It’s Banned Books Week!

I don’t believe in banning books, period.   I love Banned Book Week, because it’s like a giant “na-ni-na-ni-boo-boo” to people who want to keep books away from others. I mean, when you’re told you can’t have something, that it’s unsuitable, it just appeals to that juvenile side of my personality and make me want to read it.

The Phantom Tollbooth on display

The Phantom Tollbooth on display

It’s not like all the books that have been banned are exactly pieces of high quality literature. Sometimes there are even legitimate complaints one could make about them. I have the most sympathy for books that aren’t taught thoughtfully and carefully, and can end up entrenching stereotypes presented rather than critically examining them. But that’s an argument for more reading and better teaching, not the opposite.

Milo's car on display

Milo’s car, brought to life

Last weekend I was in my favorite city, the Big Apple, aka NYC, where I visited the New York Public Library. Their exhibit on children’s books featured one of my favorites, The Phantom Tollbooth. I loved the book when I was growing up. I read it again a couple years ago and was just as captivated.

(Here’s my review from 2011’s Banned Books Week.)

The story of Milo actually becoming interested in the world around him and taking off on an adventure is a perfect book for children to read.

This week I’m planning about posting about at least two other Banned Books I read recently, Ellen Hopkins’ Cranked and Alice Walker’s The Color Purple. In many ways, they are at opposite ends of the literary spectrum, but their banning has brought them closer together 😉


The Narrative of Sojourner Truth

Book cover for The Narrative of Sojourner TruthThe Narrative of Sojourner Truth
Olive Gilbert & Sojourner Truth

The Narrative of Sojourner Truth is a slave narrative that I’ve been wanting to read for quite awhile. Unfortunately, it wasn’t quite what I was expecting.

Sojourner Truth is known for being a powerful speaker, a committed activist advocating for the abolition of slavery and women’s rights. Her famed 1851 “Ain’t I a Woman” speech is an early example of intersectional thought.

However, her Narrative doesn’t talk about any of this. It gives her background, tells of how she was born into slavery, ran away, and then was “offically”  freed when New York abolished slavery. The book talks about her travelling around as a preacher, sharing her version of Christianity, which was aquired through her own thoughts on the gospel. She is made out to be quite an original thinker, and very intelligent. I just was very surprised that there was no discussion about her speeches besides the religious ones.

If I think about the purpose of this book, perhaps it makes some sense. Gilbert was trying to raise money from the publication to support Truth in her later years. She had worked and travelled for years, putting nothing aside, taking the bare minimum in pay, trusting that God would provide for her. (I, personally, would think that people offering to pay for her services was God providing, but then, that’s just me.) In any case, perhaps Gilbert was trying to avoid Truth’s more controversial views to appeal to a wider audience. I don’t know.

I also wish there had been more from Truth and less from Gilbert. Sojourner Truth is famous for her activism but also for her oration. Did Gilbert feel that she had to put a buffer between Truth and her readers? I don’t know the thinking behind the decisions; all I know is they left me feeling a bit cold.

None of this is to say that you shouldn’t read the book. It’s pretty short and simple, and it is  still helpful to get a more fuller picture of who Sojourner Truth was.

Want more like this? Try:

  • Harriet Jacobs, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl. Incredibly powerful slave narrative. (my review)
  • Frederick Douglass, Narrative Life of Frederick Dougalss, an American Slave. Probably the most fanmous slave narrative written. (my review)
  • Briton Hammon, Narrative of the Uncommon Suffering and Surprising Deliverance of Briton Hammon. Generally considered the first slave narrative. I haven’t read this one yet. Read it and let me know what you think!

Jacob’s Room

Jacob’s RoomBook cover: Jacob's Room
Virginia Woolf

The title implies a loss, an emptiness. Where is Jacob gone that we are only dealing with his room? But the reader soon meets the young boy, as seen through his mother’s eyes.

According to The Guardian‘s original 1922 review (go read the whole thing, it’s short),

Her book is certainly remarkable; one recalls with interest The Voyage Out, but that wasn’t like this; its method was, comparatively, traditional. Perhaps it is partly by the aid of the novelists that we have come to imagine our lives as sequences, but Mrs Woolf won’t have that at all. She provides us with chunks of what seems arbitrary and is certainly not explicit, and leaves us to sort them.

Jacob’s life is certainly not revealed in a rolling sequential narrative, although time does generally move forward. It’ s just that the chucks are presented without much clear context about how we have gotten from one to the next. We get the feeling, from seeing Jacob at ease in so many settings. that the world is his room, the possibilities stretch out before this young man.

He hasn’t any particular talents to recommend him, but with a bit of charm, his youth, a few modest benefactors along the way, it seems that he could conquer the world.

Woolf slyly points out that his sex comes in handy as well. During a passage where Jacob is spending time in the library, a fellow patron has the following thought to herself:

Mis Julia Hedge, the feminist, waited for her books. They did not come. She wetted her pen. She looked about her. Her eye was caught by the final letters in Lord Macaulay’s name. And then she read them all round the dome – the names of great men which remind us – “Oh damn,” said Julia Hedge, “why didn’t they leave room for an Eliot or a Brontë?”

This isn’t a particularly feminist work, but this is Virginia Woolf, after all.

Want more like this? Try:

  • Orlando, Virginia Woolf. This is a more direct meditation on gender identity and cultural perceptions of gender and sex, in novel form, with Woolf’s distinctive style (my review).
  • The Yellow Wallpaper and Other Stories, Charlotte Perkins Gilman. Gilman was writing about the same time as Woolf, and was also interested in feminist themes. Her stories are more straightforward, and very readable. Warning: despite some of her downright progressive ideas regarding women, her ideas on African Americans are more problematic. (my review)
  • Feminism, FOR REAL, Edited by Jessica Yee. Because it’s awesome and you should read it (my review).

Lady Susan

Lady Susan Book cover of Lady Susan, showing torso up of 19th century brunette woman
Jane Austen

This short epistolary novel (more of a novella, really) was never published in Austen’s lifetime. It reads like the secret outpouring of subversive thought that one might scribble in a diary, lock it away in a drawer, never intending it to see a broad audience.

I have to say, it’s my favorite Jane Austen to date.

I loved Lady Susan’s scheming. She’s contemptuous of much of society, but she knows that it’s of utmost importance that she play the game to her best ability. A woman in Austen’s time depended on the provisions of others. If your husband dies, well, you’d better snag a new one if you don’t want to bounce from relative to relative for the remainder of your natural life. Or worse.

Lady Susan might be harsh, and she’s certainly manipulative, but she’s also a realist.

Want more like this? Try:

  • Edith Wharton, House of Mirth. What could happen if you end up a single gal in the 1800s.
  • C.S. Lewis, The Screwtape Letters. A favorite epistolary novel, the main characters being a senior demon corresponding with his younger nephew.
  • Mary Shelley, Mathilda. Another rather scandalous novella from a women writer of Austen’s general time period. This wasn’t published until 19!59, as the incestuous subject matter was apparently too outrageous.

Fahrenheit 451

Fahrenheit 451 Cover of Fahrenheit 451, showing a paper man on fire.
Ray Bradbury

I’ve been wanting to read this book for many years – at least ten. I was never assigned to read it in high school, but I bought myself a copy my senior year. I think I read about 5 pages and then somehow lost the book. Since I never got around to reading it, it was a perfect candidate for The Classics Club.

I’m sure most people are familiar with the basic premise – that we are in some dystopian future, where books are outlawed and firemen (yes, firemen) are charged with burning books rather than fighting fires. Our hero, Guy Montag, is a fireman who is secretly hoarding books as he wonders how his life has become meaningless, with a zoned-out wife who takes too many sleeping pills and can’t tear herself away from giant screens showing inane programming.

So off to tramp in the woods goes Guy, with a bunch of other guys, memorizing books written by guys. Not sure how they’re going to populate their hoped-for enclave of intellectualism after the first generation dies off, as there’s nary a mention of any uterus-havers. Minor problems.

Anyway, I read it.

Now a bit from my favorite blogger, Melissa McEwanon Ray Bradbury’s passing:

“Bradbury was famously an irascible critic of “political correctness,” so perhaps he would have found it ironic that it was Captain Beatty’s treatise on “political correctness” in Fahrenheit 451 which really started my thinking on the difference between “political correctness” and meaningful sensitivity to marginalized people:

Now let’s take up the minorities in our civilization, shall we? Bigger the population, the more minorities. Don’t step on the toes of the dog lovers, the cat lovers, doctors, lawyers, merchants, chiefs, Mormons, Baptists, Unitarians, second-generation Chinese, Swedes, Italians, Germans, Texans, Brooklynites, Irishmen, people from Oregon or Mexico. The people in this book, this play, this TV serial are not meant to represent any actual painters, cartographers, mechanics anywhere. The bigger your market, Montag, the less you handle controversy, remember that! All the minor minor minorities with their navels to be kept clean. Authors, full of evil thoughts, lock up your typewriters. They did.

…Colored people don’t like Little Black Sambo. Burn it. White people don’t feel good about Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Burn it. Someone’s written a book on tobacco and cancer of the lungs? The cigarette people are weeping? Burn the book. Serenity, Montag. Peace, Montag. Take your fight outside. Better yet, into the incinerator.

This, I knew from the first time I read it, was wrong—though I wasn’t certain precisely why yet. What I knew, viscerally, but could not articulate as a teenager, was that disappearing materials that reflect institutional harm, without or instead of any examination of systemic bias, is a solution to legitimate criticism of privilege, not a solution to harm. And trying to find a solution to legitimate criticism of privilege is the real partner to the anti-intellectualism also at the root of the tyranny in Fahrenheit 451,not the imagined (even by its author) solution to harm.”

Have you read this? What did you think?

The Age of Innocence

Age of Innocence book cover

The Age of Innocence
Edith Wharton

Or, Newland Archer is a Douche.

Okay, I made that up, but it does pretty accurately reflect my thoughts for much of the time I was reading Edith Wharton’s Pulitzer Prize winner. Not that it’s not a good book. It is! Just probably not if you need to “like” the protagonist. It’s worth reading even just for the descriptions of New York in the 1870s. It’s a completely different world than Manhattan today.

I had heard that book referred to as “The House of Mirth-lite,” but I have to disagree. True, there’s much less focus on the dirty, gritty aspects of the dangers involved with falling to the underclass, but that really isn’t the point in The Age of Innocence. There is still plenty of biting commentary on the hypocrisy of the aristocracy. Continue reading

Going to a Party

You may have noticed, but there haven’t been many reviews on the blog lately. I just haven’t felt very inspired to write about books. Work has been kicking my butt, and it’s all I can do some days to get myself home, eat something halfway nutritious, and veg out watching old episodes of Grey’s Anatomy.

I need some inspiration. I found it in a most unlikely place – The Great Gatsby. Basically, this dress caught my attention. It’s beautiful – not something that I’d ever even try on, as I’d immediately write it off as a style that didn’t look good on me, but beautiful nonetheless. It immediately evoked the Roaring Twenties, the Jazz Age, and the decadent, grotesque parties central to Jay Gatsby’s way of life. I out together these pieces imagining if I were invited to a Gatsby revival type party today. I’m sure there are going to be some in NYC – not so sure about where I’m living now. Hmmm, maybe I’ll have to host one.

I have to admit, I’m not actually a fan of the book. Back in high school, when I read it, I found it bleak and hopeless. But hey – I ended up creating an account on polyvore just so I could put this set together. I’m excited about it. I’m thinking now maybe I’m even excited enough to read Gatsby again – after all, the new movie’s coming out soon 😉

Gatsby Party

Gatsby Party by stackwanderer

What clothes evoke The Great Gatsby for you? Feel free to create a set and share!

The Winter of Our Discontent

The Winter of Our Discontent

The Winter of Our Discontent
John Steinbeck

Why haven’t I read Steinbeck since high school? I have no idea, especially since I enjoyed his work then. Maybe I thought it was too typical, or something. I don’t know. What I so know is the The Winter of Our Discontent had me hooked from the first page.

I mean, it opens with Ethan and Mary Hawley in bed, making cute little pillow talk. In 1960!

Ethan Hawley is the current head of a once prominent Long Island family. They’ve still got their name, but there’s no longer any money behind them and they’re barely clinging to their privileged existence. Outwardly, Ethan seems content with his life. He may be a bit bitter, but he keeps a smile on his face and a song on his lips.

When the complaints of his wife and children and the condescension of the others in town become too much, he decides to take action. He’ll break from his strict moral code to reestablish his family. He’ll show everyone that he’s not just a clerk in the grocery store his family used to own.

Meanwhile, he’s picking up bank robbing ideas from his children and they are scheming on how to win a patriotic essay contest. Young Allen and Ellen want to win, because it means a trip – one that their father can’t afford to take them on. They spend time exploring the attic, where there are volumes of speeches and other long forgotten artifacts. Their explorations cause their father to muse on why we keep things tucked away in attic, anyway:

I guess we’re all, or most of us, the wards of that nineteenth-century science which denied existence to anything that it could not measure or explain. The things we couldn’t explain went right on but surely not with our blessing. We did not see what we couldn’t explain, and meanwhile a great part of the world was abandoned to children, insane people, fools, and mystics, who were more interested in what is than in why it is. So many old and lovely things are stored in the world’s attic, because we don’t want them around us and we don’t dare throw them out.

There’s a lot in this novel that can’t be easily explained – or rather, people would rather the explanations remain tucked away. Who was responsible for the Hawley’s losing their fortune? Why has the town seductress been paying so much attention to Ethan? So if behind every great fortune is a great crime, can Ethan reclaim his fortune? And if so, how will he live with the consequences?