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.

Saturday, October 2, 2010

Back From the Dead, Part Two.

I am horrible at keeping my promises, aren't I?

I apologize. Things here have been frightfully hectic over the past couple of months. School is back in session, work is... well, work, and I'm caught in between commuting to both. It'll be a bit easier starting next week (I've found a job closer to home, thank goodness), but I may be distant with you still, though I'll try my best to post some things I find interesting.

Unfortunately, my mind hasn't even been on banned books recently. I've found time to get halfway through Lolita, which I'll talk about in a post to come, but other than that, my well has run dry. I'm basically reading things that interest me, and have strayed from the list I so faithfully took down seven months ago. I'll get back to it, though, I promise. (Uh-oh...)

More to come shortly. Please don't stray too far.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Back From The Dead.

I know it's been a frightfully long time since I've written a word on this blog. Since I've started working more hours, I've had barely any time to myself- and the time I DO have, I spend unwinding via Twitter and Tumblr. I know, priorities, I must have them. :

Anyway, I promise I'll get to talking about more banned books soon. I'm currently reading a great one- Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov. I tweeted about it and not even a minute later I got some replies talking about how great it was, so I'm excited to read it for myself. I'll let you know how it goes!

Monday, July 5, 2010

Guilty Pleasures: What's Yours?

So, I just finished the latest book in the House of Night series by P.C. and Kristin Cast. Yes, you read right. In case you have no idea what this series even is, it's about a whole school of vampires- or vampyres, as they're called in the text. This is a world that prays to a goddess, holds classes at night, and of course, drinks blood- and it is still so new to Zoey Redbird, even as she realizes her own abilities as a leader of the pack, or High Priestess. Though the books are light fare- superficial in some areas, a bit tell-y instead of show-y (sorry, writer speak)- I have to admire the way mother-and-daughter team P.C. and Kristin work together to create a credible vampyre world. They integrate Indian folklore as well as other stories and culture to make a great setting for their tales. And of course, the high school-type drama doesn't hurt its appeal to teens, either.

Anyway, when you consider some of my favorite books (I'll definitely make a list sometime in the near future), it is kind of strange that I like such a... fluffy... series. However, I guess we all need something to take the edge off of our serious reading lives. So? What are some of your "guilty pleasures" in reading?

Friday, July 2, 2010

I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou

This is one of those books that many people read when they get into high school. For me, it was a book I'd always meant to check out, but never truly got the time to. Now, thanks to this massive undertaking I call my Little Book Project, I've found the M.O.

I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings is the story of the early life of Marguerite Johnson, better known as Maya to her brother Bailey, or "Sister" to her grandmother, called Momma. Left behind for most of their childhood in Stamps, Arkansas to live with their grandmother, they only see glimpses of their well-to-do father (who turns out to be a drunkard) and their high-class mother (rumored to be a whore by some). One day, during a visit to her mother in St. Louis, Maya is raped at the age of eight by her mother's boyfriend, Mr. Freeman, and chooses to be largely silent from then on. As time goes on, she develops and then breaks free from an inferiority complex, and finds her identity as a woman and a minority.

An interesting anecdote regarding the book: Angelou was challenged to write it by fellow author James Baldwin and editor Robert Loomis as an autobiography that is also a work of literature. The result became a complex and amazing story, ending with the unexpected feat of becoming a mother at the age of 17 after an awkward coupling with a boy she barely knows. The themes in this book are incredible- racism, the wonder of books, finding one's identity, motherhood in all of its forms, etc. Angelou's prose sings just like the poetry she so wonderfully writes, creating unforgettable images of life as she saw it back then in Stamps. Of course, the vividness is a part of the reason why it's caused plenty of controversy. Caged Bird has been censored in no fewer than five different school districts in more than five different states, and that's just according to the Marshall University Library system. Apparently, it depicts rape, homosexuality, and other themes in a tasteless manner. From some of the complaints I've read concerning this classic, I picked it up nearly expecting it to be full of filth on each page. Far from it. Angelou makes sure the event of her rape is painful enough for the reader to know it was wrong; however, more often she creates images of beauty and hope that fulfill the reader. Though the event of an unplanned pregnancy at a young age is also a concern, Angelou doesn't even make it seem like it's a bad thing, and that is what a great writer does.

If you haven't ever read this book, I insist you do when you get the first possible chance. Borrow it from a library or pick it up in a bookstore; just read it, because even with all of its rough edges it is one of the most beautiful books I've ever read. To know that this woman came from practically nothing to become one of the most influential authors in the literary world is astounding, and shows her true strength. At the risk of sounding cliché... this is a definite must-read.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Jodi Picoult: Banned Author

Once more, I write to focus on the collective work of a certain author; in this case, one of a very different mold (or maybe not) than Pat Conroy, and certainly one of a different mold than George Orwell. Jodi Picoult seemingly writes for a specific audience- women, mostly- yet her books tackle tough subjects, and ones that anyone- male, female, young, old, etc.- can relate to or be touched by.

The term "tough subjects" is no overstatement; Picoult's books deal with topics such as suicide, teen pregnancy, depression, violence in schools and a child's right to her own body. Because of this, they have been censored in various school districts. Parents have even confronted Picoult publicly on their opinion of her writing being "smut" and "trash." Also, Picoult's hometown of Hanover, N.H. has pulled her books, The Pact and Nineteen Minutes; the latter censoring came on the grounds that the layout of the school in her novel (about a mass murder by a student at his high school) too closely resembles that of Hanover's high school. Nineteen was also restricted in a high school in Beardstown, IL, with the students having to obtain parental consent, due to "foul language" and "sexual content." (Not to the subject matter, however.) Another book of hers, My Sister's Keeper, was one of 2009's most challenged books due to sexism (?), homosexuality (??), offensive language, sexual content, religious viewpoints (figure that one out too), drugs, violence and suicide.

Despite all of this, her books are a success with readers, largely because they explore the mindset of teens; how they feel, think, act. Many young adults feel the emotions she displays ring true, as do I. While some of her writing is a bit trite, I do think she effectively portrays many of the struggles of being a teenager in American society, and the pressures, struggles, and confusions that ensue. That, and not the bans, is the important thing. As stated in so many of my posts, all of the things she writes about are present in America. No amount of censoring changes it; the best parents can do is educate their children on what's out there and how to deal with it.

You can read an article Picoult wrote about censorship and her role in it here.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Pat Conroy, Banned Author

Pat Conroy is a name perhaps perpetually linked with the word "censorship." At least three of his books have been removed from shelves due to their weighty, serious themes- those of suicide, mental illness, rape and death.

For example, the book The Prince of Tides deals with at least three of the above themes outright- it centers upon the Wingo family, with surviving son Tom as narrator. His older brother Luke was killed, and his twin sister Savannah has attempted suicide repeatedly and struggles with depression and schizophrenia. Savannah blames their childhood on the reason why they are so screwed up- their father, Henry, abused them regularly, and their social-climber of a mother, Lila, would never let them speak of it for fear that it would hurt their image. The same spoke true for an unspeakable event in their past- a brutal episode in which a man nicknamed "Callanwolde" escapes from prison with two other men and attacks the family, raping Tom, Savannah and Lila. The only reason they survived was because Luke came home, discovered the attack and set the family tiger, Caesar- a product of one of Henry's many failed business dealings- on two of the men. Tom kills his own attacker. In the years afterward, Savannah tries hard (and fails) to take on the life of a new person by moving to New York, and Tom tries to move on and live a normal life with his wife, Sallie, to no avail. Tom ends up traveling to New York to help his sister, and finds a connection with Savannah's psychiatrist and her son.

Another book of his, Beach Music, centers on Jack, a food critic and author with his own demons in the South who moves to Italy with his daughter Leah after his wife, Shyla, commits suicide. There he escapes from his family- alcoholic father Johnson Hagood, ailing mother Lucy, brothers Dupree, Dallas, Tee and John Hardin (the last of whom is schizonphrenic), in-laws (who tried to get custody of Leah), and friend Capers Middleton, who sold out another friend of theirs, Jordan Elliott. Jordan is also in Italy, transformed from anti-Vietnam protester (and accidental murderer) to Catholic priest and in hiding from prosecution for the deaths of two people. When Lucy ends up nearly on her deathbed from her leukemia, Jack comes back to South Carolina and subsequently brings his past with him, realizing why he stayed away- and also, why it's imperative for him to come back.

Though at times both of these novels are terribly melodramatic (especially in terms of dialogue), they are almost irresistible- compulsively readable, funny in spite of their weight. The characters are well-developed, and Conroy makes no bones about tackling tough subjects such as the ones illustrated in these stories. Likewise, parents have sought to ban his works with the same sort of efficiency. In Charleston, W.Va., parents at Nitro High School attempted to ban these two works for depictions of violence, sexual content, language, sexual assault, and suicide. A student of Nitro High School, Mackenzie Hatfield, got in touch with Conroy and informed him through email that his books were being censored, thus bringing him into the ring. He replied to her, calling the censors "idiots" and maintains that his books reflect real life, in which good and bad happens, quite obviously. I'm in full agreement with him on this. As I quote from his email:

About the novels your county just censored: “The Prince of Tides” and “Beach Music” are two of my darlings, which I would place before the altar of God and say, “Lord, this is how I found the world you made.” They contain scenes of violence, but I was the son of a Marine Corps fighter pilot who killed hundreds of men in Korea, beat my mother and his seven kids whenever he felt like it, and fought in three wars. My youngest brother, Tom, committed suicide by jumping off a fourteen-story building; my French teacher ended her life with a pistol; my aunt was brutally raped in Atlanta; eight of my classmates at The Citadel were
killed in Vietnam; and my best friend was killed in a car wreck in Mississippi last summer. Violence has always been a part of my world. I write about it in my books and make no apology to anyone. In “Beach Music,” I wrote about the Holocaust and lack the literary powers to make that historical event anything other than grotesque.

When you read of a history such as that one, how can you possibly ask him to write about only happy things? Of course one might wonder exactly why he focuses on the horrible side of things, but he is enough of a talented writer to make these subjects accessible, if a bit hard to stomach at first. The job of a writer is to make one's story realistic- to shock readers, to make them laugh, cry, react. No writer wants to hear that his or her book lulled someone to sleep. No one wants to hear that his or her book isn't something someone out there can relate to. Conroy achieves his purpose, and he does it well. That is the most important thing. In the end, the books were returned to the classroom on the condition that students be offered alternative reading material.

There is another book of Conroy's I haven't yet read, called The Lords of Discipline; I'll most likely update this post with my review of that book, or perhaps even create a new one about it. As for you... read one of Conroy's books on your own, and decide for yourself whether or not Nitro was right in censoring them.

Saturday, June 5, 2010

An Apology.

I am very, very sorry I haven't written in what feels like a month. Having just started a new job, plus going to Springville almost every other weekend, I haven't quite had much time. I promise I'm still reading, though, and I will definitely give you more banned books to check out soon. In fact, when I'm not working, I'm making trips to the library to check out everything they've got. I've checked off quite a few books. Reviews to come shortly.

Right now, on my currently-reading list is The Autobiography of Malcolm X. I'm kind of surprised I've never read this before, whether for a class or just on my own. Ah, well. I'll be finishing it soon though. Maybe I'll write a review for it. So far, it's pretty riveting, although true to what I imagined it would be as well.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Snow Falling on Cedars by David Guterson

This book showed up to me first on the shelves of my high school library. I looked at it for a while before putting it back, convinced that I wasn't really interested, yet ever since then it beckoned me to it. I didn't answer its call until recently, when I saw it first on a banned books list online, then on the shelf at my local library. Finally, I picked it up, and was astounded.

Snow Falling on Cedars is ultimately a beautifully-written book, simple (though full of details- you may want to skip a few dull parts) yet it calls forth emotions you can only feel, not describe. It is the tale of a Japanese-American man, Kabuo Miyamoto, on trial for the murder of one of his neighbors, an old friend-turned-rival named Carl Heine. It is also the story of Kabuo's wife, Hatsue, who had a romance when she was younger with an American boy, Ishmael Chambers. Ishmael, now a war veteran and a reporter, finds out the truth about the night of Carl's death- and it can set Kabuo free. But it's a battle between his sense of justice and his bitterness about the way his affair with Hatsue ended, mixed with a general hatred of the Japanese after losing his arm in WWII.

The book is a bit descriptive of sexual encounters between teenaged Hatsue and Ishmael, including a near-episode of sexual intercourse. However, this isn't the only reason why it has been censored. The book has faced backlash since (as far as I can tell) 1999, when it was banned from classrooms and a library in a Boerne, TX high school because of depictions of violence, sex, and racial bigotry. (Granted, the war scenes in the book are also quite graphic.) It was restricted in Kitsap, WA in 2001, challenged in Modesto, CA for use in Advanced English classes in 2004, pulled from Grade 11 classes in a Catholic school in Toronto, Ontario in 2007 and challenged in the Coeur d'Alene (ID) School District in 2008.

The Catholic school, perhaps I can imagine; everyone else should really be ashamed. If you consider the time period in the book, and the subject matter, then of course you're going to read about racial bigotry; it was nearly a common trait back in those days after the war. If you mention WWII, you're going to have violence. That's war. Contrary to popular belief, it is not sunshine and daisies. And of course, if you write about a romance between two characters, it's very likely there's going to be sex involved. Sorry to burst your "we need to protect our children" bubble, but they've probably seen this all on MTV anyway if they're in high school.

This is a gripping, heavy and important read that everyone should enjoy. If you like your plot fast-paced, then perhaps it's not for you; the plot opens up slowly, leaving plenty of room for detail and imagery. Also, though the characters at times seem unsympathetic, the way they are written allows for the reader to understand their humanity. Overall, a great way to spend a rainy afternoon.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

My Heartbeat by Garret Freymann-Weyr

For many a teenager, sexuality is a source of confusion. You begin to feel things during puberty that you're unsure you should be feeling. You start wondering what girls or boys you find attractive. You begin experimenting. Contrary to what the old-fashioned of us may believe, it's completely normal- even if you think you may like someone who's the same sex as you.

This book deals with that secondhand, through the perspective of a fourteen-year-old named Ellen. She loves her older brother Link, and thinks she is in love with his best friend, James. It isn't until she goes to high school for the first time and begins to find "friends" of her own that she begins to wonder if Link and James aren't just friends, but a couple. When she brings it up, Link vehemently denies it, and that breaks up his relationship with James. Soon, Ellen finds herself in her own relationship with James, who finds that he is perhaps not gay but bisexual, and wonders if she's just a placeholder for her brother until he finds his way.

This book is better-written than The Drowning of Stephan Jones by far. It deals with the topic of sexuality and the debates that come with it in a more realistic and delicate tone. Ellen's voice is sincere and refreshingly innocent. There's no graphic descriptions of gay sex, no gratuitous swearing (though the "f" word for gay people is used), and overall I think Freymann-Weyr broaches this topic very well, in a way that teens can understand it without getting deep into the nitty-gritty details.

Still, it has been challenged. Fairfax County Elementary/Middle School Library Systems have faced complaints about this book (scroll down to second title for info on this book) due to the "sexual" content (Ellen loses her virginity to James), the topic of homosexuality, and the use of alcohol by the underaged characters. Fayetteville, Arkansas parents have accused this book and librarians who support it of "promoting a homosexual agenda" (remember that conversation?) and object to the profanity and depictions of gay sex. (Where, exactly, are those?) The Library Patrons of Texas also have tried to remove this book. To my knowledge, they haven't succeeded.
I've complained about those who have used the "homosexual agenda" to ban and challenge books before, so I won't do it again. I'll only say that the proponents of the ban are wrong. The mere mention of homosexuality in any book is not grounds to ban it, by any means. Gay people are a part of this society, and no amount of sticking your head in the ground or fighting exposure is going to change that. So, if you're looking for a good, quick read that deals with a tough topic, pick this one up.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

George Orwell: Banned Author (Dystopian Novels, Part Two)

In all honesty, I suppose you could call this Part Three, seeing as another, perhaps more juvenile but certainly fitting part of this book sect is The Giver by Lois Lowry. (Not to mention Fahrenheit 451, so perhaps Part Four.) I've realized this perhaps a bit too late, but I'll make up for it when I write about Brave New World by Aldous Huxley (which I WILL read sometime along the way, even though I'm dreading it).
Anyway, on with the show. George Orwell's one of those writers which you fully expect to be on a banned list, just because he brushes elbows, literature-wise, with "taboo" topics such as communism and censorship. These two topics are the main focuses (foci?) of Animal Farm and 1984, respectively. The former is an allegory to the Stalin regime, in the form of- what else?- a farm; the latter is a glimpse into a world where one who thinks for him- or herself will be arrested. Needless to say, certain governments would not be pleased- or parents, for that matter.

Animal Farm was banned by the Soviet government because of its political content (background: Orwell was in fact a critic of Stalin during his regime), as well as Kenya and Yugoslavia, among other countries. In 1982, Dekalb County, Georgia challenged the book. As for 1984, there's been some debate over what it actually stands for. When it was first reviewed, critics thought of the book as a veiled attack against Stalin; however, parents in Jackson County, Florida would later want it removed from classrooms on the grounds that it is pro-communist. (Source: Time.com) According to Squidoo.com, Orwell has also been accused of writing 1984 with an anti-Semitist slant based on the character of Goldstein, the "Enemy of the Party."

I first read Animal Farm on my own in my sophomore year of high school because I was curious about a book I had heard of for a couple of years now. I also read 1984 twice- once in my fall semester of senior year for pleasure reading, then again in my spring semester for my Lit of Censorship class. My teacher was beyond enthusiastic about teaching us the finer points of Orwell's prose, and while it left much to be desired- very dry, very bleak- it was also somewhat enlightening, and it left me with the warning it intended: never take anything at face value from your government, and fight for your freedoms. A cynical message, perhaps, but truthful enough.

Altogether, I guess Orwell's won out- his books have been translated into many languages, and there are millions of copies in print, not to mention he is still being taught in high school English courses. At least our society (partially) knows the value of his work, and though the kids may be bored to death with it, I would hope they learn something from reading both of these books.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood (Dystopian Novels, Part One)

It seems to be a recurring pattern here- if you write a book about a world that scares people, you're going to find those who want to ban it. It's happened with so many books I've read- The Giver, which I've recently reviewed, as well as the novels of George Orwell, Brave New World by Aldous Huxley, and a book I've recently finished, The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood. The latter of these books is a whirlwind, and it ties with 1984 as the one that scares me the most.

It's simple: imagine a world where women have absolutely no rights. They are not allowed to read or write. They are given positions and ranks, and if you don't follow the rules you're banished to either serve men akin to a prostitute or slowly die in a cloud of toxic fumes. Perhaps the most thankless job is that of the Handmaid, a glorified breeder who services the highest-ranking men, or Commanders, by giving them children. There's no pleasure in the sex, or the "Ceremony," and the wife of your Commander hates you on principle. This is the life that the main character, Offred, lives. It's only by the grace of God, or a higher being elsewhere, that she can even remember her husband and daughter.

The Handmaid's Tale is a scary look at what is true for very many societies today- not the exact replica of real-world societies, but close enough. To think that in another country I, as a woman, would not be allowed to read, or would be given my father's name- Offred= Of Fred, Ofglen= Of Glen, etc.- or even in this one in the future, shocks me to my bones. After reading this full-to-the-brim novel, I find myself perhaps more affected than when I read 1984 (about a society ultimately unable to think for itself- men and women alike), simply because the society Atwood created targets women specifically. We, in her story, have become the servants of men. Granted, we still govern mainly among ourselves, but we have no true power to speak of.

This powerful book is peppered with sexual innuendos, suicide references, and some swear words, all used to convey the dire sense of oppression and desperation Ofglen and her fellow women feel in this world. Consequently, the Judson, TX school superintendent at first banned the book from AP English classes, only to see the ban overturned by the school board after parents, teachers and students appealed. Upper Moreland, PA schools also downgraded the novel to "optional", rather than "required" reading material for 11th graders for "age-inappropriate" material. (Also see here for a complete description by one group as to why the book should be removed from classrooms. ) The sex in this book is merely for procreation, not for enjoyment, whereas the allusions to death, except for a couple of graphic descriptions, are simply that- allusions. The profanity in this book is spoken by all adult characters, and it is no more than what you'd expect from typical highschoolers. Overall, I can't see why parents or school officials would think that this book is age-inappropriate when much worse is being shown on TV and in music videos.

As for the writing, Atwood's prose is dripping with metaphor, description and flowery language that at times is hard to follow. You will have to read passages and sometimes even single sentences a second time just to digest all that is being said. Some aspects of the plot could have been better laid out- I think Offred's former husband Luke, as well as their daughter, and their whereabouts could have been more thought into, rather than just sticking with her life with the Commander and his wife, former singer Serena Joy. However, Atwood gets her point across very well, and paints a portrait of a world none of us could ever think real, but (once again) is very close to the truth in some poorer countries, as stated before. I would recommend this book only if you enjoy reading deeper, more complicated stories, or are looking for a book that will occupy your time- the way I read it, hungrily in two days, is not really the best way to go. I'll be rereading it somewhere along the way, most likely.

The Drowning of Stephan Jones by Bette Greene

I came across this book in the library, as noted before, after putting it on the very long list of banned books I have yet to read. After finishing it, unfortunately I am left wanting.

This is the story of a small town in Arkansas with a devout connection to the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit- so much so that when a homosexual couple comes to live amongst its people, turmoil ensues. The sad story is seen alternately through the eyes of Carla, the teenaged daughter of a very liberal librarian, and Frank Montgomery, one half of the targeted couple. There are many layers to this story- Carla's fixation with Andy Harris, the ringleader of the group that harasses Frank and his partner, Stephan Jones, that has her trying to conform to please him, as well as Andy's and the rest of the town's hatred of homosexuals fueled by the church and its pastor Roland Wheelwright. Then there's Carla's mother, Judith, who faces constant scrutiny and censorship for her book and display choices by the townsfolk, and then Stephan Jones himself, who studied for the priesthood before coming to terms with his sexuality and harbors a deep fear of the water. All of these, which come to a head in the violent climax of the novel, are wonderful premises; however, Greene doesn't do much to see them through. Her writing is clumsy at best, with unrealistic dialogue and paragraphs of description that run longer than they should. All of this makes for a reading experience that, rather than enlightens you, makes you keep from rolling your eyes- and that's a shame, considering the weight and intensity of the topic, not to mention its importance.

All the same, though, someone somewhere saw fit to try and remove it from bookshelves. The Library Patrons of Texas (another Southern state- go figure) objected to the content of the book, and it was also banned in a school district in South Carolina. Without being too prejudiced toward either of these fine states, I can easily imagine why the book would be banned there; the topic of homosexuality is not at all a popular one there. They probably imagined that a "homosexual agenda" was being promoted, as with so many of the other books on my banned list.

As it's written right now, Greene's novel will surely resonate with her target audience (teens)- it's bold and gets straight to the point, and its overall message is powerful. However, I would have liked to see a bit more subtle writing, as well as some more realism. The town could be one anywhere in the Bible Belt, and the characters anywhere in the country, but the reader can sense a false tone in the writing itself, and that sours it for me.

Monday, May 10, 2010

Library Expedition #2

So, I very narrowly avoided catastrophe earlier this afternoon on my second official visit to the library. I made my way to the Young Adult section without much expectation, and found a score of books on the list I have yet to read through. At least ten books, I kid you not. Needless to say, I wanted to take them all out, but that was impossible- I only have a little messenger bag! So I settled for The Drowning of Stephan Jones by Bette Greene, The Diary of Anne Frank: The Definitive Edition, and The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood. Then, not even fifteen minutes after getting my receipt for these books, I found Nineteen Minutes and My Sister's Keeper by Jodi Picoult- both banned books- and a book not on the list, The Devil Wears Prada by Lauren Weisberger. (Don't judge, I just saw the movie and liked it.) Needless to say, I became incredibly indecisive. Go back up there and get another receipt, or wait until I return City of Light by Lauren Belfer (almost halfway through)? Decisions, decisions. The insatiable bookworm in me wanted badly to go up there NOW, especially after having seen a woman march up to the counter with at least six hardcovers in her arms. However, I weighed the pros and cons. Lots to carry... walking home... would I be able to finish them all before June 1? Hmm. Thankfully, my mother's voice came floating back to me, saying, "You have enough books... finish the ones you have now." She always was more sensible. Usually.

I ended up walking out of the library before I could give in to weakness. But I vow to take out those books once I return City of Light at the end of the week. It's happening.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

This is about the worst thing that could ever happen to a book.

Please, don't let it happen.

On Libraries...

Recently, I've been very interested in how libraries are viewed in our society. I realize now more than ever that my peers just aren't interested in reading- more on their Facebook pages and what's going down on the next episode of "Jersey Shore" than anything else. It's sad, but a veritable fact. Kids in my high school never wanted to read, either for school or on their own- they could find about a million "better" things to do, including stupid stunts or prank calls. Um. Fun. Even my brother thinks this way- at least, if you can believe his Facebook. He has books, but I don't think I've ever seen him touch them. It's a huge difference from me- I've been reading since the age of three, and remember being so excited as a little girl, when my mom would take me to the library every couple of weeks. It was she who instilled a love of reading in me, and for that I'm thankful.

Anyway, the fact is that kids (and people in general- even politicians) don't see the value of reading, and thus the value of libraries is also diminished. Meanwhile, there is much more to a library than just books- you can borrow movies there, you can use the Internet, and many libraries also hold documents about your neighborhood or city. Plus, it's a place where you can get stuff for free. All you have to do is return it on time. What could be better than that?

If you're interested in supporting libraries, check out this group on FB:


You'll find people just like you, who love libraries and what they offer to the communities they're in. If you can, stop politicians and the like from cutting funding to libraries. Go to your local library, donate books and use the institution all you can. It offers an entire world to you that would be very hard to discover otherwise, what with the expense of books and general indifference toward reading many people show nowadays.

Sunday, May 2, 2010

Just Listen by Sarah Dessen

Though I'm not much for teen fiction books, Sarah Dessen is one of my favorite authors to read. I started reading her in eighth grade (if I remember correctly) with Dreamland, then went on to This Lullaby, That Summer and then Someone Like You and The Truth About Forever. Her books are entertaining, funny and thoughtful, and while her writing isn't always the most descriptive, her stories resonate with readers. Though my favorite book remains This Lullaby, Just Listen does come in a close second.

This book is about a girl named Annabel. She's a reluctant model with seemingly the perfect life- though things are far from perfect. Her middle sister Whitney struggles with an eating disorder, and after a party in which she had a bad encounter with her former friend Sophie's boyfriend, Will, Sophie's set out to make her life hell. However, through it all, Annabel finds comfort, friendship and then love from an unlikely source- Owen Armstrong, a music junkie going through anger management. Through him and his friend Rollie, she re-connects with her former best friend Clarke and finds strength within herself- the strength to tell others the truth and to just listen to herself.

This book was challenged at the Hillsborough County Public Schools in Florida in 2007; it was considered "too intense" for teens. Chairperson Jennifer Faliero even ventured as far as to call the book "repulsive," because of its dealing with an attempted rape. Now, I wouldn't call the book's dealings with it "repulsive" in the least; rather, Dessen shows female readers through Annabel and another victim of Will's, Emily, that this crime is not the girl's fault and moreover that you can find the strength to go on after something like this happens. Like it or not, there are plenty of Will Cash characters out there in real life who prey on girls and then act innocent, as though they were minding their own business when the girl "came on to them." It's infuriating, but true, and no amount of book censoring is going to change that; rather, it may just let the real-life culprits believe they can continue getting away with it.

In short, I'd recommend this and any of Dessen's books to teenage girls and young women. Dessen writes stories that the female reader can relate to, as well as being entertained by them.

Monday, April 26, 2010

The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger

If you can believe me (and I hope you can), I first read this book in FIFTH grade- way before I knew what it was really all about. Still, I got the impression that it had a deeper meaning than just on the surface. Now, after reading it several times, I have a much better grasp of its theme and what the main character, Holden Caulfield, stands for.

Holden is a young man who's just been expelled from a fancy prep school for a poor academic record. Unwilling to come home early and talk to his parents about it, he kills time in New York City until he's due to go back home. This novel is a record of those three days, including a fight with his roommate just before leaving, a night spent with three tourists girls at a club, an awkward encounter with a prostitute, and a humorous drunken episode. Throughout the book, Holden describes the people he came into contact with at Pencey and even some of the girls he's been out with as "phony"; he also embodies the confusion and angst many teenagers go through, making him one of the best-known characters in American literature.

However, because of his excessive swearing and rebellious attitude, this book has been through the wringer in terms of censorship. According to Wikipedia, between the years 1961 and 1982 The Catcher in the Rye was the most censored book in high schools and libraries in the United States. The use of profane language, sexual references, blasphemy and Holden's "being a poor role model" are just a few of the reasons. I admit that during the time it was written, people likely had never read such words in print before; my first time reading it I remember hiding it from my mom because I was worried she would take it away. However, without all of this language and references, how else was the author going to create a credible, honest character? I also have to object at some of the other reasons. I don't believe Holden was ever truly meant to be a role model; rather, he is more of a character that teens can relate to, and whom they can see in themselves. The way I've interpreted it, he may also be the kind of character Salinger created to show adults their own faults, with the suggestion being that youth rebels because it doesn't find any truth in those who are meant to show it to them. In fact, one of the youngest characters in the novel other than Holden- his kid sister Phoebe- is the one whom Holden reveres as a hero. Not every novel is written with a clear, noble hero in mind; often the protagonists with the most faults can teach us the most about life, the world and ourselves. If creating a fallible character is blasphemy... well, every novelist is in danger of hellfire- and most of the human population, for that matter.

At any rate, read this book if you haven't already, because it is definitely a great one. The late Salinger has written a classic which teens and adults alike should read and hold dear, and many authors themselves have paid homage to.

Saturday, April 24, 2010


I have (finally) successfully obtained a library card. Yes, the Buffalo and Erie County Library system is at my fingertips. Of course, the branch right around the corner from my house isn't the biggest one around- a small young adult section (just one shelf and a spinning rack, really) and only one book at a time by some authors. I'll most likely have to look elsewhere for all of the books I have yet to read, but it is wonderful just to sit there, around so many books, and know that I can take any of them home. Today it was Beach Music by Pat Conroy and Snow Falling On Cedars by David Guterson, along with City of Light by Lauren Belfer (which is based right here in the city of Buffalo, in the time of Grover Cleveland). My mom is right, I hardly need any more books to add to my reading list, but I can't help it. I feel that no one could ever possibly have too many books. There's always so much more to read and learn. :)

With that said, I am on my way to finishing Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert, another banned book (this time by, I believe, a government). I'll get to explaining the specifics once I finish. I also still have a handful of past reviews to get to, so in short, I've got quite a bit of work to do, and all of this before I start my actual job- at Dick's Sporting Goods, on Tuesday. Oh, the mundane. But a job's a job, and I feel as though I already work two full-time jobs, what with this blog and the NHL playoffs causing me to frequently update my other one. Oh, and have I mentioned I'm starting work on a story? Hopefully this one will turn into the novel I've always planned to write. Oh, life.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Sarah Palin: Beauty Queen, Veep Nominee... Book Banner?

Sarah Palin snagged headlines two years ago as the Republican vice presidential nominee alongside John McCain- and the kind of female politician many women did not want backing them up. But among other things (Um, "I can see Russia from my backyard"?), she has been accused of being a potential book censor.

There was a supposed list of books that Palin had banned from Wasilla, AK libraries while she was mayor; among them were some books popular with censors, such as A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L'Engle, Lord of the Flies by William Golding, The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger and various books from the Harry Potter series by J.K. Rowling. According to Snopes.com, the list is a fake. Instead, back in 1996 when Palin had first assumed mayorship of the city, she had begun some discussions with the librarian about whether or not she could ban some "objectionable" books from the library, should the need to arise. The Anchorage Daily News reported that the librarian confirmed Palin had asked her three times, beginning before being sworn in, if it were possible. The article also revealed that there was and is no documentation of any actual books being removed from the library- indicating that the librarian, Mary Ellen Emmons, was definitely disapproving of the idea. TruthorFiction.com also assumes this position.

According to my sources, Emmons was initially released from her position because Palin believed she did not have her "full support" as mayor; after public outcry, however, she was reinstated.

The mere fact that Palin wanted books banned is unsurprising to me, but still disturbing. It basically gives me the idea that she cares nothing for the exercise of free speech, and that she's just like the parents who fight to "protect their children's minds," ie. keep them ignorant until it's entirely inappropriate to do so. Either way, respect to Emmons for standing up to her and keeping her own integrity-and that of libraries in general-intact. The purpose of these institutions is to provide knowledge and information, as well as entertainment, to the people- and any watered-down version of that should be scorned.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

The Giver by Lois Lowry

This book first came to me waaaayyy back when I was a little Angie- back in fourth grade, when my teacher Mrs. Varela- whom I still hold dear as one of my favorite teachers ever- recommended it to me. I read it eagerly, and found it incredible and unsettling even then. This is the story of 12-year-old Jonas, who lives in a utopian society- one without violence, conflict or any kind of social stratification. Every December, the 12-year-olds of the society are each given a life assignment from the Elders. Jonas' assignment is a special one, taught to him by a mysterious man known only as the Giver... and through him he begins to find out that his "perfect" world... really isn't perfect.

With that kind of premise, you can imagine how good the book is. Then again, parents still manage to find fault with it. The Blue Valley School District in Kansas faced parent complaints that the book is "lewd", "twisted" and "unfit for analysis by students" because it is "violent," "sexually explicit", and "portrays infanticide and euthanasia." A parent said, "The book is negative... I don't see the academic value in it. Everything presented to the kids should be positive or historical, not negative."

Really? These parents have no idea how it goes. The world itself is hardly ever positive, particularly nowadays. It's not healthy to be pessimistic about everything, of course... but neither is it healthy to go around assuming that everything is rosy. There are bad things out there that people, particularly those still learning, should take into account. For every negative theme that the book contains, there is one of hope- realizing the world with all of its faults, in other words, taking off the blinders and living your own life- that means everything.

In the end, the proponents asked that the book be removed from the district's eighth-grade reading list. It remained, or so I believe. Group D definitely has its delusions either way. As for this book... read it. It's definitely a great read, comparable to Brave New World by Aldous Huxley (another banned book), and I would recommend it to people of all ages.

Monday, April 19, 2010

Flowers in the Attic by V.C. Andrews

My mother introduced me to this book a while ago, through the movie that it became. I never paid much attention to it until I saw it in Wal-Mart for under $10, combined with the second novel in the Dollanganger saga, Petals on the Wind. I read it in a frenzy, somewhat underwhelmed with the writing style itself (pretty rudimentary and long-winded) while taken aback at the subject matter. (Quick synopsis: The Dollanganger family, after a horrible tragedy, has to live with family members who detest them while working to ensure their future is secure financially- and that leads to many horrors, especially for the four children, Cathy, Chris, Carrie and Cory.) Incest? Religious fundamentalism? Well, you can see why there was such a controversy, especially in the year in which this book was published (1979, according to the copyright). Incest, and sex in general, was still very much a taboo (though today 85 million copies of V.C. Andrews' books are in print).

Still, as taboo as it may be, it's still real. And because of that, I suppose, in 1983, the book was challenged in the Richmond (Rhode Isl.) H.S. system for "pornographic" content and explicit descriptions of sexual intercourse and incest. In the book, after the tragic death of the Dollanganger patriarch, his children find out that he and their mother were in fact related (uncle and niece, or "half-uncle" as their grandmother pointed out). Not only that, but the eldest two children, Cathy and Christopher, begin an incestuous relationship after he rapes her. Disturbing, yes, as the zealots that are their grandparents remind them daily as they stay locked up in a wing of their enormous mansion, while their mother tries to win back the inheritance she lost from her ailing father. However, though it may seem a bit far-fetched, the incest itself is not too far from what does happen in this society. Though children may be better off being shielded from it, I think high-schoolers are mature enough to deal with the topic. Another note: perhaps the fact that it's supposed to be such an unspoken topic and all is part of its appeal, which is one fact that the people who try to censor books should realize, with more than just this book.

Based on writing alone, I'm inclined to tell you to skip this one, just because it's so melodramatic it's nearly as laughable as Twilight; however, the subject matter and storyline (not to mention plot) draw you in much more effectively than does the latter series, though it's quite trashy, trust me. Oh, well. We all need some shame reading in our lives now and then.

Saturday, April 17, 2010

So Many Books, So Little Time.

Well, I promised myself that this would be a bit more than just writing about banned books, and it is- I talk about books I've been reading and how the literature I've read before has impacted my life and the way I read. Yesterday, I finally did what I'd been planning to do for about three weeks now and went around the corner, about five blocks down Main Street in Williamsville to the library. I ambled back home in the chilly wind and threat of rain with a library card application clutched to me, and plan on finishing it as soon as I can.

Here's the problem. I already have about six books to finish as it is, and I've only now gotten about halfway through The Fortress of Solitude. Unfortunately, books have taken a bit of a backseat this week to another love of mine- hockey- as the NHL playoffs have commenced. (See? Bookworms are multi-faceted, are they not?) However, I never hesitate to buy even more- especially if there's a great bargain on them. In the end, I wind up with so many to read I can barely see straight by the end of them. And adding more- borrowed- books to that pile could prove disastrous.

But I can definitely use this card to borrow more banned books, thus cutting down the lengthy list a bit at a time. Plus, I know myself. I love books, and if allowed I will read the entire day through without distractions. I've done it before. So to me, getting a library card and borrowing, say, three or four books at a time is no big deal. I'll read them all. Right?... RIGHT?

Friday, April 16, 2010

Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain

When I first picked up this book, it was summer reading for an AP English class. In fact, that was also how I found out it was so controversial, quote unquote. I was waiting for my clothes to dry in the laundromat when this nice-looking woman next to me asked me what I was reading it for. I told her, and she asked me if I knew the debate over the use of the N-word in the book. She directed me to websites where kids my age were discussing it, and while I appreciated the conversation, I thought little of it... after all, I was reading it myself and I could definitely see past the 212 mentions of that word to read the bigger message.

Unfortunately, not everyone can. The book about young hero Huck being kidnapped by his drunken father and escaping with a runaway slave was pulled from Taylor, Mich. schools because of the racial epithets, and it was also challenged in schools in Renton, Wash. and Normal, Ill. for being "degrading to African-Americans." In fact, a student complained the book offended her- and the NAACP has also striven to ban the book. All of this from the mere fact that in the time period Mark Twain was alive and writing, the use of the N-word was prevalent.

Let's face it, this could well be a means to compensate for the centuries of slavery and oppression African-Americans have faced. If it is, well... it's just misplaced. See, the people doing the censoring make it seem as though Mark Twain was pro-slavery, which it certainly doesn't seem like he was. In fact, if you read the book, easily the most sympathetic character was Jim, the runaway slave who is set free by Huck at the end of the novel. He's the epitome of goodness despite being a fugitive, whereas practically all of the scoundrels in the book- Huck's father, the con artists that Huck and Jim run into- are white. Hmm. That doesn't sound very racist to me.

Whatever the case may be, this is still a classic book, and it definitely shouldn't be shelved. It's not as much about the plain-as-day storyline itself as it is about a bigger journey: realizing what is good and what isn't, and that things aren't always as they seem.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Now Reading...

Shopping in bargain stores rocks. Really. Just picked up Just Listen by Sarah Dessen today at Marshalls for six bucks and planning to read it ASAP. If you didn't know, it's one of the books on the lengthy list of banned ones I plan to complete soon. There are still about a hundred of them left, but at least I'll be kept entertained for quite a while. :)

First, though, I have to finish The Fortress of Solitude by Jonathan Lethem. I first read him in freshman year of high school, when I picked up another of his novels, Motherless Brooklyn, and finished it basically in one gulp. The wordplay and character development in that book was fantastic, and I opened up this one looking for some of the same. It's not much in the same vein- it's a third-person narrator in place of first-person, and it takes place in somewhat of a different time period, when gentrification was just beginning to touch the rough edges of Gowanus, Brooklyn- but it's just as entertaining to read. Hope it stays strong all the way through- being somewhat familiar with Lethem's writing, I'd say it likely will.
New reviews coming shortly! Stay tuned.

Friday, April 9, 2010

Rainbow Boys by Alex Sanchez, and the "Homosexual Agenda"

When you research all of these banned books, after a while everything starts to look the same, especially considering the fact that so many of them apparently promote a "homosexual agenda." Take this book, which I read sometime during high school. It deals with a trio of young men who are all struggling with their sexuality- either hiding it or embracing it. Overall, it's a pretty well-written book which succeeds at portraying the feelings of torment and confusion a gay teenager likely experiences.

Various states including (not surprisingly) Texas challenged and removed this and other books under the premise of "explicit sexual content." The Library Patrons of Texas removed 16 books with gay-positive themes, this one included, in 2005. Also, in Wisconsin, Owen-Withee Junior-Senior High School faced a challenge by citizens regarding this book- some of whom didn't even have children in the school district- for "pervasively vulgar, gay content." The book remained, with the superintendent recommending parental consent be required for seventh to ninth graders who wanted to read the book. And lastly, in Fayetteville, Arkansas, Parents Protecting the Minds of Children removed this and its sequel, Rainbow High, for profane language, depictions of sexuality and promoting a "homosexual agenda."

Which prompts the question- what exactly is the "homosexual agenda"? Is it some kind of plot to overtake the innocent children of America and turn them into God-forsaken, primitive, raving sodomizers?

Group B just doesn't get it, do they? I get that for some people, the Bible tells them that people choose to be gay and all, but that's just not true. If it were, we wouldn't have such a high suicide rate for homosexuals- and it is fairly high, no matter what "Traditional Values Coalitions" and the like tell you. (P.S. The fact that someone has "thought about suicide" still reveals that something has happened in order for them to have those thoughts, TVC.) Oh, and I'm sure science tells us that hormone levels and the workings of the brain are different for homosexuals than they are for heterosexuals. Though we are slowly becoming more accepting of gays in general, there is still a long way to go, in part thanks to the people who want them to disappear and who believe that, God forbid, if someone decides to write a book or start a TV show about these people, children are going to read or watch them and want to be like them. I respect what other people believe in general, but when it comes to this topic, I just feel like screaming. Do people still really believe, even with all of the evidence that says they do not choose this lifestyle, that they do? And even if that were true, who's to say that homosexuals don't deserve the same type of representation in society and pop culture as do homosexuals? I'm sure that no one is "recruiting" children to join their "Satanist" and "unclean" lifestyle. They're simply writing what they know best about, and if that's a crime, then lock them up, I suppose. But then you would have to imprison thousands upon thousands of writers and intellectuals who have covered topics they know and feel strongly about.

Alex Sanchez has openly talked about the struggle to keep his books in school libraries, and clearly he feels that this is a case of discrimination. I'm inclined to agree with him. Although there have been plenty of books banned or challenged that contain explicit sexual content between men and women, for some reason there's always an emphasis on a homosexual agenda or viewpoint regarding books like Rainbow Boys. Among other titles that promote this "agenda" are How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents by Julia Alvarez, Paula by Isabel Allende, Am I Blue? Coming Out From the Silence by Marion Diane Bauer, Family Values by Phyllis Burke, Forever... by Judy Blume, The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky, and The Drowning of Stephan Jones by Bette Greene, all books I've read or intend to read and review soon. As for this book... just read it, and make your own decisions.

Monday, March 29, 2010

The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini

I have a great many favorite books, but this one is definitely near the top of the list. Hosseini writes a beautiful story here about two boys connected in a way neither of them knows about until one is older- rich, privileged Amir and his servant, Hassan. They grow up together in Kabul, Afghanistan, before and then through the torment the country is thrown into. An unspeakable act and then a lie brings them apart, and it's not until Amir is an adult and is brought back to Kabul from the U.S. to save Hassan's son that he finds a way to "be good again," in the words of his father's best friend Rahim Khan. Hosseini, in both this book and his second, A Thousand Splendid Suns, weaves history and fiction together beautifully to create an unforgettable book.

This book was challenged in 2008 and 2009 in Morgantown, North Carolina; Marianna, Florida; and Champaign, Illinois because of vulgar language (use of the c-word, the f-word describing homosexuals, other curses) and a sodomy rape scene. There are also other violent scenes in the book and the overall theme of war, plus the implication of a boy being prostituted to grown men; however, none of this is gratuitous or pointless- it all serves the plot in a meaningful way. While some parts are hard to read without wincing or crying, it is a beautifully written novel, and one I would recommend to anyone. And as with The Lovely Bones, the book version is much, much better than the movie.

UPDATE: Got less than halfway through Leaves of Grass. Whitman is talented, no doubt, but the lengthy poems and oft-repeated phrases in different pieces got to me, and I had to stop. Got to read Flowers in the Attic by V.C. Andrews, however... review to come soon.

Sunday, March 28, 2010

Take Your Pick.

All banned somewhere in our wonderful country. Read one today. You won't be disappointed.

The Harry Potter Series by J.K. Rowling

This instant classic of a series first caught my attention when I was in the third grade, reading a borrowed copy of The Prisoner of Azkaban in my crowded school auditorium. (And yes, I admit it, I started the series out of order.) Since then, I've read the entire saga at least three times, and separate books even more often. I admit I have a special place in my heart for The Order of the Phoenix in particular. In writing this entire series, J.K. Rowling has created a sort of parallel universe in which magic thrives and things we write off as impossible are, on the contrary, very possible. Moreover, she creates real, plausible and relatable characters, and intertwines pop culture and history along with current events into the principal theme of good versus evil.

Of course, that's not enough for some people who can't get past the plotline of Harry and his friends attending wizarding school. Apparently, there's a lot of Group B activity going on in the movements to ban this book- parents in the U.S. believed these books were "evil" and "twisted" and recruited children to the occult. One mother in an Atlanta, GA suburb went on a vendetta to ban the books from the entire county school district, saying that they promote evil and foster the kind of culture where school shootings happen. According to her this would not happen if the kids were assigned the Bible. (Little does she know that a) the Bible itself is a banned book and b) schools cannot assign books of any particular religion when many are represented. It could be seen as an attempt to convert Jews, Muslims, etc. to Christianity.)

There was also an online petition (perhaps one of many) I discovered in my search, as well as a book burning in New Mexico spearheaded by a sermon by Pastor Jack Brock, who said the books were "satanic" and taught children to take up wizardry. Sounds like the normal Bible-beating nonsense some churches like to come up with in order to trap their followers. If you read anything other than "good, pure, wholesome" dreck, you're being lured by Satan, and we can't have that. Brock himself admits he's never read the books, only researched the contents, but he's championing the destruction of a work of art. Fundamentalism at its very best (worst?).

In my eyes, far from being a lure for children to the dark side, Harry Potter is and has been a wonderful read for years. Rowling is a fantastic writer, and she has spun a gorgeous tale that has gotten kids interested in reading again. I only hope she will continue writing in the future.

Saturday, March 27, 2010

Currently Reading...

What a week of reading for me. I finished Mary, Called Magdalene, read Tempted by P.C. and Kristin Cast in a day and re-read The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants by Ann Brashares- just because I could. (Before you criticize my personal reading taste, re-read my previous posts.) Now it's on to another banned book (finally!)- Leaves of Grass by Walt Whitman.

So far, I have to say I'm pretty excited about this book. For anyone who knows me, I'm a somewhat poetic person myself and I love reading others' work, especially the classic poets. I love Emily Dickinson and e.e. cummings (Especially e.e), and though I never really got the chance to look at Walt Whitman's work, I am taking it now. The first few poems I've read are excellent, eloquently describing life and feelings we may all be familiar with in a fresh and lovely way.

Of course, Whitman came with his own fair share of controversy. When the book was first published in 1855, it was seen as an obscene work and banned in many parts of America for his sexual imagery- both hetero- and homosexual. (Ironically, Whitman had used America as his inspiration.) In fact, it wasn't until the 1860's that he gained popularity stateside. Europe, however, welcomed the book more easily. Despite its rocky history, however, today it is a classic. And I hope I like it as much as I want to. :)

Friday, March 26, 2010

Freedom of Speech: The Debate

One of the first assignments in my Lit of Censorship class (and yes I'll reference this course a lot) was to write an essay about whether or not we, as American citizens, truly have freedom of speech. The First Amendment to the Constitution reads, as follows (courtesy of usconstitution.net):

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

Fast forward to a couple of centuries later and we have groups trying to ban and censor books, various sedition acts within our history, censorship of news and TV shows, and the charge of a hate crime. Of these things, the last one is the only one I can somewhat agree with... yet still, it attempts to stifle the words and thoughts of certain people. With all of this to deal with, can we Americans really say we can speak freely in our own country?

True, we have it much better than plenty of other countries. At least we don't get arrested and beheaded on the spot when we speak ill of our government. But we do still have cases where people who speak their minds end up getting punished because of it.

Sometimes it's for good reason. After all, blind hatred, racism or prejudice is wrong, right? And anything that can incite certain people or groups deserves to be punished, right? Right, to an extent. Of course, the use of racial slurs or "hate speech" in literature gets a bit hazy. Is it used as a means of authenticity, so that characters that fit a certain time period seem more in tune with the setting? Or is it just a clever way to feed readers the author's own prejudiced and hurtful views? More often than not, I'd say it's the former. A book like Huckleberry Finn (which I'll talk about soon) uses the N-word as a means of having Mark Twain's writing sound authentic; it doesn't automatically mean Twain was a racist or that he was in favor of slavery. The same is true for so many other books dealing with the South or with racism. People need to read between the lines sometimes in order to get the truth.

I believe we truly don't have an unrestricted freedom of speech; after all, that would get plenty of people into trouble. We even censor ourselves from time to time because we know the consequences of our words. The way I think it works is this: our forefathers wrote that amendment into the Constitution likely treating it as a sort of honor system- meaning since we know we can say whatever we want, but doing that would bring about anger or chaos, we take it upon ourselves to decide what to say and what not to say. Or at least, we should- not to the point where everything we say HAS to be politically correct, but where there's a balance of tact and honesty. Make sense?

True freedom of speech can never be really possible, but at least we have something close to it. It's not perfect, but it's there, and we know we must exercise it with equal parts caution and humility. And of course, no matter what, we must fight to retain our free speech because that is what those before us intended.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury

I read this book in perhaps the worst English class I've ever had (or one of the worst- I've had some clunkers). This was my spring semester of sophomore year, in a class with a mediocre teacher, a 7 a.m. start time and a group of kids who just couldn't give a flip about reading. All of that combined made for a hell of a time- emphasis on "hell."

Even with all of that, though, I saw the genius in a work like this dystopian novel of Ray Bradbury's, which focuses on a fireman in the future named Guy Montag, who takes pleasure in his job of burning books until he meets a girl, Clarisse, and a professor named Faber who show him a different world: a world in which people can think for themselves, and books and ideas are prized. Enamored with this new world, he shirks his old life, with damning consequences.
I read this book feverishly and really cherished its message. Perhaps now more than ever I see the parallel between our world in 2010 and the one he envisioned, and I realize what he meant in writing it. Our complete faith, even dependence upon, mass media- television especially, in his eyes- can lead us to become mindless and complacent, and "turn our brains to mush." This concept is illustrated in Fahrenheit 451, particularly in Montag's wife Mildred whose sole preoccupation is with the "family," a perpetual interactive television soap opera she watches. Strangely enough, however, Bradbury also believed that there were too many groups in American society for censorship to be possible.

As it turns out, a great many of those groups advocate for censorship. This book was consequently banned on grounds of offensive language ("God damn!" being the offending phrase, mainly), radical thinking (burning books including the Bible), portrayal of smoking and drinking, and anti-religious and anti-establishment thinking. In fact, Bradbury's own publisher, Ballantine Books, printed an expurgated copy excluding the words "hell," "damn" and "abortion", and this copy ran for ten printings before Bradbury got wind of it and demanded the original copy be reinstated, which it was in 1980. Irony, we have it.

Even with its battles with censorship and banning, this book stands the test of time, and I am very glad I was taught it in high school. It gets you thinking in ways you may never have thought to think before, and if it may scare some along the way- well, it does its job then. I definitely recommend this book.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Twilight by Stephenie Meyer

I'd wanted to wait until a bit later to even mention this series on this blog (because it is a censored book, shockingly), but recent events (like the release of New Moon, the second installment of the "saga", on DVD) have prompted me to jump forward in the schedule.

Now, I have seen both movies and read all four books, and I've ranted about this series on my personal blog as well, but I figured I might as well make this somewhat legitimate. I first picked up Twilight during my junior year of high school because a bunch of my friends had read it and I wanted to see what all the fuss was about. After two books, I kind of liked the series (or at least the character of Jacob Black). After four, I was left... underwhelmed.

Before I lash into it, however, let's break down the censoring part. In the Capistrano, Calif. Unified School district, an instructional materials specialist ordered that the books be moved from middle-school to high school libraries. (We presume this is because of "material unsuited to age group."). The specialist then ordered the books to be removed. The order was later rescinded. The series was also challenged in Brockbank Junior High School in Magna, Utah, because of concerns from a parent over "sexual content" in the final installment, Breaking Dawn.

With all of that said, let me just tell you right now: It is not worth the time. First of all, Stephenie Meyer writes like a five-year-old. Barring all of that purple prose she uses to make Bella swoon all over Edward's hard, cold marble body and perfect face, she just doesn't have the chops a truly good writer needs. Her characters are also irritating- the round-character-slash-narrator-written-like-a-flat-character-so-girls-can-imagine-they're-her Bella Swan, coupled with the brooding, stalkeresque, borderline abusive and control freak vampire Edward Cullen make for a pathetically whiny, self-involved and tiresome literary couple. Like I mentioned before, Jacob Black is the only character worth any shred of sympathy- until he undergoes a massive character assassination in Eclipse to make Edward seem more appealing. Everyone else (save for cutesy vamp sis Alice Cullen, and later in Breaking Dawn, conniving vamp sis Rosalie Hale) is pretty much white noise.

Then there is the plot- or lack thereof. Girl moves to small town, hates life, meets boy, finds out boy is vampire, falls in love with him anyway, does stupid crap to get herself in trouble, vampire boy rescues her time and time again, other boy who falls in love with girl is werewolf, wolf boy takes off shirt a lot, wolf boy and vamp boy flex muscles and threaten one another, girl and vamp boy get married after she graduates, girl has sex with vamp boy (necro), girl gets pregnant (impossible), vamp boy's vamp "sister" wants to take baby, girl has vamp baby and becomes vampire, voila, happy ending. Ya-freaking-awn. I mean, when conflict even comes close to happening in Breaking Dawn, Stephenie just shies away. And all of this when Bella can actually fight for herself now. Lame. Not to mention the fact that she breaks all of the rules she herself sets in the first three books, in the final book. Um, what ever happened to consistency?

Can I also mention that it's hopelessly anti-feminist? Bella can barely fight for herself, she can't bear to live without a man in her life, and she can't become a vampire (or have sex with Edward, for that matter) until they marry. Both based on Christian values that a woman's virginity is all that matters and on male domination. And the strong female characters- Rosalie, Victoria (the vamp huntress out to kill Bella), etc.- are all evil. There's also something fishy about Edward and Bella's relationship- he keeps her from seeing her best friend Jacob, he tracks her when she does try to go see him, and all the while he insists that it's for her own good. Since when has he become her father? But girls who are in love with the series insist that it's just "so cute." Really? And if a guy tried to do that in real life, where would he get? Honestly... like we really need more girls out there with hopelessly low self-esteem, using Bella as a role model.

Also, Meyer really did not do her homework on vampires at all. Read Dracula or Anne Rice novels- THAT is what vamps are all about. They can't go into the sunlight at all (because they die, they don't sparkle), they balk at crosses, and oh yeah, they drink human blood. There's imagination and then there's distorting and discrediting the work of authors way more talented than yourself, Steph.

Don't even get me started on the fans, either. Oh, the crazy, deluded fans who only help censorship activist groups' cause, because they can't separate real life from fiction. Fans who dump their boyfriends for Edward and Jacob and Jasper and who pine for a "real-life Edward Cullen." Check out mylifeistwilight.com sometime and you'll see what I mean. It's just ridiculous. And God forbid you cross them, because then their fangs come out. Literally. My own cousin (whom I otherwise love dearly) is a Twi-hard and self-proclaimed "vampire geek," and she swears up and down that it's genius and the fact that so many other people loved it means it's good. Um, a bunch of hormonal teens and middle-aged moms don't prove much, except that they're as shallow as Bella when it comes to their men.

This is the first (and hopefully only) book I'll tell you not to bother reading, if you haven't already. I'll probably catch some flak for such a vitriolic post, but oh, well. I tell it like it is, and I say skip it.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

How Do We Define Obscenity?

As I've mentioned before, I got into learning about banned books during my Lit of Censorship class. We used to get into some debates there, and I was struck by one discussion we had in the middle of the semester over the meaning of "obscenity."

Many of the books I have read and researched have been written off by parents and advocacy groups as being "obscene," but how do we even come close to explaining that? Obscenity is an opinion at most; everyone has a different perception of what strikes them as "offensive to morality or decency; depraved; indecent; abominable; disgusting and repulsive" (combined definition courtesy of Dictionary.com). Take the issue of pornography, for instance. Some find it "obscene"because of some sexual acts depicted; some think it objectifies women (myself included); others believe it is a symbol of artistic expression and therefore should not be censored.

The same is true for literature. A book like I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou chronicles the author's life, which was rife with abuse and other unspeakable things. However, this book has been censored on charges of obscenity. So life is obscene? The fact that a woman had to live through this kind of horror is very offensive to morality, yes, but not the writing itself. And furthermore, how can you even censor a person's thoughts and try to persecute them? That would be akin to the Thought Police of George Orwell's 1984 punishing someone for thinking against the system. It's against everything this country stands for, and everything put into the Constitution. At the same time, you don't want to horrify people and expose young children to some themes before they're ready; still, this is why we have regulations to restrict certain media to certain age groups. Why is there a need to censor further?

So you see, the idea of obscenity is a hard one to really streamline. But people want to create court cases and charge authors and artists for it, and that is what I am against. If you don't like something, don't read or look at it; however, don't seek to punish those who have created it. If the rumors are true, it is a free country, after all.

Correct, In More Ways Than One.

Go Ask Alice by Anonymous

I borrowed this book from my roommate and read it in about a day and a half (as she watched in awe, might I add), and came away from it a bit underwhelmed. The writing was a bit coarse and not what I would expect from a young teenaged girl, but the author got her (his? their?) point across all the same. From her first (innocent) hit of LSD at a party to her eventual overdose, the girl's story is full of dark turns and vows to repent, with little success.

With all of that in mind, the reasons for this book being banned are obvious. Drugs? Teenagers! Out of the question. Our children will become exposed to that and then want to go out and do it, too! they think, and consequently, the book was banned in 2002 (location unknown) and challenged in Berkeley County, South Carolina for blatant and explicit language (street terms for sex, talk of worms eating body parts and blasphemy), drug use, and sexual behavior. It was also retained for optional reading at a middle school in Girard, Pennsylvania despite a grandmother protesting that the book was offensive. Even so, the book has sold millions of copies, showing that people do know the difference between endorsing drug use and depicting the evils of it.

There has also been some controversy as to who actually wrote Go Ask Alice. Snopes.com says that Beatrice Sparks, a writer who has quite a few of these "anonymous journals" under her belt, takes credit as the editor, but guesswork implies that the book has been written by a group of people rather than just one. That makes sense, because the way this book has been written leads me to believe that an adult (or a number of adults), and not a 15-year-old girl, wrote this book. Even so, I think you should read it, despite a few cliches here and there- because after all, it's a banned book, and pretty much every banned book deserves at least a glance. :)

Monday, March 22, 2010

The Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold

This was one of those books I'd always wanted to read but never got the chance to borrow or buy it. Then sometime in October, in a Borders in Milford, CT, I spotted it on a shelf and snatched it up right away. I didn't get to read it until about three weeks later (I've a bad habit of buying books when I have plenty to read), but when I did, it haunted me for a while, particularly the beginning of it.
Susie Salmon, the main character, is speaking from the grave- or rather, her place in Heaven- as the victim of a brutal murder by her next-door neighbor. From above, she witnesses the falling apart of her family as her mother retreats into herself, her father obsesses over finding her killer, her killer is working to erase all the evidence, and her friends and sister try to make sense of it all. She watches as life begins to go on without her, and tries her best to point her loved ones in the direction of her murderer.
Though I wished Sebold would have described Susie's heaven, and those she meets there a bit more thoroughly, I found this book incredible- by turns heartbreaking and beautiful. Of course, parents overlook the beauty and reality of it in favor of removing it from school libraries due to the mature content (Susie was raped, then murdered and dismembered). The book was moved to the faculty section of the school library in a Waltham, Mass. middle school and also challenged in a Westport, CT middle school. However, the superintendent believed that middle school students were mature enough to read the book. While I'm inclined to agree that many are- in sixth grade I was reading books much like this one- I can't help but wonder if the parents had some credibility here. Then again, if the book is being taught or allowed in schools, I'm certain that teachers can find a way to teach kids about death and how to cope with it, as it is a part of life- even the murder described in the book, sadly enough. Besides, without going into extremely minute detail, Sebold wrote the murder with touching discretion, and I think readers get the idea without it being too graphic, and I think she's brave for even skimming the surface of such a tough subject.

At any rate, read this book (and don't see the movie- I heard it was nowhere near as good). It's beautifully written and a wonderful story about how a family copes with the loss of a daughter, granddaughter and sister, and how they learn to find life again. P.S. I included both the original book cover and the one they did when the movie came out- I have the copy with the movie poster on it.

Friday, March 19, 2010

Looking for Alaska by John Green

This first book I'm going to write about is one I first picked up in my sophomore year of high school, if I'm not mistaken. This was pretty much the year my life revolved around the library in my school- or at least, my lunch period did. At any rate, I devoured this book about a boy named Miles Halter, alias Pudge, who goes to a boarding school in Alabama and finds new friends and falls head over heels for a girl named Alaska Young, a clever, stunningly attractive and self-destructive young woman who's battling some demons. His circle of friends talk, travel, get into trouble and learn a lot from each other, even in the face of a terrible tragedy within the circle.

However deep and poignant this book may be, however, some parents can't get over the sexual innuendos/content and graphic language Green uses. The book was challenged in the Depew, NY, school system, specifically for use within 11th grade Regents English classes, for its content. In the end, the book was retained, with the school requiring students to obtain parental permission in a letter; only 3 parents refused to let their children read it.

When asked in a bonus interview at the back of the book what he thought of the challenges, Green said that he never thought to censor himself while writing, though he got nervous when it came closer to publication. He added, "Teachers have been trained to teach, and they know how to teach, and we need to fight to let them teach uncensored books... in an English class or evolution in a biology class." And he's right. Parents will never let their kids do what Miles, the Colonel and Alaska do, but that doesn't mean that there are no lessons or teachable themes in the story. This book is incredibly written; the characters leap off the page (especially the Colonel, who is my favorite character), and in writing them so vividly Green is able to teach us, through their faults, mistakes, mischief and experiences, the meaning of life and of suffering.

Why Books Are Censored, and Who Censors Them

In my reading and research of these books, I've found a sort of pattern in the sort of people who challenge and request to ban books. For starters, they're all parents who are trying to censor books their children have brought home from school- a place of learning and broadening the mind, at least for some people. With that said, you would think parents would put a bit more trust into the teacher's ability to instruct their children on how to read and interpret the messages of a given book. But that's not always the case.

I've gone as far as to separate these parents into groups, which I'll reference in many of my posts. There's the "If you ignore it, it isn't real" group, which tries to shield their children from some of the many horrors of the real world depicted in books including but not limited to rape, incest, drug abuse, violence and poverty. We'll call this group, Group A. It's tried to censor books such as The Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold, The Color Purple by Alice Walker and so on. (This group is a close relation to Group D, which I'll get to in a moment.)

Then there's Group B, the "If you read about it, you'll go out and do it" group, which has censored Go Ask Alice, Rainbow Boys by Alex Sanchez, etc. This group believes that the simple act of reading the books is going to incite teens to go out and do drugs or have raucous unprotected sex or become gay (which we all know is not something you randomly choose to be... or do we?). I guess they believe their own parenting is so faulty that a book is going to make their child do all these things, but I would never want to make that assumption.

Group C is the "This book offends people" group. Yes, there are some people who get offended by words and ideas, and that's completely understandable- I myself hate using those words. But these people don't get why the words are used in literature, and thus they move to censor the books that offend.

Group D, the "Only Write Happy Things" group (and a small one), is probably my favorite. See, they're under the delusion that life is just chock-full of daisies and sunshine and rainbows and all good things. Um, wrong. I separated this group from Group A because I felt that this one refuses to even acknowledge reality, whereas Group A at least admits it's somewhat present (though they still can't bear to let their children read about it).

Finally, Group E is the "We can't dare let our children read this book, even if they're 18 years old" group. They think that their kids aren't old enough/mature enough to handle explicit or offensive content. These are the people banning books I read in middle school from high school libraries. Again, well-meaning, but come on- I'm sure highschoolers are mature enough to handle the content in books like Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil. (Especially if they're off watching the crap on television that they love so much.)

So those are the groups of people I have found who tend to ban and challenge books the most, because of what they find to be offensive language, racial slurs, promotion of certain behaviors such as homosexuality and drug use, and violence, among other things. Have they read the books? I doubt it. But they still wield considerable power as the parents of impressionable young children, and without them I wouldn't have this blog to write. So thank you, all you people out there who have ever moved to ban a book. You make this a very interesting endeavor for me.