Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Book 'em

Last time I checked we stopped burning (or drowning or crucifying) witches hundreds of years ago. And yet some people would like to ban (even burn as some churches have done) books that feature witches or magic of any kind. They fear the words will corrupt children, make them want to cavort in Satan's playground.

STREGA NONA? Really? I'm stunned that someone challenged the right of Tomie dePaola's Caldecott Award winner to be in a library. But they did.

This delightfully-illustrated book tells of a boy who disobeys his employer, an old lady with a magic cooking pot. He tries her spell when she isn't home and covers the town in pasta. It's funny. It teaches a lesson about showing off, disregarding warnings and not being respectful. I seriously doubt it would lure any kid into the dark side, for heaven's sake.

This is Banned Book Week, the annual event hosted by the American Library Association to highlight books that have been attacked, that someone has tried to remove from a school or public library because the books don't fit their world view.

Like STREGA NONA, J.K. Rowling's HARRY POTTER series, Katherine Paterson's BRIDGE TO TERABITHIA and Roald Dahl's THE WITCHES have been challenged for occult themes. The Potter books were burned by churches in New Mexico and Michigan, with congregations in Iowa and Maine only stopped by fire departments.
Among authors who speak out against book bans are the venerable Ray Bradbury, whose anti-censorship novel FAHRENHEIT 451 is frequently challenged; Judy Blume, whose ground-breaking children's books are targeted because they address such real life issues as racism, bullying and sex; and Laurie Halse Anderson, who recently sounded the alarm against a professor in Missouri who tried to get SPEAK taken out of schools. It's what Wesley Scroggins said about that book that made me sick to my stomach for a week.
He called the novel about date rape "soft porn" in a newspaper op-ed piece. I've read that book. There's nothing remotely pornographic about the tastefully-written, painful account of what happens to a rape victim and her slow road back to emotional recovery. Anderson has received thousands of thank-you notes from kids who found help dealing with their own trauma. While Anderson gave rape victims hope, Mr. Scroggins victimized them again with his words. I feel I have the right to say that since I am one of those victims.

The reasons given for challenging books can be anything from religion and politics to language and sexual content. The question is do you want somebody else deciding for you what's acceptable to read? If you have never checked out ALA's list of frequently challenged books by decades, please click the link above. I think you will be astounded at how many extraordinary, important, thought-provoking books are on the lists. Read them. Talk about them. Don't let someone's narrow world-view put blinders on you.

You can also check out my previous posts about other banned books: THIRTEEN REASONS WHY, TWISTED, LOOKING FOR ALASKA, FEED, JULIE OF THE WOLVES, THE HANDMAID'S TALE.

Friday, September 24, 2010

Why I'm compelled

All week--as I struggled with an old trauma and realized some wounds never really heal and make us what we are, both the good and the bad--I was also trying to come up with a post for The Great Blogging Experiment. Elana Johnson asked people to sign up to write about one subject today: Writing Compelling Characters.

I thought, “I’ve not nothing. Zilch. Nada.” But that’s not true. I know a compelling character when I see one. I’ve lost a good night’s sleep more than once to finish a novel. I’ve watched some movies or television shows again and again.

I’ve decided to pick my favorite show of all time, Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Not only is Buffy compelling, so are most of her sidekicks.

Why? Oh, boy, this is the hard part. Buffy and each person in her circle are drawn with stand-out strengths, good hearts but deep flaws that are sometimes truly disturbing. So we care about them even while saying, “What are you doing???”

We love stories about chosen ones, superheroes, people who can vanquish evil. But the best heroes have to battle what’s inside themselves as well as external foes.

What happens to Buffy:

She’d rather be buying shoes but got tapped to be the one-and-only Slayer. Sigh. She’s peeved, reluctant, argumentative, but, in the end, not able to turn her back on evil. She’ll stomp its sorry ass and toss in a witty line while at it.

But when she learns how huge the powers against her are, she says, “I’m sixteen years old. I don’t want to die.” Can we blame her? Can we not wish to see her win?

Nothing comes easy. She falls in love--with a vampire who is cursed to suffer for his past deeds. This ends in disaster and forces her to fight her lover. When he gloats that she can’t kill him, she says, “Give me time.”

And time makes her stronger--a formidable foe who can and will face anything. But she is also the walking wounded. Like all of us, her hurts never completely go away.

Buffy sacrifices herself to save her sister and the world (she saved the world a lot as her tombstone reads). But her friends use a spell to bring her back. She is like the walking dead. She can’t tell them she thinks she was in heaven and doesn’t know why she’s had to return to hell-on-earth.

Eventually, Buffy and her friends each face the darkness within themselves and claw their way back to redemption. They do this with the help of their friends and forgiveness.

Note: The series is the creation of the fabulous Joss Whedon. The picture above is from the spinoff graphic novel/comic from Dark Horse Books.

I wish I’d had time to write this and come back to it, instead of throwing it together. But sometimes rough and raw is good. It comes from the heart.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

The cool season

I love fall. It is my favorite season.
The air gets scrubbed by wind. The nights excite with a nip in the air. Colors magnify, then fade. I can see every fold in the far mountains. I sense renewal, not loss.
flowers fall, such tiny
paper lanterns

I went out to welcome the full moon last night, which came with the Fall Equinox in the Northern Hemisphere. It's a bit rare to have a harvest moon coincide with the annual aligning of the Sun's center with our equator.
This was shot with my phone camera, not a telephoto lens, so it isn't a dramatic moon looming over us, but if you shift your position, look carefully, you will see Jupiter and Venus sparkling alongside.
After a week of disturbing news in our blogosphere and grappling with old demons of my own, this shot of Nature, of the vast Universe, has restored my spirit. It always does.

Monday, September 20, 2010

I can't believe I really saw this

So something's been done to death. How to put a new spin on it? Check this out. *gasp*
Chinese Circus Swan Lake

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Books that walk the real dark side

When I was 14, a classmate stuffed something in the exhaust pipe of the family car and asphyxiated herself. Why would she do that? I was too naïve to understand, and no adult talked to me in any useful way about it. I got the feeling there was something sordid about suicide, something you should put in a far corner of a dark closet and cover up.

As an adult, I understand how life can be overwhelming, how adults can abuse the young in horrific ways, how society can expect more than a child thinks he can deliver, how shame can make a person feel worthless.

I have no idea what pushed that girl into the abyss, but I wish I’d had someone to talk to about it. I wish she’d had someone to talk to. I wish there had been books like the ones I’m about to talk about.
As a lead-up to Banned Books Week, I pledged to read and write about books that people have requested be removed from public and school libraries. The annual event, sponsored by the American Library Association and other organizations, takes place Sept. 25-Oct. 2 this year.

Two of my reading choices--TWISTED by Laurie Halse Anderson and TH1RTEEN R3ASONS WHY by Jay Asher—deal with teen suicide. They’ve opened the closet. I’ve added a third book at the end of the post, which touches on the subject, as well. That book is such a stunner, I had to include it, and no one should pass up reading it.

First, I want to say I admire the bravery of these three authors and the craftsmanship of their work.

Second, I understand why people wouldn’t want very young readers to tackle these books. They’re meant for teens/young adults, not children. For some readers, stories like these might help them see they’re not alone; there are other options and possible abuse-free futures. For the reader who has an abuse-free life, it’s not a bad thing to learn about those who are less fortunate, to understand why they behave as they do.

Third, there’s never a reason to ban a book. There is plenty of reason to be sure it’s in age-appropriate hands and to discuss the content. Parents and teachers have an opportunity and responsibility to help kids comprehend what they read and see beyond their own experiences, to learn about others, to be compassionate and open-minded. A lot of books today have study guides printed in the back. How awesome is that?

It’s hard for me to come up with the proper praise for TH1RTEEN R3ASONS WHY, but Sherman Alexie nailed it with “a mystery, eulogy and ceremony.” Asher’s debut novel is one of the most originally-told stories I’ve read in a long time as it painfully unveils the troubled life of a girl though cassette tapes she’s mailed to people she claims helped drive her to suicide.

Asher doesn’t sentimentalize Hannah. She has an active (or passive) role in much that has happened and could have made other choices. The story is told through her voice on the tapes and through Clay, one of the recipients as he reacts to her tale.

I hold my finger over the button, listening to the soft hum in the speakers, the faint squeak of the spindles winding the tape, waiting for her voice to return.

The series of events starts with a lie a classmate tells about her and grows into a reputation she never deserved. I felt Clay’s anguish as he tries to understand Hannah, who he’d been crushing on before she killed herself. I’m grateful that Asher gave Clay the sense to unravel Hannah’s story and see that she could’ve chosen differently. And so can he.

Adults are often uncomfortable with sexual reference in teen books, but if there ever was a time in life when hormones are pumping, that would be it. A teen-age boy wouldn’t tell his mother that looking at a hot girl has an immediate physiological effect, but a book written from a boy’s point-of-view might mention that embarrassing fact. Anderson does that in TWISTED, but she also gives her main character integrity. He really is a stand-up guy, and that’s no pun.

Tyler is a former nerd who turns into a "bad" boy and hunk in a matter of months. It begins with a graffiti prank that lands him a probation officer and community service of summertime labor. “I was good at digging holes. It was the rest of life I sucked at,” he says.

His head takes time to catch up with his new mystique at school, while at home his emotionally-abusive father gets worse. Tyler’s shaky grip on life slips when he’s suspected of a terrible crime he didn’t commit. The only place the book didn’t feel real to me was an interaction between father and son at the end. I doubt life would play out like that.

Anderson is also being challenged for SPEAK, an award-winning novel about a girl who loses her voice after a rape. To put a muzzle on such an important story is wrong-headed--actually it's worse than that since the attacker called the book soft porn. That's an outrage. Anderson writes on her blog about the current attack. (Please, please click over and listen to the poem she wrote using comments from readers on SPEAK. You will weep.)

Finally, I’m going to mention one more book, which deals with the death of a girl that her friends suspect may have been suicide. LOOKING FOR ALASKA by John Green, winner of the Printz Award, has also been challenged for language and sexual content. But this is a book in which the main character realizes something so profound about life, I can’t help but wish everyone would read it. Here’s a snippet that shows the elegance and depth of Green’s writing:

Her mouth close enough to me that I could feel her breath warmer than the air, she said, “That’s the mystery, isn’t it? Is the labyrinth living or dying? Which is he trying to escape—the world or the end of it?” I waited for her to keep talking, but after a while it became obvious she wanted an answer.

If anyone reading this post ever feels suicidal or knows a friend who might be, please call 1-800-SUICIDE or go to hopeline.com. There are options.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Seeing things

serpent of the lake
and sirens' call of secrets
lurking in the deep
Can't help it. I see dread things.
They aren't real. Or are they?
Mwa-ha-ha. What have you seen lately?

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Books for people who think

I remember the day I picked up M.T. Anderson's FEED in a bookstore. I was intrigued by the cover and opened to the first page where I read:

We went to the moon to have fun, but the moon turned out to completely suck.

That's all it took for me to buy it. The voice was distinct and irreverent. The story was clearly dystopian. I figured it was going to be a good ride.

It turned out to be bloody brilliant. This book is thought-provoking, which is ironic since it's told by a clueless boy.

I can't remember the last time I had so much fun reading opening pages. I cackled and kicked my feet on the couch cushions at some of the lines. (Never fear, I was alone when carrying on like one possessed.)

FEED takes place in a future where people are hardwired to the Internet. They get instant-messages like thoughts and message each other more often than speaking out loud. Since corporations control everything, people's minds are bombarded with banner ads for products all day long.

For a teenage boy like Titus, life is all about the buzz and consumerism of the Feed, so he and his friends are thrown into shock when a hacker messes them up.

Suddenly, our heads felt real empty.

The way Titus explains the old days when people's computers weren't in their heads?

They carried them around outside of them, in their hands, like if you carried your lungs in a briefcase and opened it to breathe.

I'm not going to tell more about plot, because if you haven't read this, you really should. But I will say this story gets disturbingly dark. Titus is no hero. He's a product of his environment and confused when he finds out there are seriously bad things going on in the world. But he does make an effort in the end to do something right, even if it's too little, too late.

FEED was released eight years ago, but I'm writing about it now as part of a pledge I made to read a number of books that have been challenged or banned.

Every year, the American Library Association partners with other organizations for Banned Books Week, to bring attention to books that someone requested be removed from a public or school library.

Some parent objected to the language used in FEED, but I can't imagine a young reader (14 and up is the recommendation on the book cover) who hasn't heard the occasional swear word in our society. And this book is so much bigger than that. It makes us question consumerism, media saturation and personal responsibility. It makes us think. For ourselves.


JULIE OF THE WOLVES was first published in 1972, but it was among the most frequently challenged books of 2002. Why? Primarily because of a rape scene, which actually is only vaguely described.

I thought author Jean Craighead George was very careful not to put in anything specific or graphic. The thirteen-year-old girl was roughed up by her simpleton husband by arranged marriage. And it is the reason she runs away alone on to the tundra. Miyax is resourceful and resilient. She remembers the old ways and survives.

The value of this book is an extraordinary look at Eskimo life and the natural environment. It is beautifully written--crisp, joyful and gnawingly sad. Here is a sample of the opening:

Miyax pushed back the hood of her sealskin parka and looked at the Arctic sun. It was a yellow disc in a lime-green sky, the colors of six o'clock in the evening and the time when the wolves awoke.

The descriptions of life in the wolf pack and how Miyax wheedles her way in as a means of survival are amazing. There is so much to learn about other cultures, how people differ from and are the same as we are. This book is a jewel, which was recognized by George receiving the Newbery Medal.

Banned Books Week is Sept. 25 to Oct. 2, but I'm leading up to it with several reviews of books that have been challenged and deserve support. You can read my first post on this here.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Jumping ships

So how do you get between ships moored up against each other? If you're Johnny Depp, you could swing across on a rope. Or if you're a visitor to the Tall Ships Festival in Dana Point, California, you climb step-stairs and take a bigger step between the decks.

I had no idea when I stumbled on this festival how much fun it was going to be to get to "jump" between ships, to explore the beautiful old vessels, which are restored and operated by maritime organizations from Los Angeles to San Diego.


Among the ships was a three-masted schooner, a privateer and a brigantine. The Ocean Institute's living-history brig Pilgrim, is a full-size replica (fourteen sails!) of the ship written about in Richard Henry Dana's sea-faring book, Two Years Before the Mast.


I'm not currently writing about tall sailing ships, but if I were this would be a treasure trove. Although writers can find tons of facts and photos and videos online, which help us to flesh out stories, there is nothing like real-time experience.

Although I'd been on boats, I forgot the startling sensation the first time you feel the gentle roll, the slightly unsettling feeling of standing on deck as the water heaves. There were creaking and groaning sounds from wood and rope. The polished wood was smooth as satin under my fingers. I needed to be reminded to turn towards tiny steps to descend below decks. For me, a huge thrill was watching an osprey--the white and black eagle of the seas--land up high in the masts.

The smallest and most gorgeous of the tall ships was the Curlew, which was built in 1926 in Maine of white oak sheathed in yellow pine with teak decking.

During WWII, the ship was used to train sailors.

In 1962, Curlew survived a hurricane-force storm that took down other boats. The ship is currently berthed in Dana Point.

Small details to old-time traditions make these ships authentic, such as making baggywrinkles. Here someone demonstrates how to knot strands of rope, which will be teased apart until fluffy. The results look something like bushy caterpillars hanging on a ship's lines to keep sails from chaffing each other.


This post is something of a see-and-do, as well as a reminder to get out there and look for surprises.


Hope everyone's weekend includes this much eye-opening fun.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

PERSONAL DEMONS sighting and interview

Book sighting! I almost did a happy dance in my local bookstore when I saw Lisa Desrochers' PERSONAL DEMONS on display. Not in one spot. Not in two places. But three! Yes, stacks of her just-released book were in a main aisle display of Paranormal Picks and on a table of YA and on the shelf. Woo and hoo and snapping photos!
Just look at her neighbors. Are you drooling?

I was a lucky-duck who won one of her ARCs, so I've devoured this fun, sexy story of a girl who draws the serious attention of two hot guys. One a demon and the other an angel. (you can read my gush here)
I love Lisa's anecdote of how she got the idea for this book. You'll find it in the Q&A below.

Lisa, by the way, has a family and full-time job as a physical therapist. She also lectures internationally on health issues, so her writing time is mainly at night. She has a blog tour going on right now (with MEGA prizes) and several book signings coming up. For more information, story snippets and some fun book trailers check out Lisa Desrochers' blog and website.

I asked her a few questions today:

Q: You say that seeing the book in stores is one of the most exciting moments for you. How does that relate to other big moments in your life? What makes this one shine?

Lisa: There are so many amazing writers writing amazing books out there that I always knew the chance of getting anything published was a long shot. When I signed with my fabulous agent, and then she sold Personal Demons, it was really exciting, but, it was all sort of abstract…something that was going to happen out there somewhere in the future. Now it’s not. It’s an actual book on an actual shelf in an actual bookstore. All I can tell you is that there was a different sort of whoosh in my gut when I saw your picture (thanks again), and if I was a better writer, I’d be able to describe it.

Q: Where did the idea for writing this story come from and did you ever imagine it leading you here?

Lisa: Personal Demons started when I was listening to Saving Abel, one of my favorite bands, and reading their bio. They said they got their name from the story of Cain and Abel, and a name popped into my head, Lucifer Cain. He was obviously a demon because…well…his name was Lucifer Cain. He started talking and I started typing. Honestly, I had no idea where it was going. I still don’t, but don’t tell that to my editor.

Q: The story is fun and sexy and scary and has a deeper philosophical layer. What do you hope readers will come away with?

Lisa: Really, my goal was to entertain, but I also hope people see that choices aren’t always clear-cut, and sometimes making the wrong ones is the only way you learn.

Q: What's next?

Lisa: I’m neck deep in Hellbent (Personal Demons #3) right now. When I finish that, I’ve got a few WIPs I abandoned when we went on submission with PD that have been whispering in my ear. =)
Thanks, Lisa, and best wishes for PERSONAL DEMONS.

Sunday, September 5, 2010

A simple proposition

I'm jumping ahead of Banned Books Week because there's a movement online that I hope you'll join. Officially, the week runs Sept. 25-Oct. 2 this year, but a number of people are signing up to read as many banned/challenged books as they can and post about them this month. I think of it as a show of solidarity with the authors and their creations. So I'm in.
For anyone new to Banned Books Week, it's sponsored by the American Library Association and several other organizations to raise awareness of books which have been banned or challenged. A challenge is an attempt by a person or group to remove or restrict a book from a library.
While I have no problem with someone deciding a book is not something they want to read or want their kids to read, I don't believe they have any right to force their beliefs on other people. In fact, the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution guarantees freedom of speech and press. We should all be able to hear other people's ideas, to discuss and agree or disagree but not to gag them.
In case you think this only happens rarely or to little-known authors of questionable material, here is a partial list of authors who have been frequently challenged in the last decade: J. K. Rowling, John Steinbeck, Judy Blume, Maya Angelou, Stephen King, Roald Dahl, Toni Morrison, Lois Lowry, Maurice Sendak, Philip Pullman.
If you're like me, you will be gobsmacked when you read the list of classics that face challenges. I mean, Winnie-the-Pooh, Schindler's List, Catch-22, To Kill a Mockingbird, A Clockwork Orange, A Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy??? The list goes on. The association also lists contemporary books attacked by year, by author and by decade. Again, unbelievable what's on those lists.
Here's one anecdote that made me furious. Four men sued for $30,000 a piece from a public library in Wisconsin for displaying Francesca Lia Block's BABY BE-BOP. Plus, they demanded the book be publicly burned. Huh? What country is this? What century? I'm glad to report the library board did not remove or restrict access to the book. Have you read it? It's wonderfully bizarre, gritty, funny, sad, heart-felt story of young people in L.A. and, well, one of them is gay. I loved it and never would imagine anyone wanting to burn it.
Another incident involved parents objecting to Sherman Alexie's THE ABSOLUTELY TRUE DIARY OF A PART TIME INDIAN as vulgar and racist. Again, huh??? If ever there was a writer who opens wide the door between Native Americans and the rest of society, it's Mr. Alexie. This is a partly autobiographical story of a handicapped boy who uses humor and art to cope with hopelessness and poverty. It swept me away with its authentic voice, wit and poignancy.
So I'm pulling together a short list of books and signing up for Steph Su's banned books reading challenge. So far, I know I'm reading FEED by M.T. Anderson, which is in my TBR stack, and I plan to re-read JULIE OF THE WOLVES, because I was stunned that Newbery Medal winner was ever challenged. Last year, I re-read THE HANDMAID'S TALE, one of my all-time favorite books (my review here). I'm not sure what others I'll read this month, but there will be more and I will post my thoughts about them. (Just added. I've decided to read Laurie Halse Anderson's TWISTED and T. Coraghessan Boyle's THE TORTILLA CURTAIN)
Please consider doing something, too. Or let me know in the comments of any other events going on.

Saturday, September 4, 2010

Happy haiku to you and BBQ, too

The farmers' market was berry-beautiful this morning, which is a fine thing for this Labor Day weekend's Blog Party BBQ hosted by KarenG. Share virtual goodies and meet new blogging friends. There's always room for more.

I'm also totally in for Stephanie Thornton's Haiku Blogfest. This is Day 2, and I'm dishing up several pictures and poems.

their needle-sharp thorns

couldn't save the plump berries

from ravenous hordes.


old secrets lurk in

layers of stoney timelines--

a silent tick-tock.


I live in California earthquake country and wrote this with earthquakes on my mind. My blogging buddy, Wen Baragrey, lives in Christchurch, New Zealand, and had a terrible fright when they were jolted fiercely by a 7.1 quake. She wrote about it here. I'm sure she'd love to get some virtual support from anybody who cares to drop by.


I would drift like sea

foam out past snowy breakers

to the endless deep


This one is closest to where I am right now in both spirit and my WIP. I need the ebb-and-flow. I need to be lost in vastness. I need to see where the tide takes me.

Happy holiday to those in the U.S. and happy weekend to all.

P.S. If you want a little fun in your haiku, here's the link to my zombie haiku. And if you want to know more about my introduction into writing haiku, you can read that here.

Friday, September 3, 2010

Haiku Blogfest

The bleeding sun shrinks


behind the island's shoulder--


slumbering dragon.


crow clouds
swoop over the sandy wash,
swirl in the updrafts.


Holy haiku, Batgirl, it's Stephanie Thornton's Haiku Blogfest today and Saturday. I've got another photo and haiku for tomorrow. Head on over to Stephanie's blog to click on the other poems--everything from haunting to hilarious.