Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Celebrate Banned Books Week!

Yes, it's that time again...Banned Books Week started on September 24 and ends on October 1.

According to the American Library Association, 348 books were challenged at the Office of Intellectual Freedom in 2010, and many more go unreported. Here are the 10 most challenged titles of 2010:

And Tango Makes Three, by Peter Parnell and Justin Richardson
Reasons: homosexuality, religious viewpoint, unsuited to age group

The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, by Sherman Alexie
Reasons: offensive language, racism, religious viewpoint, sex education, sexually explicit, violence, unsuited to age group

Brave New World, by Aldous Huxley
Reasons: insensitivity, offensive language, racism, sexually explicit

Crank, by Ellen Hopkins
Reasons: drugs, offensive language, racism, sexually explicit

The Hunger Games (series), by Suzanne Collins
Reasons: sexually explicit, violence, unsuited to age group

Lush, by Natasha Friend
Reasons: drugs, sexually explicit, offensive language, unsuited to age group

What My Mother Doesn't Know, by Sonya Sones
Reasons: sexism, sexually explicit, unsuited to age group

Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting by in America, by Barbara Ehrenreich
Reasons: drugs, inaccurate, offensive language, political viewpoint, religious viewpoint
I read this in 2004--it's been around for awhile--why all the fuss now?

Revolutionary Voices edited by Amy Sonnie
Reasons: homosexuality, sexually explicit

Twilight (series), by Stephenie Meyer (10 Reasons I Hate Twilight)
Reasons: sexually explicit, religious viewpoint, violence, unsuited to age group
Even though I hate Twilight, it still shouldn't be banned. Really.

In honor of Banned Books Week, I'm going to read To Kill a Mockingbird (one of the most frequently banned books) and wear the Banned Books bracelet I bought a couple of years ago:

The artist I purchased this from has a necklace now, too!

  How will you celebrate Banned Books Week?

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Laughing Without an Accent: Funny in Farsi Part 2

Laughing Without an Accent, by Firoozeh Dumas
My rating: 3 out of 5 stars

Firoozeh Dumas is an Iranian-American married to a Frenchman, and now a writer, speaker, and mom of three. A few years ago, I enjoyed reading her first book, Funny in Farsi, a collection of stories about moving to the U.S. as a child and viewing life through an immigrant family's eyes. Laughing Without an Accent is more focused on Dumas' recent years in the U.S.

Dumas shares stories about the difficulties of getting her first book translated into Persian (in Iran, the author has no quality control over translations of their work; her courtship with her husband, who she met in college; a Tina Fey moment, when she berated a woman for allowing her dog to poop in her front yard, only to find out later that she was her children's new school principal; the stories of mother guilt (not confined to Jewish mothers) and the difficulty of turning down a parental present, even if it's awful; her decision to get rid of her family's TV (and her son's ignorance about Toys 'R Us--not a bad thing!); a funny Christmas when her husband tried valiantly to please her parents with a gourmet Christmas meal; and her view of farmers markets as near-religious experiences.

I enjoyed reading about attending an office clearance sale with her resourceful-to-a-fault, thrifty dad, who insisted on buying a few enormous desks without regard to how they were going to get the desks home, much less into the house.

Some reviewers have criticized Dumas for lumping all Americans together. I say hogwash and they need to lighten up. She writes about the independent, outspoken Iranian women she knows who are hidden under hijab, contrasted with the over-the-top skimpy attire in American culture: "I wish to see the day when no woman is forced to wear a hijab, chador, or burqa, but let us not discount the women underneath those mandatory coverings. If empowerment were as simple as being able to show skin, Paris Hilton would be the most enlightened woman in the United States. Having freedom does not automatically mean we all make good choices. Freedom is a rope; some make a ladder out of it and climb out of the box they're put in; some make a noose; and others make a stripper's pole." Yes, she's opinionated about the likes of Paris Hilton and Lindsay Lohan, but she's not saying all Americans are like them.

As an avid library lover, I adored the story about how Dumas grew up in a family without books and only got to visit the library when a teacher advised it (her parents always obeyed teachers!). She could not believe that she would be able to take out books for free, so she took her purse with her, ready to pay for the book. “Ever since we had arrived in the United States, my classmates kept asking me about magic carpets. They don't exist, I always said. I was wrong. Magic carpets do exist. But they are called library cards.”
At times she does contradict herself a bit, such as when she talks about how great Iranian schools are (were), yet how the first time she ever had a nurturing teacher was in the U.S. I would have liked to have read more about her relationship with her husband: how do they merge their French and Iranian cultures, traditions, and religions?

Most touching were stories about how tough it was to be an Iranian-American in 1979 during the hostage crisis, constantly hearing the "Bomb Iran" parody on the radio, and how recently she got to know Kathryn Koob, one of the female hostages. She ends with a story about how Koob took her all over her Iowa hometown, embracing her as a friend. And she ends with these thoughts, on the subject of reconcilation (one of my favorite topics):

"The bible is foreign to me, but its concepts are not. My father always said that hatred is a waste and never an option. He learned this growing up in Ahwaz, Iran, in a Muslim household. I have tried my best to pass the same message to my children, born and raised in the United States. Ultimately, it doesn't matter where we learn that lesson. It's just important that we do." Amen.

Friday, September 23, 2011

Portland top city for book lovers!

Not that it's a surprise, but just named Portland, Oregon as #1 in its Top 10 Cities for Book Lovers! Portland has 139 bookstores, arguably the most per capita in the nation (I've seen a few competing statistics). We also have the largest new and used bookstore in the world, the almighty Powell's City of Books.


Our local bookstore, Annie Bloom's

It's a little more manageable than Powell's, and equally as fun for browsing
Then there's the Multnomah County Library, which has the second-highest circulation rate in the country, second only to the New York Public Library. According to this news release, "For the ninth year in a row, Multnomah County Library patrons have checked out and renewed more items than patrons of any other U.S. library serving fewer than one million residents. With a population of about 735,000, that’s an average of about 31 items checked out or renewed for every man, woman, and child in Multnomah County."

The historic Central Library downtown
Sheer coincidence that this English major/writer-editor/book lover was born and bred in Portland (well, actually, a suburb)...I think not!

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Faith: A family torn in half by the Catholic church

Faith: A Novel, by Jennifer Haigh
My rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Sheila McGann, a lapsed Catholic daughter, returns to Boston to try to figure out what has happened to her fractured family. Her beloved older brother, Art, has been accused in the Boston archdiocese priest sex abuse scandal. Her younger brother, Mike, is convinced he's guilty, while her mother is in denial and her father is too far gone as an alcoholic to understand what is going on.

Faith is one of those books in which you do not necessarily identify with any of the characters, but you care what will happen to them. We know very little about Sheila, the narrator, except for the fact that she's a damaged soul and unable to form long-lasting attachments. She describes her entire family as detached and undemonstrative, perhaps because of her angry drunk dad and her detached, bitter, and stubbornly Catholic mother. None of these characters lead fulfilled, happy lives, and they are unable to reach out to embrace one another in their deep sadness and grief.

I am not a Catholic but am married to one. This book is soaked in the traditions and culture of the old American Catholic church. In that culture, priests were (are?) not to be questioned...they were to be revered.

Faith has all the complications I expect in a great book. None of the characters are inherently good or bad, and the truth is far more complex than one would expect. Haigh does an excellent job of peeling back layer by layer of Sheila's complicated family structure and exposing the grave weaknesses and loneliness inherent in the whole idea of Catholic priestly celibacy...and the underbelly of the Catholic church, which has continued to ignore the devastating acts done in its name.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

The Ex-Boyfriend's Handbook: Not-so-Chick Lit

The Ex-Boyfriend's Handbook, by Matt Dunn
My rating: 2 out of 5 stars

I don't know why I did this book, that is. It caught my eye at the library, and I was interested in the British setting (Brighton) and a supposedly "chick lit" type of story written by a man. As I've said before, I don't like the term "chick lit," because I find that title denigrating to novels written by and for women. However, it is a certain type of genre, and this novel fits into that category. My husband says I should call it "dick lit." I like it. :)

Here's the plot in a nutshell:
  • Nice, overweight-and-out-of-shape, and somewhat clueless doormat Edward's girlfriend of 10 years, Jane, moves out and leaves behind a note saying she's off to Tibet for 3 months.
  • Edward determines to reinvent himself during the time Jane is away. He's assisted by his ethics-lacking, philandering, and shallow friend Dan...who is really not very nice to Edward (or other people). 
  • In addition to makeovers to his wardrobe, flat, car, and lifestyle, he starts working out with a cute, peppy trainer named Sam (female).
  • Edward works for an IT recruiting firm, and his boss sleeps with her clients to get new business and treats him like crap. Really? Talk about a stereotype of a successful businesswoman. We're not all like Anna Wintour.
  • Of course, we don't ever really understand why in fact Edward wants Jane back or why he is friends with Dan.
You can guess where this story goes. It wasn't horrific, but when I dove into my next book (Faith by Jennifer Haigh, which I'm almost finished with), I realized how much I wasted my time on this one.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

South of Broad: Sadly, overwritten

South of Broad: A NovelSouth of Broad, by Pat Conroy
My rating: 3 out of 5 stars

I have enjoyed some of Conroy's previous novels (The Prince of Tides and Beach Music), so I was looking forward to reading South of Broad. Conroy can tell a sweeping saga and draw the reader in, and this story was no different from his other books.

It's the story of Leopold King (known as "the toad" by his friends--isn't that kind of them?), who finds his 9-year-old brother dead in the bathtub when he is only 8 years old. This tragedy shapes his life from then on. One day in late summer, right before he is to start his senior year in high school, he discovers that his ultra-serious and severe school principal/Joyce scholar mother used to be a nun. He also meets a motley crew of friends, including Charleston snobs Molly, Chad, and Fraser; mountain hillbillies Niles and Starla (yes, a novel with both of the names Niles and Fraser!); tragic figures Trevor and Sheba Poe; and African-American heroes Ike and Betty (who integrate the high school all too easily).

Where do I start with what was wrong with this novel? First of all, the writing--terribly overwritten. I didn't find the characters to be believable at all, and furthermore I couldn't understand their attraction to each other. In spite of the length of the novel, some of the characters fell flat because we don't really get to know them very well. Others are too purely evil or malicious. Some of them I flat out did not like and could not understand what anyone else saw in them (i.e., Chad). Conroy has several of this group of friends marry each other, but I wasn't convinced that most of them really loved each other (with the exception of Ike and Betty). Potentially difficult situations were glossed over (such as the integration of the South Carolina high school and the toxic racism of the late 1960s).

Conroy seemed to pull in every possible salacious and shocking plot element he could think of. Some reviewers have commented that it was a much lower-quality repeat of the Prince of Tides.

In addition, I found a number of editorial errors, one of them a quite surprising timing mistake in the first chapter (first it's 3:00 p.m. in one chapter, and then it's lunch time during the next chapter...on the same day). The book needed an editor with a heavier hand...especially to fix a lot of the unbelievable dialogue...not to mention the lack of chemistry between the characters. (For God's sake, why on earth did Molly stay with Chad??? At one point, she is furious when he discovers he's having another affair...and then suddenly she doesn't care any more??? Really? And why did Leo stay with Starla?)

However, I agree with writer Chris Bohjalian's review in the Washington Post:
"I should note that even though I felt stage-managed by Conroy's heavy hand, I still turned the pages with relish. Conroy is an immensely gifted stylist, and there are passages in the novel that are lush and beautiful and precise. No one can describe a tide or a sunset with his lyricism and exactitude."
Conroy makes the city of Charleston come to life, and he describes the terror of experiencing a hurricane. At times, he gets close to describing what it's like to have friends for life. Too bad I didn't like or believe in half of the characters.

I expected so much more from a talented author. Let's hope the next one will be better.

Friday, September 2, 2011

That Day in September: 9/11 up close and personal

That Day In SeptemberThat Day in September, by Artie Van Why
My rating: 3.5 of 5 stars

Artie Van Why worked right across from the twin towers on that fateful day in 2001. This book is his personal account of September 11 and its aftermath on his life.

Written in a very simple style and self published, the book describes Artie's life in New York (how he ended up there and got discouraged while pursuing his dream to be an actor). He worked in a law firm's word processing center across from the World Trade Center, and on the morning of 9/11 he heard a horrifically loud boom above him. When he and his coworkers rushed out into the street, they saw people falling through the skies.

Van Why's personal account of his love for the World Trade Center and its surrounds, and the description of how the events of 9/11 affected his psyche, is touching and very personal. He speaks about going to an AA meeting at noon on that day and feeling so comforted and at home with others who had experienced similar trauma.

September 11 served as a wake-up call for Van Why. He realized that life is too short to work in an unrewarding job, coasting through life. He writes of how he tenses each time he hears an airplane overhead...or a siren.

I always think of 9/11 when I'm at the airport, particularly when I'm being dropped off by my family for a business trip. I was on my way out of town that morning and first learned about 9/11 in the airport lounge, as everyone was glued to the television overhead. Now when I fly away from my family, I always think of those people on United Flight 93, whose goodbyes to their loved ones were their last ones forever.

Artie Van Why now lives in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, and works at a small theater. He moved to be closer to his parents. Take a look at this BBC News article to read an excerpt of the book--and view a slide show with Artie's memories. He found that writing about his experiences--and speaking about them live in a play--helped him process his profound, painful feelings and memories.

*Disclosure: I received a copy of this book to facilitate my review.

State of Wonder: A female Heart of Darkness

State of WonderState of Wonder, by Ann Patchett
My rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Ann Patchett's latest novel begins in Minnesota and travels to the jungles of Brazil, where a naive and emotionally stifled researcher, Marina Singh, hopes to discover what happened to her research partner, Anders Eckman. The pharmaceutical company Marina and Anders work for, Vogel, is funding the research of a new fertility drug in the Amazonian jungle led by her medical school mentor, the brilliant and chilly Dr. Annick Swenson.

Marina and Vogel CEO (and Marina's lover) "Mr. Fox" receive a sketchy aerogram from Swenson, informing them almost as an afterthought that Anders has died in the jungle. Mr. Fox asks Marina to go to Brazil to find out what is going on with the drug development (since Dr. Swenson is nearly completely incommunicado) and Karen, Anders' wife, wants her to find out how Anders died--if indeed he really is dead.

When Marina arrives in Manaus, Brazil, she must get past the Bovenders--the couple who live in Dr. Swenson's apartment while she's in the jungle. No one knows how to get to the research station, deep in the heart of the jungle, where Dr. Swenson is studying the Lakashi tribe--whose women bear children into their 70s.

With the exception of Easter, Winston, Rodrigo, and a few tribal members, this book focuses on the antics of the foreigners. I'm not sure whether leaving out the Brazilians' perspectives and personalities was intended. It would have been nice to have understood the Lakashi more, but perhaps this is another point of the book: even though Dr. Swenson had been living among them for years, she still viewed them with a sense of privilege and distance, just as the reader is forced to view them.

Marina constantly makes questionable decisions (such as packing her very expensive, irreplaceable phone in her checked luggage, only to lose it) and it's difficult to understand her alliances. Why on earth is she attracted to the boring Mr. Fox? And does she have any friends or anyone else who will miss her while she is gone? It would appear not. Why was she concerned about taking the others down the river but not be concerned about her beloved Easter (the native child)? I found her difficult to relate to and understand, although sympathetic at the same time. She's haunted by a traumatic experience in her medical training and feelings of abandonment, made only worse by the anti-malarial drug Lariam. (It made me feel fortunate that I took Lariam in my 20s a few times with no ill effects!)

Perhaps that's Patchett's best talent as a writer: her main characters are multidimensional and full of layered depths, although the lesser character development can suffer (for example, Mr. Fox). Even though Annick Swenson can be heartless and emotionally cold and possessing highly questionable ethics, she was a fascinating character. Ultimately she attempts to sacrifice her own health for what she believes is greater good in the world. This is a book pondering ethics and colonialism, just like the Heart of Darkness.

The book passed one of my biggest tests: I thought about it while lying in bed at night and I got up early to finish it. It stuck with me. Well done, Ms. Patchett.