days, I find that I want to get Johnny Got His Gun in front of more people.  It is such a relevant book because the US, once again, is at war and members of the US Armed Forces are coming home with severe injuries.  Or not at all.  Patriotism is not just about waving flags and sending care packages to the troops; it also includes a recognition that men and women are dying and horribly injured in a time of war and the severely injured can become marginalized.  All the flag-waving in the world won't cover that up.

Johnny Got His Gun lets the reader understand what it might be like to spend the rest of your life trapped inside your head, all because you "did your patriotic duty" and served in the military.  It's a sobering thought.

25 September 2010

Banned Books Week, September 25 - October 2, 2010

This week I will be celebrating Banned Books Week on Scuffed Slippers and Wormy Books.  Each day this week I will (or will attempt to, schedule willing) feature one banned or challenged book; these are books that I read and either love dearly or respect for the message the author provided within the pages.

Get ready to find out why I "THINK FOR MYSELF"!

23 September 2010


Until Sofi Oksanen's Purge was put forth as a Literature by Women selection, I had always assumed the novel was about eating disorders or something like that.  The US edition has a woman in an apron and kerchief (the cover cuts her off just below the eyes) standing before a table and a lump of dough.  So, food and not eating/purging oneself of food.  Well, not so.  Purge tells the story of the elderly Aliide Truu, an Estonian woman, and Zara, a Russian girl Aliide finds sleeping in her front garden.  Both women have mysterious pasts, both have something to share and something to hide.

Purge is a critically-acclaimed novel in Finland and Scandinavia, winning major literary prizes and making Oksanen one of the youngest acclaimed writers in the region.  Rather than tell the story from beginning to end as an omniscient narrator, Oksanen uses an alternating narrative to move the book forward, switching points-of-view between Aliide - distrustful of strangers after the horrors of World War II and the Soviet occupation - and Zara - distrustful of nearly everyone after a disastrous "new start" in Western Europe - to tell a story about human trafficking in "civilized" modern Europe.  As the story unfolds, and each woman thinks of her past, only the reader is aware of Aliide and Zara's shared history.  However, the reader can never be sure how much each woman has realized she knows about the other.  After a heart-stopping climax, the reader is left with more questions than answers.

*Sorry for the brief review - I'm trying to catch the back-log as quickly as I can.

20 September 2010

The Wake of Forgiveness

Bruce Marchart's The Wake of Forgiveness is the September First Look selection at Barnes and Noble Book Clubs.  This is Marchart's first novel; set among the Czech settlers who are determined to bend the tough Texas ground to their will, The Wake of Forgiveness evokes comparions with Ken Haruf and Cormac McCarthy.  The story follows Karel, the youngest of four motherless brothers who all share the same acquired trait: their necks are deformed, kinked out to one side, from pulling their father's plow as a team. 

The reader sees Karel as an infant, a man, and a young boy as the narrative moves between time periods.  His mother dies during his birth and he is nursed by a neighbor.  Karel is a talented horse-rider but his father takes away that pleasure when he loses a race, tying his family's future to that of the mysterious Villasenor.  He is a successful farmer and dutiful father and husband but is far from ideal.  He makes a very serious error in judgement that brings tensions between Karel and his brothers to a head.  Karel is most definitely a flawed human being, as is every other character in the novel, and it makes him a more compelling central character as he changes over the course of the novel.

The ideas of forgiveness and family are at the heart of this novel.  How should we act when we should forgive?  How does one act when one refuses to forgive?  Should we hold somene accountable for an event that was beyond his or her control?  Where should one place blame?  How do you define your family relative to the woman who gave birth to you or to the woman who nursed you?

The Wake of Forgiveness is a very atmospheric novel.  The heat of a dance hall, the smell of a barn, the steam rising from a horse in the rain.  The settings are very tangible but not over-described.  I found it very hard to put this book down because I could never find a very good place to stop reading.  Do I choose the chapter break when Villasenor and his daughters first appear?  How about the chapter from the hawk's perspective?  The scene in the barn after the dance hall or the horse race?  The morning after the twins' rampage?  No chapter ever had a "cliff-hanger" but the story flowed so well, even between sections from different time periods, that I really just wanted to see what happened next..and next...and next...and then the book was done. 

The Wake of Forgiveness will be available in hardcover and ebook in late October. 

19 September 2010

#SpeakLoudly - LAH's SPEAK is NOT pornography.

Today, a little birdie blogged about a pastor in Missouri who wants to ban Laurie Halse Anderson's Speak because it is pornography.

That's right - a man who has professed to spread the love of the Lord has found scenes depicting the rape of a young girl, who subsequently manifests depressive symptoms after her assault and cannot speak about it, as pornography.

That pastor's spreading something, alright, but it's not love.  Love says Speak tells the truth, that a girl who has had something terrible happen to her is still a whole person capable of giving and receiving love.  That it is not her fault.  That we hear her and we listen when she speaks. 

Speak was first published as I was graduating college and I didn't read it until this year, ten years later.  Melinda is not alone, even if she is a fictional character.  I have a friend who was Roofied and woke up in a strange man's bed.  Another friend was date-raped by a man who she thought was a friend.  Another was sexually abused as a child.  They did not speak.  Not until much later.  One tried to commit suicide, which is how I know about her assault - she told me so I would know why she tried to kill herself.  Laurie Halse Anderson could have ended Speak so differently, it could have been so bad, but she chose to end with hope.  Hope that Melinda could tell her story and people could understand what happened.  They could be her supporters, not her detractors.

Speak tells teens that it is OK to tell someone that you have been assaulted or a loved one has been assaulted.  Listen to Laurie Halse Anderson read her Speak Poem created from the letters sent to her from teens who read her book and reached out to her:

What would those teens have done without Speak?  Would they have ever told anyone what happened to them?

Pornography is meant to titillate, to arouse.  If you consider Speak to be pornographic then you think it is arousing to watch little girls get raped.  People who like to rape little girls or watch little girls get raped are pedophiles.

We need to #SpeakLoudly to keep Speak available and accessible to teens.  Buy a copy and read it.  Borrow it from the library.  Loan your copy to a friend.  Talk about it with your daughter, son, brother, sister, parent.  Watch the movie adaptation with Kristen Stewart.

Don't let someone else speak for you.

18 September 2010

Lewis Carroll in Numberland

When I was a child, we had a ratty old VHS tape of Disney's "Donald in Mathmagic Land" taped off the Disney Channel.  It was so much fun.  That programme is why I know how to play billiards even though I've only ever played pool.  I learned about Pythagoras long before the hated geometry class turned up.

I like Alice in Wonderland, too.  Lewis Carroll hid a lot of mathematic and logic games in his writing for children.  I didn't realize it was math at the time (when you're eight, and bored in school, math consists of "timed tests" for arithmetic; I hate "timed tests").

Robin Wilson brings the mathematical side of Charles Lutwidge Dodgson to the fore in Lewis Carroll in Numberland: His Fantastical, Mathematical, Logical LifeDodgson was interested in math very early on and, if not exactly a prodigy, he applied himself well to his studies and lectured in mathematics at Oxford for many years after his graduation. Dodgson worked out logic problems, the mathematics of parliamentary representation in political theory, a memory device, better methods of teaching and examining in geometry, and tournament eliminations (among other things).

The biographical layout of the book is very interesting, taking it's "Fits" after Carroll's poem The Hunting of the Snark.  His career at school was very interesting to me since the school system of nineteenth century England is so very different from twenty-first century America.  Especially the college process. 

What killed me was the math.  *headdesk*  I still have no patience for word problems.  Wilson is a mathematician and presents many of Dodgson's arithmetic, logic, and geometry puzzles and problems as written - which are nearly all word problems.  Wilson explains some of them, and many have solutions in the Appendix, but after a while my eyes started to glaze over.  I was also astounded at the advanced nature of the mathematics problems Dodgson encountered as a child; Wilson includes a set of sample problems from an arithmetic text used at Dodgson's prep school and I was completely unable to solve any of them even thought I knew what they were asking.  And I have what amounts to a minor in biostatistics so I've taken advanced mathematics.  The chapters on Dodgson's puzzles were much more fun to read.  I didn't try and solve any so I can go back and try my hand at them later (I've found that anything math-related I have to take in small doses or I bail).

Numberland was interesting as a biography but I should have known there would have been lots of "math" in the book - we do keep it in the "Mathematics" section of the store.  I should have read a little slower.  It probably would have helped the *headdesk* feeling.

The Wheel on the School

Lina wonders why there are no storks in her costal Dutch village of Shora but the nearby village of Nes there are storks on every roof.  After some investigation, she realizes that the village roofs are too steep and pointed; storks need a flat space to nest, like the wagon wheels on the roofs of Nes.  Lina's enthusiasm, and her classmantes', causes her schoolteacher to suspend lessons to look for a wheel.  The children's persistence leads the whole village to put a wagon wheel on the schoolhouse to entice a pair of nesting storks in Meindert DeJong's The Wheel on the School.

There's a sweet, earnest sentiment to DeJong's writing in The Wheel on the School; a can-do attitude.  Eelka finds a wheel, but it starts to fall apart from age; old Janus, on the other hand, can put the pieces back together.  Auka aids a tin peddler during his search for a spare wheel.It reminded me very much of Five Little Peppers and How They Grew, a book I haven't read in years; both have a make-the-best-of-any-situation tone and have very resourceful characters.  Perhaps the attitude is due to the storks - it is said that storks bring good luck to a house when they next on the roof.  Shora certainly sees it's share of fortunate events during the children's quest to put a wagon wheel on the school.

Maurice Sendak contributed simple drawings to the book.  Used as chapter headings and sprinkled throughout the story, the drawings add a little bit of whimsy.  Rowing out to rescue the storks, the women struggling through the storm to church, the children gathered around Janus.  They look like simple charcoal sketches, very sweet.

DeJong's book was quite fun to read, a happy story (every once in a while, we all need a happy story), and it was awarded the Newbery Medal in 1955.


17 September 2010

Oprah has the "Freedom" to pick whatever she likes

But it is a bit strange that she went with Jonathan Franzen's Freedom.

Don't get me wrong.  I'm reading it right now - Freedom is a great book, well-written, and a great portrait of middle-american disaffection.  However, there are any number of less well-known writers with wonderful books available to choose from.  Why the Franzen?  I saw an idea floating around on Twitter that perhaps its some sort of karma-thing before her TV show ends.

Whatever the reason, I do hope her discussion with Franzen will be interesting.  That's the one thing that was a big failure when The Corrections was selected in 2001.  The discussion.  Earlier this year, I read Kathleen Rooney's book Reading With Oprah and she also had misgivings that the Franzen interview was cancelled.  Rather than having a schmaltzy book discussion, Oprah could have had a fierce, hard-hitting discussion with Franzen about highbrow vs. lowbrow culture or why the television format makes an Oprah's Book Club pick seem more like fluff than the book might actually be. 

Regardless of what I, or anyone else, think, Oprah has earned the right to do whatever the hell she wants.  I, on the other hand, will be happily reading Freedom on my nook (and mine was pre-ordered, ha!, so no Oprah stickers for me).

BBAW Future Treasure: Onward!

First of all, before BBAW "officially" ends I need to thank Amy.  BBAW is Amy's brainchild and we don't get to have any fun finding new blogs and books or winning fun giveaways without Amy's generous donation of time.  And her minions' time (of which I was one).  THANK YOU, AMY!!!! *big hug*

On to today's assignment (onward!).

The best part of BBAW is finding new blogs.  Hands down.  Like Cass.  How did I not find her earlier?  I also found Sya, Zee, Allegra, Felicia, Sakura, and finally remembered to put Iris in my GR.  I didn't discover any new books this BBAW but I'm sure I will in the future - that's what the new bloggers are for.

As far as the future of Scuffed Slippers and Wormy Books (and me, the balletbookworm), I will try very hard to comment more on others' blogs and to respond to comments on my blog.  It's part of being a good blog-o-sphere citizen.  If I want people to comment on my blog then I should comment on theirs.  At least once in a while.

I've also cut back on the memes as of late.  I got a bit bored with trying to remember to get meme posts done as well as review posts, because otherwise it's not a review blog at all, knitting posts, and so on.  In the case of "Teaser Tuesdays", my ADD reading sensibilities were causing me to give a Teaser for a book I wouldn't finish for another six months or so.  So I might do a few meme posts here and there but definitely not as many as last year.  I'm trying very hard to keep the number of books I have "in progress" in check so I should have more finished books to review.

Catch you on the flip side!

16 September 2010

ttyl / ttfn / l8r,g8r (I read banned books - nyah, nyah!)

September has my little bookclub reading our own selections that fit with the term "language" - we can read whatever we want relating in some way to that word.  I had planned to read The Secret Life of Words: How English Became English but I can't find it; the book is still in my database, so I didn't get rid of it, I must have packed it while "decluttering" my office.  The packed boxes are, unfortunately, in my parents' basement.

Rats and *le sigh*.  What will I read now?

I looked around to see what I could read quickly...and I thought about novels written in IM shorthand.  There are a decent number - particularly in the teen/YA section of the store (see? I said I was going to read more YA) - and Lauren Myracle's Internet Girls series caught my eye.  Hmmmm.  Then I remembered Myracle's series is one of the top ten banned or challenged books of 2009....Banned Books Week is coming up so bring on the banned books!!  Where's my "I read banned books" pin?  I think I have a whole envelope-full in my desk...

Back to Zoe, Maddie, and Angela.  ttyl opens as the "winsome threesome" starts their sophomore year of high school, ttfn starts at Thanksgiving of the girls' junior year, and l8r, g8r closes out the last semester of their high school careers.  The girls grow into adulthood over the course of the three books and they behave much like normal teenagers.  They talk about their bodies, having/not having sex in its various incarnations, drinking, doing drugs, playing pranks, applying to college, problems with their parents, problems with boys.  They gossip, swear, use slang.  I can see how parents can get bent out of shape with this series but the reality is that Zoe, Maddie, and Angela sound like real teenagers.  Real teenagers swear, real teenagers worry about having sex for the first time.  Real teenagers make poor decisions.

Myracle shows the girls in both good and bad situations and the consequences of the girls' decisions.  Angela is the first of the girls to get a boyfriend of-sorts but is also the first to deal with unfaithfulness in ttyl.  Maddie makes a poor choice regarding pot smoking in ttfn; although she decides to quit smoking up on her own, she ends up getting arrested while with a group of friends who are buying pot.  In l8r, g8r Zoe decides that she would like to be sexually active with her long-time boyfriend Doug so she goes to Planned Parenthood for an exam and a prescription for birth control and the couple uses condoms; if that doesn't say "responsible teenager" then I don't know what does.  The situations go on and on: cyberbullying, student-teacher relationships, college applications, relationships.  High school isn't some 1950s utopia where your hair is always perfect, your grades are wonderful, everyone is nice to you, and you have the perfect boyfriend; my high school experience was approximately 15 years ago and full of nasty pitfalls (but relatively tame compared to what happened to some kids I went to school with).  I can't imagine what high school is like now (the Internet was new when I was in high school, no one had email until they went to college) but I can tell you that kids need "real" novels as much as they need the fairy tales.

For books written entirely in IM, the series is surprisingly readable.  The level of Internet shorthand is pretty low, using fairly common abbreviations (brb, lol, omg, u, ur, y, etc).  Each girl consistently uses the same typeface/color/font, just like we do on AIM, etc., and their personalities come through the IMs.  Angela uses a lot of dramatic smilies and *gestures* to convey her meaning.  Maddie uses the most slang (it varies depending on who she's been hanging out with).  Zoe's are almost always complete sentences (like me - I haven't converted to internet shorthand very well).  Myracle never breaks with the convention of telling the story solely through IMs between the three characters.  I've read a few reviews for the series that feel using only IM makes for unreliability in the narrators but I think it lends more reality to the situation.  I was watching myself IM the other night and what's the #1 thing I do on IM?  Gossip.  What do the "winsome threesome" do first on IM in their coversations?  Gossip.  It's the first thing they do every time - they talk about what happened at school (particularly if one of them missed something), they talk about each other (especially if two are worried about the third), they talk about evil Queen Biotch Jana, then the three discuss what to do about whatever problem someone's currently having (Zoe's creepy teacher, Angela's move to California, Maddie's relationship with Ian).  That's not unreliable.  That's the reality that is IM.

Can you tell I really liked this series?  I had a lot of fun reading Zoe, Maddie, and Angela's IMs, I identified with each of the girls, and cheered them on when they took on Jana and her backstabbing ways (I had some bully trouble in junior high so I've been there).  This series should be accessible to teens - if you're a parent who really can't stand the thought of your "innocent" kid* reading a book that talks about oral sex then you'd better get ready to heilcopter parent like mad.  Better idea:  read the books your teen wants to read then talk about them.  Teens can surprise you.

*Spoken by a former teen who read all of Anne Rice's Beauty trilogy at the age of 14 while I was in the library waiting for my little brothers to pick out their books.  "Winnie-the-Pooh" is to "ttyl" as "ttyl" is to Anne Rice.  Learning about group sex and S&M didn't make my brain explode or turn me into a raving nymphomaniac (actually, it kind of did the opposite...) but it did make my hair stand on end for a while.

BBAW Forgotten Treasure: Do I have a book for you!

Some books get all the buzz, some don't for whatever reason.  Some books gain iconic/cult status; others slip away.  Here are four currently-under-the-radar books to keep in mind - three are old favorites of mine, one is a new find!

And the Band Played On by Randy Shilts - This is the first book of social journalism/public health I ever read and it has always stayed with me.  Shilts brings the history and controversy of the AIDS epidemic to life; he exposes all the dirty laundry, airs nasty political secrets.  After I read And the Band Played On, it was very clear to me how prejudice, bigotry, and politics combined to place the American public in danger.  I understood what was only vaguely referenced when I was a child.  From this book I went on to read The Coming Plague and Blood: An Epic History of Medicine and Commerce but And the Band Played On is the one that stuck with me.  (I also have to recommend the HBO adaptation of And the Band Played On - well acted and directed, really illustrates how so many intelligent people just stuck their heads in the sand and did nothing.)

Alias Grace by Margaret Atwood - Grace is a poor Irish serving maid convicted of murdering her employer and escaping across the US-Canada border...or is she just a victim of circumstance, mixed up with the wrong people?  Alias Grace is not as famous as The Handmaid's Tale nor as laurelled as the Booker-winning The Blind Assassin but it is my favorite Atwood novel.  Grace is a very compelling character and a tricky narrator when she tells her story to Dr. Jordan.  There's also wonderful period detail and a crazy twist as we unravel the threads of Grace's past.  I received Alias Grace as a gift back in undergrad - I liked it so much my mother threatened to take it away to force me to be sociable during a family holiday gathering (ha!).

The Westing Game by Ellen Raskin - I re-read Raskin's Newbery-winning book last year for my Newbery Project.  I first read The Westing Game in middle school when it was assigned for reading class and I just loved it.  On the re-read, I was surprised at how much detail I remembered because there was a twenty-year gap between readings.  Turtle is a great character - strong, resourceful, and intelligent, stubborn, too (her older sister Angela makes a great role model, too, but you have to get to the end of the book to see it).  I always recommend The Westing Game for girls looking for a great mystery - see if you can figure it out before Turtle does.

Children of the New World by Assia Djebar - Assia Djebar is a new author for me.  I "found" her when the lovely IBIS at BNBC championed Djebar's book, Children of the New World, as a selection for the "Literature by Women" group I moderate (and people wonder why I let the users nominate/vote on the reading selections -  it's so I can find new things to read, ha!).  Djebar set her novel among a village of native Algerians during the escalating guerrilla war for Algerian independence from France in the 1950s.  Children of the New World is a bit like an ensemble piece - there is no "main" character or narrative plot beyond the experience of the average person during a time of war.

The Collector by John Fowles - If anyone watched "The Fisher King, Parts I and II" from Criminal Minds then they heard about a novel from John Fowles that provided the words to a cipher.  I hope they read The Collector after watching the show because there are obvious parallels with the main storyline of those episodes.  If you haven't read Fowles's creepy novel about a meek man (Frederick) who kidnaps the object of his affection (Miranda) and locks her up in his basement then you should.  Fowles switches the narrative point-of-view halfway through the book so the reader gets the privilege of seeing into both characters' heads.

Those are a few of my "forgotten treasures" - what are yours?

15 September 2010

BBAW Unexpected Treasure: Y to the A

For a year or so, I've been reading a few Newbery-winning books (here and there) for my Newbery Project.  I don't ordinarily read children's books since I don't have kids and I've got more books in the "to read"/"READ THIS NOW" pile than I can deal with some days.  This extends to teen and YA books - no time unless it's for a specific reason (like when my little bookclub read Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson).  I read Twilight and it's spawn because of my friend Jackie (who loves them) and to actually be able to legitimately state my opinion on whether or not the series is "good".  I don't really "browse" the teen section at the store in the same way I "browse" regular fiction - I browse fiction to find things to read, I browse Teen so I can find the books later when needed. 

However, there are a number of really intriguing books for teens/young adults on the market or in the works.  The Hunger Games series, Dormia, the Uglies series, Wintergirls, The Maze Runner, ttyl/ttfn/l8r,g8r, Stargirl, Sold, etc.  They all look to have good stories and I like good stories (and sometimes I need a break from my Victorians/Edwardians).  I get some information on YA books peripherally through being a bookseller but there are a couple of bloggers who really have a focus on YA and give credible reviews.

Kristi at The Story Siren:  Kristi reviews YA books of nearly every stripe and color.  She is always fair in her reviews so I know that I'm getting a good opinion when I read a post on her blog.  She's also very up-front about blogging issues/questions and happy to help out a newbie.

Pam at Bookalicio.us:  Pam is a passionate reviewer of books.  She has such a unique voice (and is wickedly funny - have you seen her "HP got hosed at the MTV Movie Awards" video?)  Pam also recently hosted a series of guest posts speaking out against censorship.  I always look forward to seeing Pam's posts pop-up in my Google Reader.

Pam and Kristi (and many more bloggers) have inspired me to read more YA.  This is a new thing (starting with Lauren Myracle's Internet Girls series, read for my store bookclub reading topic "language" this month) and I'll be building my reading list as I go.  I also find reading more YA important as September moves toward Banned Books Week (starting September 25).  Children's and teen/YA books are very often the target for censorship because of subject matter but the reality is that reality is worse than fiction in 99.99% of instances.

14 September 2010

Bookspotting: September 14, 2010

LOTS today!

Wizard's First Rule by Terry Goodkind
Old-ass prose translation of the Illiad 
One Day by David Nicholls
Two copies of Eat, Pray, Love
Murder in Havana by Margaret Truman
Old library book
At least one newspaper

And what was I reading? I was reading l8r, g8r but now I'm clinging to the standing strap for dear life (have a terrible sub driver today and it's scary)

BBAW Blog Treasure: Meet Felicia from Geeky Blogger's Book Blog!

During BBAW, we bloggers interview each other.  I got to interview Felicia from Geeky Blogger's Book Blog.  After you read her answers to my questions, drop by her blog to say "Hi!"

Me: Did you always self-identify as a geek? (I've always self-identified as a nerd!)

Felicia: I have from a very early age! I was the kid in 2nd grade on the playground sitting in the corner reading a book. Where it really came from though is that I loved math! I would compete in Math events with other schools and would get so far ahead that my teacher would just kind of let me do my own thing. I think some people are just born geeks/nerds!

Me: I love your wine glass rating-system - can you talk about how you came up with the idea? Related: do you have a favorite winery/wine?

Felicia: I love Wine! I am by no means a connoisseur but a great night for me is a really good book and a glass of wine. I debated on the rating system but it was an accurate portrayal of me reading. I have to laugh though, I had one author ask me (she got a 4) if it took that many glasses of wine to read her book :) My favorite wine is Icewine and the best place ever that I have had it from is a winery in Canada. Unfortunately, I have no idea what the winery's name is--my parents picked it up for me and I didn't save the bottle :(

Me: Your 110-pound fur child is much larger than my two put together - does Tonks share your interest in books given the literary name?

Felicia: Tonks hates when I read. Seriously, you can see the look of "here she goes again" on her face. She did get her name from Harry Potter because Tonks was one of my favorite characters!

Me: I noticed the button for DFW Tea Book Club - what kind of group is it and how did you come to be involved with them?

Felicia: DFW Tea has been around a long time. It is a Romance Readers book club and we meet once a month for high tea somewhere. It is a ton of fun and I have made a ton of new friends through the club. It is always a great time when you can hang with other readers--especially when you can hang with other readers that have similar interests as you.

Me: If you could choose any historical era (and not have to worry about diseases, sanitary conditions, uncomfortable undergarments, etc.) when/where would you like to live and why?

Felicia: I would love to live in New Orleans during the time of 1830 to 1860. It ran very differently from any other place in America and has such a wonderful history. If I thought I could land a Scottish laird, I would pick Medieval period Scotland but I doubt that would be my luck LOL

Me: Stephen King has always freaked me out. Since he's a favorite of yours, what King novel should I read (or read again) because it's just that good (please don't say "It", it gives me nightmares)?

Felicia: The only Stephen King book I like is The Stand. I don't read horror so the rest of his books really freak me out--they are very well written but SCARY! The Stand is a fantastic story of good vs evil and hope. I read it every other year (it is huge) but every time I pick up on something I missed from the time before.
*caveat: When I first got the interview swap assignment my smartphone somehow cutoff "The Stand" from the email leaving only "Pride and Prejudice and Stephen King" - so I wrote all my questions on my Blackberry.  When I got Felicia's answers back, I thought "odd" and rechecked the email....apparently she likes "Pride and Prejudice and The Stand by Stephen King"...my bad.  So "The Stand" it is!

Me: If you had to power to change anything about yourself, what would you change? Or would you remain exactly as you are?

Felicia: If I could change one thing about myself: that drinking wine would not make me so giggly! Seriously, a glass of wine and I would laugh out loud to almost anything remotely funny! It is the craziest thing!

Thanks for being my interview partner, Felicia!

13 September 2010

BBAW First Treasure: New Blog!

I discovered Ash's blog, English Major's Junk Food, just this summer.  I'm not sure how I missed it since Ash is a student at the same university where I work and she's been featured in the school newspaper.  Ash blogs about the books she wants to read, rather than the books she's told to read as an English major.

Sometimes her reading for fun and reading for school overlaps.  She blogs about essays, an area in which I'm trying to read more, under her feature "Awesome Essays" and occasionally some from her film and essay class pop up (one of the required texts is Philip Lopate's The Art of the Personal Essay, I book I've been meaning to read).  She also has done a few children's book vlogs, something I hope she brings back because they are quite fun.

We don't always agree.  She gave The Secret History of the Pink Carnation a "D" but I thought it was a good start, some problems to iron out writing-wise, but a good story.  But we also like Villette, Ariel, and Ophelia Joined the Group "Maidens Who Don't Float".  (I like her "grading" scale.)  I always look forward to Ash's thoughts.

12 September 2010

Boondock Saints/Boondock Saints II

Another double-feature night!  Boondock Saints II is on Netflix instant but I hadn't watched Boondock Saints in a while, so I refreshed my memory.

First movie: funny, original, Rocco is such a great sidekick.  Great ending.

Sequel: still funny, but feels far more scripted than the first.  Romeo is a funny side-kick but less organic.  New FBI Agent Eunice is more annoying than Willem Dafoe in a tranny get-up ever was.  Liked the increased involvement of the detectives, would have liked more Billy Connolly. 

Simple verdict: sequel was enjoyable just not as enjoyable as the original.

PS: Sean Patrick Flannery is still the cutest thing ever.  Even cuter with an Irish accent.

11 September 2010

District 9/Inglourious Basterds

I had a double-feature Friday night: District 9 and Inglourious Basterds (I've had the discs from Netflix for quite some time, needed to get them watched).

District 9 really does a great job bringing reality to a "creature" movie.  By placing the action in Johannesburg, South Africa, there is the very interesting juxtaposition of a country only very recently emerging from apartheid and a people who are more than happy to put the aliens in a slum and keep them separate from the humans.  I also really liked the documentary style of the movie; I wish that Blomqvist had delineated the "documentary footage" from the film narrative that was following Vikus a little better because sometimes it got a little confusing trying to figure out what was "documentary" and what was not.  The guy who played Vikus did a great job; I think it was his first acting gig so kudos.  I hope no one gets it into their head to make a sequel; although the ending makes it possible, I'd rather leave Vikus's fate alone.

So then I watched Inglourious Basterds.  Talk about a 180.  If I didn't know this was a Quentin Tarantino written/directed movie, the construction and shooting preferences would give it away.  The long takes are great - especially one that follows Shosanna down the stairway at the cinema, back up to Landa on the second floor, then following him down the stairs to the Basterds.  I loved the spaghetti-western feel; I would not have been surprised if Henry Fonda or Clint Eastwood had shown up as a cameo.  Christoph Waltz is an amazing actor, very deserving of his Oscar for this movie.  I also loved the use of language in the film; Aldo's southern accent, the Jersey accents on some of the Basterd's, the use of French, German, and Italian (again, Christoph Waltz is amazing, he speaks FOUR languages in this movie!).  I did appreciate how this movie was funny but in no way excused any of the Nazi atrocities. 

Still have The Hurt Locker to watch....I have to psych myself up for that one, it'll be brutal.


We remember.

Never forget.

10 September 2010

Bookspotting: September 10, 2010

Body and Soul (read in HS when it first came out - the school library had a copy)
Someone has a medical article printed in Japanese
Someone else is reading an old trade paperback (too far away to read text and cover facing away from me)

That's it for what I can see - bus is full of out-of-towners heading to the mall, UI-ISU game is tomorrow.

And what was I reading: Purge by Sofi Oksanen

05 September 2010

Secret of the Andes

Winner of the 1953 Newbery Medal, Secret of the Andes follows a modern (for the 1950s) Inca boy as he matures in a secluded valley of the Andes.  Cusi has lived with the old llama herder Chuto for as long as he can remember...but Chuto is not his father.  Cusi has been raised with traditional Incan instruction and has learned traditional Incan crafts such as spinning, weaving, and, of course, breeding llamas.  However, Cusi is starting to grow-up and the time comes for him to leave the valley and seek his family.

Compared to my previous Newbery book, The Matchlock GunSecret of the Andes is very much centered on the richness of native cultures.  Chuto and Cusi greet the sun daily, Cusi is instructed in Incan traditions, and the Spanish conquerors are most definitely not well thought-of - there is a song/rhyme that recounts the death of the last Incan king at the hands of the Spanish.  Cusi's handicrafts and daily chores are also detailed; he is proud of his ability to make strong rope, spin good-quality yarn, and raise pure-bred llamas.  There was just a little weirdness when the narrator referred to "pan pipes" and some of the constellations/celestial bodies were referenced by Greco-Roman names like Venus; I'm thinking that Incas who are very firmly committed to retaining their own traditions would have their own names for the planets and reed pipes, even those Incans who are fictional characters in children's literature.

Newbery vocabulary (mostly cultural):

04 September 2010

The Satanic Verses

I started reading Salman Rushdie's The Satanic Verses last September for BiblioBrat's Banned Books Challenge.  I started reading during the last week of the challenge, which was busy, busy, busy on its own, so I only got about 150 pages read before October took over and The Satanic Verses wound up at the bottom of the reading pile.  Now that September has returned, bringing with it Banned Books Week and the news that some crazy people want to burn Korans to punish Islamic fundamentalists (< sarcasm > because that's totally going to show them < / sarcasm >), it was appropriate for me to fish The Satanic Verses back out of the pile and finish it off.

Rushdie fully expects the reader to suspend belief right from the last line of the first paragraph:

Just before dawn one winter's morning, New Year's Day, or thereabouts, two real, full-grown, living men fell from a great height, twenty-nine thousand and two feet, towards the English Channel, without benefit of parachutes or wings, out of a clear sky. (p 3)

Gibreel Farishta and Saladin Chamcha are the miraculous sole survivors of an act of terrorism and wash up on the beach of England.  Each begins to display characteristics representative of an otherworldly being - one displays a halo, the other a pair of horns - setting off a story of acceptance and forgiveness interspersed with commentary on tolerance, faith/doubt, megalomania, and identity.  Gibreel and Saladin form the frame narrative as we learn each man's history and as they try to piece their lives back together in the wonderfully titled section "Ellowen Deeowen".  Gibreel (as the incarnation of the archangel Gibreel) develops visions of the prophet Mahound at the time of his revelations in Jalilia (an interpretation of the life of Muhammed in Mecca) as well as those of a modern Indian peasant girl, Ayesha, who moves an entire village to walk to Mecca - through the Arabian Sea - based on the belief in her revelations from the archangel.

There are many character and narrative threads in The Satanic Verses and they don't all start to come together until late in the novel.  This is a novel to be savored and pondered with wonderfully evocative imagery.  There are also many "doubles" in this novel - two Hinds, two Mishals, two or three Ayeshas (depending on how you count), Gibreel himself and Gibreel the archangel, and a Salman (who might mirror the author depending on how you look at it) - so you must also read The Satanic Verses closely.

This is a controversial novel, there is no getting around that.  When the prophet Mahound issues a proclamation from the archangel that women are to be sequestered, a madam comes up with the idea to have her twelve girls take on the personalities of Mahound's twelve wives; the brothel receives a boost in business from the scheme but the brothel is eventually shut down and the prostitutes and collaborators are executed.  Because the novel uses the life of Muhammed as a basis, the idea that prostitutes are imitating the Prophet's wives can be offensive to some.  Do you want to know what I think?  Those people don't have to read The Satanic Verses, same as people who don't like to see novels about the life of Jesus Christ that depict him doing un-Christlike things don't have to read those.  A novel isn't real, just like any historical novel using the Tudors as basis isn't any more real just because it uses King Henry VIII as a main character.  Some events will be made up for storytelling purposes.  No one is forcing you to read it.

The novel also brings the issue of faith and doubt to the fore with the visions of Mahound and Ayesha the peasant.  How is someone believable when he or she claims to be the mouth of the archangel and brings revelations from God?  What do you do when the prophet suddenly retracts a previous statement, claiming it came from an "evil" source?  This is the controversy over the so-called Satanic Verses, a sura attributed to Muhammed that affirmed prayer to three old female polytheistic deities from the regions around Mecca but later retracted as the work of Shaitan (the devil).  Since the archangel only reveals information to a prophet, never to anyone else, how do we know if the revealments are the actual Will of God?  It requires faith, same as the village that follows Ayesha the peasant on a pilgrimage to Mecca, on foot, through the Arabian Sea; Ayesha affirms that the sea will part for them and the faithful will walk across the seabed; there are believers and there are doubters.  Like Doubting Thomas of the New Testament, does one need proof of the Divine to make the leap of faith?

The Satanic Verses is much more than just a book that pushes buttons for the sake of pushing buttons.  If those buttons set you off, then perhaps you ought not to read this book.  If you do read, look beyond those hot-buttons for the journey of Gibreel and Saladin; it's a crazy ride and, ultimately, a very satisfying one.

03 September 2010

Penguin 75: Designers | Authors | Commentary (the good, the bad...)

Dear Penguin Books,

Congratulations on 75 years!  Well done!  Penguin 75 is a wonderful look back at the amazing range displayed in your many, many covers.  The illustrators, designers, and editors are amazing and talented.

I would like all (repeat, all) the books in your Deluxe Classics imprints, Graphic or otherwise (heck, even the pretty new black-and-artwork Classics, of which there are hundreds, are similarly covetable).  They are gorgeous, particularly Philosophy in the Boudoir, and ingenious, like Candide and The Three Musketeers.  The Graham Greene and Steinbeck collections are lovely.

Please excuse the drool that has dripped so unfortunately onto Penguin 75.  It's all due to book lust.

Melissa (aka, the balletbookworm)

PS: The cover of The Vivisector has scared the pants off of at least three people - well done, you!
PPS:  Please resolve any copyright squabbles as regards the last three volumes of Proust's In Search of Lost Time; my first four Penguin Deluxe paperbacks are getting lonely.

01 September 2010

Bookspotting: September 1, 2010

It's been a while since I did a "Bookspotting" post but we didn't have as many people riding the bus in the summer (plus, I was doing a lot of knitting, harder to spy on people when you're not looking up).

The Piano Teacher by Janice Y.K. Lee
The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald
A purple Sookie Stackhouse (too far away to read title)
An ancient copy of Franny and Zooey by JD Salinger
Many, many class notes
The guy with two full sleeves of tattoos is reading a Nora Roberts mass market...anachronism?  Good for him?

And what was I reading?  Jonathan Franzen's Freedom - it downloaded to my nook overnight!