Sunday, April 18, 2010

No. 5: The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, by Mark Twain

Once upon a time, people thought it was OK to own other people. They seemed to justify it by rationalizing that someone with skin a different color from theirs wasn't really a person at all, but some sub-human category akin to cattle. Some of these people who thought this way lived in the American South. They owned slaves.

Then one day, there was a big giant war and the people who owned slaves were forced to set them free. (Thank God!) A couple years later, a man who had lived through it, both in the North and in the South, wrote a book about it. His name was Samuel Langhorne Clemens but he was better known by his pen name, Mark Twain. The book he wrote was called The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Even though it was first published in 1885, it still irritates people enough to make them ban it today.

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn tells the story of a misfit teenager (Huck) and a black slave (Jim) who are both looking for freedom, one from slavery, and the other from a alcoholic abusive father. As they share a raft together on the Mississippi River, Huck comes to know Jim as a man, and not just as a N-word.

Dah Dah Dun!

There it is. Yeah, I said it - the dreaded N-Word, which Huck uses over 100 times in the book. Twain's critics say this is racism, pure and simple. The book's defenders have countered that Jim is the most noble character in it and Huck's language is typical of his time. Critics counter the counter argument stating that refering to a person of color as the N-word is unacceptable, historically accurate or not.

I was surprised to learn in my research that Huckleberry Finn's language offended readers in its day as well. Completely unlike modern readers (who frighten bloggers so much that they use the "N-Word" rather than typing the actual word in their posts), the original readers of the book had no problem at all with the N-word. They had problems with Huck's use of colloquial slang. Louisa May Alcott hated Huckleberry Finn and served on the very first library committee to ever ban it. She criticized Twain saying among other things that "Huck should not sweat. He should perspire." Oh Louisa, you kill me, girl!

Twain himself thought the banning would be a great boon to book sales.

As for the charge of racism, I invite you all to read Huckleberry Finn and judge for yourself. Honestly, it's worth reading just for the insight into 19th Century life and the hilarious Shakespeare mangling "To be, or not to be; that is the bare bodkin." That's the other thing that people seem to forget - this book is funny! is also suspenseful, thought provoking, and heartbreaking.

As early as 1891 it was being call "a masterpiece". Ernest Hemingway called it the great American novel, saying "all modern American literature comes from Huck Finn". Hemingway didn't like the end though and urged readers to stop reading where Jim is taken from Huck, saying everything that comes after that point is "a cheat". You'll just have to read it and decide for yourself.

Saturday, January 9, 2010

No. 42: Beloved by Toni Morrison

We thought we'd try something different here at The Daily Banning and play a little Book Jeopardy! Here is our virtual host, Alex Trebek.

Trebek: "Thank you, Daily Banning. I'm happy to be here. Let's get started. Pick a category, Gentle Readers."

Gentle Readers: "We'll take Books Kim Didn't Fully Understand for $200."

Trebek: "The answer is ... Written by a Nobel Laureate Toni Morrison, this book won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 1988."

Gentle Readers: "What is Beloved?"

Queue music of smartness...

Trebek: "That is the correct answer for $200!"

Daily Banning: "Thanks, Alex. You can go now."

Trebek: "But we're not finished with the category."

Daily Banning: "Actually we are. Besides, there is a picture of the book along with its name in the title of this post so our readers probably already knew the answer anyway. Thanks again for stopping by."

That was my attempt at stalling. I'm finding it really difficult to explain this book. I am in no way qualified to analyze its symbolism or messages because, frankly, I didn't really get all of it. Here's what I can tell you: Beloved is a beautifully written story about the effects of slavery on those who survived it. Set at the end of the Civil War, Morrison tells the story of an escaped slave, Sethe, who [Spoiler Alert, stop here if you don't want to know what happens in the story] when caught, chooses to kill her children rather than send them back into slavery. The rage of Sethe's dead child literally rocks the house she lives in, until it takes on physical form and comes back to life to torment her.

At least, that's what I got out of it. I could be wrong as the novel is written in an experimental style in which its pieces are broken apart and the reader is left to reassemble them. I, apparently, am not good at this. There was a whole "he died on his face, she died on her face" and "she wasn't even smiling" section that left me thinking that Morrison was a little crazy. However, the novel is still worth the effort if only to get insights like this:
“Freeing yourself was one thing; claiming ownership of that freed self was another.”
I am not the only one who thinks this novel is better than average. A survey of writers and literary critics conducted by The New York Times found Beloved to be the best work of American fiction of the past 25 years.

It gets banned because its subject matter is difficult (really difficult) to read. Critics (mostly parents) cite the novel's treatment of bestiality, infanticide, racism, and sex as inappropriate for underage readers. As recently as 2007 and 2008, Beloved was pulled from library shelves in Kentucky, Idaho, and Illinois by concerned parents and school boards.

It helps to remember that Beloved is based on the true story of Margaret Garner. Is the banning of this novel akin to burying the ugly truth of America's involvement in slavery? I'll leave it to you to decide, Gentle Readers.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

National Book Banning Week

Hello Gentle Readers. In honor of ALA's National Book Banning Week, The Daily Banning invites you to leave a comment about your favorite banned book. Tell us what you're reading to fight the power.

Illustration by Krieg Barrie and used without permission. Don't sue me, I have no money.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

No. 19: Sex by Madonna

In the words of the immortal Salt 'N' Pepa, "Let's talk about sex, baby, Let's talk about you and me, Let's talk about all the good things and the bad things that may be..." Ah yes, Gentle Readers, we come to number 19 on our banning list, Sex by Madonna. I only "read" this book once in 1992, right when it was first released. At the risk of spoiling the plot for you, it is full of pictures of naked Madonna. The main thing that stuck with me other than Madonna's desperate need to be Marilyn Monroe, was a weird S&M attachment that one of the men had on his shoe. I still don't know what it was and have lived a long and happy life in my ignorance. (In other words, Gentle Readers, if you know what that crazy shoe thing was, do not tell me.)

Huh. That's kind of all I have to say about naked Madonna.

This book was banned because it is about Madonna's sexual fantasies, which seem to involve her being all kinds of naked with lots of other people. She also defied her would-be original publishers by posing naked with a cross (which they asked her not to do) and with a dog (which they also asked her not to do). Before it's release, she issued some press statements about the book's shocking content because... Now, here's the thing... and pay attention censors because this is not going to change... Madonna is brilliant. Seriously, the woman is crazy smart. She also knows way more about making money than you and me. All the fervor and controversy surrounding the book's release only spurred it to higher sales making her even richer than she already was. When you think about banning Madonna, picture Darth Vader in that scene where Darth tells Luke Skywalker "Strike me down and I will become even more powerful," because that's what Madonna is about to do to you.

At one point, Sex was the highest selling coffee table book of all time. Well played, Madonna.

The people who purchased the book are also laughing all the way to the bank. After two printings in four languages, Sex is now out of print. The only way to own it is to buy someone else's copy. Unopened (the book was packaged in shiny silver baggies) first editions can sell for hundreds of dollars on Ebay and other auction sites. The Japanese version is said to be even more valuable because it was banned almost as soon as it went on sale.

Take this as a lesson censors. Don't tangle with Madonna. Madonna always wins. ...and by the way, she is smarter than you, too.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

No. 91: The Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follett

I once dated this guy, Steve. The main thing I remember about him (other than the fact that he was built like a Greek statue) was that he was sweet and shy. We dated for a bit and then the Navy moved him to Florida for flight school and we lost touch.

A couple years later, I had a business meeting in San Diego that I absolutely had had had to attend in person (because my job back then was ridiculous and required me to be in, like, three places at once). To make this particular meeting, I would have had to fly there and back (from Washington DC) on the same day. Gentle Readers, same day flight in-and-outs are very expensive so the ticket was almost $3,000. I told my manager I'd be willing to spend the weekend in San Diego to reduce my airfare if I could stay someplace nice on the beach. He was all "Why are you even asking me?" so I booked myself in the lovely Hotel del Coronado and proceeded to set about unwinding all the stiff muscles in my back.

While unwinding, I took the Hotel's bike tour of the Island. Our group biked past a military installation and I asked the tour guide about it. When he informed me that it was the Naval Air Station, I knew (seriously I knew,) that Steve was on the island. I got back to the hotel, dialed information, asked for his listing in Coronado, and got connected. Conversation went something like this:
Me: "Steve?"
Steve: "Kim?"
Me: "Yeah."
Him: "You're at the Hotel del."
Me: "How do you know that?"
Him: "Caller ID. You hungry?"
Me: "Starved."
Him: "I just got Thai food delivered. I'll pick you up in front of the hotel in 5 minutes."
...and a lovely weekend with the hunky Steve ensued. The point of all this? Steve's favorite book was The Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follett, which I know because he made me read it.

The Pillars of the Earth is basically about a builder and a monk who collaborate to build a cathedral in England in the Middle Ages. It's pretty damn great! ...and complicated. ...and suspenseful. ...and long, (which you won't even notice. Trust me). ...and banned.

The reasons for its banning include graphic descriptions of sex and violence, particularly against women. A Fairfax County Virginia (and I thought we were getting along so well Virginia) School Board member who voted to restrict the book to 10th-12th grade students called the book's content "obscene and pervasively vulgar". It's been many years since I read it but I don't remember any pervasive vulgarity. It is fairly violent but that's historically accurate to medieval times. It's also fairly sexual but it was never intended to be read by children. That said, I think kids over 14 should be OK reading it.

Read it. It's great.

One late note: Steve, if you're reading this, thanks for the Thai food.

Monday, July 27, 2009

No. 11: Heather Has Two Mommies by Leslea Newman

Over the weekend my boyfriend, Tivo, recorded a couple episodes of 30 Days for me. 30 Days is the brainchild of Morgan Spurlock who deep fried himself into liver failure by eating nothing but McDonalds for 30 days in the hilarious and disturbing documentary Supersize Me. (Banning note: Don't try that at home, Gentle Readers.) 30 Days follows the same concept as the movie – take someone with one opinion/creed/philosophy/moral conviction/living condition and have them live in the exact opposite environment for 30 days and see what happens. As you can well imagine, fun ensues from there! Spurlock has tossed an active duty soldier into the San Francisco apartment of a homosexual activist; a Boston gun control advocate onto the Ohio farm of a gun enthusiast, a New York City electronic gadget freak onto a Utah off-the-grid organic commune, a conservative Christian from West Virginia into a Muslim home in Dearborn, Michigan, and himself into a Virginia jail... all for 30 days.

It’s absolutely brilliant. In every episode I’ve watched, all the participants come out changed for the better, with less rigid opinions, an understanding of something they used to fear, and unexpected new found friendships. That is, until I watched yesterday’s show. In it, a Mormon woman, Kati, who believes that children should be raised by a mother and a father, lived with Tom and Dennis, a homosexual couple, who adopted four boys out of the foster care system. This episode really shocked me. Despite the fact that Tom and Dennis were excellent parents and that the boys were happy and healthy and would still be in foster care without them, Kati never swayed from her opinion that Tom and Dennis shouldn't have been allowed to adopt children.

So, today I am thinking about gay and lesbian parents. Heather Has Two Mommies by Leslea Newman seemed like a fine book for The Daily Banning. This book is about a child, Heather, raised by lesbians; one of whom gets pregnant via artificial insemination, and the other who helps raise Heather. It centers around Heather's new playgroup, where the other kids and their parents talk about Heather's mommies simply and positively. No big deal, right? Wrong!

This poor book is so banned that its author, Leslea Newman, gave an interview on stating that she had two jobs -- one as a writer and the other as a defender of Heather Has Two Mommies. Apparently this book has been praised, banned, showered with awards, burned, read aloud in the US Senate, and gotten people fired. Quite a track record for one little childrens' book. I think the thing that most shocked its censors is that Heather's family is virtually indistinguishable from their own family. If that's true, then what happens to their conviction that being around gay people is damaging to children? They might have to change their minds and we can't have that.

Let me bottom line it for you, Gentle Readers... Kati would hate this book. That alone should make you run out and buy it.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

No. 60: Are You There, God? It’s Me, Margaret, by Judy Blume

I read somewhere that a group publishes a newsletter titled “How to Ban Judy Blume” and that Judy Blume herself actually subscribed to it. I’m torn between hoping this is true because that would be the most awesome thing ever, and hoping that it’s not true because I really can’t afford another girl crush right now. I’m already trying to figure out how to be BFFs with Gwen Stefani (rock star, fashion designer, hot husband, cute kids), Michelle Obama (brilliant, confident, great wardrobe) and Tina Fey (hilarious, brilliant, writer, producer, actress) and really have no time to add Judy Blume to my crush corner. ...but if it’s true, Judy’s cool factor is rocketing (rocketing!) up the scale. Plus, I couldn't have gotten through junior high without Are You There God? It's Me, Margaret which is much in Blume's favor.

So let's talk about this banned book. Margaret, 11-years old and the daughter of a Jewish father and a Christian mother, moves from New York City to suburbia just before the start of sixth grade. Her new teacher assigns the class a year long study project, which Margaret decides to do about faith because she herself is no religion and she needs to chose one. Margaret makes friends, hangs out with her grandma, and worries about bras, periods, and kisses from boys -- none of which she has experienced at the start of the book. Along the way, she talks to God, always starting with "Are you there, God? It's Me, Margaret..." as if God wouldn't a) be there or b) know who she was.

This book is brilliant and painful and funny and beautiful. Here's a passage that makes me laugh and breaks my heart at the same time:
“Are you there God? It's me, Margaret. I just told my mother I want a bra. Please help me grow God. You know where. I want to be like everyone else.”
I know, right? Don't you just want to cover your head or eat chocolate or burst into tears or something because this is exactly what puberty was like? Margaret has all the doubts, fears, and worries of a typical girl and Blume captures all of it. As a result, the book is full of 'tween angst but at its sweet center is Margaret just talking to God and trying to figure out her world.

So why is this lovely book banned? Censors seem to take issue with it's portrayal of religion (a political quagmire on a good day) and its frank discussions of boobies (the horror!) and periods (oh God no! anything but that!). Well, newsflash -- this is what little girls think about. Banning a book because it addresses growing up in a way that makes you uncomfortable is just retarded. ...and shortsighted because kids are going to think about these things and grow up whether you like it or not. So here's the deal censors (and I repeat myself): if you don't want your kids reading this book, don't let them. The rest of us will give our kids Are You There God? It's Me, Margaret in hopes that it will do for them what it did for us - arm them with a little more information and make them feel a little less alone.

One last thing... leave Judy Blume alone. This woman is a national treasure (and I don't mean that snarky), right up there with my BFFs Gwen, Michelle, and Tina.