Saturday, December 16, 2000

100 Banned Books: Censorship Histories of World Literature

Book cover: 100 Banned BooksIf you are a wholehearted proponent of the First Amendment to the Constitution of the United States, this is a book you will find it absolutely essential to own.

Nicholas Karolides, Margaret Bald and Dawn Sova have compiled censorship histories of 100 books that have been suppressed on political, religious, sexual or social grounds, and they are truly eye-opening. Many of these books have been censored within our own country, where freedom of speech is supposedly protected by the First Amendment.

Under the category of religious censorship, not only have documents challenging the major world religions' accepted beliefs come under fire, but these religions' essential works -- the Bible, the Koran and the Talmud -- have also been suppressed at some point in history.

Works suppressed on sexual grounds run the gamut from mild language or situations to depictions of explicitly violent and humiliating sexual acts. While I find the latter absolutely abhorrent and choose not to expose myself to this type of content, 100 Banned Books is a valuable reminder that, regardless of your personal opinion of what is not appropriate, it is all to easy to cross over the line and try to deny others access to these materials.

Read this book to familiarize yourself with past instances of censorship, and then look in present-day society for examples of ongoing censorship attempts. The results will truly be eye-opening.

Posted Dec. 16, 2000 to amazon.com

Saturday, December 2, 2000

Review: The Day They Came to Arrest the Book

Book cover: "The Day They Came to Arrest the Book" by Nat Hentoff
Oh, how disappointed I am that my search on Hentoff revealed that Free Speech for Me But Not for Thee is out of print! Thank God The Day They Came to Arrest the Book is still readily available.

I purchased the two books together, years ago, at a bookstore in Angwin, Calif., and read them consecutively. Taken together, the books provided my first real understanding of the First Amendment and the way it is presently interpreted -- and challenged -- in our present-day society.

I was not surprised that another reviewer uses The Day They Came to Arrest the Book as an introduction to censorship in an eighth-grade class. Written as a novel for young readers, Hentoff's book presents very adult concepts -- censorship and perceptions of racism and sexism -- in a very easy-to-understand way, but without insulting the intelligence of his young readers.

The story may be fictional -- students and parents upset at what they believe to be racist and sexist content in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn challenge its place in the curriculum at George Mason High School -- but the incidents described within have happened more often than could reasonably be expected in a society that includes the First Amendment within its most sacred governing document.

The book tackles the issue of censorship very well -- this is Hentoff, after all -- and all of the characters are presented sympathetically. The people who want to censor Huckleberry Finn may be wrong to do so, but they are motivated by good intentions, however misdirected.

Who wouldn't want a society that is free of racial or sexual prejudice? But the loss of freedom of speech and thought would be too high of a price to pay. And in this case, the people who challenge Huckleberry Finn have missed the book's point completely. It is entirely fitting that a Black character deliver this message, since exposure to a certain word that is scattered very profusely throughout Mark Twain's masterpiece is what the book's censors want to protect him from.

Read this book, and then look for Free Speech for Me But Not For Thee, also by Nat Hentoff. The real life examples of censorship described therein are a valuable reminder that The Day They Came to Arrest the Book may be fiction, but the events it describes are true-to-life.

Posted Dec. 2, 2000 to amazon.com

Monday, October 9, 2000

Review: Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire

Book cover: Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire by J.K. Rowling
No doubt about it, J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter books DO get better and better with each volume. No. 4, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, is going to be a tough act to follow, and I am already looking forward to No. 5.

I've never been able to see any merit in the opinion that so-called children's books cannot be read and enjoyed by adults. The Harry Potter series is a perfect example of fine literature that can be enjoyed by all ages.

With each book, Harry and his companions age one year. As they get older, their perspectives gain in maturity. The writing becomes more mature in keeping with the characters' development. Book 4, in my opinion, is already at or above the reading level of some adults. My husband and I have worked to cultivate rich vocabularies, and we had to look up a couple of words in the dictionary.

The books also take on more and more complex themes: Like the non-magic world, the wizarding community has its prejudice -- expressed not in terms of skin pigmentation but of magical parentage (Witches and wizards who come from Muggle families are termed "Mudbloods" by pure-blooded magic users). What better way to introduce children to the concept of prejudice, and in a way that makes abundantly clear that it is wrong and inexcusable?

Some of the moral issues explored by Harry and his peers are still being wrestled with by adults. From Book 3, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, one such moral dilemma comes to mind -- When are extreme punishments appropriate, and for what crimes?

Something is noticeably different in No. 4 in comparison with the three previous books -- for some reason, the American publishers decided to leave all the British slang intact. Generally, I was able to deduce the meaning through context, but if you find this difficult, a query on "British English" turned up several dictionaries of British slang available through Amazon.com.

Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire marks a midway point in the entire series, planned to be seven volumes altogether. The book also introduces themes that will carry over in a successive volume or volumes. J.K. Rowling has handled this well, creating a book that concludes the year's episode neatly but that raises compelling issues that this reader is eagerly awaiting further developments in.

As I have said before, I do not feel Ms. Rowling's books promote the occult. The fantastic circumstances of being witches and wizards are there, but the good characters really do embody many positive traits of humanity. These are still children, however, and they have the flaws and preoccupations that children of their age have naturally. Whatever the age of the reader, these books have a great deal to offer, and I strongly recommend them.

Posted Oct. 9, 2000 to amazon.com

Sunday, August 13, 2000

Review: Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets

Book cover: "Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets" by J.K. Rowling
Two books into the Harry Potter series, my husband and I am convinced that J.K. Rowling's books will take their place with C.S. Lewis' Narnia series and Laura Ingalls' Little House books, to name a few, as true classics of children's literature.

Judging from Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, J.K. Rowling is a writer whose work gets better and better with each effort. With No. 3 on back order from amazon.com, we're facing a 3-5 week wait before we can continue reading the series, but it can't be helped, I suppose.

Book 2 chronicles the second year of boy wizard Harry Potter's stay at Hogwarts, the school for witchcraft and wizardry. At once mystery, thriller and human drama, the book is a multifaceted gem. Disparate and seemingly unconnected elements tie together neatly as the story unfolds.

After finishing the book, my husband and I were left with a burning question concerning the character Hagrid. As readers of Book 1 will recall, he was expelled from Hogwarts as a student, and now serves as its gamekeeper. I won't say exactly what the question is, because I do not want to give away a major plot development, but I will say that I hope the question is taken up in subsequent volumes.

Younger children may find elements of this book frightening, but what better way to introduce them to the world's harsher realities than in the company of young Harry? Parents may want to read Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets with their children, in order to discuss the more unsettling passages.

Having said that, I feel that I should address the "occult" controversy that has erupted over Rowling's series. I think that fanatical muggles who dismiss Rowling's books as promoting the occult miss the point entirely. Although they interact with very magical and fantastic circumstances, Harry and his friends possess very strong virtues of love, loyalty, bravery, dedication and cooperation -- all traits that are prized as the very best of humanity.

The Harry Potter books also are very moral ones, in which good ultimately triumphs over evil. The books also have a tremendous impact upon the imagination. This crucial part of the human personality needs to be encouraged, not suppressed. Today's children can be greatly enriched through an introduction to J.K. Rowling's creations.

The Harry Potter books offer much that is beneficial to adults, as well. Adults, perhaps even more than children, need a reminder of the wonders of imagination as presented in Rowling's books. I strongly recommend this book and its predecessor to people of all ages.

Posted Aug. 13, 2000 to amazon.com

Monday, August 7, 2000

Review: ‘Unwomanly Conduct’ by Carolyn M. Morell

My husband's and my decision to not have children has been met with some of the most heated, argumentative and prejudiced attitudes possible. Our former status as a cohabitating, nonmarried couple did not even approach the censure that our deliberately childless status receives.

Friday, August 4, 2000

Reading ‘Harry Potter’ series

Jonathan and I are reading the Harry Potter series by J.K. Rowling together. We’re about halfway through the first book, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, and have got the second book, Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, to read next.

Monday, July 3, 2000

What Jane Austen Ate and Charles Dickens Knew

Book cover: What Jane Austen Ate and Charles Dickens Knew
OK, so maybe you can live quite nicely without ever learning about the Order of Precedence, rules for being presented at Court or the difference between a Hogshead and a dram.

If you're like me, however, you love the novels of Regency and Victorian England.

I couldn't get enough of Jane Austin with her cool and witty observations on the marriage game, the passionate writings of Charlotte Brontë that seemed to reflect her own inner demons, the bucolic romances of George Eliot or Thomas Hardy's tragi-comic portrayals of men's and women's conflicts within an indifferent society.

These novelists' contemporaries understood the nuances of the society in which they placed their characters, but the modern American reader will not. For this reason, What Jane Austin Ate and Charles Dickens Knew is an indispensible reference book. The cultural literacy it provides can only enhance your reading of England's 19th Century literary greats.

Posted July 3, 2000 to amazon.com

Sunday, June 11, 2000

‘You Got to Dance with Them What Brung You’

Book cover: "You've Got to Dance with Them What Brung You" by Molly Ivins
One of the most moving passages I've ever read was in a column by Molly Ivins a few months ago. "Get the damn mammogram!" I could almost hear her growling, after telling her readers she had breast cancer.

Think about having the power to save a person's life like that. Who knows how many women thought about their own health after reading Ms. Ivins' words?

The influence Ms. Ivins wields has always been benign. She tells it like it is, warts 'n' all (and in the Texas Lege, it appears, there are more than a few warts). I admire her greatly, and count her as a role model.

Read Molly Ivins' books. She is biting, sarcastic, downright rude at times. She is also insightful and compassionate. To say the least, she is one of my favorite "arthurs."

Posted June 11, 2000 to amazon.com

Saturday, June 10, 2000

Writing book reviews

I’ve decided to write some more amazon.com reviews and have submitted one of Mary Doria Russell’s The Sparrow and one of Adair Lara’s collected newspaper columns. Writing, in whatever medium, is good experience for me.

Book review: The Best of Adair Lara

My favorite part of the paper has always been the op-ed page, followed closely by the lifestyles pages, where I will quickly turn to read the latest offerings by my favorite columnists.

I have fantasies of being a syndicated columnist like my heroes of the op-ed page, and so when I discover a book like this, with the collected works of someone who writes for a living and does it well, I am quick to buy it.

I am not a subscriber to the San Francisco Chronicle, and so this book is my first exposure to Adair Lara's work. I am delighted to make her acquaintance.

Lara's work offers a very intimate glimpse into one woman's life, as she writes about things that nearly everyone can relate to.

" 'Write about your life,' " she says she was told by a hard-of-hearing editor who didn't seem to sure about what to do with a female columnist, and that is what she did.

She tells us her first column, about getting a newspaper job, was personal. "The next thousand or so columns were also personal."

Reading this anthology is like leafing through a scrap book of memories. At times touching, humorous, and always intimate, I can highly recommend this collection on two levels - as an aspiring writer looking for examples of the craft done well, and as a woman whose everyday experiences, while small in scope, are validated by seeing another woman's personal life in print.

Posted June 10, 2000 to amazon.com

Thursday, January 6, 2000

Old newspapers, series of historical snapshots

At work at the Lake County Record-Bee, we’re beginning to think about the Progress Edition, a big special publication that comes out once a year. This time around, we’re examining old newspaper stories about things that still impact us today.