Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Grab a Glass of Wine, and Let's Snark

Book 51: 
My Fair Lazy: One Reality Television Addict's Attempt to Discover if Not Being a Dumbass is the New Black,
Or, A Culture-up Manifesto

Jen Lancaster

Any time I pick up a Jen Lancaster book, or in this case, listen to one, I feel like I am sitting down to catch up with a snarky, wine-swilling, smart-assed girl friend.  In other words, it's a good time.

I first discovered Jen Lancaster in Bitter is the New Black, and found myself laughing out loud on an airplane between Boston and Atlanta.  I couldn't help it. It was that funny.

I've read all of Lancaster's books, but some I've identified more with than others.  My Fair Lazy was one where I felt like we were largely on the same wave length.  I'm nowhere near the reality TV junkie Jen is, but I do like my share of the Real Housewives .  Similarly, The Breakfast Club and Sixteen Candles hold a special place in my heart.  So I was right there with Lancaster when she realized that her knowledge of all things pop culture might not be completely helpful to her in a number of social situations.  And thus begins her Jenaissance. Her quest to get some culture and expand her horizons.

Lancaster's series of essays around this subject are both amusing and thought provoking, and at times, poignant.  As she explores live theater, world cuisines, and difference cities, Jen realizes her attitude may have been one of the reasons she lost her job in the dot com bust of the early 2000s.

She learns a lot about herself, which is endearing to read about. Anyone who's been on any type of journey of self-discovery will relate. At the same time, she learns to balance her love of the superficial with an appreciation of the cultural and intellectual. In other words, well-rounded.

Chock full of the wit and style Lancaster is known for, My Fair Lazy will not disappoint fans, or newcomers, to her work.  And we all know that anyone who can still argue the finer points of Jake Ryan is bound to be fun at a dinner party. 

Sunday, September 26, 2010

And This Book Has Been Challenged/Banned Why?

Book 50: Summer of My German Soldier
Bette Greene

Summer of My German Soldier was on the summer reading list before the start of my sophomore year Honors English class.  Of the four books assigned for summer reading that year, I recall finishing only this one. I loved it.  So when I saw it on the frequently banned and challenged list of books from the American Library Association (ALA), I decided to make it this year's Banned Books Week reading selection.

I wonder if Bette Greene knew, when Summer was published in 1973, that it would still be relevant in 2010? Summer of My German Soldier tells the story of Patty Bergen, a young Jewish girl growing up in rural Arkansas in World War II.  Often the subject of her mother's criticism and her father's violent temper, Patty's only real friend is Ruth, the family's housekeeper. That all changes the summer Patty is twelve, and German POW's are relocated to Patty's hometown. 

Patty befriends on soldier, Anton, and when he escapes, she helps hide him.  This was the gist of what I remembered about the story, all these years later.  And as I started reading the book, I kept thinking to myself 'Why on earth was this book challenged?'  I assumed it was because of the racial slurs, but when I looked it up at the ALA website, that wasn't it.  WARNING:SPOILER ALERT. I'M GIVING AWAY THE ENDING. I'll encapsulate the spoiler by  (* * *) and when it is over, repeat that as well. Scroll past this if you don't want to be spoiled.

*  *  *

The book has been challenged because Anton dies in the end (off screen, so to speak. Patty hears about it after the fact and there is no description of what happens) and then Patty is sent to reform school for helping an escaped Federal prisoner. 

*  *  *

The challenge against the book is the age appropriateness of the ending.  I don't get it.  I was much more traumatized by Old Yeller than Summer of My German Soldier.

I loved the book this time as much as the first time I read it.  I even found myself underlining and highlighting passages throughout the book, shocked by the relevance to what is currently going on in the world.

Patty's classmate, Edna Louise, says at one point, "It is too.  God is on America's side and anybody who's against us is on the devil's side, and that's the truth."  Sounds a lot like the rhetoric going on with the war against terror and America's viewpoint that "you're with us or against us."  We still haven't learned that god doesn't pick a side in any war.

Similarly, Ruth recounts talking to the head of the draft board trying to get her son out of the WWII draft so he can finish his education.  The draft board tells Ruth, "...Why this is your boy's country, too, and he's gotta do his share so this country will always belong to us Americans."  The Irony or reading that sentiment in the same week we failed to repeal "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" was not lost on me. We expect people to serve and possibly die for our country, yet we aren't willing to let them acknowledge who they are.

Patty's world view begins changing. She's growing up, and hears things going on in her community, and wonders "Is it possible that the rich would steal from the poor?"  While maybe not stealing in the literal sense, it certainly seems to be the haves controlling our destiny, and often without regard for the have-nots (and also reminds me of the line from U2's God Part II where Bono sings "The rich stay healthy, the sick stay poor.")

And perhaps to me, the most profound statement from Anton.  "I believe that love is better than hate. And that there is more nobility in building a chicken coop than in destroying a cathedral."  Substitute temple, mosque, and church for cathedral, and I think that's a pretty spot on observation for today as well.

This amazing story, and its relevance to what's going on in the world today, and people want it banned? How sad. Shame on us as a society for even entertaining the idea of banning books.

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Banned Books Week

Banned Books week starts today and runs through 2 October.  I have read some bad books. I have read books that offended me on some level.  But I've never read a book I think should be banned.  That is an evil,scary practice to me.

I remember in high school, The Grapes of Wrath was one of the books challenged in our school district. The Junior and Senior Honors/AP English classes at my school invited the challenger in to hear why he felt these books should be banned.

He objected to the use of the word "goddamn" in the book.  The use of racial slurs didn't seem to bother him too much. He said, "that was the vernacular of the time. It is what a lot of people would have said." To which my friend Will replied, "And you think ignorant farmers wouldn't have used 'goddamn'?"  If we banned every book that had an offensive word in it, we'd have nothing to read. Plus, most people I know are smart enough to understand the context in which words are used.

But I look at the American Library Association's list of Banned Books, and I start to get a little ill.  I've read and loved more than half of the books on the Banned Books list (2000-2009 most challenged/banned). And I think how empty my life would be without these books. 

Take the Harry Potter books, the most challenged/banned of 2000-2009. I adore these books. I know that when they were challenged in a district near me, the woman leading the charge had not even read the books. She had read that "other people" said they were bad and led a campaign to get them out of her children's school libraries.  To challenge something you've not even read?  That's such an ignorant thing to do. And to presume that you know better for someone else's children? No.

At Dragon*Con this year, I attended a young adult literature panel called "Freaks and Geeks in Harry Potter."  I was older than a lot of the attendees. But most of the audience grew up with the Harry Potter books. And to hear these young people, who were all geeks or nerds or dorks or artists or in some other way, not quite the popular mainstream in their schools, say how much it meant to them to have the heroes in the Harry Potter books also be freaks and geeks brought me to tears.

Because perhaps in youth, more than any other time, it is important to know that when you aren't quite sure who you are and how you fit into the world, it is important to know you aren't alone. And so many of the banned and challenged books are aimed at this group of people. 

I think most people who challenge books are motivated by fear. They are scared of their children being exposed to new ideas. I was blessed to be raised by readers.  People who felt that reading was one of the best ways to be exposed to new ideas and expand thought. Open one's mind to new possibilities.

Banning books narrows our minds. It reinforces the idea that there's only one way to think, one way to be. It encourages fear and xenophobia. It subjects people to warped understanding of content, like Wesley Scroggins'  description of a rape in Speak  (just one book he is trying to get removed from school shelves in Missouri) as "soft porn."  I don't know what types of porn Mr. Scroggins typically reads or views, but it has always been my belief that non-consensual sex is an act of violence, and not titillating.  I was also surprised by his criticism of the classification of some of the girls in Speak who partied on Saturday night, but appeared as virginal goddesses in Sunday morning services.  Frankly, that describes most people I know.  There's quite a fine line between Saturday night and Sunday morning.  I was also disappointed that, as an associate professor of management, Mr. Scroggins' is so literal and doesn't appear to understand hyperbole.

I find that the most profound ideas, the stories that made me think the most as a student and young adult, are represented in the challenged and banned books.  So read one. Encourage your friends and family to read them, and to think. I live in an area where intellectualism is often treated as a four-letter word.  Well, I'm quite fond of four letter words, so I'm proud to wear that label.

And if reading controversial ideas and thinking for myself makes me somehow subversive, then that's a label I'll proudly adopt as well.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Speak. Speak Loudly. It's Subversive.

Book 49: Speak
Laurie Halse Anderson

Wesley Scroggins is wrong.  I am so glad that I start this post by saying that. Mr. Scroggins should be as well, as it is certainly the kindest thing that I think about him.

I didn't intend to read this book. But then, a post came across my Twitter feed yesterday.  This Wesley Scroggins was trying to get Speak, along with several other books, banned from a school district in Missouri. (Side note, I've since learned he's also trying to get text books with references to evolution banned, as well as anything that disagrees with his personal interpretation of the Constitution. See http://www.boarddocs.com/mo/republic/Board.nsf/ab6bd8d56fbee98a8725731b0060c686/ea8aaefc50a6f9a387257727007d2776/$FILE/School%20Board%20Presentation%20%28Scroggins%29.pdf)

In a recent letter to the editor, Scroggins took his opinions to the newspaper reading public (http://www.news-leader.com/article/20100918/OPINIONS02/9180307/Scroggins-Filthy-books-demeaning-to-Republic-education), alluding to  several works, including Speak, as soft porn.  Now, this captured my interest.  I'm no fan of banning any kind of book and I trusted the opinions of other book bloggers I follow who said this guy was way off the mark.

But I think for myself. And before I decided to run my mouth about Scroggins' gross misstatements about this book, I decided to read it and decide for myself.  I bought Speak after work tonight. I read it in a little over three hours.

Speak is nothing like porn of any type. The sex in Speak, without graphic description, but with emotion, is Rape.  Not sex. Not titillating to anyone but the basest of people.  Mr. Scroggins is utterly and completely wrong.  

Laurie Halse Anderson has written a luminous book.  An odd characterization, luminous, given that so much of the book is centered around the depression of Melinda Sordino after she was raped at a party before the start of her Freshman year of high school.

Anderson hits the nuances of cliques perfectly. How fitting in seems to be so effortless to some and so unachievable to others.  The struggles of living in a less than perfect family.  A family you want to talk to and confide in but you're scared to reach out to.  Boring teachers talking about things you think can't possibly matter in real life.  Figuring out who your friends are.  Literally losing your voice because you're afraid that if you speak, all your dark secrets will come spilling out for the world to see.

In Speak, Anderson creates real characters, relatable even if you don't share their exact experiences. You still know all these people from your own high school days.  The book isn't preachy, it isn't condescending.  It doesn't talk down to the readers or marginalize their experiences.  It doesn't glorify that underbelly of high school where teenagers are really trying out, for the first time, what they think adulthood is about.

I thought Speak was brilliantly done, and I wish more books like this had been around when I was in high school.

As a side note, Banned Books week starts 25 September. As part of that, I'll be re-reading one of my favorite books from high school summer reading.  Summer of my German Soldier for reasons unfathomable to me is on the list of most challenged/banned books from 2000-2009.  I'll be posting on its literary merits, as well as a separate post about my feelings on banning books in general. In that post, I'll also share more of what I find so distressing about Wesley Scroggins' crusade against Speak.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Messy Sloppy Politics

Book 48: Dirty Sexy Politics
Meghan McCain

I don't know precisely what I was expecting from Dirty Sexy Politics but what I got was a hot mess of rambling and meandering writing with a few insights about the Republican party and the inner workings of a presidential campaign thrown in.

Meghan McCain's memoir about her father's 2008 Presidential bid did expose the ugly underbelly of life on the campaign trail.  The insane hours, short tempers, and sexcapades of stressed out staffers are no real surprise. The lack of juicy tidbits in these areas was disappointing.  

I understand from some other reviews that there is a blatant lack of fact checking and editorial oversight in the book. To be honest, I didn't go so far as to try to directly refute anything because I don't care.  I didn't read the book as any form of Republican bashing.  I read it because only a handful of people ever get to experience what Meghan McCain did, as both a blogger and as the candidate's daughter.  I did feel that the writing was at times disjointed, and there did appear to be a lack of good editorial review. 

I was surprised to learn that even as the candidate's daughter, McCain did not have unfettered access to her parents while on the trail. I had always assumed that would be a non-issue. But with campaign leaders concerned about Meghan's blogging of day to day campaign life, as well as her image, they managed to relegate McCain to marginal status within the campaign. They even forced her to go so far as to see image consultants, to get rid of her "stripper hair" and wear the ubiquitous pants suit.

That being said, McCain has what I feel are some golden nuggets of wisdom for the Republican party, and politics in general. First, stop with the double standard for women in the political arena. Who the hell cares about our hair and clothes? Obviously people do, but we don't judge our male candidates the same way, so we shouldn't include it in the evaluation of our female candidates.

Second, McCain urges the party to become more inclusive: embrace technology; don't ignore the youth voting block; don't force all republicans into the same narrow social viewpoints; stop treating intellectualism as a four-letter word.  I think those are incredibly valid points, and I hope McCain uses her rebel tendencies to help further those causes within her party.

Overall, I don't find the book particularly well-written or deeply insightful, but it is a quick read and does provide an inside look at a world few of us will ever see firsthand. Meghan McCain is a smart woman. She graduated from Columbia. I like to think this book is more a reflection of her age than her ability.  

Saturday, September 18, 2010

A Cool, Classy YA Heroine, Great Action, and Romance

Book 47: Clockwork Angel
Cassandra Clare

Cassie Clare is back, with a fantastic new heroine and a deeper look into the world of the Shadowhunters.  Set in 1878, this first book in the Infernal Devices series brings Tessa Gray into London, searching for her brother. Just sixteen, Tessa finds herself kidnapped by members of the Pandemonium Club, a secret organization  made up of mundanes (humans), and Downworlders (Vampires, Werewolves, Warlocks, and Demons). There, Tessa learns she herself is a Downworlder, with the rare ability to transform into another person. Tessa learns she is to be married to the Magister, the unknown leader of the Pandemonium Club, because her transformation ability will help him further his nefarious plans.

With no sign of her brother, Tessa takes refuge with the Shadowhunters (very cool, skilled warriors who fight to rid the world of demons) at the London Institute.  They agree help Tessa find her brother, in exchange for Tessa using her powers to help them.  Of course, Tessa finds herself drawn to both Will and Jem, two of the Shadowhunters.

Fans of the Mortal Instruments series will find familiar names like Herondale and Lightwood, as well as familiar and favorite characters like Magnus Bane.  This book spoils nothing in Mortal Instruments series.

What I like about Clare is that she creates strong female characters without compromising their femininity. Sure, Tessa was shocked to learn that women in the Shadowhunters fought alongside the men, but when the going got rough, she doesn't wait on Will or Jem to save her. In fact, she relies on the story of Queen Boudica (who I also wrote about earlier in this blog) to help her fight.  She doesn't wrap up her happiness in finding true love.  She considers herself on equal footing with both her suitors.  

I don't know yet if I am Team Will or Team Jem in this series. I'm definitely Team Tessa, as I like this character. But we'll have to learn more about Jem and Will for me to make a decision there. And as any reader of the Mortal Instruments saga knows, Clare has some pretty dynamic plot twists that could have us all changing our minds.

Clare has written another winning book, and I can't wait for the sequel, which comes out in September 2011.


Monday, September 13, 2010

I Am Not Superwoman... or Am I?

Book 46: I Am Not Superwoman
Further Essays on Happier Living
Michele Woodward

Back in June, I read Michele's first book.  I didn't intend to review an author more than once in the blog this year, at least not in close succession, but sometimes life intervenes and here I am, finding myself doing exactly that.

In the interest of full disclosure, Michele sent me this autographed copy of her book, for which I am grateful.  If I had hated it, I would have found a reason to not write about it.  So what I'm saying here is truly what I think, but I can't have y'all thinking I'll say nice things just because someone gives me a book.

With that out of the way, I'll tell you why I am a content reader.  When you're in the right headspace, I think things happen because you need them or are ready for them. This has been a huge year of change for me on a personal level (more on that another day) and one of the things that I did was start reading more from life coaches and people who appear to have it all figured out.  I learned that they tend to come at you with a good dose of common sense.  

In Superwoman, Woodward uses her trademark conversational yet funny style to give people- primarily women- the tools to get past the constant pressure to be perfect and instead, be happy.  No, she doesn't have a spell, or a fairy godmother, or a detailed instruction list telling us exactly how to get from feeling the pressure to be superwoman to embracing being just us, but happy.

Instead, she gives readers the tools identify what's not working and suggestions around ways to change whatever it is that is blocking us. Sometimes the things we have to look at are a bit uncomfortable. Like figuring out what makes us feel stuck, or why we feel afraid of change, or why it's important that we know how to manage our money.  The point is, she gets readers thinking about things. Often from a new or different perspective, which has the power to change one's whole perception of life and its possibilities.

Most importantly, she talks about her own need to ask for help sometimes, and her own uncertainties.  Like when she needed help decluttering an area of her house, and brought in a professional to assist.  She talks about examining the "why" that is the reason we do anything.  Making sure it is the right "why's" owning us. All this without being condescending, dismissive, or judgmental.

The essays are the perfect length to read when you just a have a few minutes, or when you need some quick motivation or inspiration.  And yes, this book has Superwoman in the title and is geared toward women. But there's plenty in it for the guys, too.

After this year, and this reading, I've adopted a new definition of  Superwoman: It's being me, being authentic; making deliberate choices for the right reasons, and not being afraid to go after my bliss.

You can get your own copy of I Am Not Superwoman here: http://lifeframeworks.com/

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Book 45: Mr. Peanut
Adam Ross

Marriage has been a theme the last couple of weeks.  No, I'm not planning my own. However, my friend Michelle is planning a wedding, and conversation at our recent girls night out dinner with another friend focused largely on how hard couples must work to be happily married. I read Bad Marie, in which Marie has an affair with father of the child in her charge.  Then I read Mr. Peanut which unravels the mystery surrounding the death of Alice Pepin while examining marriage in general through the relationships of other characters.

I've been finished with Mr. Peanut for over a week now.  I needed a few days to formulate what I wanted to say. Then I spent last weekend geeking out at Dragon*Con. After that, I still needed time to think about what I want to say about Mr. Peanut.  Why? This is Ross' debut novel. He delves into uncomfortable territory- the dark parts of the mind, where a spouse might imagine being suddenly free of his/her partner. He explores the cyclical nature of marriage, the best, blissful, fully connected parts and the lowest, desolate, despairing moments when both partners must decide if they even want to go forward. And he does it all with symbolism, beautiful prose, and forcing readers to go to the darkest places of their own minds all the while spinning a page turning tale that leaves you demanding to know what happens next.

The unravelling of the marriage of David and Alice Pepin, and the mystery of whether David killed Alice or if she committed suicide, is only one part of the story.  There's also the relationship between Detective Hastroll and his wife, and the telling of Ross' interpretation of Sam Sheppard and the murder of his wife. At the same time, there's Pepin's version of his own marriage in a novel he is writing.

At first glance, Ross' view of marriage is a bleak one, more dark than light.  But on closer reading, there's so much more to it than that.  There's caring enough to be pissed off at not understanding one's spouse. There are moments where your heart breaks a little for these characters, just trying to make their relationship work.

The art of M.C. Escher (http://www.mcescher.com/) and the films of Alfred Hitchcock (http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0000033/) symbolize the frenetic feelings and categorizations of of marriage throughout the novel.  I was not familiar with Escher before this book. I recommend browsing through his work before reading the book.  I'd seen a handful of the Hitchcock films, but just signed up for Netflix so that I can see more of them.

At times, reading Mr. Peanut is trying. There's so much going on, and stories within stories and various points of view narrating throughout that it almost feels chaotic. But that's the point, and Ross does it well.  To fully absorb this book, it must be read more than once.  I plan to read it again after watching a few of these Hitchcock films.  But I call Mr. Peanut  one of my top reads of 2010.

Two other book blogs I follow interviewed Mr. Ross.  I highly recommend reading through these posts.  Part 1 can be found here at The Book Lady's Blog (http://www.thebookladysblog.com/2010/08/30/interview-mr-peanut-author-adam-ross/) and Part 2 at Brews and Books (http://brewsandbooks.com/index.php/2010/08/interview-with-mr-peanut-author-adam-ross/)