Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Looking for Information on Banned Books Week?

If you are interested in Banned Books Week and in banned books in general, here are a few links and resources that could be useful:

The ALA site has a lot of information on Banned Books Week, including...

ALA's list of the Top 100 Banned/ Challenged Books from 2000 to 2007

Both FaceBook and MySpace have pages for Banned Books Week

The American Booksellers Foundation for Freedom of Expression site has a section dedicated to Banned Books Week, which includes a nice listing of books that have been challenged or banned along with the stories behind the challenges/ bannings.

The Forbidden Library also has book listings, information on why books were challenged/ banned, quotes on censorship, and links to other sites addressing the topic of banned books

The Banned Books blog is dedicated to reading and reviewing banned books.

Banned Books Week: Children's Edition

Dort, wo man B├╝cher verbrennt, verbrennt man am Ende auch Menschen. (Where they burn books, they will ultimately also burn people.)
- Heinrich Heine

I'm a little late (as usual), but this week (September 26 - October 4) is Banned Books Week, which was one of my favorite weeks when I taught high school English. I used to take great pleasure in surprising my students with the books that have been banned or challenged over the years, and it also led to some very interesting discussions regarding age-appropriateness, parents' rights, and the First Amendment. To celebrate this week, I'm going to be blogging about some of my favorite books that have been banned or challenged. To start us off, here are a few childhood favorites that have met with some controversy over the years:

Laura Ingalls Wilder is not immune to being challenged. Her book was challenged for being "offensive to Indians." Little House in the Big Woods was also challenged for similar reasons. While I can try to see the point of banning the book, it is also a historical document which captures an era of time when relations between Native Americans and white settlers were less than stellar. Quite frankly, I'm more offended by the television series and Michael Landon's complete bastardization of the books than I am by the books themselves.

While the challenging of Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl shouldn't be too surprising given some of the more explicit passages, I seriously doubt that anything in the diary is as graphic as what is readily available on the internet or found on network television on a given night. However, the strangest objection to the book was made by four members of the Alabama State Textbook Committe, who deemed the book "a real downer." You can't make this stuff up.

While this wasn't technically part of my childhood, I'm throwing it in anyway. Why? Well, besides being a great book, The Giver was one of the most banned/ challenged books in the U.S. between 2000 - 2007 (at least according to the ALA). Parents have objected to the book's content because it includes infanticide, euthanasia, and violence. However, the best complaint was from one parent who said "This book is negative. I read it. I don't see the academic value in it. Everything presented to the kids should be positive or historical, not negative." There are no words to fully express how awesomely short-sighted this quote is. I can't help but wonder what students are supposed to be reading. Could they read something that was historical and negative? If not, that takes out quite a few books (almost all of Shakespeare's works, The Things They Carried, The Great Gatsby, etc.).

Sunday, September 28, 2008

Anne of Green Gables

Anne of Green Gables, L. M. Montgomery's masterpiece, is celebrating its 100th anniversary of its publication this year. In order to properly celebrate, I purchased the new edition of the book, which was published by the Modern Library. Although I still long for the annotated edition of the book, I am quite excited about the Modern Library edition, which includes a reading group guide and an introduction by Jack Zipes.

While I thoroughly enjoyed rereading the book, I was amazed/ flabbergasted at the sheer amount of words that Anne speaks. She has speeches that go on for pages, and I couldn't help but feel a little sorry for Marilla, who was quite taken aback at Anne's chatterbox ways. I was also a little horrified at Anne's recalcitrance when it comes to Gilbert Blythe (who I still have a literary crush on after all of these years). The fact that she breaks a slate over his head and then refuses his overtures of friendship for years is disconcerting. However, this is all part of Anne's charm, and even though she seemed a tad overwhelming when I revisited her, I still have a great fondness for her and for the books.

Prince Edward Island, the book's setting, has a website dedicated to luring tourists to the island to celebrate the anniversary. PEI attracts a great number of visitors who are taken with Anne and want to see the places mentioned in the book. For more information on the 100th anniversary, visit the PEI website or check out this article from a July issue of Newsweek. I also urge you to read (or reread) the books and check out the first two Kevin Sullivan movies (done in the 1980s), which star Colleen Dewhurst, Megan Follows, and Jonathan Crombie (DO NOT watch Sullivan's third Anne movie, in which Anne dresses up like a nun and gets involved in World War I - it is wrong on so many levels). With all of the madness found in today's world, Anne provides a welcome glimpse into a time when you could have a "bosom friend" and find "kindred spirits" if you looked hard enough.

ETA: After I first posted this blog, I found two more articles on Anne of Green Gables and its 100th anniversary. The first is from Slate.com, which talks about the book's complexities and its defiance of typical children's literature/ young adult literature. The second article is by author Margaret Atwood and talks about the book's (and L. M. Montgomery's) background.

Review: Alone in the Kitchen with an Eggplant

For no apparent or conscious reason, I've been reading a lot of books about food. The first is Alone in the Kitchen with an Eggplant: Confessions of Cooking for One and Dining Alone, which a good friend got for me. As the title suggests, the book consists of essays about the joy (or burden) of cooking for one and eating alone. At age 14, I became the queen of eating alone, and I thoroughly enjoyed the book. From an ode to asparagus to the challenge of cooking in a tiny apartment to the demise of a favorite restaurant, the essays capture the essence of what it is like to deal with the solitary meal.

The essays, by authors including Nora Ephron, M.F.K. Fisher, and Steve Almond, each approach the topic in a different way. Perhaps what is so intriguing is seeing how different people in different stages of life view the act of eating alone. People who are young and single find it disconcerting, but others with children and families find that eating alone is a rare luxury that should be savored. Several of the essays also include some intriguing recipes. While I haven't tried any of them, I am looking forward to the opportunity to making Il Tost (grilled cheese and ham sandwich, Italian style) and salsa rosa.

Like many collections of essays, this one can be uneven at times. However, there are far more hits than misses, and this book makes a wonderful companion for someone eating alone in a restaurant. It even makes a nice alternative for someone who eats the occasional solitary meal at home but wants to avoid the ubiquitous drone and flicker of the television set. Whether your idea of dining alone consists of eating ice cream directly from the carton or cooking a full meal and setting the table with place mats and candles, Alone in the Kitchen with an Eggplant serves an assurance that either option is perfectly fine.

Saturday, September 20, 2008

Biscotti Mania

When life gets stressful, I bake. It is fairly low-consequence (if I screw up, I can throw out my mess and start over) and it requires enough concentration so that I can focus on something fairly mindless (as opposed to my school work or my other problems). This has been a tough week, and for some reason, I've been on a biscotti-making jag. While I've never taken any sort of interest in biscotti until lately, I've become a big fan.

Tonight, I tried my hand at cranberry pecan biscotti dipped in white chocolate (which is a riff on this recipe). However, my go-to biscotti recipe is from the first cookbook I purchased for myself, Cooking with Friends, which was meant to capitalize on the Friends television show. I purchased it after the initial height of the Friends craze in the mid-1990s from the bargain section of my bookstore, and my friends made fun of me for weeks after. However, I still use it even more than the copy of The Joy of Cooking my aforementioned friends bought me for high school graduation. Not only does it take me back to a much simpler time (remember when Ross and Rachel were getting together for the first time?), but it also has a lot of great recipes, including this one (for extra decadence, melt some chocolate with a tablespoon of butter and spread on one side of the biscotti after they have cooled):

Jamie and Fran's Chocolate Biscotti

2 cups plain flour
1/2 cup unsweetened cocoa
1 tsp baking soda
1/4 tsp salt
6 tbs (3/4 stick) unsalted butter, softened
1 cup sugar
2 large eggs
1 tsp vanilla extract
1 cup macadamia nuts (I use pecans for two reasons: I'm originally from the south and macadamia nuts are crazy expensive)

Preheat oven to 350 F. Grease and flour a large baking sheet and set aside.

Mix flour, cocoa, baking soda and salt together. set aside. cream butter, sugar, eggs and vanilla until smooth. Stir in the dry ingredients until well combined. The dough will be stiff and fairly dry. Stir through the nuts.

Turn the dough onto a floured surface. Divide into 2 and roll each half into a log that measures about 12 inches long and 2 inches wide. Transfer the logs to the prepared baking sheet, leaving room for them to expand.

Bake until firm to touch (about 30 - 35 minutes).

Remove from the oven. Wear an oven mitt to hold the logs in place. Use a serrated knife to cut them on the diagonal into 3/4inch thick pieces. Lay them on their side on the baking sheet and return to the oven for abut 5 - 10 minutes or until crisp.

Cool on racks and store in airtight containers for weeks. If they last that long.

Makes about 28 biscotti

Sunday, September 14, 2008

On the Street Where You Live

For some reason, I have been in the mood for some old-school musicals. Perhaps it is like comfort food - during times of stress or uncertainty, it is nice to watch or listen to something that is familiar. Anyway, as I was dithering around on YouTube today, I happened across this rather lovely version of "On the Street Where You Live," as performed by some character on Skins, a British television show. Although I have never seen this particular show and have no idea of what the basic plot is like, I really do like this.

While the song in and of itself doesn't really have a stalker vibe, its context within My Fair Lady is a little disturbing. Freddy, completely infatuated with Eliza, walks up and down the street that she lives (hence the title) and sings this song. According to the script, he supposedly has written her numerous letters and spends most of his nights on Eliza's street (presumably singing this song until the local constable threatens to arrest him). While Freddy is fairly harmless in terms of My Fair Lady, I can't help but think that, if the musical was made now, Freddy would be reduced to calling Eliza and drunkenly singing this into her voice mail. However, as far as stalker songs go (The Police's menacing "Every Breath You Take, Clay Aiken's disturbing "Invisible"), this is perhaps one of my favorites.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Ferlinghetti's "The World is a Beautiful Place," Take 2

Several months ago, I did a brief entry on Lawrence Ferlinghetti's "The World is a Beautiful Place." I've found myself thinking about the poem more and more recently. Maybe it is today's grim anniversary or the spate of recent problems or the fact that I just finished reading Kurt Vonnegut's A Man without a Country. Given all of these things, I thought it fitting to return to the poem.

First things first: the link to the poem is different than the one I used in the earlier post. I vastly prefer this new link for several reasons. One is that it provides an audio recording of someone reading the poem (the speaker does a very good job). The other reason that I like it is that the formatting is much closer to Ferlinghetti's original spacing and formatting. As one of my students pointed out when we were discussing the poem, the formatting is important. Not only does it make the startling juxtapositions that much more unexpected, but it also adds to the poem's rhythm. Finally, the staggered format also allows readers to see the poem in different ways, for the words on the left-hand side work as statements even if you opt to ignore the words that aligned on the right.

Like most people, I remember where I was on September 11, 2001. However, my most striking memory of that day is how achingly beautiful it was in Tennessee, where I was living at the time. For those of you who have never visited Tennessee (or the American southeast) in the summer, it is a hot, humid, muggy, and usually unpleasant place. That day in September was unusually mild and was one of the first beautiful, clear, cool days we had experienced in a long time.

I am writing this post from my apartment in Boston. It is another clear, beautiful, temperate day. I have a few pressing school issues (mostly papers and research), but my main goal for today is to run a few errands and maybe stop by the farmer's market. As I reflect on this rather leisurely and relaxed agenda, I can't help but juxtapose it with the quiet, solemn memorials taking place in various places in the US and the added problems of the hurricanes pounding Haiti, Cuba, and the Gulf Coast and the general strife, injustice, and abject poverty that is a worldwide epidemic.

I'm still not sure what the poem's lesson is. (Is it advocating for us to be more aware of the suffering that is going on in the world? If so, is it possible to live a relatively happy or even content life with the knowledge of all this suffering? On the other hand, I doubt that Ferlinghetti wants us to lead lives of blissful ignorance...) Regardless of this speculation, as I prepare to take care of my fairly petty and inconsequential tasks today, I can't help but think that Ferlinghetti was right. The world is indeed a beautiful place if you can overlook the rampant problems that come with it (and that are often caused by people).

ETA (on March 21, 2009): I posted another short discussion on this poem in conjunction to Browning's "Pippa Passes."

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Donora: My Newest Music Obsession

While I like to think that I have fairly diverse musical tastes, the truth is that my top 25 playlist on my iPod has an embarrassing number of show tunes and songs prominently featured on Grey's Anatomy. When I lived at home, my brother, who has truly diverse tastes in music and a genius for creating great mix CDs, was my source for finding new music. Since moving to Massachusetts, much of my new music comes from songs I've heard on television or from whatever is free on iTunes. However, while looking at the great PostSecret website the other day, I saw a video featuring the music of Donora. Not only is the music very catchy, interesting (in a good way), and cool, several of their songs are available for purchase on their MySpace site. My person favorites are "The Chorus" and "Shhh."

Saturday, September 6, 2008

Poem: "The Grammar Lesson"

Although I enjoy teaching, it sometimes makes me feel more than a little self-conscious. Besides the occasional brain-freeze I have when I am writing something on the board, which usually results in some atrocious and embarrassing misspelling, I often have to refer to one of the grammar books that litter my desk and fill my bookshelves. While I will often know when something is grammatically right or wrong just by looking at it, I often forget the specific rules and grammatical names. This grammar amnesia isn't a huge problem when I'm editing my own work, but it presents a challenge when I'm trying to help students improve their writing. Telling them that their comma usage "just doesn't feel right to me" is probably the least helpful thing I could say.

Luckily, there are apparently other English teachers and writers who share my rather complex relationship with grammar. One poem that makes me feel a lot better about my grammatical shortcomings and limitations is Steve Kowit's witty villanelle "The Grammar Lesson." Sometimes, when I am having a particularly trying paper-grading session, I repeat "A noun's a thing. A verb's the thing it does" over and over to myself. Surprisingly, this sometimes makes me feel better.

Friday, September 5, 2008

Book Review: Who the Hell is Pansy O'Hara?

I admit that I'm torn about Jenny Bond and Chris Sheedy's Who the Hell is Pansy O'Hara? The Fascinating Stories Behind 50 of the World's Best-Loved Books. On one hand, it features an quick and sometimes interesting behind-the-scenes look at the stories and their authors. On the other hand, much of the information isn't all that interesting, esoteric, or unknown, which makes this book a frustrating read for book aficionados.

The novels featured in Who the Hell is Pansy O'Hara? are indeed some of the best-known (and perhaps best-loved) books in western civilization. From Gone with the Wind to The Great Gatsby to Winnie the Pooh, Bond and Sheedy discuss the authors' origins and, in some cases, the stories or events that inspired the book in question. Perhaps part of the problem is that many books may not have a single "Aha!" moment. Like the invention of the printing press (wonderfully parodied in Gutenberg! The Musical!), most novels are a continually evolving process. While some authors undoubtedly have inspired moments, there isn't necessarily one seminal defining moment for most book ideas. As a result, this book tends to focus more on author biographies rather than the specific genesis of a particular book.

While the biographical information and occasional sprinkling of book trivia are sometimes compelling, Bond and Sheedy tend to default to the more well-known facts rather than esoteric minutiae. For instance, while they discuss J. M. Barrie's friendship with the children who inspired Peter Pan (a story somewhat faithfully reproduced in the film Finding Neverland), they neglect to mention the tragedy that occurred when Barrie became the children's guardian. Consequently, this book might make a great read for people who are beginning to read and appreciate the works mentioned because it provides a general overview on the books and their authors without going into great detail or depth. It might also make a good resource for English teachers and librarians who need a reference for literary trivia and facts that can catch students' attention. However, for the more experienced book lover who already knows about F. Scott Fitzgerald's party-hard lifestyle or Charles Dickens's time as a child laborer, perhaps another book is in order.

Confessions of a Rageaholic

I don't know if it is the start of school or just the general craziness that is life, but I've noticed that my rageaholic tendencies are beginning to show. While my rageaholism isn't nearly as bad was it was when I was working in retail, I know that I am becoming less patient and more annoyed with the people around me. From garden-variety rudeness (a lady with a full cart cut in front of me in the 12 items or less line) to the inexplicable and very disturbing popularity of Sarah Palin (who goes against almost everything I hold dear), I'm starting to silently fume on the inside, which will either lead to ulcers or to an Incredible Hulk-style explosion of impotent rage.

My first sign that this was happening came the other day when I happened to come across the innocuous PBS show Curious George. In the particular episode that was on, George was trying to prevent a squirrel from eating the seed he was putting out in the bird feeder. My first thought was that George should just kill the squirrel and that would solve a lot of problems. Yes, I know I need help.

Thursday, September 4, 2008

Classes, Farmer's Markets, and Books

Classes started back at the university this week, and I am already tired. While this may not be a good sign for the rest of the semester, I'm trying to keep in mind that this week has been unusually hectic due to the return of the students, the absurd amounts of paperwork that I have to do, and the notable lack of rest I had this summer due to work, exams, etc.

On the brighter side of things, after I left school this afternoon, I went to the farmer's market. While I can't recall ever going to one when I lived in Tennessee, I have become more than a little addicted to them this past summer. Between being able to buy fresh produce for relatively cheap (at least compared to the monstrously expensive behemoth known as Whole Foods) and being able to people watch, farmer's markets have become one of my favorite things about living in the Boston area. My exciting finds (I'm not being at all sarcastic about this, so it is a little sad) for today included honeycrisp apples, ginger gold apples, corn, and a homemade pie.

While lugging my purchases back to my apartment, I also decided to run by the bookstore. A good friend of mine gave me a gift certificate for watching her cats, and I couldn't wait to put it to use. In addition to the card, she also gave me a copy of Alone in the Kitchen with an Eggplant, so look for a review of the book soon (or perhaps soonish - I have some looming deadlines in the coming weeks).