On the banning of books…

I appreciate my local Half-Price Book Store for reminding me each year of Banned Book Week.  They display a number of books that have been or still are banned somewhere.  Last year, it came as a surprise to me when I saw Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House On The Prairie on display.  After some research, I learned that this children’s book sparks some controversy over the portrayal of Native Americans.

This year, I’m floored again when I see Barbara Park’s Junie B. Jones and the Stupid, Smelly Bus on the lower shelf of the display.  Out of curiosity, I research this book to find that Park’s Junie B. series occasionally comes under fire because of the misbehavior of the six year-old protagonist and the poor grammar she uses.

I will clarify that I do not consider parents limiting and guiding their children’s reading selections (especially for younger kids) to be censorship.  I believe that’s where the responsibility of limiting and guiding lies – not with governments or other governing bodies.

I read Wilder’s books when I was a kid and then read at least some of them to my kids.  Park’s books ranked among the first chapter books my kids read.  My kids did not like the Little House books as much as I did.  I didn’t care for Junie B. as much as my kids did.  However, the fact that certain governing bodies have targeted these books as inappropriate, brings up some questions about how literature and art should portray life, even in children’s literature.  Should good literature portray our world as it is or as it should be (or as we think it should be)?  Should a book about a six year-old girl show her behaving perfectly and speaking with the utmost articulation?  Should an author portray her life as a pioneer girl in the 1870’s as it really was, fear of Native Americans included?

“Super Neutron” by Isaac Asimov

The title of Isaac Asimov’s short story “Super Neutron” sounded typical for a writer known for science fiction and much of the story consists of science that may or may not be fiction.  That’s the point of the story.  One could say that this small story brilliantly illustrates the fun and intrigue that goes along with science fiction.

The narrator belongs to a club of four members known as The Society of Ananias.  While Asimov does not specifically explain the reason for the name, he implies that it is a “tribute” to an infamous liar in the Bible.  Lying is the purpose of this society.  One Sunday each month, the four members get together and take turns spinning a “yarn” for the other three.  The rules insist that the story be a lie and that the teller must immediately and sufficiently answer any questions that the others ask in trying to dispute the tale.  The person appointed as moderator passes final judgement on the answers.  The storyteller buys lunch if anyone stumps him.

The storyteller for this meeting pulls a surprise for the rest of the group in telling them that the world will end during their meeting.  The science involved and the questions asked build to an intense ending – did I say that this story is brilliant?  It’s fun, too.

Two new projects…

I’m starting two new long-term reading projects.  First, I’ve joined The Classics Club and picked 60 books to read over the next three years.  As I have been thinking of future annual reading projects, a list started coming together, so it seemed like the thing to do was join.  See the list and more details at my Classics Club page.

Reading the Newbery Medal winners makes up my other project.  Since they’ve been awarding the Newbery Medal each year since 1922, the list is rather lengthy.  I’m not setting any end date to finish this list.  I’m looking forward to reading them whenever the mood strikes me.  See more information at my Newbery Medal Winners page.

Closer to the end of the year, look for my 2013 short story project.

Have you read any of the books on these lists?  Are you thinking about any future reading projects?

Isaac Asimov’s “The Hazing”

“The Hazing” by Isaac Asimov blends comedy and philosophy in a story of three sophomores at Archturus University, each from a different planet.  One of the sophomores is green.

These three college boys capture ten Earth freshmen and take them to another planet (via spaceship, of course) and leave them to fend for themselves among the sub-Humanoid savages native to the planet.  The sophomores look down their noses at the Earth freshmen not just because they are freshmen but also because they are from Earth.

The Earth freshmen show some ingenuity and cause the hazing to backfire on the sophomores.  They con the natives (that have prehensile tails) into thinking they are supernatural.  The natives capture the sophomores, but then they call the freshmen’s bluff and everything backfires on everyone.

The Earth freshmen seem to not be as civilized as others think they should be and seem to be proud of that fact.  I’m not sure whether Asimov portrays them this way as a compliment or a criticism to humanity.  Maybe I’m biased, but I enjoyed the Earth freshmen so I’ll take it as a compliment.

War and Peace: The first 54 pages…

I started reading Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace yesterday.  It seems this book is synonymous with “big book”.  My edition has 1,442 pages; but when I think about it, several series over the last few years have significantly more pages than War and Peace.  I think of a certain kid’s series with a boy wizard that is at least twice as long.  In reading a little about War and Peace, I found out that the novel was originally published in serial format and the novel now is separated into four books, though they are together in one volume.

So far the story reminds me very much of Jane Austen’s writing.  The novel initially begins in 1805, right around the time that Jane Austen’s novels were published.  The characters attend quite a few parties and balls and discuss love, life, and politics.  Their conversations seem to be on a grander scale than the conversations in Austen’s novels, though.  Perhaps in part due to the continuous mention of Emperor Alexander I of Russia and Napoleon Bonaparte.

During the first gathering, the hostess, Anna Pavlovna, spends her time bouncing from one group of people to another making sure nobody is stepping on anyone’s toes with their political discussions.  I’ve been to parties like this.  At the (outloud) musings of Pierre Bezuhov regarding Napoleon (Pierre could be called “pro-Bonaparte”), one of his acquaintances tells him “My dear fellow, one can’t everywhere and at all times say all one thinks.”

So true, so true.  I think I’m going to enjoy this book.

 

Writ of Mandamus

Northern Kentucky One Book One Community selected local author Rick Robinson’s political thriller Writ of Mandamus as this year’s “one book”.  The libraries of Boone, Kenton, Campbell and Grant counties provide copies of the book and sponsor book related events, including discussions with the author, for interested book-lovers in and around Northern Kentucky.

To be honest, I had not heard of Robinson or his novels until the selection announcement had been made.  I don’t read many political thrillers, although occasionally I will enjoy one.  And enjoy this one, I did!

Since the plot contains the usual twists of this genre, I won’t give away any of the details; however, I will include some of the aspects of the novel that I thought put it a notch above some of the other political and legal mysteries I’ve read.

First, more than one hero weaves themselves through the plot:  Jane Kline, the no-nonsense CIA Director; Richard Thompson, US Congressman from the Fourth Congressional District of Kentucky; Sean Sullivan, an eccentric inner-city attorney with an office located in a laundromat in Covington, KY; Tiana Bolton, an up and coming young Kentucky lawyer.

Second, unlike the stereotypical politician, Richard Thompson maintains a strong marriage with his wife, Ann.  While the marriage has its share of struggles and imperfections, reading a story that involves two people realistically working at their relationship is refreshingly satisfying.

Third, the story’s setting jumps around between Ireland, Washington, D. C., and, yes, Northern Kentucky!  While a story of intrigue that takes place in Northern Kentucky may only seem special to those who live here, Robinson fascinated me with the manner in which his story pulls Kentucky into world politics.  As with The Fault In Our Stars by Indianapolis author John Green, which I recently read, its fun to read a story that takes place somewhere in which you live or used to live.  When Green references Broad Ripple or when Robinson references Main Strasse and Chez Nora, it’s exciting to think “I’ve been there”!  And, in true Kentucky fashion, racehorses and bourbon make some appearances.

Finally, Congressman Richard Thompson, professes a fondness for folk music.  This came as a pleasant surprise and gave him a characteristic unique to many politicians in this genre.  While it may have been a minor scene, for me it became a turning point in the novel and my relationship to the characters when Thompson climbed up on stage to play The Pogues’ Dirty Old Town on the mandolin with an Irish folk band in a Dublin pub.  And when I think about it, it’s not as though folk music and politics have never crossed paths in real life!

Robinson has written three other novels that I believe may include some of the same characters as Writ of Mandamus.  During this novel, several of the characters briefly refer to events that took place in Romania – and one of his other novels, would be my guess.

Robinson is making appearances at each of the four Northern Kentucky libraries at the end of October.  I’m going to try to make it to one of them.  If I do, look for a post about it.

 

Johnny Tremain

I think I first read Johnny Tremain by Esther Forbes when I was in sixth grade.  While I remember enjoying it tremendously, it became one of those books in which, years later, I could not remember much of the plot.  Somehow it ended up on my bookshelf over the last few years.  I may have found it at a used book sale.  The novel won the 1944 Newbery Medal, an award given to a book each year for its contribution to children’s literature.  As I have already discovered and am reminded in re-reading Johnny Tremain, many children’s books, especially the Newbery winners, are just plain good literature whether for children or adults.  Jay at Bibliophilopolis has also re-read this book with me.  I’m looking forward to hearing what he has to say about it.

I remembered that the novel involved a teenage boy who lived during the beginning of the American Revolution.  Once I started reading, I remembered that, as an orphan, Johnny apprenticed as a silversmith.  Other than this, the book seemed brand new to me, but I enjoyed it this time around as much as I did when I was a kid.

Both as a kid and an adult, the American Revolution has fascinated me probably more than any other historical event.  Getting to be “in the room” with Paul Revere, Samuel Adams and John Hancock, especially from the point of view of a kid, only served to intensify this fascination.

I like Johnny Tremain because there is much about him that is not likable.  He is not naturally altruistic or loyal.  He is a little arrogant and quickly gets annoyed with people.  An accident cuts short his apprenticeship, basically leaving Johnny on the street.  Through tenacity and determination, he manages to survive and become a border at The Boston Observer, a local newspaper publishing anti-British opinions.  As a border, he becomes involved with The Sons of Liberty.

I appreciated the descriptions of the Observer’s printing press and the travelings on which Johnny embarks to get the newspaper’s delivered.  Our current world’s internet has brought us a long way from setting print and letting newspapers dry and riding a horse for three days to get information to the rest of the world.    The Observer’s owner, known to Johnny as Uncle Lorne, a timid man by nature, bravely continues making his community aware of the wrongs committed by the British, even in the face of execution:

…yet timid or bold he would go on printing, begging the people of Massachusetts to wake up and resist this tyranny before it was too late.  He would print until he had not a sheet of paper left to print on, or until the very day the gallows was set up for him.

The story does not take the reader as far as that Fourth of July in 1776.  It’s difficult for me to decide which historical moment proved to be my favorite – either Johnny’s participation in the Boston Tea Party or the anticipation and excitement in the build-up to Paul Revere’s famous ride.

Perhaps the most moving part of the story came toward the end when the arrogant Johnny Tremain, on the brink of becoming a soldier for the colonies, takes a look at the world around him:

So fair a day now drawing to its close. Green with spring, dreaming of the future yet wet with blood.

This was his land and these his people.

The cow that lowed, the man who milked, the chickens that came running and the woman who called them, the fragrance streaming from the plowed land and the plowman.  These he possessed.  The skillful hands of the unseen gunsmith were his hands.  The old woman throwing stones at crows who cawed and derided her was his old woman – and they his crows.  The wood smoke rising from the home-hearths rose from his heart.

With everything going on in the world today, I sometimes forget that I still feel the same way Johnny Tremain did.