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Banned Books Week

“Censorship ends in logical completeness when nobody is allowed to read any books except the books that nobody reads.”     George Bernard Shaw

The police tape surrounding a book display in my local library was effective; it drew me right to those banned books.  The American Library Association is sponsoring Banned Books Week from September 25th through October 1st, and encouraging everyone to read a book that has been challenged or banned somewhere.  Not hard to do – you’ve probably already read a few – Shakespeare has been banned, along with Mark Twain’s books.

The librarian had a list of some of the challenged books in my library system. (According to the ALA, a challenge is an attempt to remove materials, based upon the objections of a person or group.  A banning is the removal of those materials.  Challenges do not simply involve a person expressing a point of view; rather, they are an attempt to remove material from the curriculum or library, thereby restricting the access of others – most challenges are unsuccessful and most materials are retained in the school curriculum or library collection.)

All these challenged books are still on my library’s shelves:

  • The Absolute True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie
  • Animal Farm by George Orwell
  • Forever in Blue, the Fourth Summer of the Sisterhood by Ann Brashares
  • Go Ask Alice
  • Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury
  • Gossip Girl series by Cecily VonZiegesar
  • Harry Potter series by J.K. Rowling
  • His Dark Materials trilogy by Philip Pullman
  • The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins
  • One of Those Hideous Books Where the Mother Dies by Sonya Sones
  • The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky
  • Slaughterhouse Five by Kurt Vonnegut
  • Twilight by Stephanie Meyer
  • And many more…

I picked out a young adult book that has been banned elsewhere and challenged here – The Earth, My Butt, and Other Round Things – the title appealed to me.

“There is no such thing as a moral book or an immoral book. Books are well written or badly written. That is all.”              Oscar Wilde

The ALA has a list of the top ten books by year at  ALA List of Banned Books.    How many have you read?

Road Ends by Mary Lawson

9780345808097_p0_v2_s192x300  Like Mary Lawson’s other books, Crow Lake and her Man Booker nominee The Other Side of the Bridge, the action in Road Ends is in the cold remote area of North Canada, where winters are long and hard, a setting conducive to unforgiving introspection.  The narrative of Road Ends is compelling, and you are sad for almost everyone.

The story revolves around Megan, the only girl in a family of seven brothers.   As the second oldest and only girl, Megan has been running the household almost since she could walk; now at twenty-one, she is ready to leave to start her own life in London.

Although Lawson creates a supporting cast, the strong narrative develops from Megan, her father Edward, and oldest son, Tom, with their thoughts and perspectives in alternating chapters.  Megan’s mother, Emily, literally wanders in and out of the story, always with a baby on her shoulder, as she drifts into dementia and tries to find her own comfort in the steady stream of newborns.

Edward, lost in his shattered dreams, hides from the family chaos by retreating to his study to read about exotic places he has never been.  While two of his sons are toying with arson and his four year old, Adam, is wetting the bed, Edward is purposely oblivious.  His avoidance supposedly stems from his abusive father, his childhood in poverty, a fatal fire, and the war, but it’s hard not to want to shake him into accepting responsibility for his family – beyond being the breadwinner.

Tom, who graduated with a degree in aeronautical engineering, is frozen in grief and guilt when his best friend commits suicide.  He foregoes promising job offers and returns home to run the town’s snowplow through the incessant and constant snowstorms.  Slowly, he emerges from his fog – prompted by the needs of his four year old brother, a neglected little boy, who wanders around his house unbathed and hungry, because his mother’s attention is fixated on yet another infant, her ninth.

Megan is the catalyst for the family’s decline.  Without her, everything falls apart, but it seems to take awhile before anyone notices, despite the dirty house, the empty refrigerator, and the piles of dirty clothes.  After landing in London, she stumbles on a job in a department store but finds it boring.  Eventually, she connects with a couple who are opening a new hotel and are looking for someone to help with the renovation and management of the housekeeping.  Ironically, Megan is happier working at the hotel,  doing a job strangely similar to the one she had at home with her family.

The ending is somewhat disappointing if you are a romantic and expect Megan to find true love and an exciting career in a new life across the sea.  Her choices are predicable and realistic; there is some escape from the bonds of family in this story for the boys, but sadly not for Megan.  Nevertheless, Lawson manages to project a feeling of satisfaction and accomplishment for her main character.

I found phrases I noted down to remember, as I did with her other novels, but laughed out loud in recognition when I read Tom’s commentary:

“There’s a law of nature…that says you should never, ever allow yourself to think for a single minute that things are finally getting better because Fate just won’t be able to resist cutting you off at the knees.”

Related Reviews:

Killer Books – You Will Know Me and Dear Mr. M

If you are feeling withdrawal from The Girl on the Train, two thrillers may help you sort through your need for psychological suspense.

9780316231077_p0_v2_s192x300   You Will Know Me

Did the Greeks have the modern formula in mind when they prepared for the Olympics?  In Megan Abbott’s thriller You Will Know Me, the author uses girls’ gymnastics as the focus for yet another  unreliable narrator with a killing secret.

The story envelopes the reader in a family’s ambition to see daughter, Devon, rise to the top, with financial and psychological cost to both her and her family.  Only the younger brother, Drew, seems unscathed until later in the plot, when he too becomes an unlikely and silent victim.  As mother Katie tells the tale, she notes three pieces of the story driving the eerie plot: a lawn mower accident with her three year old daughter’s foot, cutting off her toes; her daughter’s fall at the end of a competition; and the pit in the renovated gym, bringing a handsome lover into their lives.

Although finding the killer keeps the suspense, the lives of the young gymnasts and their hovering parents may be more frightening.

9781410491572_p0_v1_s192x300   Dear Mr. M

Herman Koch once again managed to scare me in the first fifty pages, with the promise of more eerie episodes yet to be explored.  I still shiver when I think of reading The Dinner and Summer House With a Swimming Pool.  I may wait to read Mr. M another time, but here is the short summary, if you are up to it.  When the book opens, Mr. M is being stalked by his neighbor who has a mysterious connection to his past.

“Once a celebrated writer, M had his greatest success with a suspense novel based on a real-life disappearance. It told the story of a history teacher who went missing one winter after having a brief affair with a beautiful student of his. The teacher was never found. Upon publication, M’s novel was a runaway bestseller, one that marked his international breakthrough.” Kirkus

 

 Reviews of Other Herman Koch books:

Related Reviews:

 

 

Diverting Into Nonfiction

Although I incline toward fiction, my stack of books has surprisingly diverted to nonfiction lately.  The real world awaits.

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Have you read any of them?

  • The Perfect Horse by Elizabeth Letts

The saving of the Lipizzaner horses in world War II

  • The Bad-Ass Librarians of Timbuktu by Joshua Hammer

Preservation of famous ancient manuscripts

  • The Bestseller Code by Jodie Archer and Matthew L. Jockers

How to write one

  • Rise of the Rocket Girls by Natalia Holt

Women  scientists of World War II

  • Boys in the Boat by Daniel Brown

1936 Olympics quest for gold

  • West of Eden: An American Place by Jean Stein

Oral history of Hollywood

  • Hidden Figures by Margot Lee Shetterley

Black women mathematicians at NASA

Cousin Joseph by Jules Feiffer

9781631490651_p0_v1_s192x300  From his illustrations for Norton Juster’s The Phantom Tollbooth to his comic strip in The Village Voice, Jules Feiffer has been artfully speaking out for a long time, but I did not realize he penned  his latest – Cousin Joseph – at the age of eighty-seven.  This graphic novel subliminally notes issues of anti-seminitsm and corrupt policemen – you may even laugh now and then at the satire – well, maybe smirk – at how close Feiffer gets to the truth.

With a Humphrey Bogart swagger, the key character, Detective Sam Hannigan, follows the noir film formula, and the story has the action and violence of noir style pulp fiction.  Is cousin Joseph his anti-conscience?

“The year is 1931. Det. Sam Hannigan is a proud American and a member of fictional Bay City’s finest. When he and his partner aren’t fighting crime or getting their “Red Squad” to suppress the local trade unions, he’s off to do the bidding of the mysterious Cousin Joseph, an unidentified bigwig who wants to rid Hollywood of what he considers anti-American propaganda films. Soon, Sam finds himself in over his head and on both sides of the law as he tries to keep track of the various forces at work against him. ”  Publishers Weekly

Sam has an epiphany – too late to save him – when he sees Uncle Joseph for who he really is, but it’s scary to think Uncle Joseph is still out there today, drawing in those who are not on guard.

Recently, a friend brought an old Classics Comics to a book discussion of “The Woman in White,” and many of us were nostalgic about the genre.  Comic books have morphed into graphic novels, with Feiffer’s illustrations and dialogue adding social and political commentary – a field he knows well.

Commonwealth by Ann Patchett

51vo9iqcxjl-_ac_us174_Ann Patchett knows the power of the sudden jolt in her stories.  I remember finding it in Bel Canto and in State of Wonder, but I almost missed it in her latest novel – Commonwealth.  The story slowly unravels, as two families are torn apart by pride and lust, and then slowly reassembled through love.  Amazingly, the crises seem almost familiar, and the real secret of survival may be the illusions and perceptions the characters carry with them through years of denial.

Patchett sows the seeds in her opening gambit when beautiful Beverly, married to her policeman husband,  passionately kisses the handsome attorney, Bert Cousins, father to three small children and one on the way, at her daughter’s christening.  Was it the gin in the orange juice or deeper discontent driving their passion?  The reader doesn’t have to wait long before Patchett has the two moved to Virginia with Beverley’s two little girls, Caroline and Franny.  In the summer, Bert’s four children join in – a blended family of intolerance.

While the two lovebirds are cementing their attraction, the children suffer each new chapter of their lives, hating each other and the loss of their old lives, angry and unforgiving.  They run wild in the summer, and the older children regularly drug Albie, the youngest, with Benadryl to shut him down and keep him out of their antics. While Teresa, mother of Bert’s four hellions, is back in California working at her new job, Beverly finds herself hiding in her air-conditioned car in Virginia to escape the children.

Patchett cleverly shifts gears and creates suspense by teasing the reader with cliffhangers as she suddenly jumps from present to past and future in alternating chapters spanning fifty years.  The children speak as adults, some of whom have forged unlikely alliances.  The first indication of a change in atmosphere in the novel comes with the death of the eldest boy, Cal, with lingering repercussions for the other children, as they reveal their roles in the coverup.

But the big jolt comes later in the book, when Franny’s new love, the older Leon Posen, a famous writer who has hit writer’s block after his last big success, creates his masterpiece – titled “Commonwealth.”  Patchett is so convincing, I found myself googling Posen and looking for his book, almost missing the point of his stealing Franny’s stories about her childhood for his use.  Dysfunctional families may be fodder for a bestseller, but when Posen uses the details of Cal’s death and the children’s secret drugging of Albie, fact and fiction become alarmingly the same – exposing harmful secrets.  I wondered if Patchett was also sending a subtle message with the title – the possibility of her using stories from her own life in her fiction?

Just as the slide you went down as a child seemed so much bigger than it does to you as an adult, and just as the teacher you idolized as a child seems not as old when you are grown, the mere action of having her adult characters look back on their time together as children offers a philosophical and healing balm.  They all adjust and forgive, and they see their parents’ actions and their own frantic childhoods from a wiser perspective.

Each of us plays the cards we are dealt, and Patchett offers the consolation that however our lives evolve, we can find some way to be true to ourselves and those we love.

Commonwealth is another winner from Ann Patchett, one of my favorite writers.  I could not stop reading the book until I finished in the wee hours of the morning, and I may have to read it again.