You Can’t Read That! is a periodic post featuring banned book reviews and news roundups.
Here’s a Bookriot editorial on the overuse of scare phrases like “book banning.” Wait a minute! I use the phrase, but (I like to think) carefully and with intent. Here’s my rationale, paraphrased from earlier YCRT! posts:
I find I have to explain my use of the word “banned” every so often. My position is that any time someone tries to restrict access to a book in order to prevent people from reading it, that’s banning … even if the ban affects only one school, library, or bookstore, and the book can be found elsewhere.
The US Post Office once officially banned Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer. People would argue it wasn’t really banned, because you could always hop on an ocean liner, go to Paris, and buy a copy there.
We hear the same argument today. “So your teacher can’t assign Sherman Alexie’s The Diary of a Part-Time Indian, and it isn’t on the shelves in the school library? So what? You can still get a copy on Amazon, can’t you?”
The problem is school districts in several states have bowed to those who want to control what others read and taken books away to prevent students from reading them. This is book banning.
Merriam-Webster backs me up on my assertion that banning, however localized, is still banning. This is a usage example from M-W’s entry on the word ban: “The school banned that book for many years.”
I rest my case (until next year, when I’ll have to post this again).
YCRT! News Roundup:
Click image to link to story
An argument against the use of Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States as a text in high school history classes. Here’s a YCRT! review of A People’s History, if you’re interested in my take.
Patriotic parents combat creeping sharia in Florida schools.
In an earlier post I mentioned a scary poll showing increasing public support for book banning. This article goes into more detail on the poll and its results.
South Carolina high school principal caves, pulls Courtney Summers’ Some Girls Are from a summer reading list after a single parental complaint, bypassing his district’s book review policy.
Another principal caves to parental complaints, pulling Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time from a Tallahassee, Florida high school summer reading list, end-running school district policy. Here’s a more in-depth look at the banning of the book in Tallahassee and elsewhere.
This is a little different: residents of Pleasant Grove, Utah asked the city council to remove R-rated movies from the public library, but for now at least the council has decided not to interfere in library decisions. There are only eight R-rated movies in the library’s catalog, and patrons under the age of 18 can’t check them out anyway.
Every now and then I see a Facebook post that isn’t just a photo of someone’s cat:
It’s easy to scoff at the college campus trigger warning zealots, but what if administrators use student complaints as an excuse to fire tenured professors they don’t like but can’t get rid of by other means?
I’ve been keeping an eye on a book-banning organization called Safe Libraries, which in addition to attacking books frequently goes after public libraries and the American Library Association with trumped-up charges about librarians encouraging patrons to surf child porn sites on library computers. The charges are false, but Safe Libraries makes a lot of noise, even sending speakers out on the road to rile up communities with scary slide shows about the dangers of local libraries. I think (but admit I don’t know) that Safe Libraries is behind a recent attempt to shut down a public library in Orland Park, Illinois.
Some incoming Duke University freshmen refused to read a summer assignment, Alison Bechdel’s graphic novel Fun Home, citing “deeply-held religious beliefs.” Fine with me, as long as they don’t insist other students can’t read it either. Their protest gives me an excuse to wrap up this installment of YCRT! with my previously-posted review of Fun Home.
YCRT! Banned Book Review
I’ll admit up front to a snobbish attitude toward graphic novels. I was raised to think they were for people who don’t like to read. Still, I’m willing to expand my horizons, and when I learned the theme of this year’s Banned Books Week (September 21-27, 2014) is to be graphic novels, I pressed members of my book club to pick one for our September selection. I went a step further and recommended Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home. We have agreed to read a graphic novel that month; whether it’ll be Fun Home or another selection remains to be seen. I decided to read it anyway, and borrowed a copy from my local library.
You’ve probably heard of the Bechdel Test, a feminist litmus test for movies. To pass the test, a movie must have:
- At least two woman in it, who
- talk to each other about
- something besides a man
Yes, this is the same Alison Bechdel.
Fun Home is Bechdel’s memoir of her childhood and college years. It’s about her family … her father, mother, and two brothers … and focuses most tightly on her relationship with her father, a troubled man, and her discovery of her own sexuality. This is no comic book; it’s a surprisingly literary and deep self-examination, filled with references and hints that drive you deeper into the text and illustrations. Although it’s a fast read, it’s also a demanding read, not at all what my inner snob was expecting.
Fun Home is touching and extememly personal … I was moved in places, particularly those sections where Bechdel revisits key interactions with her father, showing how her understanding of his complicated character grew as she herself got older. She seems to hold little back; her depiction of a distant relationship with her father doesn’t hide her love for him (I know that’s speculative on my part, but Alison Bechdel made me believe it).
I rarely feel as if I’ve truly shared an author’s humanity, especially not across gaps of gender and sexuality; given that I finished this book knowing only what Alison Bechdel wanted me to know, I was convinced she had shared most of herself with me. I felt connected, and it enriched my appreciation of this book.
When I gather material for new YCRT! columns, I search Google for news articles about book challenges and banning attempts. This is how I first learned of Fun Home, reading articles about attempts to ban or restrict it.
Since its publication in June 2006, would-be censors have repeatedly tried to have Fun Home removed from libraries and school reading lists. The first challenge came just months after publication, in October 2006: residents of Marshall, Missouri tried to have the book removed from the public library. The book was removed but eventually reviewed and reinstated. In 2008 a University of Utah English professor added it to a class reading list. A student objected, and even though the professor gave the student an alternate reading assignment, the student contacted a local organization called “No More Pornography,” which started an online petition calling for the book to be removed from the syllabus (the university stood its ground). Most recently, Fun Home has been challenged in South Carolina, where it was included as a summer reading selection for incoming freshmen at the College of Charleston. Organized religious groups like Focus on the Family and the Family Research Council became involved, and though the college also stood its ground, the South Carolina House of Representatives Ways and Means Committee cut the college’s funding by $52,000 … the cost of the summer reading program … to punish it for selecting Fun Home.
What is it about Fun Home that attracts this kind of attention? The good citizens of Marshall, Missouri characterized it as pornography, expressed concern that it would be read by children, and worried that it would attract seedy elements to the library. Pornography was the label used against the book in Utah. Again in South Carolina, the book’s opponents called it pornography, accusing the book of promoting the “gay and lesbian lifestyle.” One of the state representatives who voted to penalize the college said “This book trampled on freedom of conservatives … teaching with this book, and the pictures, goes too far.” In addition to the budgetary cuts, the legislature required the college to provide alternate books to any student who objects to a reading assignment because of a “religious, moral, or cultural belief.”
Alison Bechdel has described the attempted banning of her book as “a great honor,” describing attacks against it as “part of the whole evolution of the graphic-novel form.” As to claims her work is pornographic, Bechdel points out that pornography is designed to cause sexual arousal, which is not the purpose of her book. Bechdel’s supporters point out that Fun Home has been praised by professional book review journals and is the recipient of several literary awards. As noted, both the University of Utah and the College of Charleston stood by their decisions to retain Fun Home; the provost of the College of Charleston stating that its themes of identity are especially appropriate for college freshmen.
My own reaction? I agree with Bechdel and her defenders: this novel is not only literature but good literature, and while it explores adult themes and sexual identity is it absolutely not pornographic. Yes, Bechdel describes her realization, while in college, that she is lesbian. She describes her growing acceptance of her sexuality and even parts of her sexual life. This is guaranteed to make some readers uncomfortable. As she revisits parts of her earlier life from this new perspective, she discovers her own father’s homosexual past, another potentially uncomfortable subject. And then there are the illustrations depicting Bechdel’s early lesbian experiences:
Some panels are even more graphic, and I can certainly understand why some parents would not want their kids to read this book. I have a hard time, though, seeing where college-aged adults need to be protected from it. Had the censorship attempts in Utah and South Carolina been triggered by the inclusion of Fun Home on a middle or high school reading list, I would not have been particularly surprised. But colleges and universities? Just how grown-up does one have to be to read a book about a lesbian?
I suspect lesbianism … the explicitly sexual drawings in particular … is key to conservative outrage over Fun Home. I thought Bechdel’s story important, especially in an era when we’re increasingly aware that some of our friends, relatives, co-workers, and fellow students are gay. I thought her illustrations frank but not titillating, an essential part of the story. Others, however, see in Bechdel’s story and illustrations an attempt to overturn morality and religion by “promoting the gay and lesbian lifestyle.”
Significant numbers of people, and sadly many parents, believe homosexuality is a conscious choice. Accompanying that belief is the fear that exposing kids to sympathetic depictions of homosexuality, particularly kids who are just beginning to discover their own sexuality, might tempt them to experiment with, or even become, homosexual. Religious conservatives have always gone after books that depict or even mention sex, but books featuring happy, well-adjusted, sympathetic homosexual characters really bring out their wrath. Fun Home is obviously such a book, and we certainly haven’t heard the last about it.
Judy Blume, another author whose books have been banned and suppressed, has this to say to parents who worry about what their kids are reading:
A lot of people worry much too much about what their children are reading. A lot of people will want to control everything in their children’s lives, or everything in other people’s children’s lives.
If a child picks up a book and reads something she has a question about, if she can go to her parents, great. Or else they will read right over it. It won’t mean a thing.
They are very good, I think, at monitoring what makes them feel uncomfortable. If something makes them feel uncomfortable they will put it down.
I think Ms Blume is on to something. With regard to Fun Home, if the subject of sexual identity makes you uncomfortable, if it is an affront to your religious, moral, or cultural beliefs, don’t read it … just don’t assume your decision should apply to others.
A friend forwards an item making the rightwing rounds:
The woman’s name is Peggy Hubbard, and she’s talking … eloquently and convincingly … about the Black Lives Matter movement in the context of two recent shootings in Ferguson, Missouri, during the continuing street protests there.
Peggy’s really good … hey, she got me all fired up … but she bases her argument on apocryphal stories and stereotypes. She says black protestors in Ferguson are ignoring the little black girl killed by a stray bullet and focusing BLM protests on a criminal who shot at the police and was shot dead in return.
That doesn’t ring true to me. Aren’t BLM protests about the lives of innocent black Americans killed by cops? The little girl this woman mentioned, the boy in Cleveland with the air gun, Trayvon Martin, Sandra Bland, that poor guy who reached into his car for the drivers license the cop told him to show, the other poor schmoe who had his hands in the air when the cop shot him dead, and so many more, seemingly a new life taken every day by a cop somewhere in this country?
I can’t speak for black Americans, but these are the lives white sympathizers think of when we say black lives matter. I’m pretty sure the black protestors in Ferguson aren’t all that worked up about the justified police killing of a black man who was exchanging gunfire with the police. Of course, I could be wrong.
The continuing protests in Ferguson have all along been about Michael Brown, the teenager shot and killed by officer Darren Wilson just over a year ago. I remember, when it first happened, reading media report after media report describing Brown as an innocent high schooler gunned down with his hands in the air while running away from a deranged racist cop who had jacked him up for no reason. A year later I read an article about Darren Wilson in the New Yorker, which laid out the basic facts of the incident. Brown stole some cigarillos from a convenience store and roughed up the store clerk while he was doing it. Wilson, on patrol, had been alerted to be on the lookout for the suspect. When Wilson stopped Brown (who was walking down the middle of the street with the stolen cigarillos in his hand), Brown reached inside Wilson’s patrol car and scuffled with him, according to Wilson trying to grab his gun. Brown was not only facing Wilson when Wilson opened fire, but was advancing toward him. The story we hear today is substantially different from the story we heard at the time. And yet Michael Brown is one of many inspirations behind the BLM movement.
There are very real reasons for the Ferguson protests. The city and its police force are totally corrupt and there’s rampant racial discrimination at every level. And here’s the thing: the cops left Brown’s body lying on the road for hours afterward, like he was road kill slated for removal by the sanitation department … whenever they might get around to it, maybe tomorrow, maybe next week. Fucking hell, they may as well have dragged his body through the streets as a message to a despised minority!
Anyway, Peggy Hubbard is basically giving an encore of Bill Cosby’s “Pound Cake” speech, which went over pretty damn well with a lot of black Americans, never mind whites who liked it for all the wrong reasons. We are reluctant today to acknowledge pathologies in cultures other than our own, because to do so is inherently racist. It would be almost unimaginable for a modern-day Daniel Patrick Moynihan to write a study titled The Negro Family: The Case For National Action. Some black Americans are willing to acknowledge the kinds of problems Peggy Hubbard addresses, but her message will be rejected and ridiculed by many of those for whom it is meant, while being hailed and embraced by racist white rabble … again, for all the wrong reasons.
But I am beginning to rant, and my inner conservative is showing.
I was hoping the mean-spirited and loaded phrase “anchor baby” had gone the way of the dodo but then Trump (who else?) had to say it and of course the media too, and now it’s stinking up the whole place again.
Second- and third-tier Republican candidates are tripping over microphone cables to announce their own plans to overturn the 14th Amendment, and liberal and conservative pundits are talking of nothing else. Anchor babies here, anchor babies there, here an anchor, there an anchor, take their rights away.
Anchor baby must have been cooked up in some political think tank. It’s genetically engineered to evoke an unthinking emotional response, to keep us from having an intelligent, mature discussion. Anchor babies? Chuck ’em out!
I thought the phrase had seen its day in the sun. Then Trump brought it back, and it’s like it never went away. If you’ve been paying attention to the news, you might have noticed death panels making an encore appearance. Yesterday I heard a guest on NPR mention the death tax, another golden oldie. How long before Trump reaches back for that Reagan-era favorite, welfare queen?
Tell you what, here’s a golden oldie I’d like to see Trump bring back into the spotlight: draft dodger. That one I can get behind!
Ohhh, my inner conservative is stirring. Time to drive the Prius down to Starbucks for a skim milk latte.
Speaking of Starbucks, I saw this on Twitter today:
My god, hasn’t Starbucks ever heard of One Girl, One Cup? I think I just gave up coffee. For life.
There were stories in sweat.
The sweat of a woman bent double in an onion field, working fourteen hours under the hot sun, was different from the sweat of a man as he approached a checkpoint in Mexico, praying to La Santa Muerte that the federales weren’t on the payroll of the enemies he was fleeing. The sweat of a ten-year-old boy staring into the barrel of a SIG Sauer was different from the sweat of a woman struggling across the desert and praying to the Virgin that a water cache was going to turn out to be exactly where her coyote’s map told her it would be.
Sweat was a body’s history, compressed into jewels, beaded on the brow, staining shirts with salt. It told you everything about how a person had ended up in the right place at the wrong time, and whether they would survive another day.
—Paolo Bacigalupi, The Water Knife
The Water Knife
I get lost in Bacigalupi’s near-future science fiction tales of worlds gone awry, ruined by our own greed. Ship Breaker, The Drowned Cities, The Windup Girl: novels of grim but plausible future worlds, populated by desperate survivors, each centered around a few memorable characters looking for a way out, a better life. The Water Knife is such a novel, but the near future presented here is not that far off; it is the American Southwest, finally out of water.
I imagine Bacigalupi’s inner editor urging him to move the setting and timeline of The Water Knife ever closer to the present day and to tighten up the narrative, narrowing the human story down to just a few characters, then tightening up the story some more. What I’m saying is that this is a hell of a read. Gripping, immediate, real. I don’t mean it’s his best to date; I mean it’s his most commercial, written to appeal to a wider audience than his earlier novels (and I don’t mean anything bad by that).
Quibble: I don’t know why Bacigalupi sets The Water Knife in real cities like Las Vegas and Phoenix while fictionalizing other locations (he creates an amalgam of Bullhead City and Lake Havasu City, Arizona, and calls it Carver City). Some obscure legal reason? I found that detail jarring; it made me think of authors like Michener (who invented a fictional state to represent Florida in his novel Space) and Ed McBain (whose Isola represents Manhattan). Why?
Otherwise, total love for The Water Knife, and great respect to the author for reminding us to re-read Cadillac Desert, an important and very readable nonfiction book about water and the American Southwest, clearly the inspiration behind much of Bacigalupi’s work.
Many classify Bacigalupi as a young adult author. Two of his dystopian novels, Ship Breaker and The Drowned Cities, wear the YA label: in those novels the main characters are teenagers. The Water Knife and The Windup Girl are classified as adult science fiction. The characters in these novels are adults, although in this novel Maria, a Texan refugee scrabbling for a living on the streets of Phoenix, turns out (as the story advances) to be a young teenager, and a virgin to boot, someone who would have been right at home in Bacigalupi’s YA novels. But in all four novels the main characters, teens and grownups alike, experience horrific hardships, as dark as anything in adult fiction.
What’s the difference between Bacigalupi’s YA and adult fiction, then? Sex, I think. The kids think about it but aren’t quite ready to engage; the adults are, well, adults. That seems to be the sliding scale. To me, all of Bacigalupi’s dystopian science fiction is solidly adult, never mind the labels. It’s also the kind of adult fiction I’d encourage any teenager to read. Why? Because Bacigalupi has important things to say about what we’re doing to our world and the price we’re going to pay for our greed. And because he’s a damn fine writer.
As a side note, Bacigalupi has written two short novels explicitly aimed at child readers: The Doubt Factory and Zombie Baseball Beatdown. These are not to be confused with his adult (but sometimes labeled YA) fiction. Both are ham-handed and relentlessly didactic morality tales. When I read them I had a hard time believing they’d been written by the same Paolo Bacigalupi I admire.
The Diamond Age: or, A Young Lady’s Illustrated Primer
I unreservedly loved the first half of this big science fiction novel. The alternate future, populated by phyles and tribes, is fascinating; the societies of Stephenson’s world in The Diamond Age are logical and internally consistent. Once you get going, everything clicks into place. The characters, Nell and Hackworth and Doctor X and Judge Fang and Miranda and Carl Hollywood, seem quite real, and you can’t help getting wrapped up in their fates.
The second half of the novel, after Hackworth emerges from a decade with the Drummers beneath the waters of Puget Sound. well … there were parts of it I didn’t get. Big sections of the second half felt forced, with characters making long speeches to explain things that could have been shown instead, and toward the end Stephenson makes a mad dash to the finish line. If I had not been as engaged with the story of Nell and her primer and her real and imaginary adventures, I might have had a harder time with the second half.
The strength of the first half is what carried me through the second half, and I’m still so impressed with the first half I think the entire novel deserves a four-star rating. Other readers may not be as forgiving.
I bought the Kindle version after reading an enthusiastic review of Nell Zink in the New Yorker, a review that made much of her friendship with Jonathan Franzen, a writer I quite like. That part of the review must have lodged somewhere in my brain, because I kept thinking how Franzen-like are Zink’s descriptions of characters. Which, in turn, I quite liked.
But Mislaid is a rather thin novel. Not necessarily in page count, but in nourishment and staying power. The well-described characters are more allegorical than real, the things they do unrealistic, their successes not of this world.
How interesting, though, that I start reading a novel about a white woman passing for black just days before news broke about Rachel Dolezal … a real white woman passing for black.
Mislaid is an entertaining novel with literary heft and a happy ending, but it’s pretty fluffy. If you want more meat on your novels, go with Franzen.
Here’s my review of an earlier hard-SF novel by Neal Stephenson, Anathem:
“It’s been years since I’ve read a science fiction epic of this scope, one that creates an entire cosmology from the ground up. Stephenson has vision—a complex vision, though, one that requires much explanation, and I’ll fault Stephenson as a writer for overindulging himself in its explication, most often with long, tedious passages of dialog between the philosophical clock-winders of the concent (yes, there’s also an extensive new vocabulary to learn). Even though Stephenson’s vision is complex, it is comprehensible to anyone well-read in science fiction, and he could have written a tighter book by cutting back on his characters’ academic discussions. Still. It was fascinating to see his world unfold, and there was plenty of space opera action to keep me entertained. Honestly, I didn’t know anyone was still writing science fiction like this—not since Asimov died. If you’re serious about sci-fi, this one needs to be in your library.”
Seveneves, like Anathem, is a hard-SF novel of grand concepts, ideas, and hardware, with a good bit of space opera and an optimistic view of humanity thrown in, reminiscent once again of Asimov. This time around, though, Stephenson dispenses with explication via dialog and instead steps in as third-person cosmic encyclopedia, offering page after page (after page, after page …) of background and explanation whenever he introduces a new idea or bit of space hardware. The novel is 75% encyclopedic background, 25% action. Stephenson seems to be well aware of his compulsive need to explain everything, because late in the novel he introduces a character nicknamed Cyc (real name Sonar Taxlaw), a living encyclopedia, thereby (I think) poking fun at himself.
You know what, though? I didn’t resent the explication, any more than I resented it when Asimov did it. The ideas Stephenson presents, both here and in Anathem, are fascinating in their own rights, and I was never tempted to skip ahead. I did resent a bit of repetition on Stephenson’s part, explaining things twice when once would have done, and I think his opinion of humanity is far too rosy, but in the presence of so many grand ideas and concepts these are minor irritations at best.
Stephenson is becoming the Ayn Rand of hard science fiction devotees. I don’t in any way mean to compare his personality or ideas with Rand’s; what I mean is that Stephenson has the potential to become an influence on futurists, if he isn’t already, and undoubtedly has a cadre of fans at least as obnoxious as Rand’s. I guess I’m one of them!
Some of the Best from Tor.com: 2011 Edition
Patrick Nielsen Hayden, editor
This is one of three free Tor SF anthologies available for Nook or Kindle download. The anthologies are dated 2011, 2012, and 2013.
I’m commenting on the anthology itself, not the short SF stories contained within (although I will say many of shorter stories struck me as filler). I was annoyed to find the page count heavily padded: each story starts with a title page, then a page with a one-paragraph note on the author, then a page with a one-paragraph editor’s comment on the story to follow, then the story itself (some of which are only two to three pages long), then an end page listing other works by that author. It’s like network TV, where the commercial to content ratio is almost 1:1.
A few of the longer stories, the ones by better-known authors, are worth the read.
I will plow through the 2012 and 2013 editions, looking for the good stories, this time skipping over the filler.
The Job: True Tales from the Life of a New York City Cop
As with Mislaid (reviewed above), an enthusiastic New Yorker review led me to buy a copy of Steve Osborne’s collection of cop stories. Note to self: be more skeptical of New Yorker reviews.
I gather that many of Osborne’s stories were originally oral presentations, and perhaps they worked better that way. In print, they’re repetitive, long-winded, and shallow. A few stories conveyed some of what it is to be a big city cop; most, though, were more about protecting said cop’s ego.
These stories leave a lot out. Osborne doesn’t address even a single one of the many issues we’re all talking about these days: bad cops, corruption, racism, quotas, falsification of evidence, brutality. In his stories, the cops are all good guys and everyone else—especially minorities—is a perp. Anyone who hates cops is a “liberal.”
Apart from admitting that he loved his wife’s little dog and that being a cop put a strain on his marriage, Osborne is remarkably unreflective. There are no lessons here, and not much honesty. I was disappointed.
One I Didn’t Finish
James Houston Turner
A reviewer on Goodreads mentioned an iffy start. I’ll say—I couldn’t get past the second chapter. Everything to that point consisted of long, repetitive arguments over logistics and tactics between two Soviet agents being sent to Spain to intercept and return a defector. They argue in Moscow, argue some more in Spain. Page after page of this stuff, all to show us that the young KGB colonel is brilliant and daring, the sexy woman agent a stick-in-the-mud (but one who, you know, will come around).
Can we get to the story, please? All this stage-setting could have been accomplished through plot and action, rather than explication. In the end, I decided waiting for the story wasn’t worth the irritation.