Because You Can: Banned Books Week

Photo by Anna Tschetter via Said to be made
with pages from Fahrenheit 451. Nice!

Banned Books Week, how I love to hate you. I hate that you have to exist, that anyone tries to ban books. But I love your spirit, your refusal to lie down for the small-mindedness of those who want to control the thoughts and morality of other people.
This mother from Knoxville, Tennessee is not satisfied with her child being assigned an alternate book after she protested the text assigned by the school. No, she thinks it is her place to make that decision for everybody’s children, not just her own, and wants the objectionable book (The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot) banned from all schools in her county.
I’d never heard of the book before reading the article, but you’d better believe it’s on my TBR list now. That’s what happens when you make a big squawk about something and try to disallow it; you draw people’s attention, make them wonder what the fuss is about. There has always been an exotic allure to the taboo. Now I want to see it for myself, just because you tried to tell me I shouldn’t. More than that, though, I get my back up at anyone trying to impose their standards on me when it’s not only my right, but my responsibility, to establish my own standards. That’s part of being a grown-up.

And don’t kid yourself for a minute: When kids know a book has been removed from their school’s shelves, you’re driving them straight to it. It works on adults, too. I still remember the outcry when the movie The Last Temptation of Christ was released. The next time I was in a bookstore, I snapped the book right up. Come to think of it, I still haven’t read it. It’s still in one of my TBR piles, somewhere. But all the hue and cry racked up another sale. I’ll read it someday.

We didn’t have a lot of frills when I was growing up, but one thing my mother would almost never say no to, and particularly if we were in a used bookshop or a thrift store, was books. As many as I wanted, whatever I wanted. There was always enough gas in the car if I wanted to go to the library, the library was one place I had permission to go even if I was grounded, and I’ve been the contented, book-sated owner of a library card since I was 10. She frowned at a title or two I picked out (a few by Jacqueline Susann and Harold Robbins and Jackie Collins come to mind), but she never censored my reading. Maybe she knew it would be about as effective as disallowing drinking turned out to be later, but I doubt it. I think she was wise enough to know that new ideas and concepts make you think, make you examine the world around you and make you examine yourself, that they help you become the person you are supposed to be. She trusted me to use my intellect to reach good and ethical conclusions about the various ideas I was coming across. My mother is not only smart, but wise.

I had the same freedom at my grandmother’s house, which overflowed with books, literally. They filled the house and spilled over to shelves and boxes in the garage. I was given free rein, never told I couldn’t read any of them, from various histories of the world to philosophy to religion, to classics such as Shakespeare and Mark Twain and Edgar Allen Poe, to simpler pleasures like Anne of Green Gables and A Wrinkle in Time and the Narnia tales, and endless volumes of Miss Marple and Hercule Poirot. I read what I wanted to read. If I had questions, they were answered. We talked about what we read. And I learned; oh, how I learned. What may be the most valuable thing I learned is how to learn.
One justification often used for removing books from junior high and high school students’ reading lists or school libraries is that “these kids are too young to read about these things”. “These things” include sex, alcohol and drugs, violence, abuse, racism and other bigotry, mental illness, suicide, bullying, LGBTQ issues, death, and other things that, trust me, the kids are already aware of because they’re already struggling with them. “These things” are right smack in their lives already. Removing a book from the library won’t make the issue disappear. It boggles my mind that any parent would not want their children to have the benefit of the wisdom and experience of others, the solace of knowing these are not unique problems, that they are not alone, that there are solutions. It boggles my mind that parents aren’t aware that much worse than you’ll find in Looking for Alaska or The Hunger Games is splashed across social media such as Tumblr and Instagram and Facebook and Imgur and Snapchat, along with the rest of the virtually limitless Interwebs.  It boggles my mind that parents don’t want their kids’ minds opened enough to have compassion for others in their lives. It boggles my mind that parents don’t want their kids thinking for themselves.

I like to think that, ultimately, the attempts of those who would censor literature will always move us to fight back, that we will always strain and struggle against it, slam it down, that we will always hunger for thoughts and words, to read them and to write them, and will always find ways around censorship as surely as a bookworm kid will read by flashlight under the covers long after bedtime on a school night.

Honor freedom of expression during Banned Books Week, September 27 – October 3. There are so many banned books to choose from! Here is the American Library Association’s list of banned and challenged classics, and here is their list of most frequently challenged books by decade. Some of the reasons for challenging and banning books are ludicrous; this article lists several that will get your eyes rolling. I mean, seriously, Charlotte’s Web?
Seattle Central Library’s Banned Books display. I brought home two:
Peyton Place and The Bluest Eye.

Read a banned book this week to celebrate being able to read what you want to.

Read a banned book to celebrate that you can write what you want to. Remember that you can also paint what you want to, sing what you want to, dream what you want to. I still happily remember reading about the recording artist who, when told people wanted to burn his/her latest record, responded, “Well, they gotta buy it to burn it.” (I can’t remember who it was but I want to say it was Blondie. If anybody knows, please clue me in. It was a long time ago, back when vinyl was standard issue and not hipster.)
Read a banned book to savor a new idea, the pleasure of tasting it and considering it and pondering it and turning it over to look at all sides of it, and then deciding how it fits in your life.
Read a banned book to remind yourself how stagnant the world would be if we couldn’t share our ideas with others, or have our eyes opened or our hearts broken by the ideas others share with us.
Read a banned book to celebrate the love and joy and sorrow and yearning and torment that pour forth whenever a writer or poet sets words to paper.
Read a banned book because some of the best stuff out there has been on one or many banned lists at some time. Classic literature that has changed how we read and write and move through the world, like To Kill a Mockingbird and Lord of the Rings and The Grapes of Wrath and Lady Chatterly’s Lover and The Sun Also Rises, that were challenged simply because a handful of pinched and narrow minds thought they had the right to tell everybody else how to think, or didn’t want anyone challenging the status quo.
Read a banned book to celebrate that we remain free from the Thought Police (brought to you by George Orwell in Nineteen Eighty-Four — another banned book).
Read a banned book because every time someone reads one, closed and controlling minds lose and the exquisite freedom of artistic expression wins.
Read a banned book because you can.

The Power of CRAP: You Need This #1000Speak

Honesty in compassion.

Ah, yes.

‘Tis the season. Not the Christmas/Hanukkah/Kwanzaa/Winter Solstice/Happy-25th-of-December season, but election season. Opinions abound. Unfortunately, so do opinions disguised as fact, usually in spam emails and memes all over Facebook. All the more reason to stay off Facebook.

Even more than usual, with things picking up speed in the political arena, disinformation abounds in the cybersphere. Facts and statistics are twisted, if not made up from whole cloth, and spread around as solid information, all in the hopes of influencing our opinions on everything from abortion to immigration to education to health care to foreign policy to wealth disparity to gun control…you name it. Flaming articles and skewed perceptions and outright lies are floating around about Democrats and Republicans, about conservatives and liberals.

Ah, crap.

We cannot decide where our compassion must fall and where our compassion is best applied if we cannot take the time for honesty, not only in telling the truth but in discerning the truth. With so many hot-button issues that many of us feel strongly about, it is more important than ever that we think before we feel.

CRAP. I’m talking about CRAP, the acronym, used to evaluate information as part of the critical thinking process. You know, critical thinking, where we listen to what’s said and then we listen to the other side, and then we do a little bit of research and make a rational, well-informed decision based on facts and evidence and our own personal ethics and beliefs, rather than on other people’s rabidity and hysteria and fear. Where we use our brains instead of letting others play on our emotions. Critical thinking.

C.R.A.P, for currency, reliability, authority, and purpose.

Szczepan1990, Public Domain

C is for Currency. How fresh is it? A couple of weeks ago I saw a meme circulating about the death of Ernest Borgnine. It’s true, he did die. Three years ago. Sad, yes. Current, no. Make sure the information you’re being given is up-to-date before you react to it.

R is for Reliability. Is it opinion, or fact? What is the source of the purported facts? Is it a religious belief, or is there solid physical evidence? Are references cited? Are there sources for quotes? Fact-check things. Google is your friend. Find out who really said it, and in what context. 

That “Life should not be a journey to the grave…* quote, the one we see attributed to everybody from Ian McKellen to Keith Richards? No. It was Hunter S.Thompson who wrote that, in The Proud Highway: Saga of a Desperate Southern Gentleman, published 1997. Keith in particular certainly embodies the sentiment, and Ian and Keith both rock, but neither of them originally said it. It took me less than 5 minutes to find that out.

A is for Authority. Who is giving you the information? What are his or her credentials? Are there any affiliated institutions, and how credible are they? Who is publishing the information? A news source already known for a particular slant is not going to give you information that doesn’t already agree with it. An educational journal or a non-profit independent research institution is a good source, but look further. Does the publication or channel have religious or political affiliations, or does it assume a neutral position? Who paid for a study can have a lot to do with the results. An example is Big Tobacco funding studies to “prove” cigarettes aren’t that bad for you. It took me less than 5 minutes to find that, too.

It’s easy to check on political and legislative records. On a national level, the Open Congress website lists all bills and what they propose, as well as how everybody voted on them. Again, less than 5 minutes. Go to your state legislature’s website for similar info for your state. Completely unbiased, unlike somebody’s dumb meme. A hash tag is not an authority.

P is for Purpose. Are you getting straight-up, just-the-facts reporting? Or is someone trying to convince you of something, to sway your opinion, to win your vote? Are they trying to sell you something? These aren’t automatically bad. It’s the nature of political campaigning to try to win votes; it’s the nature of capitalism to try to make sales. But there is always a high potential for conflict when money is in the background. Does the website hosting the article you’re reading have ads? Who are the sponsors? If they persuade you, what’s in it for them? What’s in it for you? Do they get money or power and you get nothing, or do you have compatible goals?

This is particularly important when it comes to political candidates – where is their money coming from? If a politician’s promise to you conflicts with the source of the bankroll, don’t for one minute be naive enough to think they’ll choose you. Cynic that I am, I firmly believe a politician’s influence will go right back to where the money comes from. It’s why candidates are legally required to disclose where their campaign donations come from.  Make use of that information.

The power of CRAP. It all comes down to deciding whether you want to hear the truth that may make you uncomfortable, or if you just want to hear what you want to hear, that fits neatly into the worldview you already have. Honesty requires shaking things up from time to time, including our own viewpoints. That’s how change happens. Nobody ever made the world a better place by being complacent or blindly swallowing what somebody else was holding out on the spoon.

Of course we are all entitled to our opinions (although I will never understand how anyone can support a Presidential candidate like…never mind, this is not the place), but we owe it to ourselves and to the world around us to make informed decisions. Please, for the love of all that is holy and intelligent, don’t decide who you’re voting for based on some stupid meme or spam email or TV talking head or politically- or religiously- inclined news source or God-knows-what idiot, using information from God-knows-where. Listen to what the candidate has to say. Check official voting records. Read press releases. Attend rallies. Fact-check, fact-check, fact-check. Don’t assume anyone else is doing that for you.

And remember,  I am also God-knows-what idiot out there. You got your information  from some blog? Not a scholar? Not a Pew study? Not the New England Journal of Medicine? Some malcontent at 99 Monkeys said it? Puh-leeze.

In other words, you may safely assume everything I’ve written here is bullshit.

You can trust Ned Stark, though. He is absolutely telling the truth right there.
* The entire thing:  “Life should not be a journey to the grave with the intention of arriving safely in a pretty and well preserved body, but rather to skid in broadside in a cloud of smoke, thoroughly used up, totally worn out, and loudly proclaiming ‘Wow! What a Ride!'” ~ Hunter S. Thompson, Gonzo journalist extraordinaire

The Lost Sisterhood by Anne Fortier (Book Review)

The Lost SisterhoodThe Lost Sisterhood by Anne Fortier
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

One of my favorite historical fantasy books is The Firebrand, in which Kassandra spends parts of her youth in an Amazon tribe. I loved that book for what it was, a re-telling of the fall of Troy, but it left me wanting more Amazons. I was happy to stumble across The Lost Sisterhood.


I was a bit bothered that the author showed up on Goodreads and gave her own books (this one and Juliet) five-star reviews. I have never seen an author do that before and I find it incredibly tacky. But…Amazons! I borrowed it from the library anyway, because…Amazons!

Other reviewers have drawn comparisons to Dan Brown and that’s not inaccurate. That’s okay; I can live with that. Although Dan Brown is a very formulaic writer, I enjoyed The DaVinci Code and Angels and Demons (but not Digital Fortress; that one is just plain terrible), so — so far, so good.

Then I came across things like:

“Climates change; that’s the way it has always been…it’s the big guy up there who calls the shots.”


“Being armed is not a privilege, my little ones. It is a duty.”


“…an environmental group. ..the usual brain-dead anticapitalist bullshit.”


“Why are we so eager to turn a beautiful myth into reality?” This from a museum curator!

And, as another reviewer pointed out, our heroine, a philologist, a student of antiquities, casually reads and handles a document that is thousands of years old while eating a wiener schnitzel. Seriously.

So, do our history- and archaeology-oriented characters just not science much, or does Fortier also write for the far right, or both?

I also have trouble with a heroine who is told she is going to Amsterdam but is instead taken to Algeria without her knowledge or consent, and whose phone and other valuable property is repeatedly kyped by the antagonistic but incredibly hot man of mystery with six passports, and who is then taken against her will to the ruins of Troy, and is then rescued and whisked off to Istanbul (and incidentally maneuvered into off-the-shoulder satin), but who just keeps being a good sport about all this deceptive and forceful removal of her autonomy, despite the fact she has a Ph.D and an Oxford career to get back to. It’s time for that particular romance trope to disappear along with the whole rapey thing. Women can fall in love without being abducted and held captive. Happens all the time. I’ve done it, more than once.

To be fair, there were things I liked, too:

“The queen is…[f]irst into the field, last to retreat. If all nations held their elected authorities to this basic principle of leadership, I guarantee you we would have significantly fewer wars in this world.”


“Only weak men want women to be weak.”


“A nation of sheep will beget a government of wolves.”


One plot hole left me confused: Myrina and her companions are accepted into the tribe of which Otrera is the High Priestess and which is already known to the Greeks as Amazones, but in another place the book references Myrina as founding the Amazons. Small point, but I’m picky about that stuff.

Fortier’s tale of Myrina and her companions’ acceptance by the Amazons pulled me in, and the parallel stories of Myrina and Diana were well done. The Amazon invention of the recurve bow for shooting from horseback was fun. I loved the lure of the Amazon Hoard, the lost treasure of Priam. I was intrigued by the promise of a Trojan War fought for gold instead of a woman, but that’s not where it went.

And that’s my biggest disappointment, the mishmash made of the fall of Troy. It’s not a re-telling with added depth or a new angle; it’s just muddying up one of the world’s oldest and best-loved tales. Characters’ relationships to each other are jacked around (for example, Helen becomes Agamemnon’s daughter, and do you really want to piss off Zeus by denying his paternity?), fates change, major players are diminished or smooshed together or recast or eliminated completely. While Helen didn’t instigate the events of Troy’s demise — and that demise was lame — she still managed to get a lot of people killed in what I thought was a “wtf” moment. I understand that fiction gives the writer license to play fast and loose with history and myth, but The Iliad is far too beloved for me to buy a Troy without Hector. The “Eleven Labors of Hercules” just doesn’t have the right ring. And who ever heard of Paris’ Heel?

It’s not a horrible book. It is a page-turner, and I did finish it, but I was not satisfied. I was hoping this would be the book that really just did the Amazons for me, but the opportunity to breathe life into figures such as Penthesilea and Hippolyta was wasted. I would have been much happier with a story about the Amazons, just the Amazons, with Troy making only a minor appearance, if any. But then, we wouldn’t have the DaVinci Code of the Hellespont. I know MZB has become a dirty word (and I’ll spare you my thoughts about charges brought against people who can’t answer because they’re dead), but I am left wanting the Amazon warrior book she would have written. Alas.

*wandering off to console myself with Xena: Warrior Princess*

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King Street Station (Flash Fiction)

Carrot Ranch Congress of Rough Writers Flash Fiction Challenge, September 9, 2015 prompt: In 99 words (no more, no less) write a story about someone or something that’s lost.


Same bus stop bench, different day.

Traffic choreographs itself. Buses fart, horns blare, an argument approaches and fades as a couple walks by. Over the parapet, in the tunnels, a train clangs as it shuffles up to the platform.

A train. Quiet. Away. Being rocked to sleep, able to sleep.

She hates this city. Oh, she’d wanted to be here, she’d thought, but reality has been harshly different. She’s been trying to live someone else’s life.

Leave it all behind. She has the money, just enough. A ticket. Home. Just go.

She stands up and walks toward the station.

Alvin Trusty/Flickr/Creative Commons

Julian by Gore Vidal (Book Review)

JulianJulian by Gore Vidal
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I love good historical fiction, and this is historical fiction at its best. Warning: If you are Christian and do not like your faith criticized, this book is not for you. But if you love philosophy and the old gods and Roman history, this fictionalized biography of Julian the Apostate is definitely for you. Priscus and Libanius make wonderful appearances as two scholars writing letters back and forth, discussing and preparing Julian’s memoir and journal for publication after his murder.

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Helen of Sparta by Amalia Carosella (Book Review)

Helen of SpartaHelen of Sparta by Amalia Carosella
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I would not have enjoyed this novel, with its romance-style writing, if not for the fantastic use of history and mythology, which was what I read it for. The romance aspect was worth one star (I dislike romances); competent writing worth one more;  and the history and mythology were excellent enough to push it up two more stars.  Great portrayal of demigods who were children of kings and gods at the same time, and the appearance of Athena and Poseidon in their mortal children’s lives. I love Greek history and mythology but every other story of Helen I’ve read or watched focuses on her presence in Troy; this story of Helen pre-Paris was refreshing.

Like others, I was not happy with the ending. As I have written before, the only writer who can get away with abruptly ending a book in the middle of the story is Tolkien. It feels to me like an attempt to manipulate me into the next book. Make me want the next one by doing a standout job with this one. Minus a star, for a net of three.

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Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe by Fannie Flagg (Book Review)

Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop CafeFried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe by Fannie Flagg
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

There was a huge windstorm in the Puget Sound area, that left us without power for a day and a half and turned out to be a blessing in disguise by giving me the opportunity to read this entire book from start to finish. What a treat! What wonderful storytelling! I loved the movie, and I love the book more. The book has many more characters – Big George’s wife and children, the Threadgoode siblings and their spouses. I especially loved Sipsey’s graveyard of heads, the saga of Railroad Bill, and the deeper story of Smokey Lonesome. As in the movie, there is much slipping around in time to quilt the entire story, and Flagg is a master at it.

Of course one of the main questions I see in almost every commentary about this story, and it is more strongly implied in the book than it was even in the movie – were Ruth and Idgie lovers? What I came away with was: does it matter? The Whistle Stop Cafe and the lives of those who passed in and out of its doors, whether the front door for whites or the back one for colored, were  about love, community, looking out for each other and taking care of each other, even at the risk of life itself. Love is love, no matter with whom it manifests or how it is expressed. That assurance of linked and shared humanity from the past was Ninny’s gift to Evelyn in the present. The movie also left the question of whether Idgie and Ninny were the same person. The book makes it clear, they were definitely two different people. Idgie just might still be out there, a bee-charming will-o’-the-wisp.

It made me absurdly happy to see that one of my favorite movie lines of all time was taken directly from the book: “Face it, girls. I’m older and I have more insurance.” Towanda!

Technology and our bigger-better-faster-more society have robbed us of many things. This book actually made me a little sad that I missed the Great Depression.

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