Thursday, January 12, 2012

Non-Banned Book Update

I just finished a book that hasn't been banned (that I know of), but has all of the "shock and horror" of one that is on my lists.

Beasts by Joyce Carol Oates is a novella that delves into a short segment of the narrator/protagonist, Gillian's, life. Gillian is obsessed with her English professor, Andre Harrow. Andre is coarse, frantic and anti-establishment, and his wife Dorcas is an enigmatic sculptress of primal totems. After Dorcas happens upon Gillian following her one day, she decides she's taken a liking to her, and at length she and Andre invite her into their little world.

Of course, Gillian is not the first. Many of the girls she lives with in her dorm house have been "interns" for the Harrows before, and one day while house-sitting for them Gillian stumbles upon the disturbing details of that agreement. Still, she finds that she can't stay away, and after seeing her roommates, one by one, drift away or try to harm themselves, she is not deterred. It all crumples into a ferocious climax that leaves the reader wondering if the "beasts" Dorcas creates are simply manifestations of the beasts that dwell within human beings themselves.

This was a brilliantly crafted, haunting book, and though it left me with the strong desire to take a shower afterward, I can't shake it from my mind that easily. Well done, JCO.

Monday, January 9, 2012

The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie

(WARNING: there are some spoilers in this post. If you don't want to read the spoilers, skip to the fifth paragraph.)

Imagine that you're a Native American kid. You were born with "water on the brain", and as a result, you look and even act a bit different from other people. For this, you're made fun of and called names by people on the reservation you live on- and funnily enough, every single one of those people is dirt-poor, just like you. Finally, you've decided you've had enough, and after an unfortunate incident that lands a teacher with an injury and you with a suspension from school, that same teacher opens your eyes to a world outside "the rez": white kids' school.

That's the set-up for a hilarious, semi-autobiographical account by Sherman Alexie called The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian. It's part diary, part cartoon album, as the main character, Arnold aka Junior, is a budding cartoonist and doodles a LOT. (The drawings in this book are done by Ellen Forney.) It deals with a lot more than just Arnold going to school with white kids, though that's a huge part of it; it also touches on relations not just between races, but among people of a certain race. Also, it touches upon aspects of Alexie's life, such as going to an all-white school and being born with hydrocephalus (excess of cerebral spinal fluid in the skull).

Arnold's foray into a school outside the reservation not only sets off the kids already at that school, but it alienates him from many people within the rez, among them his best friend, Rowdy, the toughest kid Arnold knows. Much of the book deals with Arnold's desire to make up with Rowdy, as well as a brief rivalry between the two when both of them make their schools' varsity basketball teams. Meanwhile, Arnold makes tentative friends at his new school and gets a girlfriend, Penelope.

There's also a focus on death. A number of characters die in this book, including Arnold's older sister, Mary (nicknamed "Mary Runs Away"), his father's best friend, and his grandmother. Each separate incident prompts Arnold to think about how fragile life is, why people drink, and why the best people in the world have to die. Somewhat morose for kids, but appropriate, considering so many young people have attempted or committed suicide in the past year alone.

Even so, someone out there obviously thinks that no child out there can possibly bear witness or deal with alcoholism, poverty, racism, sex, not fitting in, or any type of death (whether suicide or otherwise). In April of 2010, the Stockton (Missouri) School Board removed the book from the school's library after a parent complained of the content. The ALA asked the board to reconsider, but in September of that year, the Board upheld its decision and kept the book out.

In mid-October of that same year, Newcastle Middle School in Wyoming tried to use the book in its eighth-grade English curriculum, and the district allowed it under the condition that students not allowed to read it would bring a signed paper allowing them to read an alternate book, Tangerine by Edward Bloor. Two weeks after that decision was made and the news relayed to students, the book was banned outright.

Last, in Richland, Washington, during the month of June in 2011, the Richland School Board voted to prohibit the use of Part-Time Indian for all grade levels, subject to a pilot program involving ninth-grade English students. Soon after, the Board decided to remove it entirely, but reversed the decision a month later.

Of course, Sherman Alexie himself has received many positive reactions for his books and speeches from young people, many of whom have gone through the things he describes in his books. This just goes to show that no matter what books, or how many of them, a group tries to get rid of, these things happen. Depression happens. Sex happens. Death happens, every day, and there's nothing a person can do to stop it. So why try to hide it? It makes no sense to me.

Either way, this is a wonderful book, completely accessible to younger people, and I hope more people read it.

Friday, August 12, 2011

A Link For You.

I apologize for having let this blog slide so horribly since March. I will try and make it up to you with this link from the ALA's website, listing books banned and challenged in 2009. Somewhat outdated by now, I'm sure, but as I'm attempting to get more information together for my newest reviews, I thought some of my readers out there might like a list, just in case. :)

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Writing a Death Sentence: Salman Rushdie, His Work, and the Unforeseen Consequences

In writing a novel, an author no doubt has many thoughts on the process. They think of plot twists, what words work best together. They think of what it will feel like to write the final word of the final sentence, then to edit, and finally, to have to published. They dream of the success they might have with their work, if it could become one of the greatest books ever written. They certainly don't ever imagine that their books could be the literal death of them.

That, however, is what has happened to Salman Rushdie.

Born in India to parents of Muslim heritage just weeks before the nation's independence from Britain, Rushdie has endured great success with his novels, which are based mainly on his native land. Though his first work, a sci-fi novel named Grimus, was a blip on the screen, he compensated for its failure by writing Midnight's Children, a complex tale about a boy born at the stroke of the midnight of India's freedom, and consequently given the power of mind-reading and a connection with the other children born at that time. It was also his first brush with controversy: in the novel, he criticized Indira Gandhi, then prime minister of India, who nearly took him to court for defamation; however, she was assassinated before anything could go further.

His fourth novel, The Satanic Verses, caused a far greater stir. The book was published in 1988, and is about two men who are the sole survivors of a plane crash. One, who has retained his Indian Muslim identity, takes on the persona of the archangel Gibreel while the other, who has left behind his heritage, is transformed into a devil. The two men go their separate ways, with the "angel" committing a murder/suicide and the "devil" reconciling with his estranged identity as a Muslim.

The striking title refers to verses apparently from the Koran which allow the person praying to appeal to three pagan goddesses. The book also was loosely based in part on the life of the prophet Muhammad as well, and it was for this reason (derogatory references/blasphemy, in Muslim leaders' eyes) that the book was banned in many Muslim countries, and eventually a fatwa (religious opinion concerning Muslim law) for Rushdie's death was proclaimed by Ayatollah Khomeini on February 14, 1989. While Rushdie has not since been harmed, others connected to the book have apparently suffered and died in the years following the fatwa.

To think that a book, a relatively small, innocuous pile of papers bound by string and cardboard, could be so damning to a single person or group of people. To think that simple suggestions, ideas, and words printed from imagination and not supposed fact, could hold so much weight and even cause people to want to kill someone else. It's almost unimaginable, isn't it? But it happened to Salman Rushdie, and even though Khomeini is long gone, the fatwa and threats remain in place. It's almost terrifying to think that one can't speak his or her mind without the threat of death hanging over his/her head in some places, but unfortunately this is very true in many parts of the world. Too many, in fact.

The Satanic Verses is a long-weekend read, at the very least; it is dense, filled to the brim with words and lovely images and devices, and it takes you on an incredible journey (if you can hold on through the entire thing). I unfortunately was unable to finish it on my first try, but sometimes soon I will try again, and I intend to make it. This is one book that you can't let pass you by, if you ever get the chance to read it. Take the risk.

(Sources: Wikipedia (links within page))

Monday, March 14, 2011

The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky

When you first approach and start reading this book, you wonder if it could be written any more simply; however, as you read further, you can see very clearly how teens can relate to the protagonist's feelings, thoughts and dilemmas. I had it on a list of to-reads for a while before finally stumbling upon it at my campus library, and I devoured it in two days. It moves quickly, but there is much more than just words.

Charlie is a naive teenager who is struggling a bit in school and also struggling to find his way in life. He's not very well-known, and he ends up floating around and meeting two step-siblings, Sam and Patrick. Through the book, which is composed of Charlie's letters to an anonymous "friend," we witness Charlie's growth into their hard-partying, misfit circle and also his coming of age, replete with drug experiments, first dates and first loves. We also learn about Charlie's past; his only friend committed suicide shortly before Charlie went into high school, and his aunt Helen has also passed of causes that Charlie refuses to talk about. To cope, he hangs out with Sam and Patrick (who we find out is gay), who perform in a rendering of Rocky Horror, reads books his English teacher Bill assigns to him on the side, and listens to music by the Smiths, Nirvana and other artists.

The book explores many topics- abortion, abusive relationships, drugs and alcohol, feminism and radicalism, suicide, homosexuality and its stigma in society. At the end, we find that Charlie has to be committed to a mental hospital for some time after sinking back into memories of his aunt Helen and what killed her. However, even with all of this in his path and in our own minds as readers, he (and we) both emerge from the conclusion with a positive notion, one that assures us that everything will be okay after all.

Of course, thanks to all of the "taboos" that Wallflower tackles, it has been removed from Portage (IN) High School classrooms, challenged at the West Bend Community Library in Wisconsin for containing "child pornography", and restricted in high school in Wyoming and Virginia to juniors and seniors, even though Charlie begins writing his letters in the novel as a freshman. As if teens don't go through all of these changes, all of these growing pains, and they don't face situations like these while growing up. Also, it was challenged in Montgomery County (TX) Memorial Library System along with 15 other young adult books with gay positive themes by the Library Patrons of Texas. Good old Texas, still convinced that homosexuality is sin and unnatural. Well, I've got news for you guys: it isn't. Get over it.

While I believe that kids should at least be guided while reading books such as Wallflower and shouldn't be given material like this at too young an age, I'm also of the opinion that kids can never be too young to learn about life. There are young people out there who already do this and more, in real life. That is not fiction, or a movie that one can turn off. Chbosky certainly didn't pull all of these storylines out of his own head- obviously, things like these are taken from real-life experiences or stories from others. We must stop assuming that things like this don't happen in our society, because they do.

Read this book and take heed.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Bless Me, Ultima by Rudolfo Anaya

Bless Me, Ultima is one of those surprising novels, one you expect to be less intriguing than it really is. At least, that was (admittedly) my first thought of it. The novel focuses on a young boy, Antonio (or Tony), and the years spent with the woman who helped bring him into the world, an elderly curandera (healer) named Ultima. Tony is a precocious six-year-old with a curious, yet powerful connection to the medicine woman, even in the midst of his own troubles within himself- being torn between his mother's desire for him to be a priest or farmer, and his father's wish for him to be a llanero, in the countryside, wandering free and untamed. He also yearns for a strong tie to the God he so believes in, but in the events that unfold within the story, he wonders if it is best to believe in some other spiritual being, such as Mother Nature and the "presence" he feels within the river he lives by, or perhaps nothing at all.

There are very relatable concepts and themes in this novel- family conflicts, a search for one's own identity, good versus evil and the question of religion and faith. Is there a God? and if so, who is He, really? Should one cleave to Him, or follow another path? The book itself, while simply written (even plodding in terms of writing style in some parts), still gets a strong message across to the reader, making it a spellbinding and very enjoyable book.

Of course, the undertones of pagan worship and spiritualism in the novel have made it a target in some communities for book censors. In Norwood, Colorado, parents complained of the usage of profanity (which, in all honesty, is used quite sparingly amongst the young male characters of the novel and sometimes the men) and "pagan content," spurring the ninth-grade students reading the novel to stage an all-day sit-in inside the school to protest the book's removal. The superintendent of schools, Bob Conder, actually discarded copies of Ultima and then had parents get them back and destroy them. If that isn't profane, then I don't know what really is. Of course, later on in his apology, Conder admitted he based his opinion of the novel on excerpts of it, taken (more than likely) completely out of context.

This is the problem with bannings and challenges: the people who object to the material do not take the time to read and understand it. There are so many layers to this book that readers young and old can relate to. Speaking from experience, I've definitely had instances of doubt like Tony, even now at the age of nearly twenty- such as, what should I believe in? What DO I believe in? If God exists, then why is there so much wrong with the world? Why would a God create something and then let it go to seed? I believe this is exactly what Anaya was trying to get at- after all, he creates characters which reflect it. The deep-seated Catholics are devout, yet destructive and not very representative of the true nature of the religion, and the untamed llaneros like Tony's father, Gabriel, are restless and violent. In the end, it is nature that wins out- Ultima's blessed, calm, and beautiful yet incredibly powerful nature, which we take very much for granted.

I'm not saying that this book has cemented my lack of faith, because it doesn't. I do believe there is a God or some sort of higher being out there, yet the way in which man has twisted His Word has turned me away from organized religion and encouraged me to seek my own way of life- one in which I go after my desires, find what I want and also what I am meant for, and as long as I'm good to my fellow human beings and I represent Him the best way I can, He will forgive me for what I've made mistakes with. It's simple as that.

With all of that said, please read this book. It will surely make you think about a lot of things- not just religion and family, but good and evil in general and how things are not always as they seem.