Saturday, September 29, 2012

In Honor of Banned Book Week: Take Two

 I recently watched a documentary called Cleanflix (2009) that tells the story of companies in Utah that attempted to clean up “R” rated movies for Christian audiences, particularly the members of the Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter Day Saints. The film focuses primarily on the video stores that sold the cleaned-up versions of the movies until most of the production companies lost a lawsuit with the Directors Guild over artistic license in 2007. While the documentary is only moderately successful, it brought to my mind several times in my experience as a librarian when there were attempts to clean up objectionable “stuff” in children’s books.
 I particularly remember the flap over In the Night Kitchen by Maurice Sendak which has a drawing of a naked little boy. Published in 1972, the book engendered intense discussions in my graduate classes in library school. Some librarians chose to draw diapers on the little boy; some chose to remove the book from their library. As I was watching the CleanFlicks documentary, I was reminded of those teachers who chose to draw the diapers. Because of Maurice Sendak’s reputation, they didn’t feel confident about not having the book in the library, but they still didn’t want to have that naked little boy on their shelves. I had the book on my library shelf my entire career and never once entertained any objection.

Another time, a teacher came to me after he had started reading Tom Sawyer to his class. “What should I do?” he asked. He had never read it before and didn’t know that one of the characters was named “Nigger Joe”. Should he change the name of the character? I suggested that a simple explanation to the students that calling someone Nigger Joe was how slaves or freed slaves were addressed 100 years ago. It would be a good history lesson. A publishing house has recently decided to sanitize Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn by removing all the references to “nigger” and “injun” from the books—Mark Twain for the politically correct century, I guess.

 And then, recently I was involved with a group of librarians, scholars, and booksellers who were creating a list of the best books for children. One of the decisions we had to face was to decide whether we would include the “Little House” books on our final list because Pa Ingalls calls the Native Americans “injuns”. Believe me, there was a lot of intense debate over that! Practically every member of the committee had loved the “Little House” books and couldn’t image any list of “best” books without them. Would we remove “injun” from future editions of the book? Would we put a disclaimer on the book list? In the end, we decided to leave the books as is, thank God.

 Children are so smart. If they are told why African Americans were called “niggers” or Native Americans were called “injuns” in these well-loved books, they are most likely to go “Oh, OK” and settle down to listen to, or read, great literature. They don’t need diapers on naked little boys, or black magic markers through offensive words. 

Philip Nel, a professor at the University of Kansas wrote an outstanding piece on his blog about censorship of children's books. He spoke extensively about the Oompa Loompas in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. In early editions they were African Pygmies, but in later editions White. In early editions they came from Africa, in later editions they came from Oompa  Loompa Land. I had to chuckle about this because my toddler granddaughter's favorite song of late is Oompa Loompa from the Charlie and the Chocolate Factory Movie. 

Nel closes his blog posting with these comments:  "As a negative state, innocence cannot be sustained indefinitely.  As they grow up, children will gain experience and knowledge.  Some of those experiences will hurt; some of that knowledge will make them sad.  If we exclude troubling works from the discussion, then children are more likely to face sadness and pain on their own.  It is, I think, better that we give them the tools with which to face prejudice-bearing literature.  In doing so, we can help them learn to cope with a world that can be neither just nor fair.  With this knowledge, perhaps we may also give them a source of power."

You might also be interested in the article I wrote for Banned Book Week last year. You can find it here.
 An interesting analysis of the Cleanflix documentary by a Mormon:

Thursday, September 27, 2012


By Jennifer Hillier
New York, Gallery Books, 2012
335 pages     Fiction

What a great book title: Freak! It is the second in a series of books about a string of serial killings (and serial killers). I reviewed the first book Creep last year, and already I am wondering what the third book will be called. I’ve been running five letter words through my mind that have to do with serial killers. I can’t come up with one, although I am sure that Hillier has.

Freak picks up where Creep left off, and although you don’t need to read Creep, you probably don’t want to miss it. I had to read through two or three chapters of Freak before I remembered the characters and the circumstances. Abby Maddox is the girlfriend of Ethan Wolfe, the now-dead serial killer from Creep. Abby is in prison for having attacked Jerry Isaac, the police detective turned PI, who was investigating the murders Wolfe committed. Now, someone is killing prostitutes and carving “Free Abby Maddox” on their backs. Jerry Isaac is called in to investigate and the horrific fun begins again. All the cast of characters from the first book return, including Sheila Tao, the psychology professor, her fiancĂ© Morris, and Jerry’s estranged wife Annie. A new character, Danny Mercy, is introduced, and about half way through the book, the reader begins to get creepy feelings about Danny. Something is just not adding up about her.

Abby Maddox is a very interesting character; she is such an accomplished sociopath that her behavior is almost believable—and I am saying this as if I knew enough about sociopaths to decide if her actions were believable or not. Throughout the book, she is so incredibly clever that the reader is constantly surprised at what she thinks up. Abby is as brilliant as she is beautiful and is a master manipulator. Can a serial killer be an appealing character? 

Hillier says in an interview that as soon as she finished her first novel, Creep, she had to begin the second because she had unfinished business that had to be taken care of, like try to figure out what Abby Maddox was thinking about and what she was capable of. Now, I am worrying about Danny Mercy and wondering what she is capable of…well we already got a glimmer of that in Freak. Danny, however, has a bit of a soft streak to her that Abby does not have. I wonder what that means for book three.

Hmmm…female serial killers. Most serial killers are men, but we all remember Charlize Theron in the movie Monster from 2003. Perhaps as Hillier develops this series of thrillers, we will come to know more about how female serial killers operate. What we know for sure is that Hillier’s next book will be as tightly drawn and finely crafted as her first two books have been.

The reviewer on the Horror News website has this to say: “Thriller author Jennifer Hillier’s Freak can be described in a few words: brilliant, intense, fast-paced, terrifying and an edge of your seat thriller.” I agree and for my readers that love suspense novels, both Creep and Freak really deliver a thrilling experience.

A good summary of Freak can be found on Kirkus Reviews:
 Hillier’s website:

Thursday, September 20, 2012

The Art of Fielding

 By Chad Harbach
New York, Back Bay Books, 2011
512 pages     Fiction

Westish is a small liberal arts college in a small town along the shore of Lake Michigan in Wisconsin—sort of north of Milwaukee, I would guess. It doesn’t matter, for the most part, where The Art of Fielding is set, however. The story could be told at any small liberal arts college. 

Henry Skrimshander comes to Westish College to play shortstop for the baseball team. He has been recruited by a member of the team, Mike Schwartz, and arrives with a perfect arm and an almost precognizant ability to get the ball to the catcher’s mitt. To the reader and to Schwartz, Henry is clay to be molded; we know very little about him other than his ability to mold himself into the perfect baseball player. His life intersects with a varied group of small college characters. Owen, Henry’s roommate, is a baseball player but also a somewhat effete, gay intellectual snob. Guert Affenlight is the college president; a Melville scholar, he is the closeted father of Pella, who arrives on the scene following a disastrous marriage. 

The slow-paced plot of The Art of Fielding evolves over the course of Henry’s baseball career. Ostensibly, this is a book about baseball, so baseball figures prominently as the backdrop, but the story is much denser than a sports story would generally be. And the plot is about as slow as a baseball game. Baseball is given as much play as it would be in any Midwestern college—integral to the lives of the players, but of little consequence to the rest of the college students. For Henry and Mike, however, baseball is their lives. Baseball becomes, then, the literary device around which Harbach frames his plot.

Although the story line includes many illusions to famous literature, including Moby Dick, Herman Melville, and American poets, their inclusion is another literary devise rather than a pivotal part of the plot. The use of famous literature is there to remind us that this is taking place on a college campus, and kids at a liberal arts college spout literary quotations. Even though there is a climax to the plot, it is not shocking, but evolutionary in nature. Frankly, I was more concerned about what was going to happen to Affenlight’s dog than I was about what was happening to Affenlight. (It would be a plot spoiler to talk about what happened to Affenlight.) 

Henry is the most interesting character. He is so focused on baseball that he is a cipher through most of the book. One reviewer calls it his “diamond-pure life.” When life finally intrudes on the purity of his motivation, he has no ability to answer to the intrusion; he has developed no coping strategies. The author says of Henry's thinking: "Baseball was an art, but to excel at it you had to become a machine. It didn't matter how beautifully you performed sometimes ...what mattered, as for any machine, was repeatability. Moments of inspiration were nothing compared to elimination of error." Today’s newspaper tells the story of an Olympic athlete who had to declare bankruptcy following his Olympic journey—a similar story in real life.

Before I began The Art of Fielding, and in the early chapters, I thought that this was going to be a “baseball as a metaphor for life" book. I was wrong about that. At its core, this is a coming of age story. Mike can’t get accepted at law school, which has been his dream, and he reluctantly realizes that his calling may be as a coach. Pella faces the reality of the disastrous marriage she has made and makes the first adult decisions of her life. Even the president of the college, Affenlight, comes of age in the novel. Life intrudes on his insulated academic cocoon. Only Owen, the “gay mulatto roommate” and gifted, but half-hearted baseball player, seems to come of age unscathed. He already has a good sense of who he is and where he is going. 

So, why the fuss about The Art of Fielding? It made the list of several publications, including The New York Times and The New Yorker as one of 2011’s best in literary fiction. It reminded me in many ways of Freedom by Jonathan Franzen, although I liked the characters better. When I finished both books, I had to ask myself, “Is this the best that literature has to offer, currently?” A couple of days later and I am still asking myself that question. In a article, a high school English teacher poses a similar question. He compares the literary value of The Hunger Games to The Art of Fielding and concludes that they serve a similar purpose, and The Art of Fielding is a “simplistic children’s book in a grown-up costume.” He suggests that it is a good book but not great literature. I guess I would have to agree.

Here is a totally different and refreshing take on the book in the LA Review of Books:

My book club read The Art of Fielding this month, and we had a really interesting discussion last night.

Monday, September 17, 2012

A Girl Like You

 By Maria Geraci
New York, Penguin Books, 2012
308 pages     Fiction

Maria Geraci calls herself the “author of fun, romantic women’s fiction,” and that is exactly what A Girl Like You is—fun, romantic women’s fiction.

Emma is a journalist for a regional magazine in Florida. Although she is a good journalist and very smart, she suffers from self-esteem issues because she is a size 14 rather than a size 2, and when you are in the market for a man, size seems to matter—especially when you are in your early 30s and everyone is pairing up. She has several loyal friends and co-workers, who support and encourage each other. The plot hinges on an interview that she is attempting to get with a famous, sexy NASCAR driver with whom she went to high school. As she works toward that goal, she tries on a romance with a cop in her hometown named Nick, pines for her boss, Ben, and ignores her co-worker Richard.

A good bit of the story and the humor hinges on the self-talk that Emma engages in as she attends to her work, her social life, and her relationship with her two mothers. By the way, the natural way in which the author weaves that state of affairs is delightful. A generation ago, being raised by two mothers would have caused a stir; now, we just read our way through it, and say, “…oh.” No exclamation point needed. One of my favorite lines of self-talk comes early in the book when Emma is at the bar on Friday night with her friends—and a few not-such-good friends. She says, “Slowly, I begin to fill with the sort of clarity that comes from being the alien in the room full of Others.” Throughout the book, Emma remains true to herself, which is a lovely quality in the protagonist. She had an experience in high school for which she continues to feel guilty, hence some of her feelings of inadequacy. This quality of self-truth is appealing.

I related to Emma on several levels. First, I was always a size 14 in a world of size 2s. At the same time, as a young woman, I had the kind of confidence that comes from knowing you are good at what you do and knowing that you are loveable. Underneath all her self-talk, Emma has that confidence and can-do attitude, too. Self-esteem is a chancy business. A person, particularly a woman, can feel competent on the one hand and totally inadequate on the other. It has only been with age that I have conquered some of those feelings of inadequacy. As I watch my granddaughters find their place in the world, I see the whole self-talk, confidence, inadequacy scenario playing out for another generation. 

What is also appealing is that Geraci, the author, doesn’t seem to take herself too seriously, either. She knows exactly what kind of book she is delivering, and she delivers A Girl Like You extremely well. The loose ends get tied up, Emma finds a man, although not the man she was seeking, and she excels in her career. And to her great credit, Geraci doesn’t hit you over the head with issues. That is what makes it fun.

I received this book from the publicist. I recommend it. 

Maria Geraci’s website: She is the author of several other romance novels.

Sunday, September 16, 2012

The Digest Diet

By Liz Vaccariello
New York, Reader’s Digest, 2012
318 pages     Nonfiction
The Shortlist

Liz Vaccariello is the Editor-in-Chief of Reader’s Digest and is the author of several other diet books. The Digest Diet has a lot going for it. It has large print, good advice, great recipes, and a diet that is very simple to follow. 

What I have learned from my own recent dieting is that if I can get through the first three days with very few carbohydrates, I am good for the long run. The Digest Diet has a very simple plan for getting through these first three days, with what Vaccariello calls the Fast Release. Shakes and soups lead to fast, early weight loss while giving you solid nutrition. The soup recipes are especially appealing. I made the Hearty Mexican Chicken Soup and the Italian Shrimp and Vegetable Soup. Both were excellent.

The other two parts of the diet include the Fade Away and the Finish Strong portions of the diet. The plan is designed to last for 21 days, although it looked to me like the Finish Strong portion could last indefinitely. The recipes are excellent. We had the Shrimp Scampi and the Tri-color Frittata last week. Each recipe has a full-page picture to go with it.

One of the things that I have been conscientiously trying to do with our new eating plan is to count calories and carbohydrates. So, I was especially pleased with the Shrimp Scampi recipe. In our no-holds-barred high-calorie days, we liked pasta with shrimp and Alfredo sauce. I put the shrimp scampi from the Digest Diet on spaghetti squash and eliminated about 500 calories per serving, and we thought it was great.

Vaccarriello offers advice as to why weight creeps up on us, a plan for moving more, and a maintenance plan. Although much of this advice has been reiterated in diet book after diet book, it is very plainly stated in The Digest Diet. This is an easy to follow diet with very good advice.

My husband always says that if you can keep up a good habit (whatever it may be) for three weeks, you will be able to maintain that habit. The Digest Diet is a 21-day plan (three weeks) to help break the old, bad habits, and establish the new, good habits to break the high calorie, high carbohydrate lifestyle that many of us have established.

The publicist sent me this book. I am glad that I read it. We love the recipes.

The diet’s website:

Here is a blog posting from a woman who completed three weeks on the Digest Diet and lost significant weight:

A review of the book from a diet review website concludes:   The Digest Diet appears to have everything needed for a weight loss jump start with delicious foods and effective exercise. This program allows you to some weight quickly to stay motivated and continue until you reach your goal. The evidence for the effectiveness of this program is solid and the advice leads you to healthy eating.