Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Banned Books Week

Better late than never, I guess. The annual celebration sponsored by the American Library Association (ALA) began on Saturday and runs through the rest of this week. I abhor censorship in all of its forms and so I look forward to this celebration each year. We have a display of frequently challenged/banned books in our library along with lists that patrons can pick up. I particularly enjoy talking with the patrons who come in and are shocked to see certain books on the list. I hear the same things every year. "Why is this on there?" "That's my favorite book!" "I remember reading that when I was little." So, I strike up a conversation and talk about how usually well-intentioned people find something offensive in the books and take it upon themselves to try to remove the book so that no one can access it.

Don't get me wrong, there are some things that I would not care to read for various reasons (other than poor writing). I don't shock easily, but I know of a few books that I would probably pass on. However, I know that there are some people who may enjoy reading the very book that I may find offensive. It doesn't give me the right to attempt to keep those people from reading that book. When it comes to children, their parents are the only ones who should decide what is or is not appropriate for them until they are old enough to make those decisions for themselves. As a democratic society, we should never fear information. Banning books is just ignorant.

There's only one thing I wish ALA would change about this yearly celebration -- the name. You'd be amazed at just how many people think that we're promoting banning books because of the name. Yes, the name does get your attention, but some people don't get it. So, I spend a great deal of time explaining to people that we're promoting freedom to read -- not censorship.

Here are a few links for you to check out if you're interested.

ALA Banned Books Week

Banned Books Online

Amnesty International Banned Books

Banned Books and Censorship

Book Burning (Wikipedia)

Book Burning (Nazis)

Book Burning in the 21st Century

Monday, September 29, 2008

What's Going On?

O.K., this is a strange post, I know. But, I've been trying to access the RIP III site and keep getting a message that says,

"My apologies, however, it doesn't appear you're supposed to be here. Let me know if so."

Is anyone else having trouble accessing Carl's site? Or is it just me? Any help will be appreciated. I would just email Carl, but I don't have his email address. I always just go directly to the site.

Friday, September 26, 2008

How Fiction Works by James Wood

As you can tell by my reviews on this blog, I'm not a big nonfiction reader. However, I do branch out a little every once in a while and read something out of the norm. This is one of those occasions in which I'm glad I did take a chance on something I wouldn't normally pick up. The author looks at specific pieces of literature and discusses why they work or don't work (in his opinion). He discusses all the aspects of fiction writing. However, it's his discussion of character and point of view that interested me the most. I'd like to think that I'm an astute reader, but I realized while reading this book that maybe I'm not all that astute after all. It was really interesting to see how much of a difference it makes when something seemingly minor is changed. I won't go into any great detail with this. However, if you're at all interested in the subject matter, this is a great little book.

I have a stack of about 25 books on my bedside table at the present, but I haven't decided what I'm going to read next. I have a couple of book club meetings coming up in the next week so it will probably be one of those. I actually haven't been reading quite as much as normal because I've been working on knitting a pair of socks. It never fails, as soon as the first hint of autumn rolls in, I'm ready to start knitting again. If I get really brave one day, I may even post a picture.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

The Turn of the Screw by Henry James

Though I hadn't initially chosen this as one of my potential reads for Carl's RIP III challenge, I picked it up at the suggestion of some other bloggers who said this would make a great selection for this challenge. I'm so glad I listened. This is more a novella instead of a full-length novel, but it packs quite a literary punch. It also falls into the category of psychological ghost story just as The Haunting of Hill House does. The main character is a young woman who is hired as governess for two young children at a country estate. The situation is strange from the beginning when her employer, the children's uncle, says that he doesn't want to bothered at all with their care and upbringing. She is to take full and total responsibility and not bother him with anything. It's obvious from the way the governess acts that she is infatuated with this wealthy, mysterious man though she only meets him a couple times.

Upon arriving at Bly, the country estate, she is pleased to find that the little girl in her charge, Flora, is angelic. She worries somewhat about the girl's older brother, Miles, who she meets shortly thereafter when he returns on holiday from boarding school. However, her fears are quickly relieved when she sees Miles for the first time. Like his sister, he is also a beautiful, innocent child. The governess throws herself into her duties and enjoys herself immensely.

However, it isn't long before strange things begin to happen. She is out walking one evening at dusk and suddenly sees a man standing on one of the old towers of the house staring ominously at her. He never speaks and never approaches her and disappears as quickly as he appeared. She is startled by this but chooses not to say anything to Mrs. Grose, the housekeeper, or anyone else for that matter. She wants to fulfill her duties as the person in charge at Bly. So she tries to convince herself that the man was probably just a stranger who wandered onto the estate out of curiosity. He appears again some days later staring in a window of the house as she enters the room. She's so frightened this time that she does tell Mrs. Grose about what she has seen. After she describes the man in great detail, the housekeeper says that she knows who he is -- the deceased assistant to the master, Peter Quint. The governess also tells Mrs. Grose that she knows he was not looking for her but for Miles. She's not sure how she knows this, but she does.

To add to the mystery and unease, she receives a letter from the headmaster at Miles' school saying that he is not welcome to return after the holiday. Again, instead of investigating further, the governess simply decides to ignore the situation because she feels that Miles is too good of a little boy to attend a boarding school like that in the first place. She'll see to his education at the present and deal with finding him a suitable school later. All seems well until the mystery deepens once again when a woman begins to appear to the governess, as well. From her appearance, the governess assumes that this is the children's former governess who died earlier. She describes her as evil incarnate. Following these revelations, the housekeeper reluctantly tells the governess that Miss Jessel and Mr. Quint had had an affair and that they spent a great deal of time with the children. In fact, she says that Mr. Quint showed an "unnatural" interest in Miles. Knowing all of this, the governess believes that the ghosts of Mr. Quint and Miss Jessel have returned for the children. The governess takes it as her personal duty to protect these children who may have been corrupted by these two when they were alive and now have come back for them in death.

The tension quickly builds throughout the story as the governess struggles to maintain her sanity while trying helplessly to protect the children. I won't say much more about the story and what happens because it would definitely take away from the experience of reading it for the first time. I read some critical commentary after reading the book, and it seems that there is a great deal of disagreement among critics regarding what 'really' happens in the book. Just like in the Haunting of Hill House, there is a question as to how much of what is happening is really happening and how much of it exists in the mind of the governess. Again, I won't go into great detail, but it's interesting to see both sides of the argument. For me, I like to think that it really happens the way the governess relates it. It just makes a better story. But, you be the judge.

Monday, September 15, 2008

The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson

This is my first official selection for Carl's RIP III challenge. I had originally included Outer Dark by Cormac McCarthy in my pool of titles, which I read and reviewed last week. However, after reading it, I decided not to include it in my RIP III challenge because I didn't really like it. I know that shouldn't matter, but I don't want to include any books that I don't like in this challenge. Since I only committed to reading two books and I've got until October 31, I have plenty of time to change my mind if I want to.

Now, on to The Haunting of Hill House. This is the perfect book for this challenge. It's deliciously dark and spooky. It's not blood and guts horror. According to the introduction of the Penguin Classics edition that I read, it is considered a psychological ghost story. I have to admit that I think that designation is spot on. The book deals with the terror that can often come from our own mind. There are four main characters, which include Dr. Montague, "an occult scholar looking for solid evidence of psychic phenomena;" Luke who is in line to inherit Hill House; Theodora, a young woman who doesn't reveal much about her private life; and Eleanor Vance. Eleanor has taken the car she shares with her sister and fled to Hill House without letting anyone know where she's going. Eleanor lives with her sister, sleeping on a cot in the baby's room, following the death of their mother. Eleanor spent over a decade caring for her mother who showed no affection or care for Eleanor whatsoever. In fact, Eleanor feels as though she's never belonged anywhere and has never really been loved by anyone.

Eleanor has a very rich interior life, which the reader has access to throughout the book. On her way to Hill House, she indulges multiple fantasies about what her life could be like. She envisions herself living in an enclosed garden and in a large house with lion statues guarding the front of the house. The reader gets the sense early on that Eleanor is in a fragile emotional state, but she's not crazy.

Everyone expects this to be a fun escape from their everyday lives. However, things soon turn serious when Hill House begins to show its true colors. Jackson does such a good job of building suspense and a sense of foreboding as the novel progresses. As the unexplained continues to happen, Eleanor begins to question herself and the other inhabitants of Hill House. The line between reality and the supernatural is blurred to say the least. The reader senses Eleanor's struggle to figure out what's going on around her. At one point, she wonders why the others can hear what's happening when it's going on inside her head.

I won't say more for fear of ruining this for any of you haven't read it. Let me just say that it's a great book and absolutely perfect for this challenge. I read We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Jackson, which I really liked, as well. I'd be hard pressed to decide which I liked best.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Twenty Wishes by Debbie Macomber

This is the fourth book in the Blossom Street series by prolific author Debbie Macomber. The series began with The Shop on Blossom Street and continued with A Good Yarn and Back on Blossom Street. I was first intrigued by the series because of the knitting connection. Just like I love to read books about books, I also love to read books that have references to knitting. I'm not a master knitter by any stretch of the imagination, but I do love to knit. I've read and enjoyed each of the books in the series. They are light, fun, quick reads with a little more depth to them than many books in the same category. I have to admit that I was just a little disappointed in this latest installment. Lydia, the yarn store owner from the first couple books, barely made an appearance at all. In fact, the characters from the first several books were mentioned in passing but were not the main characters for this book. Instead of the series being focused on Lydia and the yarn store, it seems that Macomber is introducing a new store owner from Blossom Street with each new book. This is not really a criticism but more a misunderstanding on my part from what I thought the series was going to be.

In this book, we meet Anne Marie who owns a bookstore on Blossom Street. She's 38 years old and recently widowed. She'd married a much older man who had a family from a previous marriage. At the time of their marriage, Anne Marie didn't think that would be a problem for her. However, as the years passed she found herself desperately wanting to become a mother. She's now dealing with the death of her husband and trying to come to terms with the fact that she'll probably never have a child of her own.

The title of the book comes out of a Valentine's Day party held at the bookstore for several of her friends who are also widows. Though they come from different backgrounds and lifestyles, the women share the fact that they're all recently widowed. As each woman struggles to come to terms with her situation, they decide that they'll each make a list of twenty wishes -- not goals, but simply wishes. This was a way to rejoin the world of the living and look towards the future. I was actually intrigued by the idea of making a list of wishes. We all have things that we would love to be able to do at some point in our lives. I haven't actually started a list, but I have thought about a few things that I might include, such as going to Scotland. I dont' know if it'll ever happen, but it's nice to think about anyway.

As I said earlier, I enjoyed the book but was a little disappointed that there were few references to knitting and that so many new characters are introduced with few appearances from characters from previous books. Many of the individual story lines in the book ended predictably, but I didn't mind that all that much. I guess I'll wait and see what happens when the next book is published, but I'm not sure that I'll continue reading this series at this point.

Monday, September 8, 2008

Outer Dark by Cormac McCarthy

I'm not sure exactly where to start with this one. I can't really say that I enjoyed this book. I really thought I would from the blurb on the back of the book, but it wasn't to be. I haven't read anything else by McCarthy so I don't know if this is typical of his writing or not. If it is, I probably won't be reading any more of his work. The story is about a young woman who has her brother's baby. There's no background information to explain how they came to be alone or why they're living in this remote cabin in the middle of nowhere. The reader isn't told whether the brother rapes his sister or whether she consents to sex with him. All this happens before the story begins. He's afraid that someone will find out about their secret and so he won't call anyone to help her when the time comes to deliver the baby. In reality, I don't think he wanted anyone to be there to witness what he does. After his sister falls asleep, he takes the baby and leaves him in the woods and tells her that the baby died. She soon discovers his lie. While she spends the rest of the book looking for her son, her brother is searching for her. I'm not squeamish, but I could see how some people would find this book more than a little disturbing. There is quite a bit of senseless violence without any redemption. Don't worry about spoilers with this one -- because there really is no plot. Like I said, this one is hard to describe.

Friday, September 5, 2008

The Shack by William P. Young

I read this book for another one of my book clubs, which met last night. I had heard a great deal about this book before picking it up and honestly probably wouldn't have read it had it not been a book club selection. The reviews I've seen have been very mixed -- people either love it or hate it and for various reasons. The book tells the story of Mack, a man struggling with his faith and trying to make sense out of life after the abduction and assumed murder of his youngest daughter. It deals with the big issues that some people have with God. How can a loving God allow such horrible things to happen? What role should organized religion play in a person's spiritual life? How can someone ever be good enough to merit grace?

Several years after the fateful camping trip where Missy was abducted, Mack receives a note in his mailbox. As crazy as it sounds, the note is from God and asks him to meet him at the shack in the Oregon wilderness. Mack knows exactly what shack he's talking about -- the one where his daughter's bloody dress was found during the police search. As you might expect, Mack first assumes that this is a cruel joke or worse yet that the note may be from the killer himself. Mack struggles over what to do, but eventually goes to the shack. What he finds there changes him forever. He spends a weekend with God, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit. They are nothing like he imagines, but he slowly comes to realize that what he needs most is a personal relationship with them. There is some question as to whether this actually happens in the book or if it's a dream. The author leaves that door open for the reader to decide. I don't think it really matters one way or the other. The end result is the same for Mack.

The author originally wrote this book for his children and a few close family members and friends. I think he had ten copies printed if I remember correctly. They passed the book on to others and it took off like wildfire. The book is fiction, but it does have some parallels to the author's life. For me, the book explains the author's journey from pain, grief, and bitterness into a place where he's made peace with himself and his God. Some who've read it have been deeply touched by it. Others, mostly evangelical Christians, oppose what they believe is a departure from scripture. For me, I read it as a book of fiction about a man's life and how he dealt with a tragedy that I would never want to have to live through. The book is well-written and imaginative. Personally, I loved his depiction of God as an African American woman. I personally believe that God is without gender and/or race.

As I said earlier, I probably wouldn't have picked this book up to read on my own. However, I can say that I did enjoy the book. Of course, I wasn't trying to analyze it against the Christian Bible or anything else. I took it for what it is -- a good work of fiction. I'm glad that the author didn't go into great detail regarding the abduction of Missy because that's something I have a hard time reading. I also think the middle portion of the book when Mack is at the shack with God is a little long, and a couple times the author seems to be trying to hammer home a point regarding his theology. However, it was a good book, which I enjoyed reading. It's a quick read, as well.

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Carl's RIP III

I've been trying to decide which of the options to go for with Carl's challenge. I think I'll commit to Peril the Second (just two books) between now and October 31. I also decided to only use books that I already had in my tbr pile. So, without further ado, I'll choose two out of these:

The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson
Outer Dark by Cormac McCarthy
The Sister by Poppy Adams
The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher
An Absolute Gentleman by R. M. Kinder
Down River by John Hart
Echoes from the Macabre by Daphne du Maurier
Hard Row by Margaret Maron

Some of these are lighter mysteries, but they've been in the pile a while so I thought I'd consider them as part of this challenge. I'd like to get to more than two books, but I figure I can aim low and possibly exceed my challenge commitment.

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Walking Across Egypt by Clyde Edgerton

I read this book over the weekend for one of my book clubs, which meets next Tuesday. In fact, this is more than just a book club selection. It's actually a One Book, One Community book for my area. They have a ton of really great things planned during October around the book. The author will appear at several different events, and he'll also give a writing workshop at the community college that I work for -- free! All I can say is if you haven't ever read anything by Clyde Edgerton, don't wait any longer. He's a North Carolina author and is always more than happy to participate in events around the state. His brand of Southern Lit. is a little lighter than that of Faulkner or O'Connor, but no less worthy. It's full of many of the mandatory themes for Southern Lit. -- religion, food, family, and people down on their luck. What's missing from this book that is always prevalent in books by more famous Southern writers is the misery. As much as I like Faulkner, O'Connor, and Capote (just to name a few), you don't usually come away from their books with a light heart. I actually finished Walking Across Egypt with a smile on my face. In fact, I found myself laughing out loud more than once while reading this book.

Like many of Edgerton's books, this one is set in the fictional Listre, North Carolina. The main character is Mattie Rigsbee who is a 78-year old, feisty widow that loves nothing more than to feed everyone she meets. This character reminds me so much of my own grandmother who is now 95 years old and in a nursing home. My grandmother, like Mattie Rigsbee, made it her mission in life to feed anyone who came to her house. I don't mean just a sandwich, mind you. I mean a full course meal, which might include fried chicken, meatloaf (she always had more than one main course), cabbage, fried okra, fried squash, sliced tomatoes, rice, gravy, homemade biscuits, green beans, corn and several different desserts. My grandma is famous for her chocolate pie and egg custard pie. I'm drooling just thinking about it.

In between cooking and taking care of her home, Mattie is busy with her church and family. She has two grown children, but she's still waiting on grandchildren. Mattie takes every opportunity she's presented to remind her children that she isn't getting any younger and neither are they. Her life takes an unexpected turn when she is introduced to Wesley, a young man in the juvenile detention center nearby. Taking her scripture seriously, she decides to "do unto the least of these." She visits Wesley and takes him some of her famous homemade poundcake and a mason jar of sweet tea. Wesley is rough around the edges but can't get this kindness out of his mind.

I won't go into any more detail, but this is a "feel good" story that is at turns both heartwarming and hilarious. The book was made into a movie, which stays pretty close to the original. It was good, but as usual I prefer the book. If you've read the book, leave me a comment telling me your favorite scene. I bet I know what it is!