Review: The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern

I found Erin Morgenstern’s The Night Circus to be an absolutely enchanting read. By this I mean that, while I wasn’t exactly in love with every part of the book, it was still able to carry me far, far away from the mundane bus rides and never-ending emails of my own world! I’ll go ahead and say now what I wish someone had told me going in to reading this book, a sentiment that seems to be cropping up more and more among the bloggers I read: try and not believe the hype that surrounds this book like a big glittery cloud. Yes, this book does have fantastic stripey end papers.  Yes, the descriptions of the circus are magical, and the characters that Morgenstern has created are more than loveable. But, as it always does, the hype machine will let you down. If you go in to this book believing it will be THE BEST BOOK YOU’VE EVER READ AND IT WILL TURN THAT FROWN UPSIDE DOWN AND CURE CANCER AND BRING JOHN LENNON BACK FROM THE GRAVE WITH ITS POWER OF IMAGINATION…well, you’ll be let down. But if you let this book work its magic on you without expecting it to be anything but a great story…well, that’s where the real magic of The Night Circus lies. For those of you who have somehow missed the plot summary of this book, here’s the Goodreads for you:

The circus arrives without warning. No announcements precede it. It is simply there, when yesterday it was not. Within the black-and-white striped canvas tents is an utterly unique experience full of breathtaking amazements. It is called Le Cirque des Rêves, and it is only open at night.

But behind the scenes, a fierce competition is underway—a duel between two young magicians, Celia and Marco, who have been trained since childhood expressly for this purpose by their mercurial instructors. Unbeknownst to them, this is a game in which only one can be left standing, and the circus is but the stage for a remarkable battle of imagination and will. Despite themselves, however, Celia and Marco tumble headfirst into love—a deep, magical love that makes the lights flicker and the room grow warm whenever they so much as brush hands.

True love or not, the game must play out, and the fates of everyone involved, from the cast of extraordinary circus per­formers to the patrons, hang in the balance, suspended as precariously as the daring acrobats overhead.

But here’s the thing you might find surprising about this book: I really couldn’t give two figs for the romance part of this story. I mean, yes, it’s important because it ultimately ends up driving the entire ending of the book (I’ll give major props to Morgenstern for finding a way to keep the circus going, as for a while there I was as afraid as everyone else that this beautiful creation would have to die!) but, for the most part, these were the parts I was actually the least happy with. When the circus begins, Marco knows that Celia is his competitor, but Celia doesn’t possess this same information. Because of this, we actually get about half way through the book before the two really even get to be in one anothers solitary company, and it’s not until after that that the romance even begins to flourish. The reader is, of course, given that whole line about how it was love at first sight, Marco has known all along, blah blah blah. But honestly? None of that ever works for me if there isn’t the development within the relationship, and this time that part just wasn’t there. I found myself wanting to leave Marco and Celia and get back to the circus, and to Widget and Poppet and Bailey.

Now that I’ve expressed the things that irked me about the book (and I feel like my treatment of this may not have gotten across quite fully enough – I REALLY didn’t care for the relationship part. AT ALL. If it had been removed completely, I wouldn’t have cared at all) I can get to the thing that drove this book for me, and kept me reading to the last page: the circus. The circus, much like it is for all the characters, is the thing that keeps this book together. And it’s pure fracking magic. Let me tell you, Erin Morgenstern just got added to the list of people who’s imagination I would love to play around in for a day (other authors include: Salman Rushdie, Neil Gaiman, and J.K. Rowling). In case the book jacket isn’t enough, here’s a taste. Describing the clock that sits at the main gate:

The face of the clock becomes a darker grey, and then black, with the twinkling stars where the numbers had been previously. The body of the clock, which as been methodically turning itself inside out and expanding, is not entirely subtle shades of white and grey. And it is not just pieces, it is figures and objects, perfectly carved flowers and planets and tiny books with actual paper pages that turn. There is a silver dragon that curls around part of the now visible clockwork, a tiny princess in a carved tower who paces in distress, awaiting an absent prince. Teapots that pour into teacups and minuscule curls of steam that rise from them as the seconds tick. Wrapped presents open. Small cats chase small dogs. An entire game of chess is played (69).

Who wouldn’t want a clock like that to exist, let alone to be able to see it in real life. In the book, the followers of the circus are referred to as rêveurs and I think it goes without saying that, were Le Cirque des Rêves real, I would be one of these followers, going to any lengths possible to track it down and spend all my nights in it’s magic. Not only are the tents and features of the circus itself fantastic (I’ll get to those in a minute) but the characters that possess the circus – truly possess it – are unforgettable.

There is a character here for practically everyone. The ambitious and creative Chandresh Christophe Lefèvre. His close family friend, a genius with theatrics and costumes, Madame Padva. The kind clockmaker Friedrick Thiessen and the mysterious contortionist Tsukiko. Much like the circus, none of Morgenstern’s characters are exactly what they appear to be, and her subtle writing when discussing how each of them is mentally and physically affected by the circus are some of the best bits of writing throughout. However, I think I have to say that hands down the best characters in the book are Bailey, the non-magic boy who, in the end, basically gets adopted by the circus and ends up it’s manager, Poppet, and Widget, the two red-headed twins born as the circus opened it’s doors for the first time.

These three, let me tell you, are the kind of characters you get scenes of, but wish the whole book could revolve around. Not only are the twins red-headed and in love with kittens (their act involves tumbling mini-felines), but they’re fantastic siblings to one another, and are just so endearing. They are attached to the circus as no one else is, as they were born at the exact moment that the circus opened, and to spend time with children who’s whole world has been magic and mystery and imagination…it’s refreshing and endearing and inspiring all at once. When the two meet Bailey, and the fledgling romance between Bailey and Poppet begins to blossom, it’s those two for whom I was cheering, as they were the characters who seemed to love and need the circus more than any of the others.

And, finally, we get to the circus. There would be no reason for me to write about the circus, when Morgenstern did just a great job just writing it to begin with. So, to leave this post, I simply leave you with my personal favorite bits of the circus itself (these labels go in order of the quotes below: the ice room, the rêveurs, Widget’s stories, the enchanted human statues, the tent of bedtime stories, and the pool of tears):

It is exactly what the sign described. But it is so much more than that. There are no stripes visible on the walls, everything is sparking and white. She cannot tell how far it stretches, the size of the tent obscured by cascading willows and twisting vines. The air itself is magical. Crisp and sweet in her lungs as she breathes, sending a shiver down to her toes that is caused by more that the fore-warned drop in temperature. There are no patrons in the tent as she explores, circling alone around trellises covered in pale roses and a softly bubbling, elaborately carved fountain. And everything, save for occasional lengths of white ribbon strung like garlands, is made of ice (119).

The seek each other out, these people of such specific like mind. They tell how they found the circus, how those first few steps were like magic. Like stepping into a fairy tale under a curtain of stars. The pontificate upon the fluffiness of the popcorn, the sweetness of the chocolate. They spend hours discussing the quality of the light, the heat of the bonfire. They sit over drinks smiling like children and they relish being surrounded by kindred spirits, if only for an evening (143).

“Secrets have power,” Widget begins. “And that power diminishes when they are shared, so they are best kept and kept well. Sharing secrets, real secrets, important ones, with even one other person, will change them…This is, in part, why there is less magic in the world today. Magic is secrets and secrets are magic, after all.” (173)

The woman wears a dress something akin to a bridal gown constructed for a ballerina, white and frothy and laced with black ribbons that flutter in the night air. Her legs are encased in striped stockings, her feet in tall black button-up boots. Her dark hair is piled in waves upon her head, adorned with sprays of white feathers. Her companion is a handsome man, somewhat taller than she, in an impeccably tailored black pinstriped suit. His shirt is a crisp white, his tie black and pristinely knotted. A black bowler hat sits upon his head. They stand entwined but not touching, their heads tilted toward each other. Lips frozen in the moment before (or after) the kiss. Though you watch them for some time, they do not move…Each of them always gravitating toward the other. Yet still they do not touch (225).

He recalls what the tag said about opening things, wondering what could possibly be inside all of these jars. Most of the clear-glass ones look empty. As he reaches the opposite side of the table, he picks one at random, a small round ceramic jar, glazed in black with a high shine and a lid topped with a round curl of a handle. He pulls the lid off and looks inside. A small wisp of smoke escapes, but other than that it is empty. As he peers inside he smells the smoke of a roaring fire, and a hint of snow and roasting chestnuts. Curious, he inhales deeply. There is the aroma of mulled wine and sugared candy, peppermint and pipe smoke. The crisp pine scent of a fir tree. The wax of dripping candles. He can almost feel the snow, the excitement, and the anticipation, the sugary taste of a striped candy (238).

The sign outside this tent is accompanied by a small box full of smooth black stones. The text instructs you to take one with you as you enter…Inside, the tent is dark, the ceiling covered with open black umbrellas, the curving handles hanging down like icicles. In the center of the room there is a pool. A pond enclosed within a black stone wall that is surrounded by white gravel…Reflections ripple around the room, making it appear as though the entire tent is underwater. You sit on the wall, turning your black stone over and over in your fingers. The stillness of the tent becomes a quiet melancholy. Memories begin to creep forward from hidden corners of your mind. Passing disappointments. Lost chances and lost causes. Heartbreaks and pain and desolate, horrible loneliness. Sorrows you thought long forgotten mingle with still-fresh wounds. The stone feels heavier in your hand. When you drop it in the pool to join the rest of the stones, you feel lighter. As though you have released something more than a smooth polished piece of rock (283).

If that won’t make you read The Night Circus, I don’t know what will. Happy reading!

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Review: A Discovery of Witches by Deborah Harkness

The smell of the library always lifted my spirits – that peculiar combination of old stone, dust, woodworm, and paper made properly from rags (p.31)

Okay. So. Here’s the deal. I’m sure you’ve heard me say before that I loved a book and that I think you should go buy said book and read it immediately. I’d be a pretty remiss book blogger if I hadn’t told you all that at least once before. But here’s the thing – I’m a strong enough woman to admit when I was wrong. All those other books I told you to buy? Forget them. All those other books other book bloggers, coworkers, and librarians tell you about? Back-burner them, people. This book? This book right here? This is the book you need to pick up instead. Cross my heart.

This book and I? This is love, here, people. We’re talking so much love that I used an actual BOOKMARK – not an old receipt, not a semi-clean napkin, not even a dog-eared page – to mark my place. And I didn’t write on it in pencil, accidentally spill coffee on it’s back cover, or break the spine by splaying it open. I  treated this book like the treasure it is. And now it’s your turn! Check the book jacket:

Deep in the heart of Oxford’s Bodleian Library, scholar Diana Bishop requests  a manuscript called Ashmole 782 in the course of her research. Coming from an old and distinguished lineage of witches, Diana senses that the ancient book might be bound up with magic – but she herself wants nothing to do sorcery; and ater making a few notes on it’s curious images, she banishes it quickly back to the stacks. But what she doesn’t know is that the old alchemical text has been lost for centuries, and its sudden appearance has set a fantastical underworld stirring. Soon, a distracting horde of daemons, witches, and vampires descends upon the Bodleian’s reading rooms. One of these creatures is Matthew Clarimont, an enigmatic and eminent geneticist, practitioner of yoga, and wine connoisseur – and also a vampire with a keen interest in Ashmole 782.

But it’s just SO MUCH MORE THAN THAT!!! Seeing as how I often have a heard(er) time breaking down what it is that makes me enamored with a particular book – as opposed to those things that make me dislike a work – I’m going to do my best to try and convey what I found so fascinating with  a limited amount of ALL CAPS, !!!!, and *squee*ing.

The first thing that stands out about A Discovery of Witches is the scholarly way the book holds itself. This is most likely due to the fact that both Diana and Matthew work in academia, as professors and researchers, and the fact that Deborah Harkness herself is a professor of history with – gasp – an emphasis in the history of science and magic! Her real-life experience means that reading about the scenes in which Matthew and Diana are researching are never as boring as they might potentially be, and it also means a good deal of the book takes place within libraries and other rooms filled with books – and who doesn’t love that. I also think it’s worth mentioning that Harkness has really done her research (pun maybe a little bit intended), as many things, people, and events (including the Ashmole collection) are real things that can be found in real places. It lends a certain level of truth and reality to a story that still, at it’s heart, is about magical creatures.

And good God the creatures! Let me tell you thins – if you’re looking for a book with complex, alive characters, this is a book for you to check out. Not only does Harkness do old-school vampire in a way that’s completely refreshing (no sparkles, pouty lips, or twat acting here), although if I had one qualm with the book it’s that Matthew can be a bit of a chauvenist, and it takes Diana a little bit to learn to fight back. But, he was originally born before Christ, so Matthew has lived most of his life conforming to different honor and chivalric codes, so I’m willing to cut him a bit of slack. Plus, he’s SO DAMN SEXY. Mmmmm….Matthew Clairmont. Unless, of course, manners, education, crazy-flexible yoga-doing, being knowledgeable about wine, and refined beyond belief aren’t things that float your boat. In which case, there probably isn’t any vampire that would really appeal to your senses. I also want to apply Harkness for writing Diana as a flawed but powerful character. She spends a great deal of the book denying her witchcraft and her powerful legacy (her parents were also incredibly powerful witches, and she follows in their genetic footsteps), but she’s never really unsure of the person she is, or of what she wants. Perhaps her greatest ability is her ability to love and sacrifice for those in her life, and as Harry Potter taught us, love can be an incredibly powerful magic in it’s own right.

But it’s not just Diana and Matthew who are fascinating. Diana’s lesbian aunts Sarah and Em are the perfect balance not only for one another, but for Diana and Matthew, who are the tempest storm to Sarah and Em’s safe-harbor. We don’t really meet Diana’s family until a little more than half-way through the book, but the readers feel immediately welcomed in to their home – a house that, in quite a few moments of humor, is haunted enough to make up it’s own mind about guests. We also get to meet Matthew’s mother Ysabeau, who is everything regal and beautiful and cold that you would expect from an ancient female vampire. The way her and Diana’s relationship progresses feels very natural, and although the two are never buxom buddies, there is a certain level of affection that exists there. Add to this the presence of crazy-artistic daemons Nathaniel, Sophia, and Hamlish, as well as a vampire son or two and some crazy-evil people known as the Congregation who want nothing more than to keep Diana and Matthew apart (well, and to steal Diana’s magic in an incredibly life-ending way) and you’ve got a cast of characters with a little something for everyone.

Damn! This review is at over 1,000 words already, so I’ll try to wrap it up. I know that many other people who have read this book have been a little…disconcerted over the way that SO MANY THINGS happen all towards the end, which is clearly a case of ‘setting-up-for-book-2-in-the-series-itis’. And while usually that bothers me, I think that Harkness has done such a good job creating characters we love and places we love seeing them in (what wouldn’t I give for Matthew’s office/bedroom castle turret? Yep, you heard me right. Turret.) that it doesn’t feel as forced as moves like this usually do. Plus, I think the most important thing for me is that the book has an ending that stands on it’s own. No, not EVERY question is answered (The Lantern did that and it drove me NUTS, even though that’s not a part of a series) but the action had come to a place that, if there weren’t another book coming out, there is still closure for everyone.

This book is the most beautiful combination of history, magic, folklore, romance, and kick-ass brain power that I don’t think I could recommend it any more highly. It just became my number one read of 2011. And may be hard to beat in 2012. Please, please go read it! I need someone to talk about it with desperately, and I’d definitely want that person to be you! In other, current reading news, I’m about half way through The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern, and it’s also a great book in it’s own way, although I think some of my lukewarmness orginates from reading it right after I finished A Discovery of Witches. Yep. It’s one of those books – one of the ones that make the next few books you read after seem less shiny than they might otherwise. But I’m hoping to finish up The Night Circus as my last read for the R.I.P. Challenge, and what a great month of October reading it’s been. Happy reading to you, and a Happy Halloween (or Samhain, whatever your tastes may be)!

FAVORITE QUOTES:

        We were in the chateau’s graceful round tower – the one that still had its smooth, conical copper roof and was set on the back of the massive main building. Tall, narrow windows punctuated the walls, their leaded panes letting in slashes of light and autumn colors from the fields and trees outside.
The room was circular, and high bookcases smoothed its graceful curves into occasional straight lines. A large fireplace was set squarely into the walls that butted up against the chateau’s central structure…There were armchairs and couches, tables and cassocks, most in shades of green, brown, and gold. (p.228)

As in most old libraries, the books were shelved by size. There were thick manuscripts in leather bindings, shelved with spines in and ornamental clasps out, the titles inked on to the fore edges of the vellum. There were tiny incunabula and pocket-sized books in neat rows on one bookcase, spanning the history of print from the 1450s to the present. A number of rare modern first editions, including a run of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories and  T.H. White’s The Sword in the Stone, were there too. (p. 234)

“I love you, and I’m not going to stop.” Of this, too, I was certain.
“You are not in love with me.”
“I decide who I love, and how, and when. Stop telling me what to do, Matthew. My ideas about vampires may be romantic, but your attitudes toward women need a major overhaul.” (p. 284)

We turned down the rutted road leading to the Bishop house. Its late-eighteenth-century lines were boxy and generous, and it sat back from the road on a little knoll, surrounded by aged apple trees and lilac bushes. The white clapboard was in desperate need of repainting, and the old picket fence was falling down in places. Pale plumes rose in welcome from both chimneys, however, filling the air with the autumn sense of woodsmoke (p. 409)

 

Anna and the French Kiss by Stephanie Perkins

Synopsis from Goodreads:

Anna is looking forward to her senior year in Atlanta, where she has a great job, a loyal best friend, and a crush on the verge of becoming more. Which is why she is less than thrilled about being shipped off to boarding school in Paris – until she meets Etienne St. Clair: perfect, Parisian (and English and American, which makes for a swoon-worthy accent), and utterly irresistible. The only problem is that he’s taken, and Anna might be, too, if anything comes of her almost-relationship back home.

As winter melts into spring, will a year of romantic near – misses end with the French kiss Anna – and readers – have long awaited?

Have you ever finished a book that made you ‘squee’ with happiness to the very core of your bones? That took every cynical thought you’ve ever had about love, and turns it around and makes you believe, even for a second, that the kind of love you read about is really possible? Because hold on to your hats ladies and gents because I’m about to rock your world: ANNA AND THE FRENCH KISS IS THE HAPPIEST, ‘SQUEE’-IEST, TICKLE YOU TO THE TIPS OF YOUR TOES BOOK I’VE EVER READ. Okay, maybe not ever because I went through a very similar thing with Sarah Dessen’s This Lullaby. But seriously? If you are ever having a day that’s even slightly bad, this is the book for you because:

a.) It’s set in Paris. And not, like, ostentations Paris that’s all ‘look at me, I’m Paris and I’m historical!’ I mean, yeah, they go to all the famous landmarks, and Notre Dame does play a pretty big part in the book, but there is the ‘other’ Paris there too. The one that’s all movie theatres and delicious cakes and Nutella and scarves. You know, the Paris you’d live in if, like Anna, your dad decided to send you to an American boarding school abroad.

b.) It’s AMAZEBALLS funny. Seriously, you guys. I don’t have my copy in front of me (I’m at work right now) but when I do, I’ll give you specifics. Let’s just say that Anna’s dad is basically the Nicholas Sparks of his generation and when she rips in to him about his fake tan and fisherman sweaters…seriously, I almost peed my pants on the bus home one night. I got some really strange looks, but still. Plus, it’s not just Anna – there’s that thing I love when two straight boys pretend to joke about actually being gay with each other. St. Clair and his/their friend Josh do this all the time and it just  gives me the smiles.

c.) THE ROMANCE OH SWEET GOD THE ROMANCE!!!! I have quite a few lists out there of my top five favorite males in fiction, top five hottest males in fiction, top five fictional males I would do dirty things to in real life…you get the idea. And I think that St. Clair might have just topped them all. Yep. You heard me right. Even better than Darcy – because not only does he do the whole ‘I’ve got family issues, look at them, aren’t they dark and don’t they make me mysterious thing’, but he manages to do that without being a total asshat in the process.

d.) This book, despite what you may have just read above, is actually very realistic. I mean, you know, as realistic as a book about an American girl in Paris can be. I guess I should say, instead, that it’s characters are very realistic. They have problems – all of them. Too often in books do you see this flawed girl picked up by this perfect guy (**coughcoughTWILIGHTcoughcough**) or visa versa, but the characters in this book all have flaws and they all make mistakes – some they’re willing to own up to, other’s they’re not. Anna is quick to judge; St. Clair can’t stand to be alone (yes, this is a MAJOR flaw, especially in the context of this book); Meredith can’t speak her mind; Josh doesn’t take things seriously enough. Everyone has their flaw to deal with, and it’s nice to see teens in YA dealing with them honestly and openly – how many times have you heard someone go “I’m so not like that! I don’t ever _______(fill in annoying habit)”

e.) This one kind of relates to the one above, but Anna is a kick ass narrator. I mean, yeah, she has a really hard time at the beginning of the book getting out of her shell in Paris, but I can see that – she’s only, like, 17 and this is her first time living in a new city, let alone a foreign country. There is some…hesitation that comes with that. But she gets over it, and is able to do her own thing for the rest of the book. And she does do her OWN thing! Her whole life doesn’t revolve around a guy and what he’s doing *coughcoughTWILIGHTcoughcough*. She’s her own person and that’s badass to see in a YA narrative.

f.) ÉTIENNE ST. CLAIR! ÉTIENNE ST. CLAIR!! ÉTIENNE ST. CLAIR!!!!! Seriously, that should be enough.

Okay, guys. So thats six reasons and almost 1,000 words as to why you should IMMEDIATELY go out and read a copy. Buy a copy. Buy ten copies and hand them out to everyone you know. Because bottom line? This is one of the smileiest books out right now – possibly on the planet, possibly forever. Happy reading (hopefully of Anna and the French Kiss!)

PS: If that cover mortifies you the way it does me (sorry, covers are an instinctual thing,  I can’t help it, pluse I HATE that you don’t get to see Étienne) here are some other wonderful covers for this book I found via google image search:

  

Banned Books: Animal Farm by George Orwell

I ADORE THIS BOOK. Okay, yes, I know. I adore all my banned books. Partly because they’re banned, but mostly because they’re fabulous. And Animal Farm by George Orwell. Considering that we haven’t done a list since my banned books post on Twilight, how about we mix it up a bit and do another one! hehe. Plus, man do I really love lists! So, may I present to you:

FIVE THINGS ANIMAL FARM CAN OFFER THE PEOPLE WHO READ IT

  1. This book taught me the art of deep, close reading. I mean, alright, sure, the whole farm animal/communist thing isn’t exactly buried miles below the surface. But, given that I had my first introduction to this book as a freshman in high school, it was crazy to me that an author could be saying ONE thing and meaning something TOTALLY different! And not only that (I was at least vaguely aware of subtext then), but that an author could do that for a whole book, for everything from the setting to the characters to the dialogue – and could create a story that could fully and really be read in two different ways – was just mind blowing for me! I think that, at least in some small way, this book was responsible for my being and English major, wanting to do just this kind of close reading for the rest of my life.
  2. The communist secret-but-not-secret plot was my gateway to the genre of dystopian literature. I mean, not only did I read 1984 soon after Animal Farm, but the land in which this story takes place is the multimeter example of a world that is, truly, horrible. I didn’t really think so at the time (I was quite the revolutionary in my younger teen years), but the horrible nature coursing under the surface of these farm animals was enough to make me thirst for more books that could show society as what it was by telling the story of what it could be (and not in a good way).
  3. Talking farm animals! I mean, come on! Who doesn’t love that? And it’s one of the only good ways I’ve ever seen it done.
  4. Animal Farm is one of the books I always bring to the table when talking to people about intersecting disciplines in the academic world. It’s the perfect book for seeing intersections between history, politics, economic structures, and literature, especially geared at slightly younger audience. Furthermore, it’s a great example of what can happen when ‘border’ books, as I like to call them (books capable of being read and enjoyed to the upmost by both adults and teens, in a way that does a disservice to neither set of readers) get in to the hands of children and parents who are willing to talk about what they really mean. For someone like myself, who is deeply interested in possibly homeschooling one day, an idea of so many talking points in one book is just phenomenal.
  5. As a banned book, Animal Farm is a book that expresses a possibly unpopular idea freely. It may face it’s set of challenges, it’s set of setbacks and disappointments and people who don’t like it (I’m hoping you can see where this horribly corny anthropomorphizing is going!), and yet it’s still on shelves all over the world, being read and loved and studied and taught. I think there’s a message for people in there somewhere, if you really look at it.

And that, my lovelies, is it! That’s Banned Books Week all wrapped up, and as fun as it’s been talking about some of my favorite banned books (and why the people who ban them are silly), I’m ready to get back to blogging about some of the amazingly great other books I’ve been reading this past week. So hold on to your hats for what’s in store, folks, and happy reading!

Banned Books: To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee

When I was a really little girl and thought I wanted to be a lawyer (I have since learned that I’d much rather put my verbal skills to good use in the English department, with, of course, side trips to BookBlogLand), my dad sat me down with this movie and told me it would be “all the inspiration I need”. He was right, of course, in a number of ways.

The story of Scout, her brother Jim, their father Atticus, their maid Calpernia, and the local weird-kid neighbor-boy Boo Radley is an adult tale of race, trust, truth, bravery, and politics, all hiding in the viewpoint of Scout, our resident young narrator. The movie, starring the impeccably attractive Gregory Peck, was and is fantastic. But the book is so, so much better than that. I’ve read multiple reviews of this book in my blogroll, and it seems to be of the “love-it-or-hate-it” variety of stories. Let me plant my flag now and firmly in the “I LOVE THIS BOOK” camp.

This book, much like The Color Purple was and is ostensibly challenged because of it’s discussion of a sexual crime (the rape of a young white woman in the town by a local African American handyman) as well as it’s language where race is concerned – again, I don’t really think that’s a good enough read for banning a book, especially when context is taken in to consideration. It’s a very similar reason (in fact, the exact same reason) there was almost an edition of Huckleberry Finn put in to publication where every instance of the word “nigger” was replaced with the word “slave”, which does a disservice to every single reader who gets their hand on a copy of that particular volume. It is important, I believe (as does most of the English class where we had this debate last year) that these books not be sanitized – not be white-washed – because it robs readers of a sense of the history, location, and context that these books (To Kill a Mockingbird included) provide us with. And, if we are to learn from history, we must keep history as it was.

Moving on from that bit of a rant-y, ramble-y point, lets move in to a bit of the review. I love this book first and foremost because of Atticus Finch, Scout’s father and the lawyer who defends the accused African American racist in court against his white female accuser. Why do I love him oh so, so much? Consider the following:

“You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view – until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.”

“I wanted you to see what real courage is, instead of getting the idea that courage is a man with a gun in his hand. It’s when you know you’re licked before you begin but you begin anyway and you see it through no matter what. You rarely win, but sometimes you do.”

“The one thing that doesn’t abide by majority rule is a person’s conscience.”

Some readers may consider it prostletyzing, or pedantic, or sacchrine. I think that Atticus’s advice is stuff that we all need to hear more often, and that are important foundations to being good people. I also love that, when she’s told these things by Atticus, Scout actually takes them in to her, learns them (or tries her hardest to). It’s awesome to see a father-only household where the family is solid and respectful, rather than broken.

The second thing I love about To Kill a Mockingbird is the importance it places on acceptance – and on things not being exactly what they seem. Scout and Jim must first learn who Boo Radley is, and then they must learn that really they knew nothing about him. They were frightened by the rumors they heard and the things their minds had formed, but all of these turned out to be false pretenses. In fact, at the end of the novel, Boo ends up saving the day and proving to everybody that just because somebody may be the “weird” kid, doesn’t mean they can’t also be the hero. In fact, most frequently they often are.

Unlike The Color Purple, which I do think takes a bit more of a mature reader, I would be getting this book in to every hand I could, if I had unlimited bookish people I knew and an infinite amount of money to spend on copies of To Kill a Mockingbird. I think that it’s a story that every age should know. If you haven’t read it, please do. You’ll be doing your inner you a huge favor.

We’re down to our last two days of Banned Books Week! Can you believe it?! I’ve been loving reveling in all of the banned bookishness, but I also can’t wait to review some of the fantastic other books I’ve been reading in the meantime! Whatever you’re reading – hope it’s making for happy reading!

 

Banned Books: The Color Purple by Alice Walker

As you can probably tell, the past few Banned Books posts have dealt with more modern banned books. However, I thought it was especially important to include quite a bit of discussion on classic banned books, as well, because these are books that have faced years – if not decades – fighting to have their voices heard. Plus, there has got to be a reason that these books have been fought against for as long as they have! For those of you who haven’t read the book (or seen the bad-ass movie featuring every great African American actor ever with the exception of Morgan Freeman), here is the Goodreads breakdown:

Celie is a poor black woman whose letters tell the story of 20 years of her life, beginning at age 14 when she is being abused and raped by her father and attempting to protect her sister from the same fate, and continuing over the course of her marriage to “Mister,” a brutal man who terrorizes her. Celie eventually learns that her abusive husband has been keeping her sister’s letters from her and the rage she feels, combined with an example of love and independence provided by her close friend Shug, pushes her finally toward an awakening of her creative and loving self.

This book, I’m sure, was banned for a number of reasons (articles here and here). The profanity is intense, as is the violence and a lot of the sex (most of which, given the context, is sexual violence). There is also drug use, alcoholism, and discussion of imperialism and all of the problems frequently associated with that. This time, I’m not saying that everyone should have unfettered access to this book – it’s a mature story, and requires a mature reader. But who is to say when this maturity comes? I read this book for the first time when I was in the 9th grade, and it changed the way I understood the world around me. It introduced me to African American literature, and how much it was different than the stories I already knew. And, of course, this is one of the things that great books do so well – open our eyes to a world we wouldn’t have known otherwise.

I think that part of the reason this book has been repeatedly challenged the way it has is because a lot of the book is about fighting back. Miss Cecelia, Celie’s stepson’s wife, after being accosted and mocked and beaten in her own home for years, fights back against white men in the street performing the same actions. Shug Avery spends her entire life fighting back against people (and her father’s) expectations of her, as a woman and as an African American woman to boot. But it is Celie herself who finds the independance and strength she needs to fight back. Not only physically. In fact, not physically at all. Celie never hits “Mr”, as she calls her husband, I think mostly out of fear of the fact that he really will kill her if he gets the chance – he spends years abusing her physically, emotionally, and verbally. And we’re talking pretty hard-core abuse. But Celie does find the strength to rediscover a sister she believes lost to her (her only friend in the world, who “Mister” kicks out of his house after she rebukes his attempts to seduce and sleep with her), to find friendship with Shug, and most importantly to get the hell up out of the house that has been her prison and personal hell for her entire life.

The idea of rebellion, especially rebellion from women, especially from women of color, is a scary idea to a lot of people. Especially when these are women who, as anyone who has read the book knows, have been treated their entire lives as if independence was not only not in reach, but a concept too foreign to understand. And I think that, perhaps more than the language and the sex and the racism, is why this book has been as challenged as it has. As my mom would call it, this is a kick-ass book about kick-ass women. Or, at least, women who learn to start to be kick-ass. Wherever you are, happy reading!

PS: Also, one of my favorite color quotes comes from The Color Purple!: “I think it pisses God off if you walk by the color purple in a field somewhere and don’t notice it.” — Shug. Now, how’s that for truth AND sass?!

Banned Books: The Perks of Being A Wallflower, by Stephen Chbosky

I first read this book in late junior high, early high school, and I’ve read it I don’t know how many times sine then. I had a bit harder time finding news on this book being banned, but I was able to find a few: like this one. Actually, what made me really happy to see where multiple articles like this one, which talk about communities that fought back against the banning of Perks. For those of you who haven’t been lucky enough to have this slim, small green friend in hand, here is the summary from Goodreads:

Caught between trying to live his life and trying to run from it, Charlie is navigating through the strange worlds of love, drugs, “The Rocky Horror Picture Show”, and dealing with the loss of a good friend and his favorite aunt.

Usually I love Goodreads, but that summary just doesn’t do justice to what the book is really about. Charlie is a shy kid, and the whole book is written like a diary, or a letter, to someone who is never named, and who we never see. Charlie, shy in school and having already faced a number of difficult issues in his life (the death of an aunt, a friend’s suicide), is friends with really only three people. His English teacher, who knows how brilliant Charlie is, and feeds him different, more challenging books than the rest of his classmates, Patrick, and his stepsister Sam.

Patrick, Sam, and Charlie make up the heart of the novel. It is with Patrick and Sam that Charlie experiences drinking, driving (sometimes at the same time, sometimes not), smoking pot, and being truly open with people. They are in The Rocky Horror Picture Show together. They have Christmas and Halloween parties together, drive together to infinity. Charlie loves Sam, and learns about the homosexual experience from Patrick. And, at the end of it all, Charlie is usually too innocent to even know what he’s looking at. But  that’s part of his charm – Charlie is the eternal wallflower.

I’m sure this book was banned mostly because it was honest to the lives of a lot of teenagers. Granted, not all teenagers drink or smoke pot or break curfew. But many do, including the ones in this book. I can understand parent’s reacting strongly to themes like these, especially because the book, while being honest about the consequences of these actions, doesn’t have every night of drunk driving end in a horrible death. However, to deny teenagers and their predecessors (I often think it’s the most important for pre-teens to have honest access to this kind of information, as it comes up to them, as opposed to teenagers who have already cemented their own ways of dealing with the issues that come to them) access to these kinds of stories – teenagers living a teenage life and facing both the negative and the positive consequences that come their way – denies them the ability to broaden their concept of how to say no, and ways to avoid situations they don’t want to be in.

Mostly, I hate that this book is banned because it’s really, really beautiful. Charlie, as a wallflower, almost lives inside his own mind, as in doing so, has become incredibly lyrical in spite (or perhaps because of) his innocence. Take, for example, the following quotes:

"We accept the love we think we deserve."

I walked over to the hill where we used to go and sled. There were a lot of little kids there. I watched them flying. Doing jumps and having races. And I thought that all those little kids are going to grow up someday. And all of those little kids are going to do the things that we do. And they will all kiss someone someday. But for now, sledding is enough. I think it would be great if sledding were always enough, but it isn't.

I laid down on his old bed, and I looked through the window at this tree that was probably a lot shorter when my dad looked at it. And I could feel what he felt on the night when he realized that if he didn't leave, it would never be his life. It would be theirs. At least that's how he's put it.

I know that I brought this all on myself. I know that I deserve this. I'd do anything not to be this way. I'd do anything to make it up to everyone. And to not have to see a psychiatrist, who explains to me about being "passive agressive." And to not have to take the medicine he gives me, which is too expensive for my dad. And to not have to talk about bad memories with him. Or be nostalgic about bad things.

As you can probably tell, this book isn’t necessarily a happy one. But it’s a truthful one, and one that leads, in my experience, to an examination of one’s own life – the things and places that make you happy (or unhappy) and, most importantly, why. I strongly encourage you to pick this one up if you get a chance (as I do with all banned books!) and hope that, whatever you’re reading, you’re having a great time doing it!

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