Thursday, September 29, 2011

Book Banning In My Own Back Yard

Well, close enough. The title of this post contains a slight geographical exaggeration, given that I live more than 30 miles from Glendale, California, but we are neighbors in the Los-Angeles-Suburban-Sprawl sense. Other than that, it’s pretty accurate.

Earlier this week, Adrienne Van Houten posted at Moms LA about the Glendale Unified School District’s efforts to keep Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood out of an AP English classroom. District approval is required before any teacher can add a book to the curriculum; according to the LA Times’ Jacket Copy blog, teacher Holly Ciotti was stunned by the school board’s opposition to her request to teach the book to her honors-level 11th-graders.

Maybe she shouldn’t have been taken aback; In Cold Blood, a modern classic of narrative nonfiction as well as a landmark in the true-crime genre, has been banned before – most recently, from a high-school AP English curriculum in Georgia. (It was later reinstated.) If you’re curious about why the book’s so controversial, Kim has a “Virtual Read-Out” excerpt posted at at Sophisticated Dorkiness.

Struck by the ironic - or, perhaps, completely appropriate - timing of this story’s breaking at the beginning of Banned Books Week, I contributed a BBW background post to Moms LA yesterday:
“The American Library Association (ALA) and its partners have been calling attention to the issue of censorship and celebrating the freedom to read during the last week of September every year since 1982. 'Freedom to read' also includes the freedom not to read books that we might find objectionable, of course…but in a free society, the individual should be the one who exercises those freedoms and makes those choices, not some self-appointed educational or morality police. 
"It’s entirely reasonable for parents to be the ones to exercise those rights on behalf of their own young children regarding what they read in their own homes, of course. But as children get older, the parents’ role – as well as the schools’ – should shift toward giving kids the tools to discern what’s worth reading for themselves. It’s harder to develop that discernment when options are limited and critical thinking is discouraged; and sometimes, what’s worth reading just might 'convey shocking, controversial or unpopular ideas.'
"Banned Books Week calls attention to the fact that the freedom to read gets challenged every day of the year.”
The ALA’s annual updates to its lists of banned and challenged books always inspire some surprised reactions, particularly when very popular works and respected classics make appearances.

At From Left to Write Book Club, Taylor talked about a few frequently-challenged books that she and her kids have read together and loved. (Did you know that the penguin-parenting picture book And Tango Makes Three is nonfiction?) BlogHer.com’s Books editor Sassymonkey is featuring a different banned book every day this week; her post on the beloved To Kill a Mockingbird has provoked the biggest response by far.

The books that show up on the ALA lists tend to vary widely in subjects, themes, and objective literary merit. However, they've all been challenged because they pose a challenge - to ideas about religion, politics, morality and ethics, and the structure and habits of society. And if a society - or an individual - means to grow, it's necessary to challenge those ideas.

I haven’t been able to read banned books during this year’s Banned Books Week, but I’ve been following the conversations and reading about a lot of them. Last year, with the help of LibraryThing's catalog of works tagged "banned books," I identified books in the top 150 that I've read at some point in my life - some I currently own, some I read years ago (or at least prior to blogging), and one I just re-read. For the record, I don't make a point of seeking out and reading banned or censored books just because they're banned, although sometimes, the attempt to censor a book will be what captures my attention. (And some authors are well aware of that allure.) At the same time, I also know there are themes and topics that just don't appeal to me, and quality of writing notwithstanding, if I choose not to read a particular book, that will be the reason why, not because it's been opposed by some educational or morality police. That choice should remain mine - and yours.

I do not support censorship. I don't believe in delegating my right to decide what I can and can't read to anyone else. I have the tools to make those decisions for myself, and I believe we all have the right to those tools. I also believe that providing them is one of the functions of our educational system. The Glendale Unified School Board will vote next week on whether to allow Holly Ciotta to teach In Cold Blood to her 11th-graders. I hope that they’ll let her do her job - giving those tools of discernment to her students so that they’re able to face the challenges.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Shelf Awareness Review: *Stasiland: Stories From behind the Berlin Wall*, by Anna Funder

This is a compensated review originally published in Shelf Awareness for Readers and is reprinted here with permission. The cover image shown is an affiliate link to IndieBound.org.

Stasiland: Stories From Behind the Berlin Wall
Harper Perennial (2011) trade paperback original (ISBN 1862075808 / 9781862075801) 
History, 304 pages

The Berlin Wall existed for forty years as both a physical and symbolic barrier in a city and a country divided by ideology; it’s been over twenty years since it was physically and symbolically destroyed. While working for German overseas television in Berlin a few years after the Wall came down, Anna Funder became interested in the stories of ordinary citizens of the former East Berlin, as well as those who had enforced the rules of the German Democratic Republic. Those stories are collected in Stasiland, an award-winning work of investigative nonfiction being published in the United States for the first time.

Funder spoke with ordinary citizens who had been the focus of attention from the Stasi, the East German secret police, as well as with Stasi agents. Granted, very few citizens were not the focus of Stasi attention at one time or another. Descriptions of Stasi facilities and actions sound as if they come straight out of a spy novel; however, Funder’s evocation of the East German police state has even more impact because it’s true, and reported by those who lived it.

Through personal interviews, Funder learns the stories of would-be escapees, separated families, one of East Germany’s best-known rock musicians, a student targeted for surveillance because of her boyfriend, a propagandist, and one of the Wall’s architects. Reported in a straightforward manner, they make for enlightening and accessible reading.

As 20th-century Communism fades into history, Stasiland serves to document and preserve the experiences of ordinary people who lived and struggled under it.

Monday, September 26, 2011

Book Talk: *Forbidden*, by Ted Dekker and Tosca Lee (Faith & Fiction Roundtable)

Forbidden (The Books of Mortals)
Ted Dekker (Facebook) (Twitter) and Tosca Lee (Facebook) (Twitter)
Center Street (2011), Hardcover (ISBN 1599953544 / 9781599953540)
Fiction, 384 pages
Source: ARC received from publisher at BEA 2011
Reason for reading: Faith & Fiction Roundtable discusssion

Opening lines: “There was never a body.
“Not even at a funeral. Mourners sat angled to one another in the stiff pews to avoid looking directly at the empty casket and the destiny hanging over them all. They all knew that only one of two things happened when the body died, one outcome more likely than the other.
“The terrible outcome, of course.”
Book description, from the publisher’s website: A terrible truth has been revealed to one man: the entire human race has been drained of every emotion except one-- fear. To bring life back to the world, Rom must embark on a journey that will end either in his own demise or a reawakening of humanity. But to bring love and passion back into existence will also threaten the powers of the world with the revolution and anarchy that had nearly destroyed them previously. 
After happening upon a journal through strange circumstance, Rom's world is shattered. He learns that humanity long ago ceased to "live," that it exists today in a living death of emotions. In a terrible risk, Rom exposes himself to the vial of blood folded into the old leather of the journal. His change is fearful and fraught with mind-bending emotion. A once-pious observer of the Order's passionless statues, he is filled with uncontrollable impulses. He is filled with love. 
He is undone, terrified, and alone in the desolate world.
Comments: It’s a safe bet that this novel wouldn’t have crossed my radar without the Faith & Fiction Roundtable, which is part of the reason I wanted to be part of that group. Forbidden - the first volume in a planned trilogy called The Books of Mortals - was the subject of our September discussion, although it actually didn’t prompt a very active conversation. A fair amount of the talk involved comparisons with co-author Ted Dekker’s earlier Circle trilogy; since I’ve never read those books, I couldn’t contribute much.

The premise of Forbidden is intriguing, although its setup - how the world has changed after a large-scale man-made disaster has wiped out most of its population - is a pretty familiar one for speculative/dystopian fiction. In this particular post-apocalyptic world, the genetic basis of each emotion has been identified. Since emotion is blamed as the catalyst for everything that destroyed the world “before,” genetic therapies have eradicated all but one: fear, which remains due to its power to keep people in line and in Order. However, members of a secret group have safeguarded a precious vial of “old” blood - blood that contains the original human genes and their encoded emotions - for centuries, holding it for the arrival of a child predicted to return humanity to its original state.

Within this structure, Forbidden explores themes related to what it means to be fully human. As a few people are entrusted with the blood and their long-dormant emotions are triggered, the wonder and danger of their new feelings’ effects on their behavior drive the story forward.

I found the framework of the story more interesting than the execution, sadly. I think Forbidden bites off a bit more than it can chew (although, to be fair, it is the first book in a series and some of the threads introduced here may be further developed in later books). The characters felt underdeveloped to me, and at times the story meandered. Description of some events was excessively graphic, while others seemed fuzzy. It was interesting to note, since we were reading this for the Faith & Fiction group, that the world depicted here isn’t an overtly religious one, and those aspects of the novel are more metaphorical. I don’t read much co-written fiction, so I don’t know whether that’s a factor in the rather inconsistent quality of the writing.

Despite not being especially impressed with Forbidden as fiction, I found its ideas interesting. I don’t think I’d line up for the rest of the series, but if it found its way into my hands, I’d probably want to see what happens next.

Rating: 3.25/5

Members of the Faith & Fiction Roundtable discussing Forbidden:

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Sunday Salon: I read banned books...but not this week

The Sunday Salon.com

Banned Books Week starts today, but it kind of snuck up on me this year. Last year, I was excited to participate for the first time; I read Speak and re-read Forever and A Wrinkle in Time. Like many of us, I believe it's important to read and discuss and challenge books that are challenged, and I  think that designating a week each year in support of that cause is a very worthwhile thing.

But it's not a thing I'll be able to do this week. I've got reviews due for Shelf Awareness and the BlogHer Book Club; books with hard review deadlines (and that will yield a few dollars when those reviews get done) move to the front of the line these days. That's one of the ways in which getting paid to read and review books can be a "be careful what you wish for" thing. Especially when your reading time is limited because of other activities - family responsibilities, your full-time job, trying to keep up with your blogging - it can be hard to find space in the line sometimes for those books that no one's waiting to have you write about. At any rate, it's hard for me to do it right now, and I can't make that space for Banned Books Week. I hope I'll be able to next year.

(I did review The Handmaid's Tale a couple of weeks ago, though - that one's been banned a few times. Can we count that?)

Do you have any plans involving banned books this week?

New to TBR Purgatory 
(all for review)

Reviews posted since the last report:

Upcoming reviews:

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Book Talk: *A Year and Six Seconds*, by Isabel Gillies

This is a compensated review written for Shelf Awareness for Readers and is posted here with permission.

A Year and Six Seconds: A Love Story
Voice (August 2, 2011), hardcover (ISBN 9781401341626)
Memoir, 256 pages

Isabel Gillies believes it takes a full six seconds to fall in love. However, one has to be ready and willing to experience those six seconds. After Gillies’ first marriage ended, it took about a year for her to get to that readiness.

Gillies’ 2009 memoir, Happens Every Day, explored her marriage to the father of her two young sons, which abruptly ended with her husband’s announcement that he was leaving her for another woman. This follow-up opens as Gillies brings her children back to her own childhood home - her parents’ New York City apartment - and takes the first shaky steps into a new stage of life as an unmarried woman and single parent. Not all of those steps move her directly forward, as she often finds herself sorting back through her broken marriage to understand how it happened. But as she focuses on creating a secure place for her children to grow, she’s growing too, and coming to understand herself and what she wants in her next relationship. And she does want that next relationship...when it’s time.

The tone of A Year and Six Seconds is candid and conversational. Gillies lets readers know up front that she does get those six seconds, and she engages us in the journey to reach them. Her depiction of her struggles, false starts, small triumphs and epiphanies will ring bells with anyone who’s ever been through a breakup, and so will her determination to make a bad situation better. She gets closer to a happy ending than many of us do, and that doesn’t happen every day.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Typealyzed: Or, who IS this blog, anyway?

One popular tip repeated often during Book Blogger Appreciation Week (BBAW) 2011, organized around the theme "Cultivating a Community of Bloggers and Readers," was “be yourself” on your blog, and in your interactions with the blogging world. I agree and I echo that. I strive to do that here and throughout the community. I thought I was doing that.

But the Typealyzer has made me not so sure about that, since this is what it said about The 3 R’s Blog:
ESFP - The PerformersThe entertaining and friendly type. They are especially attuned to pleasure and beauty and like to fill their surroundings with soft fabrics, bright colors and sweet smells. They live in the present moment and don´t like to plan ahead - they are always in risk of exhausting themselves. 
They enjoy work that makes them able to help other people in a concrete and visible way. They tend to avoid conflicts and rarely initiate confrontation - qualities that can make it hard for them in management positions.
I think some of that’s pretty accurate, honestly, especially that last point (and I say that as someone who holds a management position). And I do try to be entertaining and friendly around these parts. But I’ve “typed” myself before with the MBTI - and “typing” my blog is an extension of typing myself, isn’t it? - and I have never been typed as anything that starts with an E. Depending on the questions asked and how they’re evaluated, I tend to come back as either ISFJ or ISTJ. The I is consistent, and has been for years. If Introverts were issued cards, I would be carrying one.

So how is it that my blog happens to be such an extrovert?

I’ve acknowledged on more than one occasion that I am more outgoing online than I am in person. If we already know each other online before we get to meet in person, you may wonder about that, because I may seem pretty outgoing in “real life” too. If I do, it’s because I already know you - and I’ve gotten to know you via writing, from behind a screen. That’s a comfort to my introverted nature, and that comfort may be what allows the extrovert to come out.

A primary difference between extroverts and introverts is whether they draw energy from activity, especially as it involves other people, or are drained by it. In that context, I can see how blogging and social media bring out extrovert in me. I thrive on the multi-way communication they encourage...but when posts don’t get comments, or comments don’t get replies, or tweets go unacknowledged, it truly does bring me down. But take me away from my laptop and throw me into a crowded room, and I can only take so much of it before I need to escape and clear my head. Off-line, I prefer my interactions one on one or in small groups, and there are times when I’d honestly rather interact just with the laptop, or with a book.

In any case, this blog may be a performance, but it’s an honest and heartfelt one - it’s not an act. Perhaps it’s my presenting a better-spoken, more socially-adept version of myself, but I promise it’s still me. And apparently I can surprise myself sometimes.

Have you Typealyzed your blog? How does it match up with your own personality type?

Monday, September 19, 2011

Book Talk: *Where You Left Me*, by Jennifer Gardner Trulson

This is a compensated review originally written for Shelf Awareness for Readers and is posted here with permission.

Where You Left Me
Jennifer Gardner Trulson
Gallery Books (August 30, 2011), hardcover (ISBN 9781451621426)
Memoir, 256 pages

The September 11, 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center took their single greatest toll on the financial-services firm Cantor Fitzgerald, which lost more than 600 employees. Jennifer Gardner’s husband Doug was a senior executive at Cantor, and was on the 105th floor of the WTC when the planes hit. In a few hours on one late-summer morning, the world changed for everyone, but it changed for hundreds of families in a very specific way.

Abruptly widowed at thirty-five and left with two small children, Gardner realized that she was more fortunate than many. A former attorney who had left work once her children were born, she had financial security and a strong support network of family and friends, including fellow “Cantor wives” who were capable of intimately understanding her grief because of their own. Gardner was determined to protect her children’s emotional health and ensure that they would remember their father; her devotion to her own emotional health wasn’t always as strong. She continued to see herself as Doug’s wife, and couldn’t imagine that there would ever be anyone else in her life...even after she realized that there actually was.

First-time author Gardner Trulson tells her own story in straightforward language, with honesty, self-awareness, and a remarkable amount of humor (considering her subject). Emotional without being maudlin and inspiring without being “inspirational,” Where You Left Me is an intimate story of real lives in the post-9/11 world, shared as our country observes that tragedy’s tenth anniversary.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Sunday Salon: Re-connected, and it feels so good...(plus, a bonus BBAW tip!)

The Sunday Salon.com

Most of you know - either because you participated yourself, or because you just couldn't escape all the posts from bloggers who were participating - that last week was Book Blogger Appreciation Week.

The 2011 BBAW theme was "Cultivating a Community of Bloggers and Readers." I posted according to the daily BBAW prompts on four of the five days, and had a wonderful time re-connecting with old book-blogging friends and getting to know new ones, which was what I hoped to get out of the week. It's left me feeling re-committed to keeping up better with the many blogs I follow and commenting on them more often - how long I can keep up that commitment remains to be seen, but I'll give it my best effort!

Here's a quick recap of what I posted during BBAW:

WednesdayBBAW: Cultivating and Appreciating Community (combined Monday's and Wednesday's blogging themes)

(In non-BBAW programming, Monday's post wrapped up the group read of The Handmaid's Tale.)

Wednesday and Friday of BBAW were both "tips" days - Wednesday's regarding finding and maintaining community, Friday's about blogging. There was some overlap in bloggers' suggestions for both topics, particularly concerning things like commenting and using Twitter. But as I was leaving someone a comment on Friday, I was reminded of something I forgot to mention, but that also ties those things together.

One reason I leave fewer comments than perhaps I could is that if I don't feel like I have something "quality" to add to the conversation on a particular post, I won't post a comment just for the sake of doing it. However, what I will do is try to bring other people into the conversation - I'll share the link to that post.

I used to post link roundups pretty regularly here, and I really like putting them together, but I just haven't been able to keep up with them for the last few months. If you need a weekly links fix, get to know Chrisbookarama's "Friday Bookish Buzz" if you haven't already!

(See what I just did right there?)

I may start my links feature back up one of these days, but in the meantime, I've come to like the immediacy of sharing links straight from my feed reader. We've talked about using Twitter to broadcast your own posts, but you can broadcast other people's too - and if you have space, add a brief comment and "@" the blogger when you tweet their link. Both of my preferred readers, Feedly and Reeder, have the functionality to send tweets (with shortened links) direct from the application, and I rely on that. They also enable link-sharing on Facebook, Tumblr, and a variety of other social-media services.

To sum up, here's my bonus BBAW tip for both blogging and community-nurturing:
There are a lot of people who may not have time to follow many blogs, but one of the ways they use Twitter is as a feed reader...so feed them. Or give your Facebook friends some recommended reading. Share the love - share a link!

BBAW was also a factor in the Great Irony of Book Blogging - the more time one spends in blogging-related activity, the less time one has available for reading books! Aside from a couple of hours I had on my own yesterday, I didn't get much reading done this week that wasn't on my computer or my iPhone. Therefore, I have no Bookkeeping to post - but I have no regrets about how I spent the past week, either.

Here's to keeping that spirit of appreciation going! And in that spirit, I appreciate the bag my husband brought back for me yesterday from the event he was photographing (a pre-Emmy Awards "gifting suite," a/k/a a swagfest - and no, this was not swag, sadly, just a holder for some):
my first Instagram photo

Friday, September 16, 2011

BBAW: The "Helpful Hints for Bloggers" Post

The world of blogging is continually changing. Share 3 things you are essential tried and true practices for every blogger and 1-3 new trends or tools you’ve adapted recently or would like to in the future.

“Tried and true” seems like a strange concept for such a relatively new activity as blogging, but there are some practices within blogging to which it applies. These are a few things I couldn’t blog without:

A feed reader: One reason I’m an inconsistently frequent commenter is that I rarely visit blogs directly. I have the posts come to me via feed subscriptions, and I only go through to the blog itself when I want to comment and/or get the permalink for inclusion in a tweet or post. That person who reads you all the time but never comments, except maybe on Delurker Day, so you don’t actually know about them? They’re probably not really “lurking,” but they’re reading you on their own turf - via their feed reader - and not yours.

Google Reader is probably the best-known and most-used feed reader, but not the easiest to use or the most esthetically appealing. I’ve switched to a couple of different interfaces that sync with my GReader account, but make the reading experience much more pleasant. Feedly is a free extension for Firefox and Chrome (both PC and Mac) that puts feeds in a magazine layout. Reeder is a paid app for the Mac that’s very easy on the eyes. Both readers are user-friendly and easily customized. and both have smartphone apps as well.

Twitter: Twitter got a lot of attention in Wednesday’s community posts, and deservedly so, but it’s an excellent place to share links as well as conversation; there are people who effectively use Twitter as their feed reader. You can set up your posts to auto-feed links to Twitter or share them manually (sometimes I do both, if I want to say something specific about the link), but you need to be sharing your posts there.

Scheduling posts: If you’re less neurotic about your time than I am, the ability to schedule your posts may not matter to you, but it’s a big deal to me. Almost every blogging platform has a scheduling capacity now, and I couldn’t manage without it. I have found that I really dislike blogging on the fly. I like having time to compose my posts, and I’m not one of those people who works best under pressure. If I’m working on a post the same day it needs to be published, I feel seriously behind the curve. My preference is to draft in Google Docs, paste the draft into the blog platform, add in my links and pictures and tags, set a publishing date and time...and then leave it alone until I confirm it did post as scheduled.

I’m always keeping my eye out for new blogging tips and tools, and I'm looking for an excuse to test-drive the new Blogger mobile app. I’ve installed it on my iPhone but haven’t used it yet, because there really hasn’t been an opportunity or reason. I’m not sure it will lend itself to blogging anything lengthy, but it could be useful for impulsive updates, particularly if they’re photo-based - that is, posts that would fit under my “randomness” label and might show up at unexpected times. (Almost-live updates from BEA and Comic-Con next year, maybe?) If you’ve used the app, how has it worked out for you?

I don't find Facebook as essential to blogging as Twitter, but I did set up a Facebook page for The 3 R's Blog (and I'd really like it if you'd "like" it!) a few months ago. My blog posts are now cross-posted and linked there (via Networked Blogs) instead of to my personal profile. I think separating the blog from the personal content has some real pluses, but there's one big minus that you should be aware of if you decide to do the same: your feed-subscriber numbers will drop. It may take a while for the number of people who "like" the page and get its updates to catch up to the number of Facebook friends you have, who were counted as subscribers when they saw your blog posts via your personal status updates.

Tell me about some of your blogging essentials!

Thursday, September 15, 2011

BBAW: What Blogging Has Done to My Reading

Book bloggers blog because we love reading. Has book blogging changed the way you read? Have you discovered books you never would have apart from book blogging? How has book blogging affected your book acquisition habits? Have you made new connections with other readers because of book blogging? Choose any one of these topics and share your thoughts today!

I can give short answers to every one of these questions:
Hell yes*
...but that would be a much shorter blog post than what you’d expect from me, so I’ll flesh them out a little.

*This answer makes slightly more sense if you realize I misread the third question a little and didn't notice it started with the word "how" instead of "has." But I like it and will keep it anyway.

Has book blogging changed the way you read?
Yes, and I actually hoped that it would. I started this blog because I wanted to stop forgetting things about the books I read. Approaching a book knowing that I’ll be writing about it once I’m finished has made me a more critical reader - not “critical” in the “picky” sense, but as in attentive and engaged. The style and quality of my reading has changed, and I feel it’s certainly for the better.

My reading habits have changed as well. It takes me longer to read most books than it did a few years ago - which is also due, in part, to book blogging - but since I never kept a reading journal till I started doing this, I don’t know whether I’m reading more or fewer books per year, on average. I’m also reading different types of books, but that leads into the next question.

Have you discovered books you never would have apart from book blogging?
What’s interesting to me is that the books that seem to get the most attention from the book-blog community don’t always match up with the books that get the most attention from traditional media, and that’s shifted my focus. What’s even more interesting to me is that when I walk into bookstores, I recognize many more of the featured books than I used to, and that’s usually do to the attention they’ve received from bloggers.

I probably wouldn’t read as much nonfiction and memoir - and I’m pretty certain I wouldn’t read YA at this stage of my life - without the influence of book blogging. I’m glad to have had my horizons widened.

How has book blogging affected your book acquisition habits?
I know how to obtain books directly from publishers, sometimes prior to publication, now. And yet I’m pretty sure I buy more books now than I did pre-blogging. Let’s just say this: I have added close to 700 books to my LibraryThing collections since I first set them up in January 2008 - and as I write this, 400 are in the “To Read” collection (which means they are in my possession). Yes, I may not live long enough to get through them all.

Have you made new connections with other readers because of book blogging?
This was the aspect of book blogging that took me by surprise. When I started searching out other book blogs, I was primarily looking for new places to find reading suggestions; it hadn’t occurred to me that I’d find people to talk about books with! I haven’t met many people outside the book-blogging world who’ve shared my rather offbeat, non-genre reading interests, so it was a genuine unexpected pleasure to find they existed! And as someone who’s never really had much luck with in-person book clubs, participating in activities like online group reads and blog tours has allowed me to be part of a variety of book discussion groups.

My book blogging has also brought some book-loving non-book-blogging friends out of the woodwork to talk about books with me, which has been another - and also very welcome - surprise!

What has book blogging done to YOUR reading?

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

BBAW: Cultivating and Appreciating Community

I’m late to the BBAW posting party, and will be making up for it with a two-in-one post today (warning - lots of words ahead)! Fortunately, today’s designated topic is a variation on Monday’s theme - Community - so I don’t feel all that far behind. And as I mentioned in my Sunday Salon post this week, I’m quite ready for this:
“Lately I've been feeling a bit less connected to my community. There are reasons for it - domestic responsibilities, work, reading and writing that I'm doing for publication elsewhere - but I don't like this sense of distance. I've fallen behind in reading your blogs. I've posted less regularly, and my commenting had been quite limited aside from responding to your comments on those less-regular posts. I need BBAW to re-connect me. I appreciate book bloggers, and I appreciate being able to count myself among them.”
So far, BBAW has been accomplishing that reconnection. I’ve already added at least a half-dozen new blogs to my feed reader, and I’ve left more comments during the past couple of days than I’ve done in weeks! That’s been a good reminder for me that when it comes to fostering connection and community, a big part of it is putting into it what you’d like to get back.

A few weeks ago, the Weekly Geeks meme - founded by one of the original book-blogger community leaders, Dewey - closed up shop, and my final participation post contained some more reflections on community:
“The book-blogging community has been through a lot of changes since she left us; it’s both exploded in size and fragmented into ever-more-specialized niches. While annual events like the upcoming Book Blogger Appreciation Week and Armchair BEA do bring large numbers of us together to share and celebrate what we do, there are times when it’s very difficult to see us as one single ‘book-blogger community.’

And there are times I’m not sure that’s a bad thing. The whole community may be too much for one individual blogger to navigate, but within that whole, most of us manage to find our tribes, and we may find community in multiple places.”
Today’s BBAW blogging prompt asks us to share tips on finding and keeping community. Mine are pretty basic:
  • Keep reading book blogs, and be open to adding new ones to your rotation. Give a little more weight to suggestions from bloggers you already know and trust, but even so, feel free to be selective. If a massively popular blog doesn’t talk about books or topics that interest you, you won’t be missing out if you choose not to follow it. You’ll never keep up with all the blogs out there, and THAT’S OK. Eventually you’ll probably find that you skim a lot of posts, but there will be some blogs you almost always read, even if your tastes in books are quite different. It may be hard to define objectively just why you’re drawn back to those particular blogs - and there may be a variety of reasons - but they’ve become core members of your community.
  • It’s tried and true: Comment when you have something to say about a post, and respond to the comments people leave for you! And if you’re impressed with a post and think it deserves to be seen more widely, share the link on Twitter, Facebook, and your other favorite social-media outlets. The conversations that come out of these activities are the bedrock of community.
  • Participate in the activities that honestly interest you. There are tons of link-up memes and blog hops and events these days, and there’s something for everyone who wants to join something. But they’re all optional. Even if you do choose to join in, you can’t possibly do them all, and don’t feel like you have to! But while you’re involved, you’ll probably come across some great bloggers.
In 4.5 years of blogging (as of this Friday!) I’ve definitely come across some great bloggers - some via actvities and memes, some via other great bloggers. I’ve met some in person. And I can’t recall exactly how or when I met most of them. It’s always hard to decide which ones to single out for special mention during BBAW, but that was actually Monday’s prompt. I thought I’d start by thanking and reciprocating the ones who mentioned me and my blog:

Scobberlotch: Karen Harrington’s is one of my must-read author blogs (along with Beth Kephart’s), and she’s fully embraced the book-blogging community, as her post about “the best friends I’ve never met” on the BBAW blog makes clear.

Necromancy Never Pays: I’ll never appreciate poetry (sorry!), but I do appreciate Jeanne’s insightful discussions of it - and pretty much everything else she talks about.

It’s All About Books: Suey is my blogging-birthday twin (our blogs were both born on March 16, 2007), fellow Weekly Geeks team member, and is always full of enthusiasm for books, blogging, and music.

That’s What She Read: Michelle is one of my fellow co-founders of Armchair BEA, and it’s an honor to be on the team with her. Thoughtful and insightful, she’s also one of those bloggers whose posts I always read even if the book she’s discussing isn’t my thing.

(Speaking of Armchair BEA, thanks to all the BBAW participants who voted it "Best Book Blogging Event"!)

An unfinished person (in this unfinished universe): My favorite ambivalent book blogger (he’s never sure if he actually is one), Bryan’s also a Facebook friend and chief of the Sunday Salon police. I read just about everything he posts too, because I never know what to expect from him.

Sophisticated Dorkiness: Kim’s much closer to my son’s age than to mine, but it doesn’t matter. We’ve worked on blogging projects together and hung out at BEA, she’s influenced a lot of my nonfiction reading, and she’s a friend on- and offline. Age ain’t nothin’ but a number.

I wanted to mention a few others whose posts I will almost always read, no matter what they’re talking about. In addition to their fine blogging, I’ve had the chance to meet all of them offline. I fully believe in online connections, but I’ve found they’re enhanced by in-person communication.

Wendy at Musings of a Bookish Kitty: Wendy is part of the California Book Blogger Brigade (I just coined that name, by the way), although she’s been less active this year thanks to some big life changes. She was one of my first regular commenters, and an early (good) influence on my reviewing style.

Melissa at The Betty and Boo Chronicles: My one-time (BlogHer’10) conference roommate doesn’t limit herself to blogging about books; Melissa’s capable of getting fired up - and highly articulate - about pretty much anything. I just wish we didn’t live on opposite sides of the country from each other, but at least we have Facebook.

The Jills, Rhapsody in Books and Fizzy Thoughts: I didn’t really get to know Rhapsody Jill very well until BEA, but it wouldn’t have been the same without her, and her wide-ranging reading tastes make for never-boring blogging. Fizzy Jill, Queen of Parodies, is a tell-it-like-it-is reviewer and another member of the California Book Blogger Brigade.

Sassymonkey/Karen: Did you realize that BlogHer’s Book Club host and Books section editor and long-time book blogger Sassymonkey are the same person? She’s one of my favorite people to hang out with at bookish and bloggy conferences, and a big reason why I stay involved in the BlogHer community.

Once you start with the shout-outs, it’s hard to stop, but I think I'd better. It's not like you have all day to spend here, right? There's lots of bloggy appreciating to be done! I do appreciate the chance to appreciate this community, though.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

The BBAW Interview with Julie of A Tale of Many Reviews

This is the fourth time I've participated in the BBAW Interview Swap, and it's always introduced me to someone new.

This year, my interview partner is Julie B., founder of A Tale of Many Reviews. She launched the blog on her own in August 2010, but it soon turned into a group project. A Tale of Many Reviews also features many other things - author interviews, book and blog tours, giveaways and contests - and it's easier to pin down what they don't review (nonfiction, novellas, short stories, poetry, or kidlit) than what they do, but they favor romance, thrillers, mystery, fantasy, and historical fiction.
Julie and friend (not a co-blogger!)
Here's my Q&A with Julie (my Q's, her A's); you can find the flip side of it posted at A Tale of Many Reviews today!

You're part of a team of four reviewers on your blog. How did you all come together, and were any of you blogging before you started there just over a year ago?

Hi! Thank you for having me on your blog for BBAW. I started the blog a year ago after I left working in a school district as a language arts teacher. I missed talking to the teachers and students about book recommendations and reading great books to my students. So, I started blogging to help stay connected. The review requests and review books started to become more than I could handle on my own, so I asked my friend from high school Aaron to review from time to time. The majority of books, however, seem to be more YA and/or romance-ish in nature and I asked my cousin Jennifer (middle school language arts teacher) and another friend since elementary school, Leisha (art history professor), to come on board. They were all avid readers anyway, so it was a natural fit.

Your blog has a great mix of content - reviews, interviews, giveaways, book tours. Which do you like best?

That’s difficult because I like them all. We do the mix of content to hit the various aspects books/reading. Ultimately, we really like making great reader/book connections. This way, we have multiple avenues to share great books and authors we’ve enjoyed. Plus, we all have education backgrounds, we like to share, and know we have a variety of followers. So we provide a variety of content.

What's your favorite book you've read this year? If it's too hard to limit to just one, what are your top 3?

Holy cow! Ok…top 3 this year: 1) Trace of Fever by Lori Foster 2) Anna Dressed in Blood by Kendare Blake 3) Vampire Empire: The Rift Walker (Book 2) by Clay & Susan Griffith

What ways do you like to interact with other book bloggers (not counting your co-bloggers)?

I mostly interact with them on twitter (@Tale_of_Reviews). I do read certain blogs more often than most, but always comment on the posts I read, no matter if I follow them or not. I do other blog’s book tours too. I’m planning my first big book event to ALA Mid-Winter Conference in January 2012. Looking forward to actually meeting some of these bloggers not just online.:-)

How do you like to spend your time when you're not reading, blogging, or doing your day job?

Julie: I like to play RPG Xbox 360 games. I like Fable II, Oblivion, Borderlands…I do play COD and Halo in co-op with my husband and friends, but I get killed…a lot and my language tends to go #?! while playing those two games. I like to work-out, but have to keep a trainer or I make all kinds of excuses for myself. :-) I also love movies!! Anytime and anywhere, I’ll go!

Thanks for swapping interviews with me, Julie - it was great to meet you!

Monday, September 12, 2011

Book Talk: *The Handmaid's Tale,* by Margaret Atwood

Book Blogger Appreciation Week programming will be joined in progress tomorrow. When I scheduled the wrap-up for the group read of The Handmaid's Tale for this week...well, I kind of forgot that it would conflict with BBAW. Oops!

The Handmaid's Tale
Margaret Atwood (Twitter) (Facebook)
Anchor (1998), Trade Paperback reprint (ISBN 9780385490818) (original publication date 1986)
Fiction (speculative), 320 pages
Source: personal copy (Note: This is the publication info for my original copy of the book, as cataloged on LibraryThing; I purchased a newer edition for this reading.)
Reason for reading: re-read spurred by current events

Opening lines: “We slept in what had once been the gymnasium. The floor was of varnished wood, with stripes and circles painted on it, for the games that were formerly played there; the hoops for the basketball nets were still in place, though the nets were gone. A balcony ran around the room, for the spectators, and I thought I could smell, faintly like an afterimage, the pungent scent of sweat, shot through with the sweet taint of chewing gum and perfume from the watching girls, felt-skirted as I knew from pictures, later in miniskirts, then pants, then in one earring, spiky green-streaked hair.”

Book description, from the publisher’s website:
In the world of the near future, who will control women's bodies?

Offred is a Handmaid in the Republic of Gilead. She may leave the home of the Commander and his wife once a day to walk to food markets whose signs are now pictures instead of words because women are no longer allowed to read. She must lie on her back once a month and pray that the Commander makes her pregnant, because in an age of declining births, Offred and the other Handmaids are only valued if their ovaries are viable.

Offred can remember the days before, when she lived and made love with her husband Luke; when she played with and protected her daughter; when she had a job, money of her own, and access to knowledge. But all of that is gone now....

Funny, unexpected, horrifying, and altogether convincing, The Handmaid's Tale is at once scathing satire, dire warning, and tour de force.

Comments: If you thought I was done talking about The Handmaid’s Tale...well, sorry, not just yet.

I’ve been wanting to re-read The Handmaid’s Tale for awhile, and now that I have, I believe it’s even more timely, relevant - and terrifying - than it was when it was originally published 25 years ago. Other than a few off-note details mostly related to technology - when reading older books that tried to imagine a not-too-distant future, it can be interesting to note how far off the mark they were in how they thought some things would develop - the novel is strikingly current. The issues that frame it - women’s rights and roles, the relationship between government and religion and the role of both in individuals’ lives - are as unsettled now as they were two decades ago, and early-21st-century America feels closer to the Republic of Gilead than Reagan’s America did (and that was quite close enough for me).

I remembered the storyline, and especially the mood, of the novel pretty well, but I’d forgotten a fair amount of the story itself. For a novel that proposes some rather audacious scenarios and tackles pretty big themes, The Handmaid’s Tale is surprisingly plot-driven, and Atwood’s sharp observations and dark humor propel the story along. This was the first Atwood novel I ever read, and while I’m not sure it’s my favorite (that may be The Robber Bride), it’s certainly the one I’ve found most affecting, and most compulsively readable.

The book I read just prior to starting my re-read was nonfiction about life in the former East Germany, and as I read The Handmaid’s Tale, I was struck by similarities in the seemingly arbitrary rules of daily life and the need for guarded action, because one can't ever be sure one isn't being watched. Granted, The Handmaid’s Tale was written before the fall of the Berlin Wall and takes place in a not-too-distant future in which America is the fallen country, but I found myself noting the similarities between some elements of dystopian speculative fiction - I think this novel crosses genres, but that’s one of them - and a real-life police state.

I found some discussion questions about the novel on the publisher’s website, and while I’m not terribly inspired by them, there are a couple I’d like to address:
“At one level, The Handmaid’s Tale is about the writing process. Atwood cleverly weaves this sub-plot into a major focus with remarks by Offred such as 'Context is all,' and 'I've filled it out for her...,' 'I made that up,' and 'I wish this story were different.' Does Offred's habit of talking about the process of storytelling make it easier or more difficult for you to suspend disbelief?
What do you feel the historical notes at the book's end add to the reading of this novel?”

Those are separate questions, but I think they’re related; both point to the use of the unreliable narrator. I’d say that the novel is more about shaping stories than about the “writing process;” that seems a little narrow. It is clear that Offred is choosing her details carefully - I think she’s pretty open about it - but that never made me less inclined to buy into the whole of her story, even if aspects of it were questionable. Perhaps that’s because my response to it is at least as much to the mood of it as it is to the content.

25 years after publication, The Handmaid’s Tale remains thought-provoking, controversial, and necessary reading. I’m glad I read it again. I’d consider reading it a third time. But I hope if and when I do, it’s become less plausible.

Rating: 4.25/5

(If you're a participant in the group read, there should be an InLinkz tool here to add your review/wrap-up post. If it's not showing up, please put your link in the comments!)

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Sunday Salon: BBAW is Here! Who's ready for some appreciation?

The Sunday Salon.com

I considered not posting in the Salon today. This is September 11, ten years to the day since the planes crashed in New York City and Washington DC and Pennsylvania and took down the Twin Towers. It seems like it should be a quiet day of reflection.

But September 11, 2001 was also a day that brought people together, no matter where they were. We were joined in mourning and in our resolve to rebuild.

We haven't always consistently maintained that sense of community and connectedness throughout the last decade, but it's important to remember how important it is.

And that's why I decided to post today after all - because community matters. Tomorrow we'll kick off Book Blogger Appreciation Week, which is first and foremost a celebration of community. I've been part of this community for four and a half years, as of this week. I've seen many times - and even just within the past few days - what it can do.

Lately I've been feeling a bit less connected to my community. There are reasons for it - domestic responsibilities, work, reading and writing that I'm doing for publication elsewhere - but I don't like this sense of distance. I've fallen behind in reading your blogs. I've posted less regularly, and my commenting had been quite limited aside from responding to your comments on those less-regular posts. I need BBAW to re-connect me. I appreciate book bloggers, and I appreciate being able to count myself among them.

New to TBR Purgatory:
for me
Where She Went by Gayle Forman
This Is Where We Live: A Novel by Janelle Brown
Saturday Night by Susan Orlean

Also this week: The group read of The Handmaid's Tale wraps up! BBAW programming will be delayed until Tuesday so that my review and discussion can post here tomorrow.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

BlogHer Book Club Talk: *Slow Love,* by Dominique Browning

So far - 24 years into my chosen career - I’ve never lost a job. My fingers are crossed that the streak will continue, but who knows? The recession we can’t shake has hit a lot of mid-career workers at a point where they might have expected security and stability, setting them adrift at an awkward age - too old for entry level, too young to retire.

When House & Garden magazine shut down in 2007 and Dominique Browning lost her job as its editor-in-chief, she was caught off-guard, but in better shape than some. Her sons were grown and she owned two homes and an investment portfolio; granted, the same economic conditions that had caused her unemployment were digging into her net worth every day she was unemployed, as well as making it harder to become un-unemployed, but one thing she did have was time.

Not having a real need to rush into anything, Browning spent her first weeks of joblessness in her pajamas, literally. She came out of that initial shock slowly...and discovered the pleasures of doing and experiencing and teaching herself many things slowly, including making music, gardening, cooking, and redefining herself based on self, not work.

Slow Love: How I Lost My Job, Put on My Pajamas, and Found Happiness captures Browning’s engaging, thoughtful reflections on the outcome of a lifestyle change - forced at first, but ultimately embraced. The BlogHer Book Club is reading and discussing Slow Love during the next few weeks - come join the conversation!

Slow Love: How I Lost My Job, Put on My Pajamas, and Found Happiness
Dominque Browning
Plume (2011), trade paperback (ISBN 9780452297500) 
Memoir, 288 pages

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

An Appreciation of the Author: Beth Kephart

There are so many ways in which the past four and a half years of book blogging have changed my reading habits, and so many books and authors I’d never have known without it. Beth Kephart is near the top of that list, and the loss would have been all mine.

Despite her prolific and varied output and a National Book Award nomination for her first book, the memoir A Slant of Sun: One Child’s Courage, Beth Kephart wasn’t on my radar at all until just a couple of years ago, when I became aware that she had connections to a few good friends, who led me to her blog. Beth Kephart Books quickly became part of my required daily blog-reading, but I have to admit I resisted her books themselves for a while longer. While Beth has published nonfiction in a few genres, notably memoir and history, her most recent books are young-adult fiction, and for some time, I was highly ambivalent about expanding my reading into that particular category, being many years past that vintage.

Eventually, my enjoyment of her blog and other bloggers’ praise of her books won me over, and I decided that it was time to see for myself. I read four of Beth’s YA novels in 2010, put one of them - The Heart is Not a Size - on my 2010 “Books of the Year” list, and named her as my Author of the Year.

BEA 2011: Beth Kephart (r.) and me

As I mentioned, I’m well past my own YA years, but I came of age along with the category in the late 1970’s, and Beth’s YA fiction reminds me of the books I loved to read then in its realistic settings and relatable stories and characters, but I have to say it’s much better written than some of my old favorites. Those qualities help me understand why so many adult readers are drawn to her books - and in all honesty, I’m probably more likely to recommend them to adults over teen readers. I’m just afraid that many teens - even my own intelligent, mature, book-loving 17-year-old stepdaughter - might not properly appreciate her.

As I said, I knew Beth first as a blogger, and I think my appreciation of her as an author has only enhanced my appreciation of her as a blogger. Beth’s blog is a finalist for “Best Published Author Blog” in the 2011 BBAW Awards, and it absolutely belongs on that short list. She talks about her books, yes, and also so much more. She reads avidly and regularly blogs her reflections on what she’s read; I’ve come to value her opinions and recommendations highly. She has a distinctive voice and a gift for choosing the right words. Beth also teaches writing, and I think her students are very fortunate people.

Beth and I got to know each other through our blogging, and have built up a friendship via Facebook. This past May, we had the chance to meet in person at Book Expo America, and she made my first-ever (and so far, only) experience in vlogging - a clip we made for Armchair BEA - a lot of fun and much more comfortable than I ever thought it could be. I stayed for her book signing, and it was truly one of the highlights of my week at BEA; she was gracious and generous and genuinely interested in everyone who came by to meet her.

The books Beth was signing at BEA were galleys of You Are My Only, her upcoming YA novel - it’s publishing on October 25, but you can pre-order* it now (or request it from NetGalley, if you have an account there). Here’s the book description:
Emmy Rane is married at nineteen, a mother by twenty. Trapped in a life with a husband she no longer loves, Baby is her only joy. Then one sunny day in September, Emmy takes a few fateful steps away from her baby and returns to find her missing. All that is left behind is a yellow sock. 
Fourteen years later, Sophie, a homeschooled, reclusive teenage girl is forced to move frequently and abruptly from place to place, perpetually running from what her mother calls the "No Good." One afternoon, Sophie breaks the rules, ventures out, and meets Joey and his two aunts. It is this loving family that gives Sophie the courage to look into her past. What she discovers changes her world forever. . .  
The riveting stories of Emmy and Sophie—alternating narratives of loss, imprisonment, and freedom regained—escalate with breathless suspense toward an unforgettable climax.
I have one of those signed galleys, but I’ve been holding myself back from reading it - I usually try not to read and review ARCs too far ahead of their publication date. But it’s getting harder to wait; I’ve been eagerly anticipating this novel since I read the first sentence in that description, as I was also married at nineteen and a mother by twenty. However, some folks have already read and loved You Are My Only - you can find links to their reviews on its Book Guide/Q&A page at Beth Kephart Books. They just may win me over to an early read - bloggers and Beth Kephart are a terrific combination.

*Pre-orders via this link will earn me a small commission as an IndieBound affiliate.
Shop Indie Bookstores

Sunday, September 4, 2011

Sunday Salon: Shaping Stories

The Sunday Salon.com

"Facts don't do what I want them to"

And so we shape them into something that does what we want. Some other lines from the same section of that song acknowledge that:

"Facts all come with points of view"
"Facts continue to change their shape"
"Facts are nothing on the face of things"

I've been thinking a lot about how we shape narratives lately - ever since my stint at jury duty a couple of weeks ago, it's been on my mind. 

If you've ever served on a jury, you've probably been in on conversations about "I wish they'd told us more about X..." and "Why didn't they say this about Y...?" and occasionally "What did Z have to do with any of this?" While the jury is tasked with considering the facts of the case in rendering a verdict, it's highly unlikely they've heard all of the facts.

When a case goes to trial, the burden is on the prosecutor (criminal court) or plaintiff's counsel (civil court) to prove their case. They have access to a lot of facts, and have to present a case to the jury that's shaped around them - and they're required to be very specific. For various reasons, they may not be allowed to incorporate all the facts they have, and during the preparations for the trial, they may have to reshape the story according to what's left. In some cases, that's not enough to convince twelve people who've never heard any of the story before that the story happened that way. 

This was my second time on a jury, and the second time I was on a jury that voted to acquit. In both cases, it wasn't necessarily because we thought the defense was blameless (and for the record, "not guilty" and "innocent" aren't precise synonyms). But the facts we were given, in the way we were given them, didn't convince us that things had happened as the prosecutor said - and under our judicial system, when there's reasonable doubt, it favors the defendant. 

I briefly spoke with the prosecutor after the trial was over, and she told me that there were facts and evidence that had been ruled out in pre-trial, which made sense to me. We both agreed that she hadn't been left with much to make her case - and, as a result, she didn't.

Whether fact or fiction, every story has a backstory. The creator of that story knows much more about it than the recipient of that story ever will. Not disclosing all of that backstory may sound like lying by omission, but it's really not. There have been times when I've said in a review "I'd have liked more of X and less of Y, but that's not the story the author wanted to tell." And because it is the author's story to tell, and they've chosen the facts to include in the telling, I have to receive it as they tell it. 

The fact is that "just the facts" are just the facts, and on their own, they don't do very much. One of the things that makes us human is an ability, and a need, to give those facts a shape - to make sense of them by forming them into a story. It may not always be a true or even an accurate story, and someone else might form a different story from the same facts. But we need story - context - to give the facts meaning.

Facts don't do what we want them to...and so, by the details we choose to include or leave out, we make them do it.  

Reviews posted since last report:

Upcoming reviews:

New to TBR Purgatory:
for review
for me