Banned Books Week, Day 3

Why are books challenged? Who initiates the challenges? Where? The infographic below (from the ALA) provides a breakdown of some data from 2017.

Artwork courtesy of the American Library Association,

What surprises me is that the bulk of challenges take place in public libraries, more than what occurs in classrooms and school libraries. But this explains why 42% of challenges are initiated by patrons — library patrons unhappy with specific books. I’m reminded of the women in The Music Man, shocked to find that “dirty” books by “Chaucer, Rabelais, BALZAC!” are in the River City library. “He left River City the library building/But he left all the books to her.”

Don’t let anyone tell you a librarian’s job is a quiet or easy one.

Today’s featured author is a playwright: Lillian Hellman, whose 1934 play, The Children’s Hour, was banned in some cities in the US and UK for hinting that homosexuality exists. Hellman argued, however, that “It’s not about lesbians. It’s about the power of a lie.” Artists of all stripes are still battling lies.

Tomorrow, how many each year?

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Banned Books Week, Day 2

Challenges or Bans — which is which?

Artwork courtesy of the American Library Association,

So, a big THANK YOU! to librarians, teachers, students, parents, and others who protect our right to access information in all forms.

Today’s featured author is actually a composer: Richard Wagner. At the beginning of this month, complaints poured into a Jerusalem classical radio station because it was playing an excerpt from Wagner’s Götterdämmerung (Twilight of the Gods). According to a BBC News story, “Wagner’s music is not banned in Israel but is not played due to widespread public opposition.” This has evidently been a long-standing practice which, I guess, lets the listeners off the hook — they’ll never have to worry about waking up to Wagner on their alarm clock radio, or being surprised by Wagner blaring from their car radios, or having his melodies kill their appetites just as they get ready to dig in to their dinners. [I’m reminded of Peter Schickele’s Radio WTWP (Wall To Wall Pachelbel), which plays no music in a minor key before 11 pm.]

As with all works by artists with objectionable beliefs, opinions in Jerusalem are divided. I’m not trying to enter that argument with this post; instead, I want only to draw your attention to the fact that it isn’t just books, or even language, that raise people’s hackles.

Tomorrow: some surprising (to me) data.

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Banned Books Week, Day 1

Hey there!

If you’re reading this, I hope it’s because you either 1) love to read or 2) are curious about what kinds of books get banned/challenged these days or 3) both of the above.

This week, I’ll be writing short posts focusing on various aspects of book bans and challenges, with a featured author daily.

I’ll start the week with an infographic (from the ALA) to give you a sense of the variety of books that get banned or challenged.

Artwork courtesy of the American Library Association,

Have you read any of these books?

Today’s featured author: Kurt Vonnegut. For this week, I’ve chosen to read Slaughterhouse Five, his weird and scathing anti-war time-travel novel. Vonnegut was once quoted as saying

All these people talk so eloquently about getting back to good old-fashioned values. Well, as an old poop I can remember back to when we had those old-fashioned values, and I say let’s get back to the good old-fashioned First Amendment of the good old-fashioned Constitution of the United States — and to hell with the censors! Give me knowledge or give me death!

In 2011 the Kurt Vonnegut Museum/Library gave copies of Slaughterhouse Five to high school students whose Missouri school had banned it. If you’re in Indianapolis during Banned Books Week, check out the KVML’s special exhibit. You can find details here.

Tomorrow: challenges vs bans.

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Brueghelian Obsession

The fourth and last in a series of novels involving the search for lost art. But a new slant here: this novel is for adults.

Headlong, Michael Frayn (1999), Picador, 342 pp.

Remember that Rod Serling story, where the Nazi war criminal (Richard Kiley) prays to escape the people after him and ends up in the wrong painting? (“Escape Route”, one chapter of 1969’s Night Gallery.)

Ever since seeing that episode–and I’m amazed that it’s been nearly 50 years, so it’s likely some of you don’t remember it; sorry–I’ve looked for the painting whose world I wouldn’t mind escaping to. Several by Van Gogh, Corot, Matisse, Cezanne; in short, just about any from the late 1800s.

But I’ve also had a soft spot for the works of Pieter Brueghel the Elder (1525-1569). Something about the feel of nature in each of them, even if nature is pushed off to a corner, as in Children’s Games. The people are colorfully dressed, well fed, doing stuff outside. Looks like fun, eh?

P Brueghel, Children’s Games (1560), Vienna Kunsthistorisches Museum

Well, this is a long way of getting to Frayn’s book, about Martin Clay, a happily married late-20th-century British academic whose life goes haywire when he thinks he’s discovered, in a neighbor’s house, a missing Brueghel masterpiece. Being an academic, he knows what to do next: he reads everything he can find on 16th-century Dutch art, tracks down and visits (as if running through an artwork bucket-list) every Brueghel painting he can afford to get to, and looks for the gap the possible masterpiece might fill. This may be part of why I so enjoyed this book. It’s art history without snarky elitism; or, better still, the elitism gets boffed every time it lifts its snarky head.

The conflict for Martin is how to get his hands on the painting he assumes/hopes/prays is by Brueghel, in order to graciously donate it to his nation and thereby garner the respect he feels he’s earned for doing all the grunt work, without tipping his hand to the man who currently owns it. Despite the monetary value of any new Brueghel that reaches the market (over a million pounds, in the 1990s), Martin keeps insisting he isn’t in it for the money. Truly, he isn’t. Part slap-stick, part social commentary, part art-heist, this novel is packed with the comedy you’d expect from the Noises Off playwright. But it’s also an astute analysis of the dangers of any obsession.

Frayn’s inspiration for the novel may lie in a controversy that arose a few years before the book was published. In the mid-1990s, researchers questioned whether Landscape with the Fall of Icarus was, in fact, painted by Pieter Brueghel the Elder (the arguments continue to this day; find an excellent analysis of the painting and the controversy here).

The novel’s title refers to the tiny figure of poor Icarus, falling headlong into the sea as life continues around him, no one noticing his death. So it goes. A perfect image for any obsession.

P Brueghel, Landscape with the Fall of Icarus (1550s), Brussels, Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium

PS: You can read W H Auden’s poem, “Musée des Beaux Arts”, here. It’s Auden’s response to seeing Landscape with the Fall of Icarus while in Brussels.

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Do the math

First edition cover by Ruth Robbins, Parnassus Press, 1968

Some days I think I’m an idiot, but other days the proof that I really am an idiot smacks me in the forehead.

Ursula K Le Guin’s The Wizard of Earthsea was published in 1968.

That’s 50 years ago, folks.

Where’s the hoopla? the parades and fireworks? the admiring journal articles and all the other claptrap that makes us feel a little bit better that time goes by so quickly.

If not for the keen eyes of a blogging/twittering friend, I’d have missed the ironic significance of this year of Le Guin’s death. So it goes.

But now you have another reason to visit this blog (and Calmgrove’s here) for Witch Week 2018 (30 October – 6 November), where we celebrate Le Guin’s Earthsea with a focus on Fantasy+Feminism (or is it Feminism+Fantasy?). Either way, it’ll be great to see you there.

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The Borrowers Meet Don Marquis’ Archy

Third in a series reviewing novels about stolen paintings.

Masterpiece (2008), Elise Broach (illus. Kelly Murphy), 288 pp.

It’s a bit strange to read about “beetles” living under the sink of a NYC apartment, but I suspect Broach’s editors wouldn’t approve “cockroaches”. Beetles are cute and innocuous; cockroaches are disgusting and creepy. People tell ladybugs to fly away home, but no one is so kind to members of the Blattidae family.

But Marvin, the insect hero of this story (there’s a human hero as well), is never disgusting or creepy. He is considerate, loyal, and artistically inclined. His human friend, James, is considerate and loyal, but not artistically inclined.

And that’s where the problem for our two heroes lies.

Marvin draws a miniature masterpiece for James’ eleventh birthday and then, through some complications, ends up having to forge a Dürer drawing to foil some art thieves. An art historian from the Metropolitan Museum of Art thinks James is responsible for the drawing, and James’ father (a painter) is thrilled to think his son has such talent.

How will James and Marvin thwart the thieves? What will happen when the humans discover who the real artist is? And will Marvin be able to survive all the dangers of a human world (brooms, stiletto heels, rolled up magazines)?

We get a glimpse into the miniature world of Marvin and his family (including a venturesome aunt with wanderlust who uses an empty teabag to parachute from the apartment, never to be seen again), so appealing to fans of Mary Norton’s Borrowers series. We also get a glimpse into the world of museums and art theft, drawing parallels to E L Konigsburg’s From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler.

Image courtesy

As for the most famous cockroach of literature, Don Marquis’ Archy of Archy and Mehitabel — his ghost is watching Marvin’s every move. Archy could type; Marvin can draw. Marvin must be a descendant of that clever Archy, who spent his nights diving headfirst onto a keyboard, letter by letter, to compose his poems.

Marvin’s lucky with his art — all he has to do is dip a leg into a jar of ink. No dazed heads for him.

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Magic, menace and the mundane

If you plan to participate in the Witch Week re-along but don’t have time to read the entire Earthsea series, you can find excellent reviews at this blog. Here’s Calmgrove’s review of ‘Tehanu’, which should help you better understand ‘The Other Wind’ if you’re a new visitor to Le Guin’s fantasy world.



Ursula Le Guin: Tehanu: the Last Book of Earthsea
in The Earthsea Quartet
Puffin/Penguin Books 1993 (1990)

As a fantasy novel Tehanu is a tough read: it touches on child abuse, rape, misogyny, prejudice, paranoia, xenophobia, torture and psychopathy. But against all these evils we also witness loyalty, support, care, consolation, compassion and love. Does magic come into it? Well, a bit. And let’s not forget dragons, or at least one particular dragon.

This instalment of the Earthsea series is set immediately after the events in The Farthest Shore. That ended with the promise of a crowning and Sparrowhawk’s return to his place of birth, the island of Gont. Great events had shaken the archipelago, but one might have hoped that the overthrow of one evil would have returned Earthsea to some stability. Much has happened in the twenty years since Tenar was rescued from the Place of the…

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