Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Banned Books Week

This week is Banned Books Week, an annual event sponsored by the American Library Association to celebrate the right to read, and to highlight the dangers of attempts to ban or censor books in the United States.

I grew up in a household filled with books. The regular trips to the library were a highlight of my childhood, and I well remember the exhilaration when I was no longer confined to the "Children's Section" (never mind that I had been reading so-called "adult" books for quite some time). Our parents never censored our reading. They might suggest that the book we'd pick was trashy, and recommend something else, but I never heard "You aren't allowed to read that" from them.

While I certainly understand why parents might want to monitor their own children's reading (despite the fact that I think it's a really bad idea), it appalls me that anyone would seek to restrict what adults or other people's children read. On a personal level, it is simply none of their business. On a civic level, it's dangerous. It restricts knowledge and learning, it prevents people from learning how to think critically and to form their own opinions. But, of course, that's what the censors want.

Here is a list of the top ten most challenged books of 2008 and the reason they were challenged. Go read one and strike a blow for freedom:
  1. And Tango Makes Three, by Justin Richardson and Peter Parnell
    Reasons: anti-ethnic, anti-family, homosexuality, religious viewpoint, and unsuited to age group
  2. His Dark Materials trilogy, by Philip Pullman
    Reasons: political viewpoint, religious viewpoint, and violence
  3. TTYL; TTFN; L8R, G8R (series), by Lauren Myracle
    Reasons: offensive language, sexually explicit, and unsuited to age group
  4. Scary Stories (series), by Alvin Schwartz
    Reasons: occult/satanism, religious viewpoint, and violence
  5. Bless Me, Ultima, by Rudolfo Anaya
    Reasons: occult/satanism, offensive language, religious viewpoint, sexually explicit, and violence
  6. The Perks of Being a Wallflower, by Stephen Chbosky
    Reasons: drugs, homosexuality, nudity, offensive language, sexually explicit, suicide, and unsuited to age group
  7. Gossip Girl (series), by Cecily von Ziegesar
    Reasons: offensive language, sexually explicit, and unsuited to age group
  8. Uncle Bobby's Wedding, by Sarah S. Brannen
    Reasons: homosexuality and unsuited to age group
  9. The Kite Runner, by Khaled Hosseini
    Reasons: offensive language, sexually explicit, and unsuited to age group
  10. Flashcards of My Life, by Charise Mericle Harper
    Reasons: sexually explicit and unsuited to age group
And here's a poem by Bertolt Brecht (translation by Eric Bentley) that succinctly sums up an author's point of view:

When the Regime ordered that books with dangerous teachings
Should be publicly burnt and everywhere
Oxen were forced to draw carts full of books
To the funeral pyre, an exiled poet,
One of the best, discovered with fury, when he studied the list
Of the burned, that his books
Had been forgotten. He rushed to his writing table
On wings of anger and wrote a letter to those in power.
Burn me, he wrote with hurrying pen, burn me!
Do not treat me in this fashion. Don't leave me out. Have I not
Always spoken the truth in my books? And now
You treat me like a liar! I order you:
Burn me!

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Unlawful Occasions

73. Unlawful Occasions, by Henry Cecil (Henry Cecil Leon)

I've been reading Henry Cecil for ages. He was a barrister and judge, and his books are delightfully humorous accounts of activities in the law courts and lawyers' and judges' chambers. Every so often, I come across one of his works that I haven't read before. Unlawful Occasions is one of those.

Brian Culsworth, barrister-at-law, is sought out for advice one day by the tenant above his chambers, one Mrs. Venery. She has had a visit from a man who appears to be a blackmailer. I say "appears" because he is quite clever at avoiding a direct threat, but merely insinuates. At the same time, Culsworth is representing a man who is suing for his share of a win in the pools (lottery to us Yanks!). His client's habit of speaking his mind directly gets him in trouble in court, and Culsworth's efforts to get him out of it may expose him to the tender mercies of the blackmailer.

As with all Cecil's work, there's a twist or two, and the story is told with a dry wit that goes well with a gin and tonic.

Confections of a Closet Master Baker

72. Confections of a Closet Master Baker, by Gesine Bullock-Prado

I begin with a caveat: do not read this book if you are trying to avoid sweets. Though not a cookbook, it has recipes. Luscious-sounding recipes. Recipes for things like "Starry Starry Night" cookies, which are nearly solid chocolate. Rock scones and cream scones. Tarts redolent of plums, pies redolent of apples. You'll want to put the book aside and head to the kitchen!

I'll be honest. I wasn't sure I'd like this book. "Oh, sure," I said to myself. "Another 'I got off the money treadmill and went to live the simple life on the money I made on the aforesaid treadmill' book." Blurbs like "A former Hollywood insider trades the Holywood Hills for Green Acres" don't incline me favorably towards a book. It was the baking part that tempted me.

But the book is better than the blurbs would have you think. Yes, there's a lot about Bullock-Prado's unhappiness in Hollywood, where she headed her sister's production company. But there is far more about the importance of baking in her life, the way it makes her feel to give people macaroons and receive their passionate thanks in return, the way a tart or a pie brings back to her memories of her childhood, of her mother and grandmother and the special times they had together.

As all such books must, it gives us stories of mishaps along the way to success. It didn't hurt that the national media was attracted to the story of "Sandra Bullock's sister opens bakery in Vermont". One would like to think that she'd have had a successful business anyway, though I doubt that the Food Network would have knocked on her door if she were Gesine Nobody's Sister. She is such a success that she has now closed the bakery about which she wrote here, and is concentrating on her online business and helping open a new shop in Texas (weird, that's a long way from Vermont, wonder how that will work?). It's kind of too bad, because it sounded like a great place, very neighborly and warm, the sort of bakery you'd like to have down the street from you.

You can read more about what Gesine is doing now at her blog: Confections of a (Closet) Master Baker: Idle Musings on Baking and a Few Good Recipes from a Nomad Baker.

(My thanks to Shelf Awareness and Broadway Books for the opportunity to review this book.)

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Lamb to the Slaughter and other stories

71. Lamb to the Slaughter and other Stories, by Roald Dahl

The title story in this collection of five is fairly well-known, as it is often anthologized. It's the one about the wife who bashes her husband over the head with a frozen leg of lamb, and then feeds the murder weapon to the police investigating the crime!

"Parson's Pleasure" and "The Bookseller" have similar themes. In each, someone is taking advantage of others' ignorance or weakness to trick them for financial gain, but is in the end hoist by his own petard. "The Butler" also involves trickery and deceit, but here a pretentious nouveau riche is caught by his butler and cook.

But the very best of these stories is Dahl's first published work, based on his wartime experiences. "A Piece of Cake" is a hallucinatory story of a pilot who crash lands in the desert between the Italian and English lines. Extraordinary writing: "I knew that the hotness was unpleasant, but that was all I knew. I disliked it, so I curled my legs up under the seat and waited. I think there was something wrong with the telegraph system between the body and the brain. It did not seem to be working very well. Somehow it was a bit slow in telling the brain all about it and in asking for instructions. But I believe a message eventually got through, saying, 'Down here there is a great hotness. What shall we do? (Signed) Left Leg and Right Leg.' For a long time there was no reply. The brain was figuring it out."

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Nine Lives: Death and Life in New Orleans

70. Nine Lives: Death and Life in New Orleans, by Dan Baum

New Orleans. There's no other city like it in the United States. It's southern, it's French, it's Spanish, it's African-American. It's the filé in the gumbo, the lait in the café, the feathers of the Mardi Gras Indians and the improvisation of a jazz ensemble.

And we nearly lost it. We nearly lost it all.

A lot of books have been written about Hurricane Katrina. I've read a bunch of them. This is one of the best, mostly because it's not merely about Katrina. After I came back from the Jazz and Heritage Festival in 2006, I wrote in my Live Journal: I picked up a book while I was there, Chris Rose's 1 Dead in Attic, a collection of his articles in the Times-Picayune. And in the eponymous article he writes about some homes in the Eighth Ward, where many of the Mardi Gras Indians live, and where they have "retrieved their tattered and muddy Indian suits and sequins and feathers and they have nailed them to the fronts of their houses." New Orleans has nailed its colors to its houses; it's not going without a fight.

This is Baum's effort to understand and explain, through the lives of nine New Orleanians, just what it is that makes people so devoted to this city, as poor and violent and corrupt as it was, just why they struggled (and still struggle) so hard to return and rebuild. He interviewed these folks (as well as friends, relatives and co-workers) for days, you feel that he knows them as well as he knows himself.

His interviewees are as varied as you'd expect: a high school band leader, a transsexual bar owner, the coroner of Orleans Parish, a single mom from the 'hood determined to have a better life, a millionaire king of carnival, the wife (later widow) of Big Chief Tootie Montana. Their lives are so different, and yet they intersect. Each in his or her own way has tried in their lives to make their city a better place. It hasn't always been easy. Wilbert Rawlins, Jr.'s devotion to his band kids, knowing that for many he's the only father, for some the only parent, that they know, nearly loses him the woman he loves. Billy Grace, Rex, King of Carnival, risks losing status to open up the krewes (those social organizations that drive Mardi Gras). Ronald Lewis fights for equal rights on the job, and starts a second-line club to "bring a little pride back" to the Lower Ninth. Setbacks don't stop them, so why should Katrina?

Rather than tell one person's story and then the next, Baum has told the stories in bits and pieces, chronologically, beginning in 1965, with Hurricane Betsy (described by Lewis as "a force of nature more powerful than his mom") and ending two years after Katrina. This structure gives the book such great force and drive that I finished it at about 1:00 in the morning, unwilling (unable, really) to stop reading. There's an incredible tension in reading the dates under each section, as we move closer and closer to that weekend in 2005.

When jazz great Irvin Mayfield was interviewed by NPR shortly after Katrina, he said "jazz is about taking what you have and making the best of it, and doing it with style". That's what these folks did with their lives, and are still doing to make New Orleans come alive again.

We're home!

Saturday, September 19, 2009

The Cat that Jumped out of the Story

The Cat that Jumped out of the Story, by Ben Hecht

Ben Hecht, screenwriter, journalist, author of "obscene" novels - who knew he wrote children's books as well? I didn't, until I found this little volume at a used book sale. It's a charming book, about Catarinka, a black cat who came out of the moon, and who has a Great Secret, one which she is afraid other cats would find out. Her friends, the mice Itzel and Bitzel, try to discover it, but she resists. Then comes Mickey Lickey, the Worst Cat in the World, who will turn her into hash if she doesn't tell him! Catarinka, however, outsmarts him, by, well, that would be telling!

The text is accompanied by numerous black-and-white and color illustrations by artist Peggy Bacon that artfully evoke the world of the street cat.

Friday, September 18, 2009

Book Blogger Appreciation Week: The present & future blog

The challenge: Tell us and this is really important, in 50 words or less what you love best about your blog! And then in 50 words or less where you want your blog to be by the next BBAW!

I love having a place to write about the books I read, the literary events I go to, and my general musings about all things book-related. But mostly, I love sharing with anyone who cares to read it.

Where do I want to be this time next year? More consistent in posting, with longer and more in-depth reviews. And, I hope, more readers.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Book Blogger Appreciation Week Meme

I should have done this yesterday, but better late than never!

Do you snack while you read? If so, favorite reading snack?

I do occasionally. It's more likely to be when I'm home in the evening, so the snack will likely be an after-dinner, dessert-type snack - fruit, ice cream, something of that ilk. When it's ice cream, here's what happens when I'm done:

I'm licking the bowl!

Do you tend to mark your books as you read, or does the idea of writing in books horrify you?
I rarely write in books (probably reminds me too much of college/law school days!). I won't say it "horrifies" me, but I'd rather not.

How do you keep your place while reading a book? Bookmark? Dog-ears?Laying the book flat open?
Bookmarks. I have zillions of them! Those cats in the photo above? Sometimes they'll sit on the book and hold my place for me.

Fiction, Non-fiction, or both?
Both. If a book is interesting and well-written, that's enough.

Hard copy or audiobooks?
Printed matter. When I began a long commute, friends said, "get audiobooks". I tried, but found that I could concentrate on the book or the road, not both. For the safety of myself and those around me, I gave up the books!

Are you a person who tends to read to the end of chapters, or are you able to put a book down at any point?

I can put a book down at any point, but I prefer to stop at a logical stopping point. If I stop in the middle of a chapter, it's not so easy to find the exact place where I stopped, particularly if I'm not coming right back to the book. So as the clock wends its way toward my bedtime, I find myself looking to see how many pages to the end of a chapter - will I stop now, or can I finish before bedtime? Sometimes, of course, the chapter is very long, and I must, however reluctantly, stop before the end.

If you come across an unfamiliar word, do you stop to look it up right away?
That depends on whether or not I'm near a dictionary!

What are you currently reading?
The Plan of Chicago: Daniel Burnham and the Remaking of the American City, by Carl Smith
Nine Lives: Death and Life in New Orleans, by Dan Baum

What is the last book you bought?
I bought three at the 57th Street Children's Book Fair last Sunday, costing a grand total of $5.50 (mostly for the first book, a big hardback)
The Annotated Brothers Grimm (which has an introduction by A.S. Byatt, and lovely illustrations)
As I was Crossing Boston Common, a children's abecedaria/bestiary by Norma Farber
Teach Yourself Dutch, in anticipation of a trip to Amsterdam next spring

Are you the type of person that only reads one book at a time or can you read more than one at a time?
See "What are you currently reading?" above! I nearly always have at least two books going, usually more.

Do you have a favorite time of day and/or place to read?
No. Most of my reading is, of necessity, done in the evening at home, but I always carry a book to court in case there are long breaks, and when I'm on the bus.

Do you prefer series books or stand alone books?
I tend to read "stand alone" books. Although I do read some series books, I find that they pall over time. It's a rare author who can sustain a character over a lengthy series of books. Too often, they degenerate into schtick.

Is there a specific book or author that you find yourself recommending over and over?
Hmmm . . . not really. I tend to recommend books I've recently read and enjoyed, or a specific book to a specific person because I think it will suit her. But two that I do like to recommend are Dorothy L. Sayers' Gaudy Night and Italo Calvino's If on a winter's night a traveler.

How do you organize your books? (By genre, title, author’s last name, etc.?)
Literature (including lit crit and literary biography) is alpha by the author's last name. Books about an author are shelved with her books. Non-fiction is shelved by subject, and then further subdivided as needed (for instance, performing arts subdivided into theatre, film, opera, etc.) Deciding what goes where can result in tearing of hair and gnashing of teeth. Do books on kimono belong with "fashion" or "Japanese culture"? (Fashion) Is Frank Lloyd Wright in Pop-up "architecture" or "pop-ups"? (Pop-ups)

Then there are those piles of books on the floor because I've run out of bookshelf space. Those aren't organized at all. (I keep meaning to get around to it, really!)

Some of my bookcases.

Friday, September 11, 2009

Louisa May Alcott: the Woman Behind Little Women

68. Louisa May Alcott: the Woman Behind Little Women, by Harriet Reisen

Could any woman with a shelf full of books by and about Louisa May Alcott resist a new biography* of her? What about one who devours Little Women and other titles yearly? Who is known to have corrected a docent at Orchard House who mistakenly called Beth the youngest of the March sisters? One who thrilled to the discovery of Alcott's thrillers, and leapt on a previously unknown (to her) bit of juvenile fiction? (A pause here to give thanks to the late Madeleine B. Stern.) This one couldn't. And pleased I am that I gave way to the blandishments of Amazon Vine, because this is a marvelous addition to the aforesaid shelf.

Louisa May Alcott was the second of four daughters born to the Transcendentalist philosopher, Bronson Alcott, and his wife, Abigail May Alcott (Abby). Alcott was one of those men with grand ideas and a head in the clouds, but little practical sense. (It has been fashionable to view Bronson Alcott as a bit of a villain in relation to his family, particularly Louisa. Reisen, I think, gives a more balanced portrait of him. Her description of his ups and downs, and the family history, suggests the possibility of bipolar disorder or depressive episodes, but she quite rightly does not draw that conclusion.)

So the family's financial situation was always unstable, and, as a result, so was their living situation. They moved four times in the first year and a half of Louisa's life, and many more after that. While living in poor circumstances themselves, the Alcotts had wealthy relatives, and that contrast clearly affected Louisa. She was driven to succeed, at least in part, to provide for her parents (particularly the beloved Abby) and sisters. But where the real Alcott wealth lay was in the life of the mind, in their connections to the intellectual and literary world of the New England of their day. They had regular and intimate contact with people such as Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, Margaret Fuller and others, who would appear, sometimes only slightly disguised, in Louisa's fiction.

Reisen does not merely tell us how Louisa lived. She also does an exemplary job of showing how that life, and the people with whom she shared it, showed up in her books. And she shows, too, how Louisa's day-to-day life affected what and when she wrote. Those blood-and-thunder thrillers, written as "A.M. Barnard" and rediscovered by Stern and Leona Rostenberg, helped fill the family coffers when times were tight, but they also gave Louisa an outlet for her desire for adventure and action, something difficult for a young woman of her class and time to find in the real world. She couldn't fight a war (though she could nurse, to the detriment of her own health), she couldn't run away to sea or "go west, young man!", but she could write.

In later life, Louisa suffered greatly from a variety of medical problems. Reisen revisits, with the assistance of medical experts, the question of what caused these problems and (ultimately) her death. Louisa herself, and her doctors, attributed her troubles to mercury poisoning resulting from the use of calomel as a curative during her service as a nurse. The doctors Reisen consulted show, quite conclusively, that this is not the case, and she posits that Alcott may have been suffering from lupus. Her arguments are convincing, but, again, she rightly does not insist upon the diagnosis.

Written in connection with the PBS documentary of the same name, this book is extremely well-researched and documented**, with an extensive bibliography and notes. It is one that I would recommend to anyone who has loved Alcott's work.

*Kudos to Reisen for correcting, on her LibraryThing profile (and elsewhere, for all I know), the publisher's erroneous cover blurb describing this as "the first complete biography" of Alcott.

**Here's serendipity for you! The late Madelon Bedell, in her book The Alcotts: Biography of a Family, makes reference to an interview she conducted with the then-96-year-old Lulu Neiriker Rasim, Louisa's niece. Try as she might, Reisen couldn't find the interview or a surviving Bedell. Then, well, let Reisen tell it: "One day I picked up a used copy of The Alcotts, and out of it tumbled a carbon copy of an August 1980 letter written by Bedell herself to Michael Sterne, then the travel editor of the New York Times, proposing a story. At the bottom of the letter was a return address in Brooklyn where, more than two decades later, Madelon Bedell's widower still lived." He helped Reisen locate and recover Bedell's papers, now on their way to Orchard House.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

America Eats!

67. America Eats! On the Road with the WPA: the Fish Fries, Box Supper Socials, and Chitlin Feasts that Define Real American Food, by Pat Willard

The Works Progress Administration was one of the glories of the New Deal. Although it employed millions of people, it is probably best known for the work it provided to artists and writers through the Federal Writers' Project and the Federal Artists' Project. One of the projects it embarked on was to document "how America eats", more specifically, to document local social gatherings at which food was served and thus describe "American" cookery and its importance to community. Despite the many writers and photographers who contributed to the project, the planned book (to be called America Eats! never came to fruition, but the papers were boxed up, and, though many were lost, many were preserved.

Decades later, Pat Willard had the brilliant idea of going back to the towns and gatherings visited by the FWP writers to find out if those traditions and foods were still around. Her book alternates excerpts from the original manuscripts with her own descriptions of what she found, grouped by themes such as "Agricultural Fairs", "Fund-raising Dinners", "Political Gatherings" and the like. (She also includes a few recipes, as lagniappe.) Willard found that many of the events memorialized by the FWP writers no longer existed or had been transformed (some weren't even remembered!), but others were still going strong.

As we travel the roads of the United States, eating dishes ranging from Brunswick Stew in North Carolina to barbecued salmon in Oregon, we learn, through the food and the reasons for the socializing, the history and culture of these places. Lucky Pat Willard, to taste so many good things. And I greatly appreciate her bringing the stories written for the FWP out of the boxes in which they'd been stores and into the light of day.

If I have any quibble with the book, it is with Willard's defensiveness about American cuisine. The food can speak for itself!

Sunday, September 6, 2009


66. Revenge, by Hugh Holton

This book, a Detective Larry Cole mystery, is a posthumous publication, Holton having died in 2001. There is no indication that anyone has added to it, so I can only presume that Holton had completed it, or appeared to have completed it, before he died. I say "appeared to have completed it" because it reads like an early draft that needs work, a lot of work.

The plot revolves around a young woman, Morgana Devoe, whose guardian was murdered when she was thirteen, and who is intent on revenge. She arrives in Chicago intending to kill the murderer, and becomes involved with Cole's son, Larry, Jr. (known as Butch), who is a police cadet. It turns out that she is actually the daughter of Margo and Neil DeWitt, married serial killers who were Cole's nemeses, but who are now dead. Their multi-billion dollar holdings are now being administered by a very nasty piece of work, lawyer Franklin Butler, and his assistant, Susanne York, who is also out for revenge on a variety of people.

Revenge fails on many levels. While Holton's writing was never the best, his mysteries could generally succeed in the plotting. But the prose in this book is so stilted and repetitious that the best of plots could not survive it, and this is not the best of plots. It's all over the place, wildly incoherent, and he leaves a lot of loose ends. The ending is over the top, even for Holton, and includes a bit of graphic sex, something that I do not recall from his other books (though, admittedly, it's been quite a while since I read one) and which is, therefore, a bit jarring.

The absence of editing is evident, not only in typos, but in such things as the misuse of words ("implicated", where "implied" is clearly what was meant), wrong names being used, and what the film world calls "continuity". Morgana lives in what is described in the space of two pages as a "town house", then a "penthouse", then a "townhouse" again. In one place, her home is on North Sheridan Road, then on Lake Shore Drive. (The book is set in Chicago, and these are real streets that do not intersect.)

Because the book is set is a specific, real, location, at a specific time, details can and should be verified. As a lawyer, I'm particularly annoyed at the many errors in law and legal procedure, with which, as a long-time Chicago police officer, Holton should have been conversant. He should have known that no trial court judge could allow cameras in a courtroom, as that's a violation of Illinois Supreme Court Rules. He should have known that motions to suppress statements are heard pre-trial by a judge, not as part of a jury trial. While occasionally one must allow an author literary license so that he can improve the story or move it along, the errors in this book do neither.

The book is copyrighted by Holton's daughter, and I appreciate that she probably wanted her father's last work published, but it needed considerable editing and revision before being in publishable form.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

A couple of places where I get books

I acquire my books from a lot of places. Like everyone else, I have my favorite bookstores. I go to libraries and charity book sales, and I try to get advance reading copies. But a couple of the places I go are so interesting that I feel the urge to share.

The T.B. Blackstone Branch Library

The urge began a couple of days ago, when I went to my local library, the T.B. Blackstone branch of the Chicago Public Library. It is the oldest branch library in the system, having opened in January, 1903, and was built in his memory with funds given by his widow. Now, as it happens, I didn't go there to check out books (though, no surprise, I did). I went there for an event to celebrate the restoration of the library' murals, painted by Oliver Dennett Grover. They represent Literature, Art, Science and Labor. This is Literature:

You should have seen them before! They were so dirty and dark, and the fern-like design in the spandrels was practically non-existent. The conservators, (Parma Conservation) did an amazing job! You can see more, and some other photos of events at the library, here.

Seminary Co-op Bookstore

I'm proud to say that I'm a shareholder in this store! Not to mention happy to get the 10% off everything that gets me. It's actually three stores. There's a general interest bookstore, 57th Street Books, the A.C. McClurg Bookstore at the Newberry Library, and the mother ship, Seminary Co-op Books, which is located in this building:

Chicago Theological Seminary

Yep. The store is in the basement of the Chicago Theological Seminary on the University of Chicago campus, hence the name. It carries not only titles of general interest, but also textbooks for the university. And it's so big, you need a map:
Help navigating the store

I don't know why they don't still have this listing, but they used to have a section on their website titled, "Books by Members". There aren't a lot of bookstores that could do that! And they have a blog, The Front Table, in order to lay temptation in your path.

I do love this store.