Wednesday, September 30, 2009

why yes, Virginia, there really is still censorship

At my bookstore, we have a display up in honor of Banned Books Week (which is this week, the 26th of September through the 3rd of October). Personally, I think it's a rather silly looking display because "flames" made out of sparkly mesh fabric just don't seem very threatening, or even interesting to look at. But such unfortunate decorations are important if they're meant to remind us about our glorious, magnificent, essential right of freedom of expression, and the First Amendment that protects it. It's especially important when people don't know that books are still banned, that censorship does still happen, that there are still people out there who will try to put boundaries on your choices of what to read, and how to think, and what to say.

A woman and her son were looking at some of the books on our sparkly, unconvincingly inflammable table, and the son said, "Oh! Mommy, look at these penguins. What does 'banned' mean?"

The woman said, "That means people didn't want other people to read them. They took them away. But, that happened a long time ago." Then she turned to me and said, "Right? These books were banned a long time ago, weren't they? That doesn't happen now."

It kind of broke my heart to tell her that, yes, actually it does still happen now. There were five hundred and thirteen challenges against books that were reported in 2008. And Tango Makes Three, which is a charming picture book about two male penguins who adopt a baby penguin, was the most challenged book of last year. And the year before that. And the year before that.

There is a fascinating map that shows where books have been banned and challenged between 2007 and 2009, with little bubbles that show the reasons.

There are also ALA piecharts that show what sort of people try to get books banned, and why. I find it shocking and unsettling that the majority of challenges come from parents.

When I was younger, I hated it when someone suggested that I shouldn't read something. I would see it on the shelf, and it always seemed more tantalizing, more thrilling and exciting, because it had been deemed not quite right for me. No one ever told me that I could not read a book. But imagine if they had. Imagine if they had taken the book away, taken other ones as well, one by one, and put them somewhere tidied away and safe where I couldn't find them, where I wouldn't even know that they had ever existed. What a way to shrink the world.

So, in honor of Banned Books Week, read a book that some people think you shouldn't. Read it, and enjoy it, and take enormous, delighted pleasure in the fact that you can.

Friday, September 25, 2009

gently, but firmly

I saw my first Hitchcock film last week. It was Notorious, and it was pretty much what I expected: stylish black and white, wit and gleam and melodramatic music. Nothing that I particularly loved, but enjoyable, and I saw it at the Stanford Theatre, which makes most movies into a pleasant occasion.

I went with a friend who had never been before, so I got to introduce him to the gilded carvings and painted ceilings and plush red curtain. I got to see the helpless delight hit his face when the Wurlitzer organ rose from its trapdoor in the stage with the little Japanese organist perched on the bench and playing the closing music before he was even level with the stage.

We went to see Rope last night, because the lovely Heather said that we should. It was absolutely delicious. I loved it from the moment when the dreadful Brandon says that the man they just murdered will soon be resting "gently, but firmly" at the bottom of a lake. Gently, but firmly. Such off-handed and stylish cruelty. The story is quite thin, but it's told in such an interesting way, with these placid, long shots that actually move from place to place rather than cutting in and dropping out, that my imagination went into overdrive during the eighty or so minutes. It's the first film that I've felt such an intrusive sense of narration in. It made me think that I was watching events through the eyes of another character, someone silent and invisible and incapable of touching anything in the room. Which made me think of ghosts, which made me decide that we were watching the sadistic dinner party in the company of the murdered man's ghost. Which made the movie entirely more interesting.

And now I want to write a story told by a ghost about his murderers, though it has been done to excess and will soon explode across too many screens in the form of The Lovely Bones.

helpful hints for bookstore customers, part 7

Best beloved bookstore customers,

Please do not ask me how to say thank you in "my language." Not even if you are a dapper elderly man who I assume is only trying to be charming in a rather misguided way. I think that you will be disappointed to discover that thank you in my language is mostly similar to thank you in yours, with maybe a few small variations along the lines of thanks, or even thanks so very much.

This would be because I speak English, like you, and nothing else, except for a small grab bag of forgotten French.

So, merci bien! And, if it will make you happy, I suppose I could throw in an arigato or two.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

street date

I really like it when books come in ever so plain cardboard boxes with big strips of tape that forbid you from opening them until the precise, approved moment. It seems like something special. Maybe dangerous. Definitely exciting.

I even like it when it's a book that I have no intention of ever reading. At least it's an occasion.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

august reading

Geektastic: Stories from the Nerd Herd
edited by: Holly Black and Cecil Castellucci

I couldn't resist this book. The title and cover and the fact that it contains stories by Kelly Link and M. T. Anderson, both of which I had never read before... Resistance was utterly, spectacularly non-existent. There are many things in this book that I don't have any personal experience with: RPGs and MMORPGs and The Rocky Horror Picture Show and Klingons, for instance. But there was so much that was and is familiar: the awkwardness of people understanding each other and the blinding joy of a singular enthusiasm.

According to good old Webster, a geek is an enthusiast or expert (or, a carnival performer who bites off the heads of live chickens or snakes, no doubt with both enthusiasm and expertise).

These are short stories for young people. All of them are, at the least, enjoyable. Some were wonderful and bizarre, and my favourites were "The King of Pelinesse" by M. T. Anderson, "Secret Identity" by Kelly Link, and "It's Just a Jump to the Left" by Libba Bray.

American Chinatown
by: Bonnie Tsui

I am so not into the whole Asian American heritage thing. My family has been here for so long that any connection I ever had to Asia is extremely thin and buried beneath a large mountain of ignorance. I would never have picked up this book except that I was asked to read it for work.

I've lately been fascinated with neighborhoods and how they develop into certain kinds of places with personalities and texture and tendencies toward setting particular interactions in motion. Chinatown is one of those weird uber-neighborhoods that appear in cities all over the world, and that is fascinating. The book itself though was a little flat. There was such possibility for pungent, overwhelming specifics, but instead it was informative, smooth. I kept putting it down.

By: Catherynne M. Valente

I wanted to love this book. I was prepared to love it because many people told me that I would, and because I've read some of Ms. Valente's other things that have left me feeling slavish admiration. Instead, I thought it was interesting. There was such lush, extravagance, and it was all shockingly beautiful, but for some reason, I never understood the story with the part of me that needs to understand it to make it something I'll cry over and rage about. Maybe I read it at an unfortunate time (I'm impatient with poetic things lately... I want inelegant, messy things that explode and stab you with their rough edges). I got parts of it. Parts of it felt like pieces taken straight from a dream that I had forgotten. And it's built on such a brilliant idea.

I did discover that sex scenes -- even very beautifully written ones -- begin to bore me after too many of them go past.

Save the Deli

By: David Sax

Another book read for work. I write reviews for work, but in them I say only the nice things. Everything that I like about a book goes in there, and their sole point is to make someone else think, oh maybe I should have a look at that. I said that this book was interesting, and that it made me hungry. I didn't say that it failed to convince me that Jewish delis are worthy of passionate, particular obsession or fascination, which I think should be the point of these quirky nonfiction books.

something to read on a stormy afternoon

So, it's not actually storming right at this very moment, but thunder did wake me up, along with flashes of lightning (though not much rain), so I hold onto hope that there will be more of it later.

At Clarion, the magnificent Keffy shared a story about advertising and robots and a dead world that surprised me into loving it to the point of minor obsession. It's now up at Apex Magazine. It's called "Advertising at the End of the World," and I am still obsessed with it.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

excursions to neighboring countries

There is a cafe next to my bookstore that I go to almost every time I'm at work. There's something about a hot drink or a shot of sugar that is the perfect antidote to the dusty hedgehog-ness that I tend to lapse into while surrounded by books.

Today, in the cafe, I saw:

1. Four young men carefully sorting decks of cards around a chessboard with a tournament style timer off to the side. The cards were mostly black, with whooshing, swirly pictures and the words KNIGHTMARE CHESS emblazoned across the backs.

2. A middle-aged couple playing Scrabble. The woman was biting her lip and gripping a piece of hair in her fist while staring at her little regiment of tiles. The man was staring at her. He had a three-letter word down on the board, and his hands were folded in his lap.

3. An elderly man who picked up a cup of coffee from the counter and took a long handled spoon, which he examined, and then put into his shirt pocket, next to a small bouquet of pens.

Sunday, September 6, 2009

helpful hints for bookstore customers, part 6

Please, best beloved customers, please do not ask if we know the difference between abridged and unabridged. Just don't.

And seeing the movie version of something does not make someone unfit to read the book. Eyeballs can be used in different ways, you know, and watching a movie does not instantly negate your brain.

And referring to people who see movie adaptations of books as "those sort of people" is not, actually, a helpful thing to say. "Those sort of people"? What does that even mean? People who like movies? People who like stories? I don't think it means what you think it means, or even what you want it to mean. Do you only imbibe your fiction in unadulterated prose? Have you never seen "Breakfast at Tiffany's" or "The English Patient" or "Fight Club" or "The Graduate"? You poor, poor thing.

Saturday, September 5, 2009


On Thursday, I took a yoga class.

I like yoga, sometimes, as long as it doesn't stray too far into the pseudo-spiritual realm where people think that clogging the room with incense and chanting will somehow make you feel not only good, but miraculous. Enlightened. I like exercise that makes you focus your brain in your body. I like it when you have to think really hard about what you're doing and not much else. It's a relief. I get that.

What I don't understand is when people gush about how relaxing yoga is, how energizing, how serene and centered and peaceful it makes them feel. Every time that I've taken a decent yoga class, I emerge spectacularly exhausted. It's like all these alien muscles are forced to quiver for ninety minutes and then they barely have the strength to prevent me from falling on my nose when I roll up my mat. My shoulders think that I dropped a brick on them, multiple times. My hamstrings feel like they got stretched away from their bones, and then let go so they smacked their dear little selves into them.

This doesn't make me dislike yoga. Getting sore fools me into thinking I'm accomplishing something.

It does, however, make me wonder if I am doing something wrong when I'm teetering in some pose with a thrillingly polysyllabic name, dripping sweat everywhere, and pondering whether I might just not make it through this one, if my muscles might actually all fail at once and throw me on the floor.