Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Censorship to the extreme

In the news: School bans dictionary in classrooms because a parent complained of a graphic entry (link to article )
Allow me to get upon my soapbox for a moment: ARE YOU KIDDING ME? This is wrong on so many levels:
1. Aside from the particular phrase in question I have no doubt that there are many other "graphic" words in dictionaries, thesauruses (I don't know if that is the correct plural, I'm afraid my dictionary has seemed to have banned itself and disappeared) and encyclopedias -- so we should ban all reference material?
We could just eliminate everything in these books that people might find offensive -- let's get rid of anatomical terms, descriptions of famous battles, explanation of religions, that will be very helpful.

2. Isn't it somewhat encouraging to see a child look up an unfamiliar term in the dictionary? Yes, I realize that this particular term is not age appropriate, and so they learn what it means -- does that cause the child to immediately go and try it out? (I'd think that a majority of kids would be grossed out by this particular act). I'm not a parent so I can't begin to understand how to talk to kids about these topics, but isn't this an opening to a conversation?

When I was a kid, we all looked through different dictionaries in our class and in the library to see if we could find "bad" words. Most of the time we came up empty. But we were curious, a natural childhood instinct, and I think that by banning the most basic of information sources is a great way to stunt this curiosity.

Rant over. Thank you for paying attention.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

The Journal of Helene Berr

I read Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl when I was eight or nine years old, and at that time could not fully understand the immense tragedy that was the Holocaust. Why were Jewish people hated so much? Why did they have to be killed? I don’t know that I yet understand it but as I became older, I also began to appreciate the horrendous sense of loss of all the young people like Anne Frank who did not have the chance to grow up and become important contributors to arts and culture.
Helene Berr is another young Jewish woman who did not have the opportunity to realize her potential. Her journal, published last year in the United States, is a wonderfully written account of her life in occupied Paris. Helene is a student of English at the prestigious Sorbonne and for a time is able to maintain her regular routine. Restrictions on French Jews are imposed, but as she writes when her father is arrested for a seemingly minor infraction (improper stitching of his yellow star on his clothing), “The full meaning, the sinister meaning, of it all was not apparent because we were among French people”.
Restrictions tighten, Berr begins working with an organization in Paris to assist women and children interned at Drancy – a transit camp outside of Paris – and she realizes her own likely fate. She is at times slightly optimistic: “Even if I am deported, I shall think ceaselessly about coming back”, and also pragmatic “… if these lines are read, it will be clear that I expected my fate; not that I had accepted it but, … that I was expecting it”. (Berr had given her journal to her family’s cook to give to Jean Morawiecki, Berr’s boyfriend, in the event that she was arrested and did not return. He in turn passed it on to Berr’s niece).
This realization of what is to happen also causes her to criticize not only Nazis, but the French, the Catholic Church, and even fellow Jews. Berr sees herself and her family as French first and Jewish second (her father was a decorated officer of the French army during World War I), and the fact that it is Frenchmen – not Germans – who are making the arrests is especially disheartening: “Imagining that duty is unconnected to conscience and unrelated to justice, goodness, and charity shows just how inane our supposed civilization is … we could have hoped it might be different among us.”
Helene Berr and her parents were arrested at their home on March 8, 1944 and sent to the internment camp at Drancy. Helene was sent to Auschwitz and then to Bergen-Belsen, where she died five days before the liberation of the camp (her parents died only months after being deported to camps).
Like Anne Frank, it is so unfortunate that we only know Helene Berr because she was killed in such a senseless way along with so many others. But we should be thankful that they both left us accounts of what they endured. Had they been allowed to live, I’d like to think that their incredible writing skills would have brought them success on their own merits.

Related Reading: Suite Francaise by Irene Nemirovsky
Sarah’s Key by Tatiana de Rosnay

Friday, January 22, 2010

The Guinea Pig Diaries

I loved A.J. Jacobs' first two books, The Know-It-All and The Year of Living Biblically , so I was very excited to see The Guinea Pig Diaries available in the bookstore.
Unlike his first two books, which each focused on one project, The Guinea Pig Diaries is a collection of essays detailing several of Jacobs' "experiments". With an open mind and an (extremely) patient and tolerant wife, he undertook challenges from pretending to be a woman (to help his children's nanny find romance in the online dating world) to practicing Radical Honesty.
My favorite escapade, though, was his outsourcing of his daily tasks to two call centers in India. A delegated weekly phone call to his parents (status report provided) saved him "at least half an hour of sweaty-eared phone time".
The Guinea Pig Diaries is a funny book, but also thoughtful. Obviously these experiments are extreme, but with each one there is something to be learned.

Monday, January 18, 2010

So many .... so little time

How do you bloggers out there find time to not only read books but to write thoughtful and interesting posts about them? My head is full of ideas for different posts I want to write, and I've started notes on them, but by the time I have finished with the responsible part of my day - work, cleaning (well, that I usually put off), cooking, exercising - it's all I can do to stay awake to read for a little while before going to bed. For those of you with kids who still manage to do all this as well -- God bless you.
I'm still trying to figure out a routine for myself with this blog and I am going to make every effort to post at least twice a week. I initially thought that I would just simply sit at the computer after reading something that interested me and quickly dash off a post, but I now realize it is not quite as simple as that. I want to make sure that what I post is well-written and will interest those who are reading it, and for me that takes time and thought.
Anyways, here are some of the posts I am working on:
1. Reading and travelling
2. Weight loss memoirs
3. Literature of the Holocaust
4. Influence of Paris on the Harlem Renaissance (for the Classics Circuit in February)

Monday, January 11, 2010

Social Justice Challenge - Religious Freedom

Though I believe in a supreme being, I do not consider myself a religious person because I don't follow any formal belief system. As I was trying to think about what religious freedom means to me, I realized that the fact that I don't have to follow a specific religion is a freedom that has not always been available.
And I may be naive, but religious freedom to me also means being able to live with others who don't share the same religion. A story that has made news recently in Malaysia has concerned the use of the word Allah by non-Muslims (in this instance a Catholic newspaper) to refer to God. A judicial court overturned a government ban on non-Muslim use of the term to the anger of some in the Islamic community, who feel that the term Allah is "their" term and should not be used by anyone else, arguing that it may "confuse" people and cause them to convert from Islam (which is illegal in Malaysia, even though officially freedom of religion is allowed).
I lived in Malaysia for six months in 1993 and that was my first exposure to Islam, which quite honestly was fascinating to me. The country has moved ever so slightly to a more extreme position since then, but the Malaysian Muslims I encountered were nothing but friendly and peaceful people. What I did notice was that the various populations - Malay (Muslim), Chinese (Buddhist/Christian) and Indian (Hindu/Christian) - segregated themselves from each other for the most part and that is likely why many of these ethnic/religious conflicts spring up.
I mentioned that Malaysia officially allows freedom of religion, however one religion - Judaism - is forbidden. The oldest religion in the world has also arguably been the most persecuted, the Spanish Inquisition and the Holocaust being the most notable incidents in history. Ever since I read Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl when I was about 8 years old I have been interested in the Holocaust, reading the stories of victims and survivors and (unsuccessfully) trying to understand why it happened. The book I will be reading for this challenge, The Journal of Helene Berr, is a story of a young woman's experience in Nazi-occupied France. I hope to be able to compare this with other books I've read related to the Holocaust.

Thursday, January 7, 2010

Books and Movies

I recently joined a new book group in my area, and the next book up for discussion is The Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold. However, before we discuss the book we are also going to see the movie and then discuss how it compares. I read this book when it first came out several years ago, but I'm going to read it again to refresh my memory.
As I was sitting at my desk at the office totally unmotivated to work I started thinking about other books I've read that have been made into movies. I prefer to read a book before I see the movie adaptation because I like to have my own idea of the setting and of the characters; however there have been some instances where I have seen a movie first and then was inspired to read the book upon which it was based.
Most movie adaptations I've seen haven't been too bad, but in almost every case I have preferred the book. A few of my favorite movies based on books:
Schindler's List
The Pianist
- I saw both of these movies first then read the books. The movies themselves were excellent, and reading the books added to the power of these stories.
The Green Mile
- I'm not much of a Stephen King fan but I loved this book and the movie was just as good
Atonement
- It took me a couple of attempts to finish this book but I was rewarded. The film was beautifully done and captured the mood of the book.
The Boy in the Striped Pajamas
- Have a tissue handy with both versions. Even though I knew how the story would end when I saw the movie, I still shed some tears.
The Reader
- The movie was very good, however it omitted at least two scenes from the book that I felt were important to the storyline.
Julie and Julia
- Also based on Julia Child's My Life in France, I wish they would have included more from this memoir, but the movie was still a lot of fun.
The Pursuit of Happyness
- This is one instance where I preferred the movie to the book. I read the book after seeing the movie, and while the story was just as inspirational, I found Chris Gardiner to be less likeable in the book.

Incidentally, at my book group's discussion of The Lace Reader this week, several of us agreed that it would make an interesting film.

What are your favorite film adaptations of books?
Do you ever think about what a movie of the book would look like as you are reading?

Sunday, January 3, 2010

2010 Reading Resolutions

I’m finding it hard to develop reading resolutions for 2010 because reading is such a passion for me and I do it mostly for enjoyment; I do not want to restrict or limit myself on how or what I read. However, having started a blog that (hopefully) people are reading, I thought that I should think about my reading habits and put down some sort of path for the coming year. So here is what I’m planning for 2010:

1. Become an active reader. I have always been interested in reading about current affairs but have not done well in taking action upon what I’ve read and feel strongly about. As a recently naturalized U.S. citizen I now have the right and privilege to vote in elections, but I know that I can and should do more. I have signed up for The Social Justice Challenge and plan to be involved as much as possible in issues most important to me and learn more about others that are just as critical to the United States and to the world at large.
Related to this, I am also going to make an effort to read more works by people with opposing viewpoints to my own. I believe that a lot of problems with our political system exist because most of us can’t or won’t listen to what the other side is trying to say and as a result common ground is rarely if ever found to reach solutions. I realize that I may be a bit na├»ve in my thinking, but I would like to have more understanding of both sides of issues.

2. Use the library more, bookstores less. I am already an active patron of my local library, but I also buy a lot of books, most of which are impulse purchases that linger on the to-read pile for months (or even years) before I think to read them. At least at the library, I can act upon my impulses without it costing me a dime, and the book can only stay on my to-read pile for three weeks before returning or renewing it. I have signed up for the 2010 Support Your Local Library Reading Challenge and have committed to reading 75 books from the library.
I do love wandering through bookstores, though, so it will be a challenge for me to limit my book purchases. Since I don’t smoke, and rarely drink, I call book buying my lonely vice.

3. Read more literary classics. In 2009 I read In Search of Lost Time by Marcel Proust, what I have read to be the longest novel in the English language. The online discussions I had about this book (definitely a mix of love and hate) and the references to it that I have picked up in other reading has inspired me to read more classic works of literature.
I guess my hesitancy to read classics has been resulted from not wanting to attempt them alone. To that end I have joined a Classics Reading Group at my library organized by Rebecca of Rebecca Reads, which in our few meetings so far have prompted some great discussions; and in February I will be participating in The Classics Circuit – also co-hosted by Rebecca – with a post on the Harlem Renaissance.

So that’s the mini-plan for the year. In 2009 I had set a goal to read 100 books during the year (and reached), but I don’t think I’m going to concern myself with the quantity of books I read in 2010; I am going to focus on the quality of what I am reading instead.