Friday, June 29, 2007

Zlata's Diary

I put aside Over a Thousand Roads and picked up Zlata’s Diary last night. I was immediately engrossed. I know this entry is going to be serious, but this is a topic I feel seriously about.

Zlata’s Diary is literally Zlata’s diary. Zlata lives in Sarajevo and starts keeping a diary in September 1991, not long before her 11th birthday. She excels in school, enjoys fashion magazines, and watches Murphy Brown on television. Six months later, she is recording the tragedies of war.

Reading about war from a child’s perspective is an interesting experience. Zlata mentions politics several times, writing that “politics has started meddling around. It has put an ‘S’ on Serbs, an ‘M’ on Muslims, and a ‘C’ on Croats, it wants to separate them. And to do so it has chosen the worst, blackest pencil of all—the pencil of war which spells only misery and death” (97). Yet, she does not understand the significance politics plays in the war, never connecting the war with “ethnic cleansing.”

But because politics doesn’t shape or warp Zlata’s perspective, she can truly see and express how senseless war is. She records the death of friends, the destruction of her city; she suffers without electricity, gas, food, and water. Several times, she expresses anger and despair, writing “I really don’t know whether to go on living and suffering, to go on hoping, or to take a rope and just . . . be done with it” (130). Early on, Zlata asks the most profound question of all:

“God, is anyone thinking of us here in Sarajevo?” (85).

I am only three years older than Zlata. If I heard about Bosnia, if we talked about the war in school, I have no recollection. Most everything I know about the genocide I learned years later as an adult.

A few weeks ago, I read the book I Dream of Peace published by UNICEF. The book contains drawings and poems created by the children of the former Yugoslavia. I was most struck by a submission from a fifth grade class in Zenica. They write:

“Our teacher has told us about Anne Frank, and we have read her diary. After fifty years, history is repeating itself right here with this war, with the hate and the killing, and with having to hide to save your life. We are only twelve years old. We can’t influence politics and the war, but we want to live! And we want to stop this madness. Like Anne Frank fifty years ago, we wait for peace. She didn’t live to see it. Will we?” (64).

After the Jewish Holocaust, the international community vowed, “Never Again.” Yet since then, there have been genocides in Cambodia, Bosnia, Rwanda.

Darfur fills me with anxiety. I do not understand how conflict—how genocide—has continued in this region for over four years. Why hasn’t the international community done more to stop this? I want to shout Why isn’t anyone doing anything? How can we just stand by and watch this again? God, is anyone thinking about Darfur?

Yet, what am I doing? How am I helping? Feeling anxious accomplishes little. Zlata’s Diary is a call to action. We—I—must act.

Thursday, June 28, 2007

Guest Blog--Something Rotten by Jasper Fforde

For those of you not yet familiar with Jasper Fforde's Thursday Next series, you're in for a treat. Well, a treat if you love literature and like (or at least can handle) science fiction. Fforde's incredibly creative books take place in an alternate 1980s England where time travel, grativtubes, and cloned pets and coworkers are the norm. However, these are NOT your typical sci-fi books, and I am not a sci-fi fan. These books are also police novels of the literary genre.

The main character, Spec-Ops Agent Thursday Next, works as a literary detective. Her job leads to endless encounters of the literary kind--from her interference in the classic Jane Eyre to an appearance before Kafka's court to working out of an office set in Sense and Sensibility. Granted, the literary adventures are much more enjoyable if you have read the book, but even those unfamiliar to you are enjoyable. Even Fforde's witty character names--like Million de Floss (from The Mill on the Floss) or Braxton Hicks (the term for prelabor contractions) invoke chuckles. (I acknowledge that I probably miss a lot of the name puns as I have much yet to learn about literature.)

Fforde's latest novel, Something Rotten, is enjoyable but probably my least favorite of the four novels so far. If you haven't read the previous three, I won't give away anything. Just know that Thursday Next returns to live with her mother with Hamlet in tow. The usual crazy situations ensue--like trying to reverse an "eradicated" person, finding a way to untangle a rewritten Hamlet where Polonius and family take over, and retrieving the English "president" from Hades. Some elements aren't sufficiently explained for my liking, but overall enjoyable as usual.

One warning--Fforde writes for intelligent readers with good memories. He brings elements from the first book into this fourth installation, and he doesn't take much time to explain for the forgetful.

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

50-Page Rule

I am only 50 pages into Over a Thousand Hills I Walk With You. As such, I can’t fairly review the book. But I can comment on the fact that I am still only 50 pages into a 342-page young adult novel. Granted, my life has been busy for the last 24 hours—with work and trips to the airport and quality time with the family—but I still should be far more than 50 pages into the book. My struggle with this book raises an important question:

When is it okay to stop reading a book?

For years, I honestly believed if I started a book, I had to finish it. I’m not sure where I got that idea, but I do know I suffered through many bad books because of it. Only recently have I realized that I simply don’t have time to finish every book. Now, this isn’t to say that I am too busy to read. Instead, the truth is there are so many books out there that I literally cannot read them all—even if I read nonstop. So why waste precious reading time on a book I’m not interested in?

Books that I have quit reading include:
  • The Nanny Diaries—I read half the book before quitting. I had no sympathy for any of the characters—including the main character, a big no-no with me—and finally decided not to finish a book I didn’t like. I recently saw the trailer for the movie. It looked like a light romantic comedy. Is it really based on the book I quit reading?
  • Prague—I started this book, which I’d checked out from my public library, on a trip to Portland. Once again, I felt little sympathy for the characters and decided to stop reading. Naturally, a bottle of lotion spilled in my bag on the way home, damaging the library book. I ended up owning a book I never wanted to finish. I will confess, though, that months later I did finish the book—and it wasn’t worth my time.
  • The Dante Club—I know it wanted to be the next The Da Vinci Code. The Da Vinci Code is one of the most poorly written books I’ve ever read, but it did have plot. It did keep me reading. The Dante Club never captured—nor ultimately kept—my interest.
  • Anna Karenina, Suite Francaise, The Bookseller of Kabul, Reading Lolita in Tehran—I’ve started each of these books several times but have never felt engaged enough to finish them. I haven’t abandoned these books completely. Maybe one day I’ll try again, but for now they remain low on my “to read” list.

How many pages should you give a book before giving up? This is a tricky question. After finishing dozens of bad books, my current rule is 50 pages. If I’m still plodding through by page 50, I give myself permission to quit.

Of course, this can’t be a hard and fast rule. I would never have finished any of the Harry Potter series if I’d only given them the first 50—or even 200—pages. I find these books terribly difficult to get into but ultimately enjoyable. I had similar experiences with The Poisonwood Bible, Shirley, and In Cold Blood.

The 50-page rule isn’t set in stone, but everyone should give themselves permission not to finish a book. Why miss out on a great book just to say you finished a mediocre one?

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Black Ear . . . Blonde Ear

How much influence do books really have? Clearly, as I confessed earlier, books can influence my dreams—but can a book really change me? Can it change society?

I just read the picture book Black Ear . . . Blonde Ear (available in the International Children’s Digital Library) by Khaled Jumm’a. This book has been distributed to Palestinian schools by the Tamer Institution for Community Education and the Department for International Development, UK. In the book, the black cats and the blonde cats have a longstanding feud. The story urges understanding and reconciliation between the two factions. Although the children who read this book may not realize it, these organizations clearly believe reading Black Ear . . . Blonde Ear will affect the current disputes in the Middle East.

Can a children’s book really have such power?

The first book I remember reading—actually reading to myself—was Old Hat, New Hat. I still have a fondness for that book. But I don’t have an obsession with hats. I remember my mom reading us chapter books when I was a child. She read Heidi, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, and The Bear’s House. (The only memory I have of The Bear’s House is a sense of unease—I suppose it needs to go back in my to read pile.)

Reading books did change my life. I love to read. I majored in English—twice—and I work in a library. Reading does touch my emotions—The Bear House disturbed me, Pride and Prejudice has ruined me for any nonfictional male—but have books fundamentally altered me?

The Library of Congress has compiled a list of the most influential books. The top ten most influential books include To Kill a Mockingbird, The Lord of the Rings (?!), and Gone with the Wind. Have these three books changed history? Can a book, alone, do so much?

I love books, but ultimately, my answer is no. A book cannot change history. But it can reinforce a child’s—or adult’s—beliefs and ideologies. Also on the top ten books are the Bible and the Book of Mormon. These religious texts reinforce an individual’s beliefs. Under Communism, children were forced to read pro-Communist books in school. But if their parents, neighbors, and teachers did not also believe in Communism, would these books be an affective tool for propaganda? Black Ear . . . Blonde Ear will not change the Middle East, it will not profoundly influence the children who read it, until it reinforces the reality around them.

Monday, June 25, 2007

"To Read" Pile, Part I

I consider myself a clean and organized person. However, I’ve recently developed a nasty little habit: making piles. More specifically, I have piles and piles of books “to read.” Not only do I have dozens of books on a to read list, neatly organized on my computer, but I have to read piles that stare at me, making me feel guilty that I have yet to find the interest or time to pick them up.

Last night, I counted 28 books in my to read piles—and this number does not include the dozens of to read books I’ve placed on shelves or boxed away. The following is a list of some of the books in my to read piles:
  • Over a Thousand Hills I Walk with You: I am working on a paper about genocide literature for young adults. This is a biographical narrative about a girl who escaped the Rwandan genocide. So far, I’ve read the preface.
  • Smiling for Strangers: Another book for my paper. I can’t even remember what it’s about. That might be a sign I have too many books to choose from.
  • Zlata’s Diary: Zlata’s diary (I guess I’m being repetitive) was written during the Bosnian genocide.
  • Children of the River: This is a book about the Cambodian genocide. However, it was written by a woman in Oregon, so I question its authenticity.
  • The Clay Marble: I borrowed this book, another on the Khmer Rouge, through interlibrary loan, so it can't languish long in my pile.
  • Daniel Half Human: And the Good Nazi: This Jewish Holocaust narrative won the Mildred L. Batchelder Award.
  • Run, Boy, Run: This Jewish Holocaust narrative won the Mildred L. Batchelder Award. And, yes, I did mean to write that twice.
  • My Palace of Leaves in Sarajevo: I’ve narrowed down my topic, and this book may not make the cut. Is it wrong I feel guilty I might never read it?
  • Girl of Kosovo: Another book I might not get to. My heart is breaking.
  • Adem’s Cross: Sorry, Adem, I do worry about your cross, but you may not make the cut.
  • The Principles of Love: I asked for this book for my birthday. I've read the first few chapters but have yet to “get into” it.
  • "My Ox is Broken!": My sister gave me this book for my birthday. I’ve read—and enjoyed—a few essays about my favorite reality television show, The Amazing Race, but I have yet to read it from cover-to-cover.
  • Homestead: I think one of my mother’s friends recommended this book. In fact, I think the book belongs to my mother. Maybe I should return it to her?
  • Twilight: This book (and its sequel New Moon) has been a must read at the library. I’ve leant out my copy to friends to read, but I just haven’t gotten to it yet.

Now that I’ve finished Ties the Knot, which “to read” book will I choose? Unfortunately, time will make the choice for me. Because the paper’s deadline is looming over me, Over a Thousand Hills gets to leave the pile . . .

Friday, June 22, 2007

Shopaholic Ties the Knot

After reading two heavy juvenile (juvenile!) books, I am resting my psyche with Sophie Kinsella's Shopaholic Ties the Knot. I recently read Confessions of a Shopaholic and Shopaholic Takes Manhattan, but now I’m starting to question whether these books are actually pleasure reading. I feel immense amounts of stress as I read the misadventures of Rebecca Bloomwood.

I’m not spoiling the series when I say that Becky Bloomwood has shopping—and subsequently debt—issues. I have no debt; true, I don’t have as much savings as I would like (thanks to grad school tuition), but I am not in debt. Yet, from the moment I started Confessions, I felt anxiety. I was anxious about my financial situation. I was worried that I, like Becky Bloomwood, did not have enough money. I, too, needed to either spend less or make more. I even started dreaming about my financial situation. I haven’t dreamt about a book since reading The Eyre Affair—and I blame those dreams on my brain's SciFi/Fantasy immaturity.

Not only does Becky’s debt perturb me, but I’m not sure I should even like her. To be blunt—Becky is a liar. I’m only 75 pages into Ties the Knot, and Becky has already lied dozens of times. Considering all the lies she tells him, I’m not sure Luke Brandon should even be interested in Becky romantically. (To be fair, I’m also not convinced Becky should be interested in a workaholic like Luke.)

Yet, despite all the stress these books cause me, I am on the third in the series—and will more than likely read all five books. Maybe what attracts me are Becky’s imperfections. I know—and love—both shopaholics and workaholics. I have been known to tell a lie or two in my time. Maybe what ultimately comforts me and thousands of readers is that Becky can have so many flaws and make so many egregious mistakes but still be a likeable and loveable character. If people can love someone as flawed as Becky Bloomwood, surely they can also love someone as flawed as you or I.

Thursday, June 21, 2007

The Composition

After finishing Deogratias, I picked up The Composition by Antonio Skarmeta. Like Deogratias, The Composition deals with heavy material: dictatorships. Pedro lives in an unnamed Latin American country ruled by a dictator. His parents listen religiously to the radio, and Pedro watches neighbors taken away by the military. The military even invades his school, requesting students to write a composition on their families.

Although both deal with serious matters, The Composition could not be more different from Deogratias. The Composition is a picture book aimed at children; ultimately, though, it, too, is a book for adults. It contains no strong language or strong images. There is nothing openly offensive or potentially disturbing to children--and that is the flaw of the book. The significance of the story--the significance of the situation Pedro finds himself--is so subtle I suspect most American children would not catch or understand Skarmeta's meaning. Only an adult would truly understand the terror the dictatorship could inflict on Pedro and his family.

(I must acknowledge that Skarmeta is Chilean and the book was first published in Venezuela, so American children were not the original target audience.)

Dictatorships and genocides are both heavy topics--topics that should be addressed and written about. Deogratias and The Composition represent extremes in content and style. Deogratias is so bold, so in-your-face, that it risks offending the reader, turning her away. In contrast, The Composition is so subtle, so muted that Skarmeta risks losing the significance of the topic.

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Welcome to Book Rater

Welcome to Book Rater's Literature Reviews. I have an MA in English Literature and MS in Library Science, but what really matters is that I am a reader.

My latest obsession is reading young adult literature. I recently went on a YA mysteries binge--Christopher Killer, What Happened to Cass McBride, The Body of Christopher Creed--but I just finished a book so good and so disturbing that I have to start a blog just to write about it.

What is this book? Deogratias: A Tale of Rwanda by J.P. Stassen.

Originally published in Belgium and translated by Alexis Seigal, Deogratias is a graphic novel exploring the effects of the Rwandan genocide on Deogratias, the main character.

Although this is a young adult novel, the content is very adult. Stassen does not shy away from discussing the realities of the genocide. The language and images are strong, realistic, and disturbing. As a reader, I wanted to hide from these realities, yet I felt compelled to keep reading.

The story opens with Deogratias clearly suffering from delusions and substance abuse. Stassen uses flashbacks to reveal what led to Deogratias's madness--the horrors he had both seen and committed. Stassen boldly assigns responsibility for the genocide--Belg colonizers, French "peacekeepers," European missionaries.

The U.S. edition comes with a preface by the translator. Seigal provides important historical context for the graphic novel. Interestingly, he also attempts to temper Stassen's condemnation of Europeans and places the responsibility on all actors.

This is an R-rated book with R-rated language and images. Yet, both are appropriate for the topic, and this stark book might be the closest any reader comes to visualizing--and hopefully empathizing--with this tragedy.