Happy Banned Books Week!

Every September, I tell myself that this year is going to be the year that I’ll finally sit down and write the perfect, awesome, emotional, and overly informational post on Banned Books Week. But every September, I lose track of the days, or something comes up, and before I know it the fourth Sunday comes right around the corner and I’m just sitting there, palm to face, muttering variations of “Not again ” and “I’m such an idiot.”

Spilled milk aside, I do want to at least TRY to talk about literary censorship within the United States. As fun as it is to stick it to the book-haters revel in the mass enthusiasm that the book community is generating over this annual event, I think it’s important to understand WHY this event is happening. And I want to explain why I choose to participate.

But it’s already past midnight where I’m at, and while I’m not exactly Cinderella I need some semblance of a full night’s sleep if I’m to be expect to be a functioning human tomorrow morning. So I will leave aforementioned dream post to another day. Hopefully a day that happens to fall within this week.

In the meantime, I want to wish all of my fellow Stateside bookworms a very, very happy Banned Books Week!

Happy reading,

Jen

P. S. – What are you guys reading for Banned Books Week? I’ll be reading Joseph Heller’s classic, Catch-22.

IF YOU LIKED : Anya’s Ghost


Welcome to the inaugural post of my new blog series, If You Liked! I was inspired to start this after reading the fabulous blog, Go Book Yourself, and thinking it would be fun to try my hand at book recs. I’m limiting this series to a once-a-month basis, so expect to see more of these on the last Friday of each month. Hope you enjoy!

If you liked Anya’s Ghost, why not try…

The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie, by Alan Bradley

Coraline, by Neil Gaiman

… for more stories featuring plucky girl leads, mystery, and a dash of the creepy.


Readers—What have you read lately that you would recommend?

SNIPPETS: “You cannot nourish the soul with data!”

“Oh, I want readers, my boy.” Mr. Baram sighed. “A world of readers I want, and yet, all I have is you. You want information, mere data, just like everyone else. That’s not reading. Wisdom? Inspiration? Phfft! Their time has passed, eh?” He waved his hand in the air. “You cannot nourish the soul with data!”

Proxy, by Alex London

Here’s a less wordy edition of Snippets for this week, because 1) I figure this excerpt speaks for itself, 2) I don’t feel like elaborating on it, and 3) the more I try to talk about Proxy the more incoherent I become, until all I end up writing on the page are variations of OMG SO GUD U GUYS BAWLING BCUZ FEELINGS. So … next time. Until then, go nourish yourself with some reading!

Summer 2014 reading list!

I mentioned previously that I made it my unofficial summer goal to read more classics. But then That Slate Article went live, and for a moment I contemplated pushing the classics aside to read exclusively YA because I was seriously bothered by the article and really wanted to do something in the spirit of protest. But then I knew that if I did do that, I would regret the loss of an opportunity to play catch-up with the classics. So now I’m compromising by deciding to do BOTH. I haven’t decided if this is yet another one of my have my cake and eat it too moments, or a genuinely good idea. I’ll keep you posted.

In the meantime, here are the books* that I’m planning to read:

Young Adult…

  • Proxy, by Alex London
  • Yaqui Delgado Wants To Kick Your Ass, by Meg Medina
  • This Song Will Save Your Life, by Leila Sales
  • The House of the Scorpion, by Nancy Farmer
  • Beastly, by Alex Flinn
  • The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, by Sherman Alexie
  • The Maze Runner, by James Dashner
  • Wonder, by R. J. Palacio

Classics…

  • Frankenstein, by Mary Shelley
  • The Call of the Wild, by Jack London
  • The Bluest Eyes, by Toni Morrison
  • Othello, by William Shakespeare
  • The Martian Chronicles, by Ray Bradbury [not pictured above]

*I would like to thank my housemate and fellow bookworm, whose generosity in granting me free rein of her personal library made the majority of this reading list possible.


Readers — What are you planning to read this summer?

SNIPPETS : “Misery made me a fiend”

I am thy creature, and I will be even mild and docile to my natural lord and king, if thou wilt also perform thy part, that which thou owest me. Oh, Frankenstein, be not equitable to every other, and trample upon me alone, to whom thy justice, and even thy clemency and affection, is most due. Remember, that I am thy creature: I ought to be thy Adam; but I am rather the fallen angel, whom thou drivest from joy for no misdeed. Every where I see bliss, from which I alone am irrevocably excluded. I was benevolent and good; misery made me a fiend. Make me happy, and I shall again be virtuous.

— The unnamed monster, from Frankenstein by Mary Shelley

I’m rereading Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein in preparation for the upcoming adaptation by Pemberley Digital and PBS Digital Studios. (Cue the excited screaming!) This is my first time back in this book since college, and a part of me is kicking myself for having decided all those years ago to toss out my lecture notes because I’m really curious as to how my professor analyzed and interpreted this book. (I can’t remember a thing. Ugh, count on me to forget.) But I do remember—however vaguely—the famous speech that the monster delivers to Frankenstein, his creator, a portion of which I chose to post for this week’s edition of Snippets. I was intrigued by the monster’s claim upon Frankenstein, and how he repeatedly references Adam’s relationship to God. I was also struck by what he said towards the end: “Misery made me a fiend. Make me happy, and I shall again be virtuous.” One of the major questions that the book brings up is nature vs. nurture. Are we who we are because of genetics, or an inherent, predetermined nature? Or does circumstance mold us into the people that we are? The monster believes it’s entirely nurture, but I think his “fiendishness” and “virtue” aren’t so much sides of his moral nature as it is behavioral reactions to how people treat him. If they’re good to him, he’ll return in kind. And likewise with those who mistreat him. His moral nature is actually very human—he gives what he gets.

New old books II

I can’t believe it has been FOUR years since this happened. And until this past weekend, I haven’t gone back once. (ALL THOSE WASTED OPPORTUNITIES JENNIFER LOOK AT YOUR LIFE LOOK AT YOUR CHOICES.) But in all seriousness I am grateful that I was able to catch the sale this year. It was fun browsing the tables and observing trends amongst the different genres. In the fiction section for instance, there were quite a lot of copies of Memoirs of a Geisha, as well as Toni Morrison’s Paradise. In the mystery section, Stieg Larsson’s The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo was popular, along with The Girl Who Played With Fire. (Although interestingly enough, The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest was nowhere to be seen.) I found a near-pristine hardcover copy of David McCullough’s John Adams in the history section, and was seriously this close to buying it—IT WAS GOING FOR $2 YOU GUYS—but decided to be reasonable and left it for somebody else to enjoy. I have a copy, my dad has a copy … I even have the HBO miniseries on DVD. We really don’t need another copy.

I was lucky this year. I had a good catch. Lots of the books that I found and purchased were ones I was specifically hunting for.

  • The Call of the Wind and White Fang, by Jack London
  • Walden, by Henry David Thoreau
  • Frankenstein, by Mary Shelley (the 1818 text)
  • Treasure Island, by Robert Louis Stevenson
  • A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, by Betty Smith
  • Paradise, by Toni Morrison
  • Othello, by William Shakespeare
  • Twelfth Night, by William Shakespeare

A lot of classics, as you can see. Which is perfect, because I’ve made it my unofficial goal this summer to read as many classics as possible. In talking to my reader friends over the years, I noticed that I actually haven’t read all that many classics. True, I’ve made old friends out of Jane Austen, Charlotte Brontë, and John Steinbeck, but I’m practically strangers with the likes of Toni Morrison, Kurt Vonnegut, Ray Bradbury … pretty much the canon of American Literature at large. Even within the scope of British Lit—which was the apple of my academic eye in college—almost anything past the moors in Wuthering Heights, or the cobbled streets of Sherlockian London is unfamiliar territory. I have never read anything by George Eliot, and have only just made headway with Dickens. And let’s not even begin to talk about my unfamiliarity with minority literature. It’s about time I started catching up, and I hope to do lots of that this summer.

Readers—What are your reading goals this summer? Bought any new books recently?

“Until I feared I would lose it, I never loved to read.”

Mary Badham and Gregory Peck on the set of To Kill a Mockingbird. *

I had never deliberately learned to read, but somehow I had been wallowing illicitly in the daily papers. In the long hours of church—was it then I learned? I could not remember not being able to read hymns. Now that I was compelled to think about it, reading was something that just came to me, as learning to fasten the seat of my union suit without looking around, or achieving two bows from a snarl of shoelaces. I could not remember when the lines above Atticus’s moving finger separated into words, but I had stared at them all the evenings in my memory, listening to the news of the day, Bills to Be Enacted into Laws, the diaries of Lorenzo Dow—anything Atticus happened to be reading when I crawled into his lap every night. Until I feared I would lose it, I never loved to read. One does not love breathing.

— Scout Finch, from To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee

I’m re-reading To Kill A Mockingbirdagain, ha—and loving every minute of it. I’m sure I’ve said this before, but I just love Scout. She’s a girl after my own heart with her scrappy, tomboyish ways, her intelligence, and especially her love of reading. I’ve no doubt that it’s to do with what I’ve read and learned from Proust and the Squid, but I’m only just now realizing how reading is nothing short of a miracle. For most of us, reading is so second nature, so instinctive. And yet it’s crazy to think back to a time when we actually had to be taught how to do it, when written words—and even letters—were foreign concepts to us, just funny squiggles on a page that only grown-ups knew how to decipher. Reading is such a huge part of my life now, that I can’t imagine what my life would be like had I never learned how to read. So much of who I am as a person is thanks to the books that raised me. They taught me about life, how to deal with difficult situations, what is right versus what is wrong. They challenged me to think, and led me into worlds and lives I would have never had access to otherwise. And they almost always came into my life exactly when I needed them. They still do.

* I can’t seem to find the original source for the above image. The best compromise I can provide is this post from the blog Awesome People Reading.

On technological shinies and the thinking brain

[…] “Her mother and I didn’t want to get her a feed at all. I did not have one. Neither did her mother. I said none for our family.

“Then one day, when her mother had left, and I needed work, I was at a job interview. I was an excellent candidate. Two men were interviewing me. Talking about this and that. Then they were silent, just looking at me. I grew uncomfortable. Then they began looking at each other, and doing what I might call smirking.

“I realized that they had chatted me, and that I had not responded. They found this funny. Risible. That a man would not have a feed. So they were chatting about me in my presence. Teasing me when I could not hear. Free to assess me as they would, right in front of me.

“I did not get the job.

“It was thus that I realized that my daughter would need the feed. She had to live in the world.”

— Mr. Durn, from Feed by M. T. Anderson

This passage came to mind the other day as I was reading a particularly interesting and thought-provoking passage from Proust and the Squid by Maryanne Wolf. In that passage, Wolf walks her readers through Socrates’ three-fold objection towards the written language:

  1. You cannot dialogue with a written text. (To put this in context: Socrates prized active, verbal discussion. He firmly believed that it was the only way for individuals to truly learn, and to understand an idea. He also believed it invaluable to society. To quote Wolf, “only the examined word and the analyzed thought could lead to real virtue, and only true virtue could lead a society to justice and could lead individuals to their god.”)
  2. Writing interferes with an individual’s memorizing skill, and consequently, as Wolf writes, “the individual’s internalization of knowledge.”
  3. Writing presents no accountability or control  for its contents. To quote Socrates, “Once a thing is put into writing, the composition, whatever it may be, drifts all over the place, getting into the hands not only of those who understand it, but equally of those who have no business with it; it doesn’t know how to address the right people, and not address the wrong. And when it is ill treated and unfairly abused it always needs its parents to come to its help, being unable to defend or help itself.”

His objections are well-argued, but what I found interesting was that it wasn’t writing, or even reading, that Socrates had an issue with, but rather what a written language would do to the way people think and used their minds. He believed very firmly that the dependence upon a written language—as opposed to dependence upon human memory and oral tradition—would cause society to, basically, get dumber. Which immediately made me think of what people—myself included—have said about humankind’s growing dependence upon things like the Internet, Google, and how our stuff is just becoming increasingly automated so that we ourselves are doing less and less. I used to think that the rapid surge of technological advancements in our society—like the infamous Google Glass—was completely unprecedented and utterly unnatural. But after talking about the matter with friends, I conceded that the aspect of technology progressing is old, old news. Throughout human history, technology has always been improving and changing. This is why we aren’t using bronze weaponry anymore, why we aren’t reading from scrolls, why we aren’t getting around town in a horse and buggy. Wolf says as much in her book:

[…] there would be no turning back from these new forms of communication and knowledge. Socrates could no more prevent the spread of reading than we can prevent the adoption of increasingly sophisticated technologies. Our shared human quest for knowledge ensures that this is as it must be.

But what still irks me about new technology is not so much that they exist, but that there is a lack of pause to consider the ramifications—cerebral, socially, culturally—of their consumption. I don’t think we should be decrying the Internet, or smartphones, or Twitter, nor should we ban people from using them. But I think we ought to be more mindful of how we use these resources and tools. If I’ve learned anything from Proust and the Squid, it’s this: that our brains wire itself according to what we feed it, sensorially and intellectually. It’s an impressive testament to the human brain, how it’s wonderfully complex, intelligent, and adaptive. It’s also a sobering reminder of what we might make ourselves into if all we’re doing is passively, apathetically consuming.

Going back to the passage from Feed—it reminds me of what Wolf said about the inevitability of technological progress. The world has and always will shape its infrastructure according to new inventions and innovations. We can’t detach ourselves from using new things if we still expect to be a functioning member of society. But we can and should take more ownership in how much we saturate ourselves, knowing that by doing so we have a direct effect on the sort of thinking people we become. The young characters in Feed live in a future plagued by political turmoil, environmental disasters, and impending war. But they are too distracted by the feed implanted in their brains—which flood them 24/7 with the equivalent of the Internet on crack—to care about the world outside of their hamster balls of comfort and entertainment. I already see that happening, in myself as well as the children and adolescents of our time. And I worry that if we don’t change the way we consume and utilize the technological tools available literally at our fingertips, we’ll end up just like Titus and his friends.

Of grapes and oranges

Pardon the photobombing by my new Arya figurine. She arrived from Westeros yesterday and is still acclimatizing to our world. Yes Arya, this is a phone. Yes Arya, I am taking a picture with my phone. Yes Arya, there’s a camera IN my phone. OKAY OKAY I’LL LET YOU PLAY WITH IT LATER JUST LET ME TAKE A PHOTO OF THESE BOOKS FIRST.

+ +

Huzzah, I’ve finished two books! But alas, I’m writing on them briefly because  I have several more posts queuing in my drafts folder, and I want to get them out by next week, so without further ado, let’s get cracking.

Five Quarters of the Orange and I got off to a good start. Harris’ prose was fantastic—lean, descriptive, and oh so lyrical. And the premise seemed interesting, the reading experience promising. Young Framboise, with all her wild tomboyish ways, was an easy drop in the bucket. I love spirited heroines, and I warmed up to ‘Boise perhaps all the more quickly for having a stubborn, difficult, embittered mother who was as frustrating as she was tragic. I enjoyed her romps through the countryside, the frankness with which she, now as an old woman, looks back at her escapades. Children are cruel, she admits, and I nodded in agreement, thinking back to my own childhood and the stuff we did. But about halfway through the book, my patience began thinning exponentially. There was no growth in the characters, little variety in the message that old Boise wanted to get across. I get that Boise had a difficult mother, that her mother had chronic migraines and a hatred for oranges that bordered on paranoia. But dang it Boise, DID YOU REALLY HAVE TO GO ON ABOUT IT I GOT IT LIKE A HUNDRED PAGES AGO. Last night, I ended up skimming the last few chapters—the chapters that I wish Harris had fleshed out because dang it, it was interesting. Way more interesting than the repetitive flashbacks we were saddled with. (Also, who doesn’t like a revenge tale between elderly underdogs and douchebaggy relatives?) But to its credit, Five Quarters made me ponder—about my own childhood, my own complicated relationship with my mother, about children and mothers in general, and how the past has a tendency to repeat itself.

The Grapes of Wrath reminded me of The Jungle—a family of honest, hardworking folk trying to make ends meet in a barrage of unfortunate events inflicted upon them by a force outside of their control. But unlike Jurgis and his family, whom I felt were unnecessarily victimized by their author, the Joads are strong characters who met each disappointment and trial with dignity and perseverance. No matter what happened they pushed forward, not allowing themselves to wallow in self-pity. I wouldn’t say this book is inspirational—it was intended to be a scathing critique of corporate greed, of the economic inequality in American society. But I do admire that family. And I love Steinbeck. I loved the prose in Grapes, how it’s so matter-of-fact, yet lyrical. The first chapter, when the narrator describes the condition of the parched land and the hard-pressed farmers, rings of epic poetry like The Iliad and Beowulf. I also appreciate Steinbeck’s frankness in his depiction of the harsh realities of the time. What happened to those tenant farmers was terrible: the banks seizing their land, kicking them off. Doesn’t matter that they lived and died on that land, worked the land, raised families on that land. With the foreclosures that happened only a few years ago, it makes me wonder if things haven’t really changed.

The buoying lift of their numbers

Once submerged, a diver is not easily seen. Given all the fish in the water—naturally as many healthy fish are raised as possible—she is a mere shadow among them, trained to do her tasks quickly and unobtrusively. This is why she uses no special breathing apparatus aside from a snorkel, compressed gases causing too much of a disturbance. Fearful fish are not happy fish. The diver is not “one of them” but is part of the waterscape from the time they are hatchlings, and they see her customary form and the repeated cadence of her movements and the gentle motor of her flippered feet that must come to them like a motherly lullaby. A dream-song of refuge, right up to the moment of harvest. The diver is there at harvest, of course, and sees to it that the very last of them finds its way into the chute. And it is only then, for the span of the few hours while the tank is being cleaned and filtered before the next generation of hatchlings is released, that the water is clear of activity, that the diver is alone.

How somber a period that must be. The constant light from the grow bulbs filtering through the canopy of vegetables and herbs and ornamental flowers suspended above the tanks throws blue-green glints about the facility walls, this cool Amazonian hue that suggests and fecundity primordial and unceasing. The diver inspects each aquarium, which is roughly the dimension of a badminton court, and by the end she is exhausted not by the work or holding her breath but instead from the strange exertion of pushing against the emptiness. For she is accustomed to the buoying lift of their numbers, how sometimes the fish seem to gird her and bear her along the tank walls like a living scaffold, or perhaps lead her to one of their dead by swarming about its upended corpse, or even playfully school themselves into just her shape and become her mirror in the water. At the pellet drop they are simply fish again and thrash upward, mouths agape, the vibrato of the water chattering and electric, as if bees were madly attempting to pass through her suit. And wouldn’t it be the truth enough to speak of those bristling hundreds are not only being cared for by the diver but as serving to shepherd her, too, through the march of days?

I find myself returning again and again to this passage from Chang-Rae Lee’s On Such A Full Sea. I’m enamored with the mood of it, the tranquility that these divers experiences while swimming with their fish—a tranquility that, I’ve realized, doesn’t stem from an absence of danger. They know that their work as divers isn’t immune to accidents. They know that some among them have died during their routine submersions. The tranquility, rather, comes from an acceptance of their place amongst their fish—swimming with them, feeling almost as if they are of them. And it seems the fish feel the same way. It’s an interesting relationship, a sort of symbiosis I think. As much as the divers take care of the fish, the fish also take care of their divers, if not in physical nurturing then emotional. There’s a reassurance in numbers, a sense of safety and belonging that taps into what makes us innately human.