September 29, 2016

2016 Banned Books Week

2016 Banned Books Week

I would be entirely remiss if as a teacher, reader, and writer, I didn't take a post to give a shout-out to the American Library Association's Banned Books Week. During September 25th - October 1st, 2016 this annual event fights for and celebrates reading freedom.

Someone once tried to make me feel bad about reading banned books. It was an off-hand comment they made to me in passing and I just kind of stood there dumbfounded. Clearly, they had no idea with whom they were speaking. Exhibit #1: that semester I was teaching a class using only banned literature.

The majority of people's push-back to celebrating banned books is their mistaken belief that by enjoying these books and the right to choose, you are somehow infringing upon their right not to read select texts. For me, that couldn't be more inaccurate. I'm a devout believer in everyone having the right to choose to read and not read whatever they want. Along with this, however, is my position that you better not dare take that right away from someone else. Don't mess. To each his or her own.

As I looked over some of my own bookcases this morning, it was not a shock to me that some of my favorite books have been frequently banned and challenged. Some of these books helped shape my personality, inspired me, taught me about equality, and engaged me with humanity.

I only pulled a few off of the shelf for some quick pictures as there were many I could have featured. As I did so, I noticed an interesting trend: many of these books were one of multiple copies I've owned over the years. The Sun Also Rises? Second copy. To Kill a Mockingbird? Second copy. Their Eyes Were Watching God? Second copy. The Awakening? Third copy. For the books that have remained my first and much-loved edition, I love seeing the well-worn pages, rubbed spines, and slightly torn bindings. This is particularly evident on my copy of Gone With the Wind which has been read and loved twice.

Amid their promotional items, the ALA also posts information regarding the First Amendment, resources for teachers, events in which readers may participate, and details about frequently banned and challenged books by category (young adult, children's, classics, etc.). Much of this information has been gathered in part with the Office of Intellectual Freedom.

Some books I own that I didn't photograph have also been frequently challenged in recent years: The Glass Castle, Thirteen Reasons Why, The Hunger Games, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, Nickel and Dimed, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, and lest I forget, Harry Potter. That's right, HARRY POTTER! I love that series so much, the idea of someone taking it away from me would be devastating.

Do I want to read every book that's been banned or challenged? Nope, not at all. Some of those books don't sound interesting, engaging, uplifting, or simply my style. I rarely choose something to read simply because it's been on a list, but it can be educational to see what I loved or enjoyed that's listed on the ALA's Banned Books page. I've not yet read a Khaled Hosseini novel and he's frequently on these lists. Will that dissuade me? No. Could it for someone else? Probably. As long as we are both free to choose and have equal access, then for me that's what this week is all about.

Have you read or loved a frequently banned or challenged book? Are any of those I mentioned or photographed among your own favorites? What are you reading lately?

September 27, 2016

Book Review - Vinegar Girl by Anne Tyler

Vinegar Girl

by Anne Tyler

"From time to time Kate entertained the notion of looking for work elsewhere, but it never came to anything. She didn't interview well, to be honest. And anyhow, she couldn't think what she might be qualified to do instead.

In her coed dorm back in college she had once been drawn into a game of chess in the common room. Kate was not very good at chess, but she was an audacious player, reckless and unorthodox, and she managed to keep her opponent on the defensive for some time. A small crow of her dorm mates gathered around the board to watch, but Kate paid them no attention until she overheard what the boy behind her whispered to someone standing next to him. 'She has. No. Plan,' he whispered. Which was true, in fact. And she lost the game shortly thereafter.

She thought of that remark often now, walking to school every morning. Helping children out of their boots, scraping Play-Doh from under their nails, plastering Band-Aids onto their knees. Helping them back into their boots.

She has. No. Plan."

In Vinegar Girl, Pulitzer-Prize winner and best-seller Anne Tyler retells Shakespeare's The Taming of the Shrew for a modern audience. Published by the Hogarth Shakespeare series, the book is a part of Penguin's movement to update the author's most famous plays.

I eagerly looked forward to reading Tyler's remake in large part due to the fact that it is my least favorite of Shakespeare's plays. Worse yet, it's not a favorite; I don't like it at all.

If you've never read or seen The Taming of the Shrew (watching the film 10 Things I Hate About You doesn't count here), you're not missing out on much. Though I've read almost all of Shakespeare's plays, many of his sonnets, visited his home in England, and adore his writing, this particular play always leaves me feeling ill inside. The play (categorized within Shakespeare's comedies) tells the story of two sisters: the beautiful if young and ignorant Bianca, and her older, stubborn "shrew" of a sister Katherina. While many men want to court Bianca, patriarchal tradition holds that Katherina must be married off first. As a dare, Petruchio decides to "tame" the shrew through various methods of psychological, emotional, and physical abuse. To Elizabethan male audiences this would have been comical. To modern-day audiences, it's nothing short of disturbing. While Shakespeare's verse is well-crafted and metered, the content is upsetting. My review of the play on my Goodreads account reads as follows: "Sexism in iambic pentameter."

I set out with high hopes for Tyler's story, wanting to see how she would update a misogynistic play and turn it into a story of modern-day empowerment. I was disappointed.

The back-cover summary of Vinegar Girl describes its main protagonist, Kate, as "a thoroughly modern, independent woman" and questions if she "would ever sacrifice herself for a man." The novel, however, doesn't give us an independent woman: Kate is lazy, bored, unhappy, dependent on the safety of her father's home, and unwilling to change anything about her life to improve her situation. A college drop-out, Kate works at a child daycare center not because she loves (or even likes) children, but because it was the only place she could get a job. She cooks the same thing every night for dinner, pulls the same weeds from her garden once a week, walks the same way to work, and is in general completely dull on every level. She lacks wit, drive, compassion, and any interest to the reader. Her younger sister, Bunny, is naive, rather stupid, and whiny. Their father is selfish, ignorant, and emotionally distant. This all sounds rather harsh, but it's true nonetheless.

Kate's father, a rather unsuccessful college scientist, is on the verge of losing his lab partner, Pyotr, and consequently any hopes of proving his worth to the university (whether or not his research actually holds any merit remains unclear). Before Pyotr's work visa runs out and he's sent home to Russia, Kate's dad asks his eldest daughter to do him a favor and marry Pyotr. Healthy family dynamic, right?

[Spoiler paragraph] What's worse than reading about a boring, unhappy character who's complicit in her own boredom and unhappiness, is Kate's completely passive, disinterested attitude as the plot proceeds. She feigns anger at her father's request, but her actions say otherwise, and ultimately she agrees. She doesn't like Pyotr, but marries him. Though she's never been happy and there's no evidence that she's happy now, the author wraps up the novel in a cute bow as if this were a teenage rom-com and the two live happily ever after. While some might argue that change could foster Kate's happiness, are the accompanying suggestions about mental health really the moral messages the author wants to convey? That depression is a quick fix? That women are chattel? That relationships don't require work? No evidence within the story suggests Kate's happy ending is plausible, healthy, romantic, or well written.

The entire book's execution left me confused, frustrated, and annoyed. I was hoping for a rewrite and instead ended up with a story as messy as the first. Ultimately, readers get the tale of a woman who repeatedly demeans herself and submits to abusive, controlling men in order to sacrifice the possibility of her own happiness, freedom, and agency for their convenience. The message remains destructive. I did think that the first third of the story had promise, but then the novel ultimately crashed and burned.

While I really appreciate Hogarth Shakespeare's mission to retell Shakespeare's plays, I wonder if in reaching out to Tyler and asking if she'd be interesting in rewriting The Taming of the Shrew, if she wasn't also given a sort of editorial cart blanche. The published novel feels more like an early concept than a well thought-out and polished interpretation. Not having read anything else by Tyler and hearing mixed reviews from friends about her most recent novel A Spool of Blue Thread, I'm wary to tread her authorial waters again. If you've read Vinegar Girl, I'd love to hear your thoughts.

Have you read an Anne Tyler novel? Have you read The Gap of Time by Jeanette Winterson or Shylock is My Name by Howard Jacobson, the other two volumes in the Hogarth Series? Their next installment is titled Hag-Seed, a retelling of The Tempest by none other than Margaret Atwood, is due out this October. As a huge Atwood fan, I'm hopeful she will do well with her adaptation.

[Book copy from the publisher.]

September 23, 2016

Book Quotes - The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame

When Rat and Mole Meet Pan

I stumbled across a statue of the Greek God Pan and it reminded me of a passage from Kenneth Grahame's The Wind in the Willows. Ratty and Mole are out searching for Toad, but they meet Pan instead:

Slowly, but with no doubt or hesitation whatever, and in something of a solemn expectancy, the two animals passed through the broken, tumultuous water and moored their boat at the flowery margin of the island. In silence they landed, and pushed through the blossom and scented herbage and undergrowth that led up to the level ground, till they stood on a little lawn of a marvellous green, set round with Nature's own orchard-trees—crab-apple, wild cherry, and sloe.

"This is the place of my song-dream, the place the music played to me," whispered the Rat, as if in a trance. "Here, in this holy place, here if anywhere, surely we shall find Him!"

Then suddenly the Mole felt a great Awe fall upon him, an awe that turned his muscles to water, bowed his head, and rooted his feet to the ground. It was no panic terror—indeed he felt wonderfully at peace and happy—but it was an awe that smote and held him and, without seeing, he knew it could only mean that some august Presence was very, very near. With difficulty he turned to look for his friend, and saw him at his side, cowed, stricken, and trembling violently. And still there was utter silence in the populous bird-haunted branches around them; and still the light grew and grew.

Perhaps he would never have dared to raise his eyes, but that, though the piping was now hushed, the call and the summons seemed still dominant and imperious. He might not refuse, were Death himself waiting to strike him instantly, once he had looked with mortal eye on things rightly kept hidden. Trembling he obeyed, and raised his humble head; and then, in that utter clearness of the imminent dawn, while Nature, flushed with fulness of incredible colour, seemed to hold her breath for the event, he looked in the very eyes of the Friend and Helper; saw the backward sweep of the curved horns, gleaming in the growing daylight; saw the stern, hooked nose between the kindly eyes that were looking down on them humorously, while the bearded mouth broke into a half-smile at the corners; saw the rippling muscles on the arm that lay across the broad chest, the long supple hand still holding the pan-pipes only just fallen away from the parted lips; saw the splendid curves of the shaggy limbs disposed in majestic ease on the sward; saw, last of all, nestling between his very hooves, sleeping soundly in entire peace and contentment, the little, round, podgy, childish form of the baby otter. All this he saw, for one moment breathless and intense, vivid on the morning sky; and still, as he looked, he lived; and still, as he lived, he wondered. 


Paul Branson's The Piper at the Gates of Dawn

"Rat!" he found breath to whisper, shaking. "Are you afraid?"

"Afraid?" murmured the Rat, his eyes shining with unutterable love. "Afraid! Of Him? O, never, never! And yet—and yet—O, Mole, I am afraid!"

Then the two animals, crouching to the earth, bowed their heads and did worship.

Sudden and magnificent, the sun's broad golden disc showed itself over the horizon facing them; and the first rays, shooting across the level water-meadows, took the animals full in the eyes and dazzled them. When they were able to look once more, the Vision had vanished, and the air was full of the carol of birds that hailed the dawn.

As they stared blankly, in dumb misery deepening as they slowly realised all they had seen and all they had lost, a capricious little breeze, dancing up from the surface of the water, tossed the aspens, shook the dewy roses, and blew lightly and caressingly in their faces; and with its soft touch came instant oblivion. For this is the last best gift that the kindly demi-god is careful to bestow on those to whom he has revealed himself in their helping: the gift of forgetfulness. Lest the awful remembrance should remain and grow, and overshadow mirth and pleasure, and the great haunting memory should spoil all the after-lives of little animals helped out of difficulties, in order that they should be happy and light-hearted as before.

September 21, 2016

Lord of the Rings Cross Stitch

Lord of the Rings Cross Stitch

Sometimes I make nerdy things and sometimes I love it.

I began cross-stitching this summer (something I hadn't done since I was a young teenager), and it turns out I quite like it.

While I usually flit from hobby to hobby and don't know how long this one will last, I've managed to complete two entirely geeky projects, both of which I'll eventually frame and hang near my bookcases.

I don't remember ever completing a cross-stitch project when I was younger, so here's to lengthened attention spans!

I mostly made this one while listening to audiobooks or watching TV or movies (I LOVE audiobooks).

It's a pattern from the Etsy store WeeLittleStitches that I only slightly modified: I added the quote "not all those who wander are lost" below the gang, stitched it on light green Aida (difficult to see in this photograph), added more flair to Legolas' boots, made the hobbits varying heights, and slightly tailored some of their hairstyles and accessories. Other than these minor changes, the finished project is pretty close to the original design you can purchase, print, and then cross stitch on your own.

What do you think? What nerdy hobbies do you enjoy?

September 15, 2016

Book Spotlight - The Last Dragon Charmer Series by Laurie McKay

The Last Dragon Charmer Series

by Laurie McKay

Harper Collins Childrens' Books recently sent me two autographed copies of the first two installments in Laurie McKay's fantasy series. The three-part series is marketed to children ages 8-12. McKay has a bachelor's degree in biology and a master's in biological oceanography, and works as a professor. If you think you know a young reader who might be interested in her books, here are the details.

 Book #1: Villain Keeper

Official Description:

"Nothing is more important than slaying a dragon....

Once Prince Caden does, he will finally become an Elite Paladin like his seven older brothers. But there is one big thing standing in his way: he has been mysteriously transported from his home in the magical Greater Realm to Asheville, North Carolina.

Now he is stuck in a land with no magic--and no dragons.

Or so he thinks. Caden finds that his new school in Asheville may be the center of some unexpected and dangerous magic after all. With the help of his own elusive magical gifts--and some unlikely new friends--Caden must defeat the evil, save himself and everyone he loves, and find his way home."


"For the second time in Caden's life, King Axel hugged him. Caden's bed was unmade from when his father had roused him. The embers in the fireplace crackled. In the flickering light, his sword and staff collections cast odd shadows on the stone walls.

When his father let him go, he stood in the shadow and spoke in whispers. 'Gather your things quietly and leave. Slay your dragon. When you return, I'll name you an Elite Paladin like your brothers.'

Suddenly, Caden was fully awake. 'You're sending me on my quest?'

'Yes. Now, hurry.'

Caden didn't hurry. He yearned for the honor that came with the title Elite Paladin more than all else, but such quests didn't start at night and in secret. When his seven older brothers had left for their quests, it had been under the bright winter sun and to the cheering of crowds. They'd all been at least fifteen turns, not twelve. Now the kingdom was asleep. Until a moment ago, Caden had been asleep."

Book #2: Quest Maker

Official Description:

"Every prince must complete a quest....

Caden, eigth-born Prince of Razzon, had been waiting his whole life for the day he would be sent to slay a dragon. But when that day came, mysterious magic transported him from the Greater Realm to Asheville, North Carolina--a seemingly normal land with a dark and magical secret.

Asheville, it turns out, is home to the most dangerous villains ever banished from his homeland. And a great and powerful Elderdragon rules them all.

But Caden finds that his destiny may not be to slay a dragon, as he's always believed.

Now an unexpected visitor arrives in Asheville, and Caden suspects that dark forces are conspiring on both sides of the magical divide. Asheville is in danger. So is Razzon--and Caden's family.

The Elderdragon gives Caden a quest: uncover the dangerous plan, return order to Asheville, and protect the Greater Realm from banished villains hunger for revenge. Because in order to find his ay home, Caden first has to save it."


"There was magic on the night wind, and it wasn't the good kind. Caden knew from the acrid smell, from the way his skin itched. He stood on the mountainside, peering down, and listened to the tree branches creak and the leaves rustle.

In the valley, the city gleamed with scattered yellow streetlights. The rectangular buildings looked asleep. Above, the three-quarters moon was half-hidden by clouds.

Suddenly, the sour scent grew stronger. Caden felt goose bumps pucker down his arm. There was a thunderous crack and the sky shattered. Red tendrils streaked across it. Everything--the trees with their spring leaves, the buildings below, the sky above--was bathed in a sickly red glow. Magic born of hate and anger often burned red like those passions. He was witness to a spell, and it was one backed by brutal emotions."

The third and final installment in the series, Realm Breaker, will be published March 7, 2017 and is available for pre-order. What do you think? Does Laurie McKay's middle-grade series sound interesting to you?