Thursday, August 30, 2007

One Book One Chicago

It's been announced that the fall 2007 One Book One Chicago is Arthur Miller's play, The Crucible. I think it's a bit of an odd choice, although a wonderful play. I've written about their odd choices before. I think it would be better to choose a book that's more reflective of Chicago.

I do think it's an awesome idea though, despite the fact that it hasn't really caught on. It's fun to see a lot of people reading the same book (as we witnessed recently with Harry Potter 7). I notice that San Francisco's One City One Book is Cane River and Indianapolis's One Book One City is Slaughterhouse Five. If your city has a program or if you have an idea for the perfect book for your city, I'd love to hear about it!

I finally got a library card for my new sleepy community (I hope no one here ever accuses me of being a witch!). I experienced the unprecidented event of finding every book I wanted available and brought home a lovely little pile that I doubt I will be able to read in a month: The Keep by Jennifer Egan, Sense and Sensibility by Austen, The Mill on the Floss by Elliot (Mary Anne Evans), two Iris Murdoch books: Henry and Cato and Under the Net; Toujors Provence by Peter Mayle, Revolution from Within by Gloria Steinem, and a book of essays and manifestos on gender roles. Oh, I love a good manifesto.

Monday, August 27, 2007

The Inheritance of Loss

The Inheritance of Loss is a gorgeous book by Kiran Desai. It won the Man Booker Prize in 2006 seems to be a favorite of book groups everywhere - it's complete with one of those annoying "reading group guides" in the back that I never read. ("Huh, what are some of the motifs?")

Desai's language and characterization is stunningly beautiful. It's a challenging read for me, due to the political aspect, which I'm sorry to say I was largely unfamiliar with, but, the text was so beautiful that at times I just gave myself over to the language. Note to self: try reading just one book at a time...

The story centers largely around an Indian judge, who was educated in Britain, and his charge, Sai. The judge is a hateful and embittered man, unable to feel a part of either British or Indian culture. Sai is a lovely young woman who falls in love with her Nepali tutor. Their long-time, nameless cook is always viewed as nothing more than a servant. The cook sends his son to America in hopes that he will find success there. About half of the book is devoted to the son's disappointments in NY, his movement from one restaurant to another, his only acquaintances other immigrant workers that work in the restaurants - all suffering from the same problems - the expectations of their families, the stress of making enough money, finding a place to live on very little wages, requests from family to help other immigrants when he can barely support himself.

Two of my favorite characters are Loa and Noni, wealthy sisters who find themselves unable to continue living carefree in India:
It did matter, buying tinned ham roll in a rice and dal country; it did matter to live in a big house and sit beside a heater in the evening, even one that sparked and shocked; it did matter to fly to London and to return with chocolates filled with kirsch; it did matter that others could not. They had pretended it didn't, or had nothing to do with them, ad suddenly it had everything to do with them. The wealth that seemed to protect them like a blanket was the very thing that left them exposed. They, amid extreme poverty, were baldly richer, and the statistics of difference were being broadcast over loudspeakers, written loudly across the walls. The anger they had solidified into slogans and guns, and it turned out that they, they, Lola and Noni, were the unlucky ones wouldn't slip through, who would pay the dept that should be shared with others over many generations.

The book reminded me quite a bit of Nicole Krauss's History of Love, another book about inter-cultural and cross-continental lives. Or, maybe it's just the title structure. I thought, if I ever finish my novel, I'll follow their lead and call it The Turpitude of Forgetfulness.

Saturday, August 25, 2007

Harry Potter and the Deathly Xenophobia

Note: No Spoilers

Way back in the late nineties, my sister encouraged me to read, and gave me her paperback copy of, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone. I fell for the book pretty hard, and passed it on to a certain husband, who finished it, looked up at me and said, "Did you know there's going to be six more of these?!?"

Not long after, I learned that there were differences between the "English" version (published by Bloomsbury) and the "American" versions (published by Scholastic) of the text, and, purists that we are, we ordered all subsequent books from the UK.

What are the differences?
The cover art of all 7 books is different for each version, as are things like font size (American is larger), number of pages, and punctuation (for example, in England they use a single quotes around dialogue and don't put a period after words like "Mr." and "Mrs.") There are also some spelling differences (gray/grey, neighbours/neighbors). People with more patience than me went through the entire first book and noted every word change between the British Philosopher's Stone and the Sorcerer's Stone. They are all fairly ridiculous, like changing "trainers" to "sneakers" and "lavatory" to "toilet".

I was quite curious to discover what differences there were between versions of the last book, and ended up reading a friend's American version while a certain husband read the British version. One of my friends joked that they probably just changed every "bloody" to "fucking". "Yeah," I said, "And all the 'snogging' to 'fucking' too!" So, it was with a certain amount of glee that I came across an "effing" in the American version, and scampered off to the British version - would it read "bloody"? No, it said "effing" too. Huh.

I had the patience to compare only the first 5 pages of Deathly Hallows word for word before giving up looking for differences, but, oh, blessed internet, this guy scoured chapter 12 and discovered some silly changes that had him heading for the dictionary.

Lack of faith, Loss of Opportunity
Something I really hate are those annoying jackasses who claim there's British English and then there's American English. No. We're all speaking English. I've got one thing to say to these bloody nitwits who claim I'm speaking a "lower" form of English, all soggy with Americanism: I'm sorry, but I can't talk to you. I don't understand a word you're saying.

The question isn't "What are the changes?" but "WHY are there changes?" Every single word change in the Harry Potters, every extra comma, every added period is an insult. The books were written in English, and Americans read... English! It's simply outrageous that an "American" version exists. Because they are ostensibly children's books, the changes, supposedly made for the good of the children, exhibit an outrageous underestimation of American children's adaptability, and denies them the opportunity to ask a question, pick up a dictionary, and learn something about another culture. And it's not just kids that lose the opportunity, as shown by the adult reader and his dictionary above (Baize Over a Bugerigar, by Frederick Wemyss).

These lingual differences amount to nothing more than xenophobia, sure, not an uncommon phenomenon in the United States, but a curious occurrence in the borderless world of literature. It boggles the mind to think that any book editor would change the language of a book IN ENGLISH for ENGLISH READERS. That they continued to do so, even in the seventh book, reveals a bizarre distrust of Scholastic's readership. It's a dark blotch on an otherwise incredible series that has drawn such a diverse crowd of readers. 8.3 million people bought the Deathly Hallows in the United States during the first 24 hours (source) - they had a lot of faith in Harry, but Scholastic didn't have much faith in them.

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

The Kite Runner

Khaled Hosseini's The Kite Runner tells the life story of Amir, who grows up in Afghanistan. His closest companion, although not his friend, Amir is careful to state, is the servant's son, Hassan. Although Hassan is a (almost mythically) loyal and true friend, Amir in his immaturity and jealousy treats him very badly. Amir moves with his father to the United States when the revolution begins, but he returns to a much changed Afghanistan to attempt to right some of the wrongs from his youth.

I found Hooseini's prose simple and dull, but his storytelling is compelling, and the Kite Runner is a real page-turner. His descriptions of a peaceful Afghanistan (and the later dramatic transformation under Taliban rule) dispells some of the rhetoric that the country was a just a massive shit-hole anyway before we bombed the hell of out if, which is the only story that we seem to hear in the US. Another book that I love very much for such enlightening information is Tony Kushner's brilliant 2002 play Homebody/Kabul, which is, of course, best seen on stage, but a good read as well. The Homebody says, in the absolutely magnificent opening monologue which I saw at the Steppenwolf starring Amy Morton several years ago:
I did know, well, I have learnt since through research that Kabul, which is the ancient capital of Afghanistan, and where once the summer pavilion of Amir Abdur Rahman stood shaded beneath two splendid old chinar trees, beloved of the Moghuls, Kabul, substantial portions of which are now great heaps of rubble, was it was claimed by the Moghul Emperor Babur founded by none other than Cain himself. Biblical Cain. Who is said to be buried in Kabul, in the gardens south of Bala-Hissar in the cemetery known as Shohada-I-Salehin. I should like to see that. The Grave of Cain. Murder's Grave. Would you eat a potato plucked from that soil?

Anyway, all of which is to say that naturally Afghanistan is simply not a dispensable country, it's got it's own beautiful, rich history and is populated by its own fair share of brilliant people. There's just that weird Buzkashi thing...

Be warned, The Kite Runner is pretty depressing book, with themes of shame, silence, the seemingly innate hatefulness of children, man's inhumanity to man - I actually had to stop reading it for a while because I got so depressed. Whether there are any brief glimpses of hope is really up to you. I found very few.

Monday, August 13, 2007


My friend Sonya is travelling across the lower 48, interviewing and photographing people reading - a country-wide expansion of her localized project (People Reading) to do the same in San Francisco. Her goal is to hit all 48 contingent states in 2 months on a Greyhound Discovery pass - kind of like the poor man's EuroPass. I love both projects, and, as I've said before, Sonya's frank and non-judgemental presentation of the wide range of both people and books she encounters is refreshing and enlightening. Sometimes I get a little frustrated with this land of ours, and then I'll see someone reading Dostoevsky and I have new hope. Lately Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows appears again and again, and it's just incredible to see all manner of people enjoying the same book.

I've always wanted to be featured in Sonya's blog - and finally my dream came true!

Check out Dogeared to see if Sonya's coming through your area and get a glimpse of what people are reading across the United States!