And, as everyone has probably noticed by now, it’s Friday the 13th. A day of bad luck, of ominous premonitions, of evil portents? According to the Stress Management Center and Phobia Institute in Asheville, North Carolina, an estimated 17 to 21 million people in the United States are affected by a fear of this day. Donald Dossey, founder of the SMC, notes, “It’s been estimated that [U.S] $800 or $900 million is lost in business on this day because people will not fly or do business they would normally do.”
But it’s important to bear in mind that the concept of Friday the 13th being unlucky is absolutely culturally constructed…and that construction is not as large as you might think. For example, in Italian popular culture, Friday the 17th is considered the unlucky day, and 13 is considered a lucky number. In a number of Spanish-speaking counties, Tuesday the 13th is the unlucky day, not Friday. These beliefs are evolving now with the steady progress of Americanization, but nevertheless, it’s perhaps helpful and perhaps necessary to realize that the day doesn’t really have it out for you.
In fact, today seems like a perfect day to check out a few new Library books! Why not have a look as some of the new titles that have fallen, like autumn leaves, upon our shelves this week…
Paradox Bound: Peter Clines’ books are wild and inventive, and their stories feel so big that they can’t quite be contained by any descriptions–especially this book. But here goes. Eli Teague lives in Saunders. A town where nothing ever happens. A town that still has a video store. But Eli refuses to leave. He’s still waiting to see again that mysterious traveler he’s seen twice before–a traveler who stops just long enough to drop tantalizing clues before disappearing in a cloud of gunfire and a squeal of tires. So when the mysterious traveler finally reappears, Eli’s determined that this time, he’s going to get some answers. But his hunt soon yields far more than he bargained for, plunging him headlong into a dizzying world full of competing factions and figures, with the history and fate of America itself at its heart. Fans of Doctor Who and Jules Verne alike are going to find plenty to enjoy here, and Clines’ characters are always so real that you tend to miss them when they’re gone. Kirkus Reviews agreed, giving this book a starred review and calling it, “A timey-wimey, full-barrel adventure novel that also teaches a non-ironic lesson in American civics…[featuring] an epithet-wielding, pistol-packing heroine that will capture hearts.”
Code Girls: The Untold Story of the American Women Code Breakers of World War II: Another book about “Girls”, but this is a true story, and a remarkable one that readers of military history, as well as women’s history and American history will all be able to savor. More than ten thousand women served as codebreakers during World War II. Recruited from small towns, college, and universities across the country, they moved their lives to Washington, D.C., and undertook to learn the meticulous work of code-breaking. Their efforts shortened the war, saved countless lives, and gave them access to careers previously denied to them. A strict vow of secrecy nearly erased their efforts from history; now, through painstaking research and interviews with surviving code girls, Liza Mundy brings their riveting stories, and their enduring contributions to the Allied forces, to worldwide scientific knowledge, and to American history, to life. The Washingtonian praised Mundy’s work, noting how her “fascinating book suggests that [the Code Girls’] influence did play a role in defining modern Washington and challenging gender roles–changes that still matter 75 years later.”
The Far Away Brothers: Two Young Migrants and the Making of an American Life: Growing up in rural El Salvador in the wake of the civil war, Ernesto Flores had always had a fascination with the United States, the distant land of skyscrapers and Nikes, while his identical twin, Raul, never felt that northbound tug. But when Ernesto ends up on the wrong side of the region’s brutal gangs he is forced to flee the country, and Raul, because he looks just like his brother, follows close behind—away from one danger and toward the great American unknown. In this stunning and harrowing tale, journalist Lauren Markham follows the seventeen-year-old Flores twins as they make their harrowing journey across the Rio Grande and the Texas desert, into the hands of immigration authorities, and eventually to life in California, where they try desperately to fit in with American culture without the language and only each other for support. This book is a story of a beautiful bond, a nuanced portrait of Central America’s child exodus, an investigation of U.S. immigration policy, and an unforgettable testament to the migrant experience that is sure to rivet news junkies and novel-readers alike. The New York Times gave this book a glowing review, noting that it is an “impeccably timed, intimately reported and beautifully expressed. Markham brings people and places to rumbling life; she has that rare ability to recreate elusive, subjective experiences—whether they’re scenes she never witnessed or her characters’ interior psychological states—without taking undue liberties.”
What The Hell Did I Just Read: A perfect selection for All-Hallows Read, David Wong’s third installment of the blackly-comic, spine-chilling series that began with John Dies at the End is absurd, the most artistic of ways, emotional in the most surprising of ways, and creepy in all the ways you’ve come to expect if you’ve ever savored one of his stories. While investigating a fairly straightforward case of a shape-shifting interdimensional child predator, Dave, John and Amy realized there might actually be something weird going on. Together, they navigate a diabolically convoluted maze of illusions, lies, and their own incompetence in an attempt to uncover a terrible truth they — like you — would be better off not knowing. Your first impulse will be to think that a story this gruesome — and, to be frank, stupid — cannot possibly be true. That is precisely the reaction “They” are hoping for. Who are “They”? What do “they” want…you’ll have to read the book to find out! (Though that might be just what “They” want!) Publisher’s Weekly gave this book a starred review, and noted, in their delightful, delighted review, that “While the story gleefully wallows in absurdity, thoughtful themes of addiction, perception, and the drive to do the right thing quickly emerge beneath the vivid and convoluted imagery. The plot’s rapid pace holds the reader’s attention to the truly bitter end.”
The Apparitionists: In the early days of photography, in the death-strewn wake of the Civil War, one man seized America’s imagination. A “spirit photographer,” William Mumler took portrait photographs that featured the ghostly presence of a lost loved one alongside the living subject. Mumler was a sensation: The affluent and influential came calling, including Mary Todd Lincoln, who arrived at his studio in disguise amidst rumors of séances in the White House. Peter Manseau brilliantly captures a nation wracked with grief and hungry for proof of the existence of ghosts and for contact with their dead husbands and sons. It took a circus-like trial of Mumler on fraud charges, starring P. T. Barnum for the prosecution, to expose a fault line of doubt and manipulation. And even then, the judge sided with the defense—nobody ever solved the mystery of his spirit photography. This forgotten puzzle offers a vivid snapshot of America at a crossroads in its history, a nation in thrall to new technology while clinging desperately to belief. Kirkus also gave this book a glowing review, which reads, in part: “Written like a novel but researched with academic rigor, this account of a photographer whose work seemed to incorporate images from the spirit realm stops short of either endorsing the veracity of the photographer’s claim or debunking his work as a scam…A well-paced nonfiction work that reads more like a historical novel than an academic study.”
The world is a fraught place, dear readers. And in such a world, it can be really, truly difficult to avoid seeing the world as an exclusively polarized place…as black/white, good/bad, right/wrong…and forget that very few things in human society are that simple.*
A few weeks back, there was a bit of a brouhaha in Library Land over a letter written by a children’s librarian in Cambridge, addressed to the First Lady of the United States regarding the donation of several children’s books to the school at which she worked. The letter is still posted on The Horn Book website. You can read it, if you so choose, and form whatever opinion you chose. The letter and its author have become the target for so much public debate, acrimony, and verbal bile that it doesn’t seem particularly useful for us to wade into the whys, wherefore, and whataboutisms.
However, I would like to bring up one point in the letter that many people have tended to overlook: that line that calls Dr. Seuss “a bit of a cliché, a tired and worn ambassador for children’s literature.”
The image depicts the reference in the story to “A Chinese man who eats with sticks“. The image itself is of a very stereotypical Chinese caricature, with a pointy hat, and slanted eyes.
So what are we to do with this information? What good librarian patrons do…get more information before making a judgement call.
Ted Geisel was absolutely a man of his time. He frequently reproduced cultural and racial stereotypes in his work without questioning their validity, their effect on others, or the harmful mentality that produced them–the Chinese man (or Chinaman in the original text) is just one example.
And, because it’s not a stereotype that is as widely discussed today, the image of the slant-eyed Chinaman with the pointed hat originated during the late 19th century. Chinese immigrants were associated with opium dens and often accused of ‘polluting’ British and American men (and women) who visited these dens. Around the turn of the century, it was quite normal to see highly stereotyped Chinese villains in books and films. They were portrayed as something other than human, and a threat to all “good” people.
To provide a few examples: Philip Nel, who wrote the endlessly fascinating and extraordinarily thought-provoking bookWas The Cat In The Hat Black?, points out that Geisel wrote and performed in a blackface minstrel show in high school, called “Chicopee Surprised”. When he was drawing the initial sketches for the Cat, in The Cat and the Hat, Nel observes, Geisel was “inspired by blackface performance, racist images in popular culture, and actual African Americans. Now, in 1920-1 when this show was performed, blackface was a very popular, highly visible form of caricature and entertainment. It was criticized as racist, demeaning, and offensive by some, but you don’t have to look any further than Al Jolson’s The Jazz Singerto see how well-known and generally unquestioned it was. (The photo to left is Geisel in 1925, when he was a student at Dartmouth College in Massachusetts, via Today In History).
Following the bombing of Pearl Habor, Geisel, who drew a large number of political cartoons in the course of his career, drew a cartoon of a line of Japanese people, captioned the “Honorable 5th Column” waiting in a line to receive blocks of TNT, while one (highly racialized and stereotypes) figure looks eastward with a telescope “Waiting for a Signal from Home“. The cartoon supports Japanese interment camps, which were being established on the west coast, and in which American citizens of Japanese origin and heritage were treated with brutal inhumanity. This was not, by any means, the only racialized cartoon he drew to represent the Japanese during the Second World War.
None of these facts are pleasant or easy to discuss. It’s hard to accept that a person whose books you grew up cherishing was a human person with ugly, unquestioned prejudices.
But the story doesn’t stop here. Because Geisel was also a human being in the very best sense–he was able to grow, and to change. As Willems, Yee, and Curato wrote in their letter, “The career of Ted Geisel, writing as Dr. Seuss, is a story of growth, from accepting the baser racial stereotypes of the times in his early career, to challening those divisive impulses with work that delighted his readers and changed the time.”
Geisel began Horton Hears a Who in 1953, after a postwar visit to Japan, when he was researching a piece for Life magazine on the effects of the war and post-war efforts on Japanese children. With the help of Mitsugi Nakamura, dean of Doshisha University in Kyoto, Seuss went to schools all over Japan and asked kids to draw what they wanted to be when they grew up.
Having met Japanese people, and seen the effects of the war on everyday human beings there, he realized just what kind of harm caricatures like his earlier political cartoons had provoked. The book is dedicated to Nakamura, and the message, about embracing everyone’s humanity, regardless of whether they look or sound like, marks not only a huge moment in children’s literature, but also an enormously revelation for Geisel himself. The Whos are saved by one small Who, named Jo-Jo, makes his “Yopp!” heard–as Kelly Smith points out in this sensational blog post, “Dr. Seuss is stressing the power of a single voice making all the difference for a people and, with it, showing how he should have used his voice to protect the Japanese, rather than denigrate them.”
He more explicitly apologizes when he puts himself in his rightful place in history with the previously skeptical kangaroo, who says “from now on, you know what I’m planning to do?… From now on, I’m going to protect them with you” (page 58 of Horton Hears a Who)
Following Horton, he wrote The Sneetches, another book about how individuals are punished for the way they look, and the harm it does, not only to them, but to their whole society, as well. In 1973, he changed the text and the images in And To Think That I Saw It On Mulberry Street. He removed the “Chinaman” reference, changing the wording to “Chinese man”, and made the character’s face the same white color as the rest of the figures in the story. It’s not the everything. But it’s a huge sign of change.
We need diverse books. We need to have children from all backgrounds and experiences to be able to see themselves in the stories we tell. Therefore, Dr. Seuss should by no means be the only books we read. However, neuroscientists have proven, through the marvels of science, that Dr. Seuss’ use of repetition, rhythm and rhyme help children in crucial ways to process the speech they hear, and fine-tune the connections between auditory and language networks in the brain.
But, maybe more importantly, Dr. Seuss’ own story teaches us a powerful lesson: people can change, and they can change for the better. Children, just like grown-ups, are faced everyday with people who are scared, who are angry, and who are resistant to change. We cannot protect them from that. But we can show them what positive growth and change looks like by talking to them about Dr. Seuss, and how he grew as a person, an author, and a spokesperson for humanity. This lesson is as important today–perhaps even more important–as it has ever been.
Portraying Seuss’ illustration of “the Chinaman” without talking about how it changed, and how he changed, really isn’t fair, either to Dr. Seuss or his readers. Portraying him as “tired” does enormous dis-service to the energy with which he combatted stereotypes and xenophobia in his later career. For that reason, it’s important not to forget Dr. Seuss’ inspiring contributions, even as we work to fill our shelves with a world of diverse books that tell even more powerful stories.
Because a person’s a person, no matter how small.
*Some things are that simple. Things like “be kind to others”, don’t drive if your motor skills are impaired”, “mosquitoes buzzing in your ears at night is awful”, or “raccoons are terrifying”.
The National Book Award begins with 1,500 books, submitted by publishers around the United States. From these, a long list is developed–on which we gleefully reported some weeks ago. And last week, the finalists for the 2017 National Book Award were announced.
The Free For All would like to congratulate the short-listed nominees–and we’ll be eagerly celebrating the eventual winners of the National Book Award when the are announced on November 15 in New York City!
The nights may be getting longer, dear readers, and the temperatures might be falling somewhat…and while that might not be great for your outdoor plants, fall provides the perfect weather for snuggling with a good book. We could all use a few happy endings right around now, don’t you think?
So take a stroll with our genre aficionados through some of their selections for this month. We hope you find a few tales of true love and fulfillment to brighten your autumnal evenings!
The Ruin of a Rake: Cat Sebastian’s ground-breaking historic romance series is the first from a mainstream publisher to feature a male-male romance, and she does it so well that it really offers world of promise for future stories that have yet to be told. Though this is the third book in her Turner series, there is no reason that readers can’t get involved in this story completely–but it’s absolutely worth savoring each of these stories on their own merits. In this tale, we meet Lord Courtenay, a notorious rake whose public image reminds one greatly of Lord Byron. Up until now, Courtenay couldn’t have cared less what people thought of him–but the publication of a scandalous book supposedly based on his exploits has resulted in his exile from his family, and from the nephew he adores. Julian Medlock, meanwhile, has spent his whole adult life trying to become the model of decorum. He has no sympathy for Courtenay’s plight, even if he does find the man incredibly alluring, but when Courtenay’s sister pleads with him to help rehabilitate Courtenay’s reputation, Julian agrees.
Sebastian’s real achievement in this book is making two characters who, on the surface, appear genuinely unlikeable, almost to the point of being stereotypes of the rogue and the prig, respectively, into emotional, vulnerable, flesh-and-blood characters. Their faults, shortcomings, and mistake…of which there are many here…are portrayed with such sympathy that it’s impossible not to feel for them as they both navigate their way to each other. This is a truly emotional, surprising story that caught me quite off guard. Without shying away from the very real dangerous that our heroes face for their feelings, this is still a romance to savor. Check in with one of the friendly reference librarians at the Library if you’re interested in this book–I promise, it’s worth the wait!
The Odds of Loving Grover Cleveland: I love quirky characters, outsiders, and all those who see the world in a radically different way from the way I do–this story is packed full of such characters, and each of them is treated with such dignity and with such heart, in spite of and because of their pain and their struggles that it’s impossible not to fall in love with them. Even though sixteen-year-old Zander Osborne is perfectly fine, her parents insist on sending her to Camp Padua, a summer camp for at-risk teens. Zander is determined not to fit in with the group of misfits she meets at the camp, which includes her cabinmate Cassie, a self-described manic-depressive-bipolar-anorexic, Grover Cleveland (yes, like the president), a cute but confrontational boy who expects to be schizophrenic someday, odds being what they are, and Bek, a charmingly confounding pathological liar. But as the summer wears on, Zander finds herself leaning on this new group, and supporting them in turn, finding friendship, acceptance, and even love, as well as the strength to confront her own darkness. Though there is some adorably sweet romance here, the real pleasure of this book is the myriad unique bonds that Zander and her camp-mates form, and how those bonds change them all for the better. It’s not an easy read by any means, but it’s an important, a moving, and a redemptive one that shouldn’t be missed!
This week, beloved patrons, is the week that all readers (and libraries, and bookshops…) await all year. It’s Book Season
This is the prime season where publishers release all the books in advance of the upcoming winter/holiday season. Included in this bushel o’ books are some of the most anticipated titles, like Dan Brown’s latest Robert Langdon book, Origin, Harlan Coben’s Don’t Let Go, and Stephen and Owen King’s Sleeping Beauties.
But along with those well-publicized blockbusters, there are a huge number of other newly released bits of magic that are just as eager to share your adventures with you, and savor the time that the lengthening evenings offer to curl up with a new book!
Here are just a few of the titles that have crept up onto our shelves this week:
The Dark Lake: The debut work of Australian author Sarah Bailey seems to have wowed plenty of authors and critics alike, with it’s moody atmosphere, deep, complex characters, and an investigation full of secrets and shattering revelations. The lead homicide investigator in a rural town, Detective Sergeant Gemma Woodstock is deeply unnerved when a high school classmate is found strangled, her body floating in a lake. And not just any classmate, but Rosalind Ryan, whose beauty and inscrutability exerted a magnetic pull on Smithson High School, first during Rosalind’s student years and then again when she returned to teach drama. As much as Rosalind’s life was a mystery to Gemma when they were students together, her death presents even more of a puzzle. What made Rosalind quit her teaching job in Sydney and return to her hometown? Why did she live in a small, run-down apartment when her father was one of the town’s richest men? And despite her many admirers, did anyone in the town truly know her? Gemma Woodstock is a wonderfully intriguing character in her own right, with plenty of secrets and shadows in her past, and we can only hope that this is the beginning of a series of outings for this fascinating detective! Douglas Preston, co-author of the Pendergast series, provided one of the cover blurbs for this book, calling it “A crime thriller that seizes you from the first page and slowly draws you into a web of deception and long buried secrets. Beautifully written, compulsively readable, and highly recommended.”
The Trick: Emanuel Bergmann’s tale deals with some of the darkest moments in the twentieth century, but the magic of his tale is how light it is, not only in terms of its narrative, but also in the way it continually shows the better side of human nature, the everyday ability we all have to work miracles. In 1934, a rabbi’s son in Prague joins a traveling circus, becomes a magician, and rises to fame under the stage name the Great Zabbatini just as Europe descends into World War II. When Zabbatini is discovered to be a Jew, his battered trunk full of magic tricks becomes his only hope of surviving the concentration camp where he is sent. Seven decades later in Los Angeles, ten-year-old Max finds a scratched-up LP that captured Zabbatini performing his greatest tricks. But the track in which Zabbatini performs his love spell—the spell Max believes will keep his disintegrating family together—is damaged beyond repair. Desperate for a solution, Max seeks out the now elderly, cynical magician and begs him to perform his magic on his parents. But as their unlikely friendship develops, Max learns some of the real secrets behind Zabbatini’s greatest tricks–and realizes the secret that binds them together. This a beautiful book with an ending that will turn you inside out. RT Book Reviews gave this book a ‘Top Pick’ rating, saying in its review, “Bergman’s storytelling is a feat of magic in and of itself; his light tone and deft descriptions capture the wonder of friendship, the heartbreak of youth, and the dread of some of history’s darkest moments with an ease that is both engaging and deeply emotional. The result is a story that is powerfully moving without being heavy-handed, and full of hope without being blind to the horror and selfishness of which humanity is capable.”
Ali: A Life: Jonathan Eig had access to all the key people in Ali’s life to write this complete biography, including his three surviving wives and his managers. He conducted more than 500 interviews and uncovered thousands of pages of previously unreleased FBI and Justice Department files, as well dozens of hours of newly discovered audiotaped interviews from the 1960s. Collectively, they tell Ali’s story like never before—the story of a man who was flawed and uncertain and brave beyond belief. “I am America,” he once declared. “I am the part you won’t recognize. But get used to me—black, confident, cocky; my name, not yours; my religion, not yours; my goals, my own. Get used to me.” In providing insight into our of our century’s most well-known, complicated, and larger-than-life personalities, Eig also helps us understand the times in which Ali lived, and the legacy he left behind for us, in sports, culture, and politics. This book is being hailed as a triumph, and has already made a number of ‘must read’ and ‘best of’ lists, and Kirkus gave it a starred review, calling it “An appropriately outsized—and first-rate—biography . . . Eig does a fine job of covering all the bases . . . An exemplary life of an exemplary man who, despite a few missteps, deserves to be remembered long into the future.”
Iraq + 100: There is no traditional of science fiction in Iraqi literature–or in most of the cultures of the Middle East. The genre is generally the purview of society who can look to the future in confidence and security. But this collection of stories features Iraqi authors, living both in Iraq and around the world, to imagine their world, their home, their society, in a century, and to tell the story of what they saw. Collected by Iraqi screnwriter and filmmaker Hassam Blasim, the result is a stunning, chilling, thought-provoking collection of stories that not only forces us to consider the power of the science fiction genre, but also the way the reality around us shapes our understanding of fiction and the future. This collection has earned starred reviews from Publisher’s Weekly, Library Journal, and RT Book Reviews, and NPR described it as “Painful, difficult, and necessary; often beautiful, always harrowing. If that sits awkwardly with the conventions of Western science fiction that imagine dystopias at arm’s length and totalitarianism as fanciful thought-experiment, then perhaps now more than ever is the time for those conventions to change.”
The Indigo Girl: Yet another addition to the Books With ‘Girl’ In The Title collection, but this historic novel is yet another example of how that word, ‘Girl’, masks the strength, resilience, and determination of women across time. This book is set between 1739 and 1744, and tells the story of Eliza Lucas, a sixteen-year-old whose father leaves her in charge of their family’s three plantations in rural South Carolina and then proceeds to bleed the estates dry. With international tensions rising, Eliza’s mother wants nothing more than for their South Carolina endeavor to fail so they can go back to England. Eliza, however, is determined to survive in this new world, even if her only allies are an aging horticulturalist, an older and married gentleman lawyer, and a slave with whom she strikes a dangerous deal: teach her the intricate thousand-year-old secret process of making indigo dye and in return — against the laws of the day — she will teach the slaves to read. The real-life Eliza Lucas was a powerhouse of strength and determination who fundamentally changed the economy of the American colonies, and this well-researched story gives her her due, without shying away from the abhorrent system upon which she built her fortune. Library Journal agrees, noting “Without preaching or judging, the narrative integrates the politics of gender inequality, race, and class into Eliza’s quest for confidence and allies…Boyd’s first historical novel captivates on every level, refreshingly crafting the eighteenth-century world of real-life Eliza Lucas Pinckney.”
In awarding the prize, the Nobel Prize described Ishiguro as a writer “who, in novels of great emotional force, has uncovered the abyss beneath our illusory sense of connection with the world”. As Sara Danius, explained in an interview after the announcement, his books deal with “He’s interested in understanding the past…he’s not out to redeem the past. He’s exploring what you have to forget in order to survive in the first place, as an individual, or as a society”.
In a statement released by his publisher, Mr. Ishiguro expressed astonishment at the award, calling it, “amazing and totally unexpected news.”
Kazuo Ishiguro was born in 1954 in Nagasaki, Japan, but was educated in Britain, allowing him to analyze the British class system so acutely, and also to deal with themes of belonging and place in stunning, lyrical, and generally accessible prose.
In an interview with The New York Times two years ago, Mr. Ishiguro recounted how he discovered literature by discovering the adventures of Sherlock Holmes in his local library. “I was around 9 or 10,” he recounted, “and I not only read obsessively about Holmes and Watson, I started to behave like them. I’d go to school and say things like: ‘Pray, be seated’ or ‘That is most singular.’ People at the time just put this down to my being Japanese.” He remembered that he was attracted to the world of Conan Doyle because it was “so very cozy.” It helped ignite his interest in literature. Growing up, one of his idols was Bob Dylan, who was last year’s surprise winner of the Nobel Prize. Mr. Ishiguro, the 29th English-language novelist to win the Noble Prize for literature.
Congratulations to Kazuo Ishiguro!
"Once you learn to read, you will be forever free." ~Frederick Douglass