Posted in Books I've Read, Observations about Life

Words Have Power

img_6692For Banned Books Week this week, I’ve been reading up on why books get challenged and banned.  I made myself a fun little project, where I went through many of the challenged books I have on my shelf and tagged them with Post-its as to why.

First off, when we talk about challenged and banned books, we’re usually talking about from schools.  Mostly middle schools and high schools.  There are some extremists who try to get books banned from public libraries or taken off the shelf at bookstores, but those  challenges are less common.

Why do people want to ban books?  It seems like the people who want to ban books recognize the power of words, and they’re afraid of that power.  Words lead to thought, which lead to ideas, which lead to challenging, questioning, and often disagreeing with the status quo.

Give the people contests they win by remembering the words to more popular songs or the names of state capitals or how much corn Iowa grew last year.  Cram them full of noncombustible data, chock them so damn full of ‘facts’ they feel stuffed, but absolutely ‘brilliant’ with information.  Then they’ll feel they’re thinking, they’ll get a sense of motion without moving.  And they’ll be happy, because facts of that sort don’t change.  Don’t give them any slippery stuff like psychology or sociology to tie things up with.

-From Fahrenheit 451, by Ray Bradbury

So why don’t some people want others (but especially kids) to think?  I believe it’s for a few reasons.

First, book banners believe that they know the “right” way to live, and don’t want to offer alternatives.  Some people believe that the only thing that stops others from making bad choices is prevention from there being a choice.  They cloak kids in misinformation and deception, saying it’s for their own good.  We know it doesn’t work.  When abstinence is the only option, kids get pregnant.  When we lie and say all drugs (even marijuana) will kill you, then we lose our credibility when we say that spice and bath salts are actually really dangerous.

Second, thinking kids are questioning kids.  Teens are already rebellious.  They talk back, they annoy, and they think they know it all.  Why add fuel to that fire?  In my mind, that’s the time to add fuel to that particular fire, before it’s all burned out and ashes going cold.  Teenagers are looking for their place in the world.  Help them learn to think before they become mindless adults.  They’re already worried about the upcoming zombie apocalypse, and in some ways they ‘re probably aware that it’s already here.

Third, denial.  If we deny that bad language, sexual behaviors, violence, and racism exist, then it won’t.  Oh, if only it were that easy!  Taxes would have ceased to exist years ago.  Along with traffic and those people who take 20 minutes to special order coffee at Starbucks.

Denial doesn’t work.

Thinking, arguing, discoursing work.  Where do you stand on book banning?  What’s your favorite banned book?

Posted in Books I've Read, Observations about Life

Banned Books Week!

img_6699This week, September 25- October 1, is banned books week.

There are a lot of reasons books get banned, but what it all boils down to is that something offends someone.  Usually they’re big themes, like language, sexuality, racial or ethnic tensions, violence, religion, or addiction.  But the one thing that all banned books have in common is that someone, somewhere, found value in what the author had to say.

I’m anti-censorship.  I think that the only kind of censorship that should exist is personal censorship.  By that, I mean that if you don’t want to read it (or don’t want your minor children to read it), then don’t.  Most schools, even if a books is assigned, will allow a child to read an alternate if their parent objects.  But don’t negate my reality, or what I want to learn about the world, by demanding it be pulled out of schools, taken off the shelf at libraries, unwelcome in a bookstore.

Provocative themes make us think.  They expand the world, get us talking.

I haven’t liked every book I’ve ever read.  Some of them have even offended me.  But that doesn’t mean I want to control someone else’s exposure to it.  In reality, we’re more and more exposed to all kinds of themes and content.  On the internet, on TV, on billboards, through overheard conversations in a restaurant, on social media.

The upside of that is that there are all these wonderful ideas floating around, being shared.

The downside of that is that there are some offensive ideas floating around too.

I believe in balance, and that we can’t have one without the other.  In the interest of being able to obtain all those wonderful ideas, I’ll deal with the ones I don’t like too.

Just because it offends me, doesn’t mean if will offend you.

And vice versa.

Exposure to a variety of ideas encourages independent thinking, synthesis, discussion, and sometimes debate.

Let’s not lose sight of that.

Here’s a link to the most challenged books of 2015.

Here’s a link to the most challenged books of 2000- 2009.

What do you think about challenged books and censorship?

Posted in Books I've Read, Observations about Life, Random stuff about me

Most Challenged Books of 2000- 2009

img_6665I printed out the list of most challenged books, and highlighted the ones I’ve read.  Of the 100 books on the list, I’ve read 24.  Not too bad, but not great either.

I read many of these books, like Killing Mr. Griffen and Scary Stories, as a teenager or child.  I remember being shocked and saddened by Killing Mr. Griffen.  I sympathized with the main character, and how she got pulled into a situation that got out of control.  It made me think about peer pressure and morality (though I wouldn’t have articulated it that way as a kid).  Reading books like these made me a more empathetic person.

I was surprised to see a lot of these books on the list.  Possibly the book I was most surprised by was The Great Gilly Hopkins.  I’m sure I was under 10 when I read this, and I loved it.  Gilly was fearless and terrible.  But she was also frightened, desperate to be loved, and in the end, able to trust again.

I had to look up why this book was challenged, and it appears to be because of Gilly’s flaws.   There is also a section where Gilly tries to get under her African-American teacher’s skin my giving her a card that implies a racial slur.  (I honestly didn’t understand what she was implying when I read this as a kid.)

The thing is that Gilly is awful at times, but it’s also clear that she’s a kid desperately trying to figure out where she fits in, angry at the world and trying to alienate everyone.  As a child, this was a thought-provoking concept.  It set the groundwork for me to understand that everyone has a story.

Of the books on this list that I’ve read, each brings something valuable.  Learning, growing, and changing can be painful, but they’re so worth it.  Books should encourage these processes.  In order to do so, they have provoke strong reactions.  (We don’t learn from anything we’re lukewarm about).  So, if they provoke strong reactions, that means that someone is going to want them banished.

In that sense, a challenge is a compliment to a book.  It means that it invoked that strong emotional response.  I hope that most of the challenges fail, and that adults and teens read these books and have strong reactions to them.  I hope they’re debated loudly on Facebook and Twitter and in coffee houses and over dinner.  I hope that people look at the list, and go out and tell at least one person about a book on this list, how it affected them.

Tell me what you think about any of the books on this list.  Do any surprise you?  Do you love any of them?  Hate any of them?

 

Posted in Books I've Read, Observations about Life, Writing

Don’t Ban Eleanor & Park

71lklmxqgjlWith Banned Book Week coming up next week, I thought it was important to talk about a book I liked.  Eleanor & Park is a YA novel published in 2013 that’s been challenged a number of times by people who think that parts of it are offensive or inappropriate.

This is an open letter regarding the challenges to Eleanor & Park.  I’ve also sent a copy of this letter to ncac@ncac.org

To Whom It May Concern:

I am writing to you about Eleanor & Park, by Rainbow Rowell. I’m an adult who read, and loved this book.

I know that this book has been challenged a lot, and I wanted to let you know why I think that it shouldn’t be banned.

I read this book breathlessly, in one day.  I stayed up late because I couldn’t put it down.

This is exactly the kind of book I wish I’d had when I was growing up.  Both Eleanor and Park were so real.  I could empathize with Eleanor.  The strange girl who feels overweight and uncomfortable.  Who wants to fit in, but also wants to stand out and be noticed for who she is.

The dominant themes in the books are domestic violence, child abuse, body image issues, and bullying.  While I couldn’t relate to all of those issues, I could relate to some.  As an awkward teen, I would have loved to read a book that talked these issues in a candid way.

What makes this book so magical is that even though those issues are big and important in the book, the story is ultimately about Eleanor and Park, and how they find one another and fall in love.  Too many stories about big issues are about the big issues, and ignore the human factor, that people can have problems, lots of problems, and still want to fall in love.  Still want to have friends and find their tribe, the people for whom it doesn’t matter if they’re weird or overweight or have things going on at home.

Don’t try to deny kids the right to read this book.  Don’t try to screen kids from reality.  It doesn’t work.  Because they’re either going through some of these issues, or they know someone else who is.  Reading fiction like this can help make us all into more sensitive, caring human beings.  Reading fiction like this can help teens be more prepared for navigating difficult issues.  If nothing else, books like this means that it’s okay to talk about these things.  It gives teens a language to talk about it, a voice to represent them, and a venue to discuss it, even if they don’t say that it’s about them.

I sympathized with both Eleanor and Park.  I laughed out loud sometimes.  And I cried at other parts.  The ending was lovely and perfect.

Life is messy.  This book helps to make sense of some of that.

Thanks for your time.

If you read this book, what do you think?  If you have an opinion, here’s a link to Rainbow Rowell’s website where she explains what you can do to help fight censorship of this book.71lklmxqgjl

Posted in Books I've Read, Observations about Life

What Makes a Memorable Book?

img_6613I read a lot of books every year.  Some are new, and some are re-reads.  I don’t re-read them because I’ve forgotten them.  I re-read because it’s like visiting an old friend.  If I’m re-reading a book, it’s most often because I remember it, and remembered how much I loved it.

So, what exactly makes for a memorable book?

It has something different.  I went through a time when I read a ton of romance novels, and many of them were the same.  Romance novels, in general, have a pretty predictable structure.  Boy meets girl, boy and girl fall in love, or just have sparks, insurmountable obstacle happens, obstacle is surmounted against all odds, happily ever after.  A romance novel doesn’t have to deviate from that recipe in order to be good.  But it does have to bring a more interesting conflict than the normal one.  Sign of Seven trilogy, by Nora Roberts comes to mind.  It’s romance mixed with paranormal happenings.  If you haven’t read it, but you like romance and big evil bad guys, check it out.

Characters have unique traits.  I love characters with unique traits.  In The Language of Flowers, by Vanessa Diffenbaugh, the main character is antisocial and communicates through flowers.  In Where the Heart Is, by Billie Letts, Novalee is superstitious about 7s.  The thing about unique traits, though, is that they can’t be for no reason and have no impact on the story.  Character traits have to mean something, or else they fade into nothingness in my memory.  Not to mention, meaningless quirks can irritate me into abandoning the book.

The characters make me care about them.  Not all characters have to be likable, and not everyone has to be a hero, but I have to be drawn into the story and care what happens, otherwise I’m indifferent.  When I’m indifferent to a character and story, I end up putting the book back down.  Holden Caulfield from the Catcher in the Rye is an example, as are Amy and Nick Dunne from Gone Girl.  Sure, they start off as likable, but I quickly came to hate them both.  It didn’t stop me from reading.  I wanted to know what happened!

It gets an emotional reaction.  This one is related to the last one, but if a book makes me laugh or cry, I’ll remember it.  I cry every single time I read Where the Red Fern Grows, by Wilson Rawls.  I’ve reread that book so many times over the last 20 (or so) years, but it gets me every time, just like it did the first time.  At least I know to have tissues.

But my emotions aren’t manipulated, and they don’t come cheap.  If I’m going to invest in a character, I want the sense that the author is invested in the character too.  If bad things are going to happen to a character, I want to know who the character is, if you expect me to care.  In The Martian, by Andy Weir, I was really rooting for Mark Watney to get off Mars.  My heart raced every time something bad happened to him, and I was genuinely excited when he was finally rescued.  I wouldn’t have been so invested if Mark had just rolled over and died, or passively waited to be rescued.  He worked for the victory, so I happily cheered him on.

The title makes sense.  This one isn’t a deal breaker, but I remember a book so much better if the title actually relates to the book in a meaningful/ memorable way.  The Night Circus is clearly and unambiguously related to the plot.  Bonus points because it’s title that would make me want to read the book.

What makes a book memorable to you?  Do you re-read?

 

Posted in Books I've Read, Observations about Life, Random stuff about me

How I Decide When to Abandon a Book

img_6558Readers can pretty much fall into two categories: those who will abandon a book, and those who won’t.

I’m not a terribly picky reader.  I like books my friends don’t.  In the last month, I’ve completed the Percy Jackson series by Rick Riorden and finally read The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood.  I’ve read a few books I loved (A Head Full of Ghosts by Paul Tremblay, All the Bright Places by Jennifer Niven), one I hated, new books, and rereads (There Will Be Lies by Nick Lake).

Even though I read about 90-100 books a year, I abandon only about 2 a year.  Even though I don’t do it often, when I do, I don’t feel the least bit bad about it.  I decide based on a few things.

  1.  The book doesn’t speak to me. Everyone’s tastes are different, and I’ve abandoned “good” books which simply didn’t interest me.  The Goldfinch, by Donna Tartt was one of those.  My friends read it and liked it, it was reviewed well, and I could even tell it was an interesting book.  But for some reason, it didn’t speak to me, so I put it down. By this, I mean that I couldn’t relate, and I sometimes read paragraphs but didn’t remember what I’d just read.  When I find myself doing this with a book, I know it’s time to abandon.
  2. I keep finding reasons to put it down.  When I really like a book, it’s hard for me to do anything else until I’ve finished it.  I carry it around the house with me.  I stay up late reading it.  I’m late to appointments.  If I pull out of the driveway and have left it inside, I’ll go back in to retrieve it, just in case I have two minutes while waiting somewhere.  When I’m not into a book, it’s easy for me to become a responsible adult.
  3. I can’t figure out the point of the book.  I like plot.  I like to understand the point, the message, the happenings in the book.  If it’s just a random collection of stuff on the page, it loses my interest.  I’ve known way too many people who think they’re interesting (but aren’t) to spend time with a book that doesn’t go anywhere.
  4. It’s forgettable.  If I have trouble remembering what’s going on in the book when I pick it back up to read, that’s a good sign that it’s either not a good book, or just not a good fit for me.
  5. I hate the characters.  I’m fine with characters not being likable, but they should be interesting.  I love a good anti-hero, and I have no problem rooting for the bad guy.  I’m not a snob, and enjoy books that are widely hated (like Twilight).  But sometimes, I hate the characters, find them dull and boorish.  And then I know it’s time to go.  I stayed with the Casual Vacancy longer than I would have if it were any author other than JK Rowling, but after awhile, I couldn’t stand those characters one more moment, and I quit reading in the middle of a sentence in the middle of a paragraph.  And I never regretted it.

I read for entertainment, and if I’m not entertained, then I let go.

“One can never read too little of bad, or too much of good books: bad books are intellectual poison; they destroy the mind.

In order to read what is good one must make it a condition never to read what is bad; for life is short, and both time and strength limited.”
― Arthur Schopenhauer

Posted in Books I've Read, Observations about Life

French Fries, Salad, and How This Post is Actually About Books

IMG_6093I’ve said time and time again that I prefer novels to “literature” because novels tend to contain plot, whereas much literature focuses on language.  That’s true, and I stand behind that.  However, many classics and literary fiction, I’m finding, also contain ideas.  I love ideas and thought exercises.  In looking at the books I most enjoy, they blend plot and character with ideas.  The books aren’t just about Jane Doe who does something and interacts with Jack and Jill and does some stuff.  The books I love most are about concepts.

The Fault in Our Stars, for example, was laced with existentialism.  I read complaints that teenagers don’t really talk the way August and Hazel do, but I disagree.  As a teenager, I was an amateur philosopher, discussing grand ideas with my friends.  As two teens intimately acquainted with dying, I can believe that August and Hazel would look to symbolism and philosophy to find their place in the world.

I’ve realized recently that many of the books I read most are not the ones I actually enjoy the most.  I really like reading romance novels.  They’re easy to get through, fun to read, and fast.  But on the enjoyment scale, most of them hit around a 3 out of 5, meaning I liked them but didn’t love them.  Same with many YA novels.  In contrast, books like Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, The Martian by Andy Weir, and Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel are among the books I enjoyed most last year, because they’re about concepts and ideas as well as plot and character.  They’re about racism, loneliness, isolation, the characters’ places in the world while being narrated by an engaging person in an interesting plot.

One of the things I like best about my book club is that the other women pick books I’d probably never choose to read on my own.  Some of those books have ended up being favorites of mine.  Or if not favorites, have made me think.

Now, how does this post relate to the title?  Well, French fries are my favorite food.  I could eat them all day, every day, except that they’re not actually that good for me.  I love salad, but it never seems as appealing to eat as French fries do.  Yet, sometimes when I dig into a salad and taste all those fresh flavors, I’m reminded of why I love them so.

Books are kind of like that.  While there’s nothing wrong with junk food novels, when I fill up on them, I don’t have any room left over for the good stuff.  Yeah, sometimes those other books end up being bland and flat, but every once in awhile, I find one that’s so fresh, full of invigorating ideas, that it causes me to look at the world differently.

I live for those books.