Sunday, September 28, 2008

Banned Books Week!

It never ceases to amaze me, the books that have been banned, and continue to get "challenged", even today, in libraries and schools across the country. Banned Books Week, sponsored by the American Library Association, is a great time to "celebrate of the freedom to read".

The top-banned book of 2007 was, of all things, a children's book about two penguins who raise an orphaned chick called And Tango Makes Three. (I think I'm going to pop two copies in the mail for my nephews today!)

Some of my favorite books round out the top of the most challenged books of the last decade: I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, by Maya Angelou, The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood, To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee, The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger. And you'll find some seemingly innocuous books like A Light in the Attic by Shel Silverstein, The Giver by Lois Lowry, Blubber by Judy Blume, James and the Giant Peach by Roald Dahl...

Something cool you can do this week is practice being a revolutionary by doing the most wholesome thing you can think of: reading a book to a youngster you love. It's simply remarkable how many children's books (your favorites and mine) end up on these lists! What could be better for the next generation than encouraging them to read, to be lovers of books, and free thinkers?

Check out the list and share your favorites.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

The Almost Moon

Alice Sebold is making a pretty good career for herself writing about miserable situations - the murder of a child in The Lovely Bones, her own rape in Lucky, and, in The Almost Moon, a daughter who kills her hateful and demented mother, perhaps hours before she would have died anyway.

I'm not giving anything away. The first sentence of this book was much ballyhooed when it first came out: When all is said and done, killing my mother came easily.

Eventually the book gets around to describing how horrendous the main character's mother was, and presumably why she feels nothing like guilt over killing her, only a sort of inability to do anything about it.

I had heard that the book took place in one day, but that's not really true - she kills her mother in the evening, and the the book ends the next evening, so if you're looking for that neat little literary trick, you won't find it here.

I did not enjoy the book at all, and fell into my old habit of not being able to quit something I had started. What was really shocking was that the main character (whose name I can't remember) was so unbelievable, aside from not confronting what she had done, she was meant to be, I think 50 years old or so. She read like a 20 year old, and I think Sebold, in an effort to move into a more fictional milieu (she's been very open about how influenced her first two books were by her own life, and, furthermore, I heard her say in an interview that she has a very good relationship with her mother), was slightly out of her depth.

Willful Creatures

Willful Creatures is a book of short stories by Aimee Bender. I'm a big fan of Bender's Invisible Sign of My Own, which is probably up there in my top 10 books. As I recall, I read most of her previous book of short stories, The Girl in the Flammable Skirt, which I didn't enjoy and have largely forgotten.

I read Willful Creatures for my book club, which continues to delight. I was curious about how convivial a book of short stories would be to our conversation, but, just like every book we've read, it was great. I lately find that a spirited conversation about books with friends is one of the finest conversations a person can have. Especially if it's coupled with lots and lots of wine.

Bender's writing style is often categorized as "magical realism" or "surreal". I'm a bit hesitant to put any label on it, but her work certainly, at times, reminds one of say, Gabriel Garcia Marquez. Willful Creatures had several stories that just completely slayed me - particularly the one referred to on the cover, called "End of the Line" in which a man purchases as a pet a "little man", which he treats disrespectfully and abuses. I think there's an impulse to read her stories (especially those about children who are actually potatoes or have irons for a head, or keys for fingers) as symbols or replacements for some other thing or idea, but generally that line of thought doesn't hold true. For example, you can read "End of the Line" as an allegory for the ethical treatment of animals, because the man does threat his little man as carelessly as, sadly, too many people treat their pets, but it's not that simple. What Bender does is really create a world in which there are little men, little people, rather, and then explores how we live together.

Another stand-out was "Debbieland", written in the first person plural, which always give me a bit of a thrill. It's another painful story, about the cruelty of girls, and like the story of the little man, was deeply touching.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008


Happenstance, by Carol Shields, has a longer title: Two Novels in One About a Marriage in Transition. The book itself is something of a thrill - it is, literally, two novels in one book - from one side, it's the "Wife's Tale", flip it over, and you have the "Husband's Tale". Long did I flip the book, back and forth, back and forth - which to read first? I decided to start with the husband.

Both cover the same time frame - just a few days. The couple has been together for a long time - 20 years or so, and are spending a few days apart. What's interesting, is that even though the couple are apart, their thoughts often turn to the same subjects, but different interpretations. The husband is a historian, and very caught up in the small dramas of so many academics. He assumes that his wife's hobby/occupation (quilt-making) lacks the intellectuality of his own work, and even reduces her work to mere materiality (as if that's the lowest art form).

Because I read the wife's point-of-view second, there were some surprises - she's at a convention of craftspeople who argue the finer points of craftsmanship vs. art, functionality, labeling, delegation of women's work, and always with a laugh at words like, well, "craftspeople" and "craftsmanship", because the conference is composed of mostly women. Shield's descriptions of the Wife's quilts were wonderful, I really enjoyed imagining what they might look like. It's a very expressive book. Oh, and it takes place largely in Chicago, so that was fun for me.

How is it that the Canadian Shields writes so intimately about now two places that I have lived (Chicago in this book and Bloomington Indiana [of all places] in The Stone Diaries)? It's kind of amazing, right?