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: According to, 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:!/group.php?gid=110609512299912

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.