Banned Books Week is one of my favorite celebrations of the year—an important reminder that we shouldn't take our freedom to read for granted. This year marks the 30th celebration of the week.
According to the American Library Association, "Banned Books Week brings together the entire book community . . . in shared support of the freedom to seek and to express ideas, even those some consider unorthodox or unpopular."
Check out this list to see the "most frequently challenged authors of the 21st century." It's fascinating to look at these graphs detailing the specifics of challenged books. For example, from the years 1990-2010, the most number of challenges were in 1995. During that time frame the most common reason for challenges was "sexually explicit content," followed by "offensive language." Most challenges were by parents.
One of my favorite features of my local library growing up (CALS, represent!) was the library-distributed bookmark listing names of banned books. Of course, the fact that the books had been banned at one point only increased my interest in reading these subversive titles. And I appreciated that I could get them for free at the library.
Here's another thought for you to consider during Banned Books Week. Reading is educational and fun, and it can be hard to understand why anybody would want to limit our access to good books. But as Barbara Kingsolver says, fiction is political. Here's an explanation in her own words, which I love:
Fiction cultivates empathy for a theoretical stranger by putting you inside his head, allowing you to experience life from his point of view. It can broaden your view of gender, ethnicity, place and time, power and vulnerability, things that influence social interaction. What could be more political than that?
To enter to win 30 banned books (in eBook form), visit Open Road Media's Banned Books Week website. Also, enjoy this video of authors talking about censured books:
Why do you think it's important to celebrate Banned Books Week?
Readers, I know what I'm doing today! I'll give you a hint:
Yep, today I am reading The Casual Vacancy, J.K. Rowling's first novel for adults. If this week's Monday Contest is any indication, I'd bet that many of you are doing the same thing. So far, more than 25% of commenters on the contest have listed The Casual Vacancy on their own personal Top 10 lists for fall reading.
A few reviews have already come in for The Casual Vacancy, but I'm avoiding them so my own review for BookPage will be only my opinion, free of influence.
However, I did head to Parnassus Books in Nashville this morning to purchase a hardcover of the novel (even though I started reading in the middle of the night when the book was delivered on my Kindle!). I spent a few minutes chatting with store owner Ann Patchett, who confessed that she loved the book. Ann was one of the few people in the world who got to read the novel early (a copy was hand-delivered to her here in Nashville by a Little Brown representative). Ann will be interviewing Rowling on stage on October 16 at Lincoln Center—it's the only event Rowling will do in the United States. If you weren't able to get tickets, get in touch with your local bookstore; they may livestream the interview, as Parnassus is planning to do.
Though I don't want to post any spoilers of what I've read so far, I will say that we are very clearly not in Hogwarts. This is no surprise if you read this week's profile of Rowling in the New Yorker, which revealed the profanity and other adult content that readers can expect in this novel.
What I will say is that so far the book has made me chuckle. It's also made me whip out a pen and paper to keep track of names, as the early chapters are packed with introductions of characters.
Also present in the opening pages: crushes, a hint of domestic abuse, town gossip and the seed of political turmoil in a small English village.
Okay, enough chatting--time to get back to reading! Who else is diving into The Casual Vacancy today? What are your thoughts so far?
What can you give the woman whose work has only been outsold by the Bible and Shakespeare for her birthday?
The answer to that question is a mystery to me (ha), but since tomorrow is Agatha Christie's birthday, readers might like to celebrate by learning more about her life. We recommend An Autobiography, last year's new edition of her 1977 autobiography that's now available in paperback. The book, with a new introduction by Christie's grandson, also includes a special code to download excerpts read by Christie herself. It was our top pick in nonfiction when it was released last December.
"Christie’s enjoyment of the “indulgence” of memoir writing is apparent on every page of this lovely book, giving it a cheerful tone, as if she’s just turned to face you across the tea table to tell you a story," said BookPage reviewer Catherine Hollis.
p.s. If Agatha Christie isn't your type, but you're a mystery lover—don't miss our recommendations for new mystery series based on classic bestsellers.
We're just a month out from the publication of J.K. Rowling's first novel for adults, The Casual Vacancy, on September 27. Little, Brown has been keeping details about the novel, other than the official description, top secret—sources say that only a select few have had time with the embargoed manuscript, and all cell phones and recording devices must be left outside the door.
That's not unusual for a big title (although it's less common for fiction), but the lack of pre-pub hype from the publisher is. As USA Today reports, there's been little to no push on this one—no promo materials, no midnight release parties—and stores are having a hard time figuring out how to get the word out, or what to tell their customers when asked about the book. The head buyer at R.J. Julia Booksellers is quoted as saying, "We had no posters … It hasn't been easy. People are curious, but they don't know what to expect."
The article goes on to say that the lack of a dramatic publicity onslaught is likely due to Rowling's own wishes, since rumor has it the world's best-selling author would prefer that her first adult novel stand on its own merit and not on her reputation. But a successful transition to adult fiction after becoming known as a YA author is a tricky one. Other YA authors who've made the jump in the last few years include Sara Shepard (Pretty Little Liars series), who released her first adult novel last year to little fanfare, and Ann Brashares, whose 2010 adult time-travel romance was the first in what looks like a stillborn series.
But perhaps the best comparison for a writer like Rowling is Stephenie Meyer, who moved to adult fiction after publishing the Twilight series. Her sci-fi novel The Host wasn't a big jump from the teen fantasy she is known for, yet it still sold just 2 million copies in hardcover (yes, an impressive figure, but the fourth Twilight novel, by comparison, sold 1.3 million copies on its first day of sale!). She has yet to publish the promised sequel, although perhaps that will be announced when the film version of The Host is released in March 2013.
The Casual Vacancy couldn't sound more different from the Harry Potter series, and although some people are sure to buy based on the Rowling name, its level of success will depend on the word-of-mouth response from readers. Stay tuned for our review on September 28!
Do you plan to read The Casual Vacancy?
It was a bittersweet show, as it was both a farewell performance to Rock Bottom fans and a goodbye to their founding member, our beloved Author Enabler Kathi Kamen Goldmark, who recently lost her battle with cancer.
Kathi would have been proud—the show was characteristically wild to the point of ridiculous. Well, the band was wild. The audience, consisting entirely of sweet librarians, listened quietly from their seats, maybe clapping along from time to time. (Except, of course, for the five women doing the Electric Slide.)
The band included big-name authors, all of whom evidently have no shame:
The authors' talents lie more in enthusiasm than anything else, so even though Amy Tan was half a beat behind and Stephen King barely touched his guitar, it was still an unforgettable show. They played a number of rock favorites, but their "lit-rock" songs ("I'm a big bestseller, baby" and "I'm in love with a proofreading woman") were by far their best. No one really cared that they botched "Wild Thing" or that Matt Groening did nothing except bop back and forth in his Marge Simpson mask.
The band honored Kathi's memory with several songs at the end, including the Irish folk song they sang to her over the phone when she was in the hospital and Warren Zevon's "Keep Me in Your Heart." All eyes were on her leopard guitar at the front of the stage.
All in all, a touching goodbye to a wonderful woman and the hilarious band she inspired. We'll miss the Rock Bottom Remainders!
April is School Library Month, and this week is National Library Week. I know that for many BookPage patrons, every week is library week. (According to our recent Reader Survey, nearly 80% of our readers check out books from the library that they discovered in BookPage.)
But this week is special because of all the events sponsored by the American Library Association:
• Today, you can submit a "six word story" on Twitter about why you belong at the library. (Use the #nlw6words tag.) The stories will be compiled and judged, and the winner will receive receive a DVD of Season 1 of Brad Meltzer's "Decoded." (Meltzer is the Honorary Chair of National Library Week.) Read more about the story contest here.
• Today is also National Bookmobile Day. Visit the Bookmobile Day landing page for information about the “Why We Love Our Bookmobile” YouTube video celebration. Or better yet, write a letter or e-mail to your local bookmobile staff.
• Visit the @ Your Library website for ideas on family activities you can do at the library.
• I know I'm preaching to the choir here, but just in case anybody needs a little prodding . . . Library Card Sign-up Month isn't until September, but why not make the plunge in April if you don't already have a card? Where else but the library can you download e-books and audio books for free (and legally!); check out more books than you could ever read; borrow CDs, DVDs, bags of books for your book club . . .?
Finally, bookstores and public libraries in 48 states subscribe to BookPage (and provide it free of charge to their patrons). Click here to see the full list of locations.
Why do you love your library? How will you celebrate National Library Week?
Shanghai, 2012: We, your international literary correspondents, have once again put our lives on the line in defense of literature. This March we traveled to China to participate in the Shanghai International Literary Festival, where we risked life and limb by eating soup dumplings (at great risk of projectile fluid leakage, but yum!) among other daring literary and culinary exploits, including wearing pink wigs at the glamorous nightclub M on the Bund (see photo).
Literary festivals matter because they bring readers and authors together, and the Shanghai International Literary Festival impressed us because it was so well run. The two primary organizers, Michelle Garnaut and Tina Kanagaratnam, went above and beyond the call of duty to make the authors feel valued and to creatively combine the participants many talents.
We shared the stage with Amy Tan, Matt Groening, Nury Vittachi, and many other authors. Sam also had the honor of playing music with Wu Tong, the acclaimed master sheng player, who had just performed with cellist Yo-Yo Ma the evening before. (Interesting musical note: The sheng is an ancient ancestor of the harmonica.)
For many Americans, Shanghai may seem a world apart from their local libraries, bookstore, and favorite authors. But if the reception of Matt Groening, creator of the The Simpsons, Futurama, and Life in Hell is any indication, art transcends international boundaries, demonstrating that we are far more connected than we generally acknowledge.
Today is the 200th anniversary of Charles Dickens' birth. This month, our Well Read columnist took a look at Dickens' enduring appeal and legacy, citing a new book edited by Dickens' great-great-great grandaughter.
If you finished the column hungry for more on this inimitable author, don't worry. There's much more Dickens to discover, as shown by the books on this list, which are just a sampling of what's out there.
A Boy Called Dickens by Deborah Hopkinson. BookPage contributor and renowned author Hopkinson teams up with young illustrator John Hawkins to create a memorable picture book about Dickens' childhood. (Schwartz & Wade, 2012)
Charles Dickens: A Life by Claire Tomalin. The most recent biography of Dickens, from the author of Samuel Pepys, is "a masterful balancing act" that presents Dickens the man and Dickens the author. (Penguin Press, 2011)
Charles Dickens by Michael Slater. This 2009 biography by an emeritus professor of Victorian literature at the University of London and former president of the Dickens Society of America was the first full-length Dickens bio to be published in 20 years. (Yale University Press, 2009)
Drood by Dan Simmons. For a fictional take on Dickens, try Dan Simmons haunting Drood, the story of the friendship between Dickens and fellow author Wilkie Collins and the inspiration for his final, unfinished work.
And for those who prefer their Dickens on audio, Naxos has just published new productions of Oliver Twist and Nicholas Nickleby, with more to come over the next few months.
Do you have a favorite Dickens novel?
p.s. Kerry at Entomology of a Bookworm has her own Dickens list up today; check it out.
On Wednesday night I heard Kathryn Stockett speak at Vanderbilt as part of their university lecture series. (The mission of the series is to bring individuals to campus who "spark poignant dialogue and debate.") As you might imagine, the ballroom at the Student Life Center was packed, although I was able to get two copies of The Help signed without having to wait too long in line.
Anyone who has seen one of Stockett's numerous media appearances (like this one with Katie Couric) knows she is articulate and funny. Here are a few other tidbits from her talk:
• Stockett gave two pieces of advice to all of the college students in the audience: Read everything you can get your hands on (especially banned books) and understand the process of rejection. After all, she said, The Help was rejected by 60 literary agents before she signed with Susan Ramer. What if she'd given up on #50? Also, she said, if following your dream means writing and not getting a "real job"—go for it! You won't believe how long you can string along your parents' pocketbooks. :)
• Stockett is at work on another book. From the PenguinUK website, I already knew a bit about the plot: "It also takes place in Mississippi, during the 1930’s and the Great Depression. It’s about a family of women who learn to get around the rules, rules created by men, in order to survive." At Vanderbilt, Stockett revealed that she's terrified of working on her second book, because she knows she'll disappoint some readers after The Help.
• Interesting fact: Stockett said that the character Skeeter was not incorporated into her story until she'd written many drafts and unsuccessfully queried many agents. Also, the character of Minnie came about when the character of Aibileen started "talking back" to Stockett. Octavia Spencer is a long-time friend of the author's, and from the beginning Stockett imagined the actress in this role (although she did have to audition for the movie, like everyone else).
• The iconic purple and yellow book jacket has "nothing to do with the story." (In other words, you can stop looking for symbolism behind the birds.) In fact, Stockett was originally loathe to include that color combo on the cover, since it reminds her of LSU.
• When an African-American Vanderbilt professor (whose mother and mother-in-law had been domestic workers) asked about the varied response she'd gotten from black readers, Stockett was forthcoming. She has heard from readers who felt she'd accurately captured the experience of black "help," and she'd heard from readers who couldn't finish the book because they felt her writing in black dialect was not right. At the end of the day, Stockett says she has the right to imagine another person's experience in her fiction—and readers are entitled to different opinions.
Overall, it was an engaging, interesting talk. Have you had a chance to hear Kathryn Stockett speak, or have you been to any good author events lately?
By the way, if you live in Nashville, you really ought to keep your eye on the Vanderbilt lecture series. Lorrie Moore will be there on January 19. I can't wait!
There was an illicit behind-the-scenes thrill to Ann Patchett's panel at the Southern Festival of Books. Billed as "A Conversation" between Patchett and her friend and fellow writer Edith Pearlman (whose short story collection is a finalist in this year's National Book Awards), watching two authors chat before a considerable crowd in the War Memorial Auditorium was a glimpse into the writer's world that stood out from the crowd of readings and panel discussions.
The talk focused on the differences between writing short stories and writing novels, although there were plenty of detours along the way. Both authors were comfortable on stage, and they managed to make their discussion (which they had planned out over dinner the night before) feel polished, but also lively and spontaneous. Patchett couldn't say enough good things about Pearlman's work, which she learned about while editing Best American Short Stories 2006. Pearlman was equally complimentary of Patchett's prowess, saying to the audience, when Patchett expressed doubt that she could make a love story seem fresh, "Oh, I think she could—don't you?"
Highlights included Pearlman's explanation of her desire to write short stories and only short stories, despite people asking her if she was "smart enough" or "man enough" to write a novel. "Writing short stories is the way I live; it is my main pleasure," she said. She writes about six stories a year and publishes about six stories a year "though they're not the same six stories!" She expressed appreciation for novels, saying that "so much can happen in a novel" and that she admires the form but can't work with it.
Patchett, on the other hand, said she wasn't "generous enough to be a short story writer," explaining that novelists only really needed one idea, whereas for a short story collection, you need as many ideas as you have stories. (A arguable but interesting claim.) Though Patchett, like other MFA grads, started out as a short story writer, once she started writing novels "it was as if I had stretched out," she said, explaining that going back to the format would be similar to moving from a small apartment into a house and then saying you had to move back to the apartment. Interestingly, Patchett doesn't feel the same way about essays. (She's currently working on a collection of them and writing them "feels like a vacation" because she doesn't have to make anything up.)
Like any good small business owner, Patchett couldn't pass up the chance to deliver an impassioned plea for supporting local stores (especially her soon-to-open bookstore, Parnassus Books). "Although I've never been on Facebook in my life, find us on Facebook, 'like' us on Facebook!" she laughed.