Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Banned Books Week: What's the Big Deal?

Every year, the American Library Association reminds us that freedom is not free by holding Banned Books Week.  And every year, I get the same questions: What's the big deal?  Books aren't really banned, they're just challenged — and shouldn't I have the right to tell my kids what they can read?

Well, here's the thing: parents have the right to tell their own children what they can read.  However, they do not have the right to tell other people's children, including me and mine, what they can read.

I was among the more fortunate children: my parents didn't curtail my reading.  I showed my folks what I had checked out from the library; in the off-chance they weren't around or available when I got home, the books were stacked on my nightstand in my bedroom.  They were books, for heaven's sake, and everyone loves books, right?

That doesn't mean I didn't make my parents uncomfortable with what I read.  When I asked Dad about a phrase in Sonnets from the Portuguese that included the phrase "pregnant lips," he gravely suggested I was too young to read it — which translated to "Dad the engineer doesn't want to discuss poetical lips."  I was six, and I was learning to judge what was the best resources for research.

This understanding that some language was "hot" made the reading of Very Special People a little confusing a couple of years later.  One set of conjoined twins was described as having separate upper bodies but sharing a lower body.  I knew about lungs, intestines and anus, but penis?  Whether I had heard that word before (during Mom's "facts of life" discussions) was immaterial: I had never seen it written.  It seemed rather "lip"-y in nature, so I went straight to the dictionary.

Try reading the definition of any word when you haven't a clue as to what it is. 

That definition included another word I couldn't understand, whose definition was equally puzzling, which led to another definition... I surrendered, extrapolating from the sentence enough information I needed to move on.

However, I did encounter a book I didn't understand — and when Mom saw it on my stack of library books, she wondered aloud if it was a little "old" for me.  I told her I didn't know, and we left it at that.  I found the first few pages tedious and terribly boring, so I returned it rather quickly.  The title? Helter Skelter. I was eleven.

In short, I read anything I wanted.  I read all of the exciting, titillating books girls my age were read, swapping amongst each other.  My friend Carole remembers the same list, her copies fat and swollen from repeated droppings in the pool, where she and her friends shared and read them.

Whether I should have read Audrey RoseThe Reincarnation of Peter ProudSybilGo Ask AliceForever or Are You There, God? It's Me, Margaret isn't the real question.  (If it was, the answer is unequivocally "yes.")  The question is: who should have decided what I should read?

I always respect a parent's wishes regarding their children's exposure to books, music and movies.  However, they're not my parents.  They're not my kids' parents.  They have no right to tell anyone but their own children what they may consume.

Library funds are so limited, the broad array of books once found in the library already is dwindling.  Don't use that to control your own children's — and, inevitably, everyone else's children's — reading material.  Go with your family to the library, help them choose, and steer them away from books like And Tango Makes ThreeThe Perks of Being a Wallflower and The Earth, My Butt, and Other Big, Round Things. That is your perogative.

Just don't decide for me what those things are, and I won't do that for you.

Happy Banned Books Week, people.  Choose your reading materials, and read something that might or might not be objectionable.  Be your own judge.

Monday, September 26, 2011

Fall for the Book: Conor Grennan

When Conor Grennan tells his audience that his actions were not heroic, that anyone could and would have done them, he honestly believes that.  His explanation makes sense.

All it takes are baby steps.

All he planned to do was volunteer at a Nepalese orphanage: baby step.  After that, it was only one step to helping these children find a safe home.

When a parent came to claim her sons, it was a step to help her become reacquainted with them and help her find the resources to feed and clothe them in the city.

That led to the question: were they all really orphans?  Next step: find out whose parents are alive.

When children became "lost," it was only a step to try to find them. 

Just baby steps.  Putting one foot in front of the other.  In fact, he noted, "This book has one message: there is nothing extraordinary about the person I was going into this."

It's a truth I hold very dear: you don't have to be a hero to do heroic things.  You just have to do them.

Of course, had Conor told me clouds were gummi bears, I'd have believed him.  His self-deprecating approach to everything, his willingness to show his failures and foibles, made him someone I could trust.

I met him first on the pages of his memoir, Little Princes: One Man's Promise to Bring Home the Lost Children of Nepal.  He was funny, charming and utterly trustworthy.  Anyone who confesses to having been petrified of an orphanage full of children gets my vote. 

At the 2011 Fall for the Book Festival, he was exactly the same.  He pointed to the title of his book, the cover of which reached 12 feet high on the screen behind him on stage, and confessed, "I wouldn't read this book."

(I concur: I began reading it only because it was Fairfax County Public Library's 2011 selection for the community reading program, "All Fairfax Reads" — and the author was going to be at the book festival.  I am so glad I did.)

He also confessed that he doesn't trust those darned Canadians after being told by some of those countrymen that he didn't really need to read the guide books (which wrote of Nepal as a pretty dangerous country in the midst of a civil war).

He confessed that he signed up to volunteer at the orphanage because it made him look less self-absorbed.  Plus, it was a great way to impress women, which was "a pretty low bar."

In other words, he wasn't special.  Quite the opposite.

And yet, this man helped save at least 50 trafficked children in Nepal from slavery, starvation, abandonment and almost certain death by creating a home for them.  He created a non-profit organization to fund his efforts.

And he trekked through the mountains of Nepal searching for the parents of the children in his care.

He's right: you don't have to be a hero to be heroic.  And he took lots and lots of baby steps.

Meet Conor on the pages of his memoir.  (A portion of the proceeds fund Next Generation Nepal, his organization.)  Then see if you can't take a baby step of your own for something that matters to you.  If a guy intent on impressing chicks can wind up helping save children on the other side of the world, just think what you can do in your own neighborhood.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Fall for the Book: Abraham Verghese

First of all, if you're in a book club, Abraham Verghese salutes you: it was you who made his debut novel a success.

"Book clubs made this book happen," he flatly stated during his appearance at the 2011 Fall for the Book Festival.  It was the widespread reading by those very book clubs that propelled Cutting for Stone onto the New York Times bestseller list, he freely admitted.

Myself I know it was more than that.  Cutting for Stone is a thoughtful, sensitive, thought-provoking book — which started out as a glimmer of a story to an exhausted, nearly burned-out physician treating HAV/AIDS patients in a small town in Tennessee. 

"All I knew is that there was a beautiful South Indian nun who gives birth to twins," he said.

He needed to take a break from his medical practice.  He had written two books already, both non-fiction, My Own Country and The Tennis Partner.  He had an idea for a story, and he wanted — no, needed to try his hand at fiction.

When his application to the Iowa Writers' Workshop was accepted, he found himself in the writing community he needed.  Once a week he spent time as a doctor with AIDS patients in a nearby hospital; the rest of the time, he was writing fiction, reading, recharging.

He admired Émile Zola, whose novels weren't "about" Paris, but "of Paris." He wanted to create "that atmosphere, that verisimilitude" in his novel.

His readers will agree: he succeeded.

The story spans the lives of two generations and takes place primarily in Addis Ababa.  First, there are the professionals who wind up at Missing hospital: doctors and nuns who administer more than just medicine and the people who help them provide this service. It's the shocking arrival of unexpected twins that sends everyone's lives into a direction other than they would have anticipated.

The characters in his novel are complex, interesting and surprisingly likeable.  Even the general whose actions affect Missing's obstetrician so profoundly is one to be respected.  When I asked Verghese if there were any characters he didn't like in his story, his response was immediate: "No.  If I hadn't liked them, I would have cut them."

His respect for fiction is unequivocal, so his foray into it makes sense.  "I have no patience for people who do not read fiction," he stated flatly.  "Uncle Tom's Cabin ended slavery."  Books speak to readers, he insisted.  "That's what is so magical about books: they speak to each of us differently."

Verghese's novel spoke to me of a rich life outside of the boundaries I know.  Cutting for Stone took an exotic "other" and turned it into a familiar location: of people, of situations, of life and love.

I am almost afraid to talk about it because I approached it without knowing anything about the story.  All I knew was that Verghese would be at the 2011 Fall for the Book Festival, and that my friend Pat found it one of the best books she had read in years.

What I will tell you instead is how books affected the author.  "I read Lolita when I was nine.  I read Lady Chatterley's Lover when I was ten.  When I came across a book titled Of Human Bondage when I was eleven," he paused as the audience laughed, "I discovered it was not at all what I anticipated."

And therein lies the magic.

I strongly recommend Cutting for Stone — and don't be surprised if you wind up purchasing multiple copies for friends and family.

Saturday, September 24, 2011

Name That Seat on National Punctuation Day!

On National Punctuation Day, let's salute Portland, Oregon's sense of whimsy.

Scattered around TriMet's Yamhill platform are seats like this: question marks, exclamation points, semi-colons, commas — all properly used.

Look around you at all of the ways punctuation helps us understand what is being communicated.  And take a minute to appreciate art as Portland has used it — and think of how you can do the same in your world.

Monday, September 19, 2011

2011 Fall for the Book: I'm Ready!

There are some great authors scheduled for this year's Fall for the Book in Fairfax (and beyond).

I have two words for you: Stephen King.

Two more: Amy Tan.

Actually, that's not even my immediate reading list.

Every year, the festival has many great authors, and I have to pick and choose which events I can attend.  For this year's festival, I plan to attend the events featuring Abraham Verghese (Cutting for Stone, the author's first novel) and Conor Grennan (Little Princes, a memoir). 

I already read Natasha Tretheway's 2007 Pultizer Prize-winning poetry collection, Native Guard, multiple times, and it is in my library collection.  (If I don't excavate my copy this weekend, I shall be purchasing another copy for her to autograph at her reading next week.)

Needless to say, I have read books by the "headliners."

My first exposure to 2011's Fairfax Award-winner Amy Tan was The Joy Luck Club, which was touching yet sweeping.  I followed up with every single one of her books, saving the latest (Saving Fish from Drowning) for when I settled into my new library.  (Had someone told me it would take nearly a year after packing away most of my books, I wouldn't have waited.)

Equally imprisoned in my storage unit was dozens of books by the festival's 2011 Mason Award-winner.  I won't list every Stephen King novel I have read, but let's just say I wore a cross for a year when I was in junior high because 'Salem's Lot scared me so much.  (We don't discuss the 1979 TV movie.)

Take a look at this year's event schedule and let me know what you think I should see — or what you'd like to see.  Am I missing your favorite author, or an undiscovered gem?  Tell me!

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

National Punctuation Day: Are You Ready?

How do you plan to celebrate National Punctuation Day September 24?

Will you make sure to use punctuation properly all day?  Will you correct inaccurate punctuation practiced by others?  Will you send around a sentence and ask friends and family to properly punctuate it?

Or will you write an ode to poetry?

I challenge you to write a punctuation poem.  Anything you want, however you want.  The only rule: send your poem(s) to me.  I will gladly publish any and all punctuation poems.  I'll even publish them anonymously, if you prefer.

All submissions will win a book of poetry.

Well, what are you waiting for?  Go write a punctuation poem!

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Warning: Comparative Religion Course Badly Disguised as a Novel

Jeffrey Small's debut novel, The Breath of God, was heralded as a "novel of suspense" and likened to the work of popular novelist Dan Brown.  I was very excited and couldn't wait to crack the spine.  Once I got in, however, I found a far different book than I anticipated — and not as enjoyable.

Grant Matthews encounters a 2,000-year-old text that reveals what Jesus Christ did during his two decades of action accounted for in the Holy Bible.  Before he can unpack his bags, a Southern preacher with ambition decides to debunk Matthews' prematurely and unintentionally published revelations.  However, technology fails him and he must travel east again to find the original documents, following Kinley and the surreptitious clues he leaves with a few different people around the world.  Only he's not alone, and this self-proclaimed "servant of God" will stop at nothing to protect his religion — and his church.

Of course, Small threw in a brilliant teacher; a romance with an unbelievably smart, resourceful and supportive woman; and lots of long lectures on three major world religions to give readers a boring, tedious Dan Brown novel.

If Small's purpose was to provide us with a book on comparative religion, we would have been better served with a series of essays, rather than essays disguised as a novel.

The book starts out slow, methodical — in a word, tedious.  The "secret" is revealed in such a subtle way I had to re-read a revealing chapter just to find it, and the explanation as to why the secret is so white-hot is woven into multiple chapters, diluting the excitement of the discovery. All dialog is too pitch-perfect, too tautly woven to be conversation: there is no casual conversation if everything is wrought with Meaning. And that's just the construction of the novel.

Let's move onto characters, my personal litmus test.  Everyone is constructed of flimsy beige cardboard with no complexity or depth.  The bad guys are wicked beyond imagination, shallow and easily distracted by something shiny — and way, way too successful.  The good guys are practically wearing white and riding up on Shadowfax with a banner declaring their purity, blindly bungling along without a clue to their imminent danger.  Random facts are included in dialog and character development to offer: Grant's folly of youth is blown out of proportion, Kristin's youthful trauma was too tautly played, Kinley's omnipotence is heralded by too many people. Police experts are too stupid to find a single computer program their investigators should have found as easily as Grant accidenntally did (at a Pivotal Moment in the Story).  And the unbelievable relative ease Grant finds at the end of the story was insulting to every character that had gone before.

Finally, the action: it was too slow in the beginning, too cumbersome in the middle, too disjointed near the end — and the multiple surprise endings weren't just surprises, but totally unexpected in a bad way.  "I didn't see that coming" is good if the author didn't seem to hide it just so he could spring it on the reader at the Opportune Moment.  I wanted to pitch the book across the room.

I do not recommend this book.

However, if you read it and enjoyed it, then let me know what you liked about it.

Saturday, September 3, 2011

Discovering a Shirley Jackson Award Winner

I have become a fan of short-story collections.  I have enjoyed the works of John Connelly, not enjoyed the works of Kelly Link — then I encountered Tunneling to the Center of the Earth.  Please stop what you are doing (yes, reading this review) and go purchase a copy, read it and return to this review.


Holy cow.  This begs not only the question of who thinks of this kind of stuff, but how can someone make the telling of it so right?

Like with other collections, the first story had a wow-factor of 11.  The idea of a "professional" grandparent is intriguing, and a business that would be really pretty win-win for all parties involved.

If that's where Kevin Wilson left it, I'd be impressed.  No, it's where he goes with "Grand Stand-Ins" that haunts me now, weeks after my first encounter with it.

And "The Shooting Man" may not have been a total surprise, but — again — it's where the story travels after it leaves my imagination that rocks my world.  

Not to brag, but I have a pretty twisted mind, having grown up on Stephen King and book after book of hauntings and spirits and the like.  I have scared myself awake from a dead sleep more times than my husband cares to count, and I have kept myself awake in total fear more than once.  And yet, Kevin Wilson surprises me in the best way possible.

Every single story is unique, every single story is different — and yet, every single story enchants, startles, frightens, unsettles... whatever path Wilson intends it to take, that's where it goes.  

I, for one, will follow him wherever he leads, including his new novel, The Family Fang.

By the way, if you need just one more push: Tunneling to the Center of the Earth won a 2009 Shirley Jackson Award.  

Alright, if you're still reading, I appreciate your dedication, but I release you from those bonds.  Go get this book.  However, you must tell me what you thought.  Okay?