Monthly Archives: February 2016

Kitten Seeds of Evil

My banned books mug. So many kitten seeds of evil!

My banned books mug. So many kitten seeds of evil!

Normally I just use this blog as a way to record my thoughts about books I’ve read, but an article in today’s Washington Post got me sufficiently fired up to veer off onto the subject of politics–and the slippery slope to book banning. Specifically, the object of my rage is proposed Virginia legislation that would allow parents to review and potentially block books deemed “sexually explicit” from reaching the vulnerable eyeballs of their children. Here’s how the Post describes it:

“The bill would require K-12 teachers to identify classroom materials with ‘sexually explicit’ content and notify parents, who would have the right to ‘opt out’ their children and give them something less objectionable to study.”

The bill, approved on Thursday by the Senate education committee, was inspired by a parent who tried and failed to keep Toni Morrison’s novel Beloved out of Fairfax County classrooms in 2013. Now, I realize Beloved is an intense book. It doesn’t shy away from difficult, painful subject matter: slavery, sexual assault, murder. It’s also a powerful and important part of American literature, as well as a Pulitzer Prize winning novel.

First of all, who gets to define what “sexually explicit” means? And second, why would a parent attempt to restrict the reading material of their high school senior anyway? At that age, kids are one step away from independence and adulthood; preventing them from reading Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man or Cormac McCarthy’s The Road (two other books mentioned by the outraged parent in question) will not keep them in a bubble of ignorant safety forever. Personally, I will be THRILLED when my kids start reading such challenging, engaging and profound works of literature. (My oldest is currently halfway through The Catcher in the Rye. Good times!)

More importantly, this type of legislation could easily lead to teachers shying away from controversial literary works and sticking with more anodyne choices to ensure that no kids have to opt-out. Ultimately, the state’s curriculum could be skewed away from reading assignments based on merit to books chosen for their innocuous content. As a parent in Virginia and a life-long reader, this prospect is chilling.

Parenting is about instilling values and judgment in your kids, not putting blinders on them, and certainly not diluting the education of children across the state.  I would suggest that parents who have concerns with what their children are learning take a close look at the materials assigned over the course of the year, actually read the books, and then discuss them with their child. Imagine what opportunities that sort of ongoing conversation could provide!

Unfortunately, however, not all of the state senators who voted the proposed bill out of committee have even read Beloved. Senator Charles “Bill” Carrico admitted he’d only read excerpts, and he had this to say in the Post article:

“Evil is just–when you plant the seed, it’s a kitten,” he said. “You feed it, it becomes a lion and it eats you.”

That’s right. The Virginia state senate is here to protect our children from the kitten seeds of evil. I feel so much better now.


Review: Luckiest Girl Alive by Jessica Knoll

Where did I get this book? I won it from a fellow blogger!

Where did I get this book? I won it from a fellow blogger!

TifAni FaNelli, the distractingly capitalized protagonist of Luckiest Girl Alive, has worked hard to reinvent herself. At 29, TifAni (now known as Ani, pronounced “AH-nee”) has a successful career as a magazine writer in New York. She’s engaged to a good-looking guy from a wealthy family, and she diets (i.e., starves) herself into the most fashionable outfits with ruthless dedication and an eye on her wedding dress.

Despite her success, Ani’s fashionable veneer hides a black hole of bitterness and cynicism. It gradually becomes clear that something in her past damaged her in a way that she believes is irreparable. The cause of that damage, the events that occurred at her high school during her freshman year, will be the subject of a documentary, and Ani plans to use the opportunity to finally tell her side of the story.

The novel alternates between Ani’s increasingly shaky grip on her life as the start of the documentary approaches, and 14-year-old TifAni’s brutal introduction to the cruel realities of the social hierarchy at her new private school. It is difficult to watch as TifAni makes terrible choices in her pursuit of the popular kids’ approval. As it turns out, this is only a prelude to the true tragedy at the heart of TifAni’s transformation.

Ani is not an easy character to ride along with. She can be profoundly unpleasant and manipulative to the extreme, so focused on winning the admiration of others that it seems uncertain she even knows who she really is or what she would want if no one else could see her. She hopes to show the world how far she’s come by participating in the documentary, but ultimately, she reveals more than she intended.

Genre: Suspenseful dark fiction.

Read it if: You think Curtis Sittenfeld’s Prep would have been better with more violence; you are a fan of Gillian Flynn’s Dark Places; you really hated high school and would like to imagine how it could have been even worse.

Skip it if: You are sensitive to depictions of sexual assault, gun violence, or eating disorders; you prefer likable protagonists; you were hoping the title meant this was a light, cheerful read (hint: it’s ironic!)

Movie-worthy: Honestly, it would be hard to watch.




Review: The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro

Where did I get this book? Bought it, and it's GORGEOUS!

Where did I get this book? Bought it, and it’s GORGEOUS!

Set in the world of post-Arthurian England, The Buried Giant is Kazuo Ishiguro’s first foray into the world of fantasy. While it’s true that ogres, pixies and dragons play pivotal roles in the story, The Buried Giant is a fantasy novel in the same way that Never Let Me Go is science fiction; Ishiguro’s exquisite skill as a storyteller ultimately makes the question of genre irrelevant.

Axl and Beatrice, two elderly Britons, resolve to leave their subterranean village and undertake a journey to see their son. They have become increasingly marginalized by the other villagers, taunted by children and reduced to spending their nights in darkness when their candle is taken away. More troubling, however, is the mist that seeps through the region, clouding and erasing memories. Axl and Beatrice can recall only that they love each other; details of their past together, even of their son, are scant and difficult to retain.

When the two shelter at a nearby Saxon village, Beatrice seeks out a wise woman, hoping to get help for the pain in her side and perhaps learn more about the cause of the mist. Her friend advises her to travel to a monastery to find a monk reputed to be a healer. Axl agrees to the detour, even though it means a more arduous climb, and soon they have acquired a pair of unexpected traveling companions whose fates become intertwined with their own. It becomes clear that there may be a way to lift the mist and recover what they have forgotten, but will they want to remember?

The Buried Giant displays the  gorgeous, heartbreaking subtlety that makes all of Ishiguro’s novels so deeply affecting and powerful. Axl and Beatrice are pulled toward the conclusion of their quest by the enigmatic power of dream logic, their lost memories an irresistible unknown.

Genre: Fantasy quest with surreal elements and existential resonance.

Read it if: You loved (and/or were permanently scarred by) Never Let Me Go; you enjoy movies like Memento or Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind or books like Kafka’s The Trial or Harvest by Jim Crace; you are intrigued by the unreliable nature of memory.

Skip it if: You dislike ambiguity, fantasy elements, fairy tales or stories weighty with meaning; you’re looking for a fast-paced adventure story; you prefer your protagonists young and spry.

Movie-worthy: I don’t know if it could be done. I never saw the movie they made of Never Let Me Go because a) it sounded too emotionally painful to contemplate and b) it seemed impossible for a movie to even approach the level of the book.


Review: The 500 by Matthew Quirk

Where did I get this book? My dad gave it to me. (He liked it too!)

Where did I get this book? My dad gave it to me. (He liked it too!)

Mike Ford, the hero of The 500, is a Horatio Alger success story–raised by a single mother after his father went to prison, he dabbled in crime but found discipline and purpose in the military. His hard work pays off big time:  while pursuing dual degrees in law and politics at Harvard, he earns a coveted spot at the Davies Group, a firm with legendary influence in the world of Washington power.

Soon Mike has the respect he’s yearned for, along with more money than he could have imagined. Until, of course, he discovers that his new bosses are into some nefarious activities and that he’s expected to participate. Henry Davies, the founder of the Davies Group, believes that everyone can be bought. It’s just a matter of finding the right price, the perfect pressure point, the secret sin.

If this sounds an awful lot like The Firm, you’re not wrong. The plot trajectory is similar, but The 500 takes place in a distinctly Washingtonian milieu. (It was especially fun for me when the characters roamed around the northern Virginia suburbs, my new home since last summer.) The author previously wrote for The Atlantic and has a flair for authentic detail. Mike’s distinctive voice and the novel’s fast pacing make for an entertaining read, even if some of the wilder action sequences require a certain suspension of disbelief.

Genre: Politico-legal thriller with DC street cred.

Read it if: You harbor deep suspicions about the integrity of our country’s leaders; you really loved The Firm; you’re looking for an action-packed, fast-paced read.

Skip it if: You thought this was the sequel to Kass Morgan’s The 100; you prefer to believe in the honesty and incorruptibility of lawmakers and law enforcement; you are a big fan of the artist Dan Flavin.

Movie-worthy: Sure, I’d see that movie.

Review: Dead Wake by Erik Larson

Where did I get this book? I bought it.

Where did I get this book? I bought it.

No one brings history to life like Erik Larson. He has written some of the best works of narrative nonfiction I’ve ever read, including The Devil in the White City and In the Garden of Beasts.

In Dead Wake, he relates the tragic story of the Lusitania, the British luxury ocean liner torpedoed and sunk by a German submarine during World War I. Nearly 2,000 passengers and crew died in the disaster, while only 764 survived.

Among those boarding the Lusitania as it prepared to depart New York were Theodate Pope, one of the first female American architects; Charles Lauriat, a dealer in rare books carrying unique works by Thackeray and Dickens to London; Richard Preston Prichard, a medical student from Montreal; Alfred Vanderbilt, heir to the Vanderbilt fortune; Nellie Huston, a British woman returning home; and Leslie and Cliff Morton, brothers who signed on as crew in New York. The tension builds as the ship nears its destination and the impending attack becomes increasingly imminent.

Meanwhile, U-20, the German U-boat destined to sink the Lusitania, cruised the seas around the United Kingdom, looking for potential targets. Submarine captains had almost complete autonomy to fire on ships and received credit for the tonnage they sank. Walther Schwieger, captain of U-20, had already demonstrated his willingness to target ships regardless of the flag they flew or the casualties involved.

Larson brings out the personalities and day-to-day lives of the passengers and crew of the Lusitania and vividly evokes the hazards and hardships of a tour in a German submarine of that time period. He also puts the ship’s journey within the wider context of World War I, including the impact of British intelligence breakthroughs on the war and the personal travails of President Woodrow Wilson as he sought to avoid American entanglement in Europe.

Reading this book brought home the true human tragedy of the Lusitania; somehow learning about it briefly in history class back in the day never evoked the enormity of that loss.

Genre: Narrative non-fiction that brings history to life

Read it if: You enjoyed any of Erik Larson’s earlier books; you love history when it’s readable and genuinely fascinating; your favorite movie is Titanic.

Skip it if: You prefer happy endings; you would rather stick with fiction, even if in this case nonfiction is just as gripping; you have a shipwreck and/or submarine phobia.

Movie-worthy: Sure, only this time Leonardo di Caprio could play Captain Turner and Kate Winslet could be Theodate Pope.