‘And now for something completely different’

“Let’s face it, writing is hell.”
~William Styron

writers almanacI thought it was about time to take a break from the book reviews, and my attempts at writing articles I think may interest people, and hand today over to those who actually know what they are about.  Today, Wednesday August 28, 2013, I am turning my blog over to “The Writer’s Almanac with Garrison Keillor”.  For those of you reading who may not be familiar with this web site, it contains daily poems, prose, and literary history from Garrison Keillor, and other Authors.  Not only do these great folks keep this website full of wonderful tidbits, they also produce a podcast for us to listen to as we go about our day.  So, without further ado, take it away “The Writer’s Almanac”:

“Song of Smoke
by Kevin Young

To watch you walk
cross the room in your black

corduroys is to see
civilization start—
the wish-
whish-whisk

of your strut is flint
striking rock—the spark

of a length of cord
rubbed till

smoke starts—you stir
me like coal

and for days smolder.
I am no more

a Boy Scout and besides,
could never

put you out—you
keep me on

all day like an iron, out
of habit—

you threaten, brick—
house, to burn

all this down. You leave me
only a chimney.

“Song of Smoke” by Kevin Young, From Jelly Roll © Knopf, 2003. Reprinted with permission.

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It’s the birthday of the father of German literature, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe , born in Frankfurt, Germany (1749), the author of the epic drama Faust.

He moved to Italy in 1786, and when he returned to Germany two years later, he fell in love with a woman from Weimer, Christiane Vulpius, a 23-year-old who was 16 years his junior. That year, he wrote her an epithalamium, a wedding poem, but he didn’t actually marry her; instead, the couple lived together for 18 years unwed. That is, until one night, Christiane saved Goethe’s life by driving off a band of Napoleon’s soldiers who had broken in their home. Goethe went down to a church the very next day and married her, his live-in girlfriend of 18 years.

In 1806, the same year of the home invasion and marriage, Goethe published a preliminary version of Part I of his great work, Faust, the story of a brilliant scholar named Heinrich Faust, who makes a deal with the devil. The great epic has it all: seduction, murder, sleeping potions, an illegitimate love child, a stray poodle that transforms into the devil, contracts signed with blood, imprisonment in dungeons, heavenly voices, and even redemption. Faust is often called a “closet drama” because it’s intended to be read, not performed. Goethe spent 50 years working on this two-volume masterpiece, finishing it in 1832, the year of his death.

Christiane survived for only a decade after her and Goethe’s wedding. In later life, after recovering from a heart disease that nearly killed him, the 73-year-old Goethe fell passionately in love with an 18-year-old woman, Ulrike von Levetzow, and was devastated when she turned down his proposals of marriage.

Goethe, who said, “One ought, every day at least, to hear a little song, read a good poem, see a fine picture, and if it were possible, to speak a few reasonable words.”

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It’s the birthday of poet Rita Dove , born in Akron, Ohio (1952). Her father had a master’s degree in chemistry but had to work as an elevator operator because he was black. He eventually became the first African-American chemist to work for Goodyear Tires.

He encouraged his daughter to take advantage of education, and she was at the top of her class. She was chosen as one of 100 of the best high school students in the country to visit the president of the United States. Her parents assumed that she would go on to become a doctor or lawyer, so when she announced that she wanted to be a poet, they weren’t sure what to make of it. She said, “[My father] swallowed once and said, ‘Well, I’ve never understood poetry, so don’t be upset if I don’t read it.'” Her teachers at college told her that she was throwing her education away if she didn’t study something more practical.

But with her poetry collection Thomas and Beulah (1986), based loosely on the lives of her grandparents, she became only the second African-American to win the Pulitzer Prize for poetry, and she went on to become the first African-American national poet laureate.

Be well, do good work, and keep in touch.®

PRODUCTION CREDITS

Guest Host: Billy Collins
Host: Garrison Keillor
Writers: Betsy Allister, Holly Vanderhaar
Technical Director: Thomas Scheuzger
Engineer: Noah Smith
Producer: Joy Biles
Permissions: Kathy Roach
Web Producer: Ben Miller”

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‘You are NOT allowed to read that!’

bebelplatz-berlin-memorial-to-burned-books

Bebelplatz Book Burning Memorial

 ‘The fact that anybody wants to burn a book shows you how powerful the physical object is, both as itself and as a symbol’ ~ Chuck Wendig.

Until I married my American Husband I was not fully aware of the fact that there are people out there who want to restrict my access to the types of book I read, not just fiction but non-fiction as well.  I was also naive in thinking that book burning was a thing of history; for example the May 10 1933 book burning in Berlin, the monument to which I have visited.  Book burning is also a thing of the 21st century and takes places in America for various reasons; Non-approved Bibles, books and music in Canton, North Carolina in 2009; Tolkien’s works publicly burned in Alamogordo, NM, in 2001 as satanic.  Really?  In the 21st Century, here in America, intelligent people would fail to celebrate Tolkien’s masterful achievement and, instead, find it threatening enough to burn it?

I feel it would be amiss of me as a lover of the printed word not to write about this form of censorship and, how we are slowly creeping towards a more complete ‘Nanny State’ where we are told what is good for us, and how much of it we can consume.  I understand that there needs to be checks and balances in place for some things, but when it comes to art, and to me writing is an art form, personal choice needs to be allowed to run free.  If, after reading the synopsis of a book on a fly-leaf, we feel uncomfortable or it may be against our beliefs, we have the choice to put the book down and find something more to our tastes.

jailed-book1If you are completely confused by this topic, I’m referring to the upcoming Banned Books Week.  Whether you may be blissfully unaware, or choose to pretend it doesn’t exist, it does with challenged and banned books spanning all genres and reading age groups.  But what is Banned Books Week?  It is an annual event celebrating the freedom to read that is typically held during the last week of September and highlighting the value of free and open access to information; it brings together the book community, from reader to publisher, like nothing else can as they share their support of the freedom to seek and to express ideas, even those some may consider unorthodox or unpopular.

By focusing on efforts across the country to remove or restrict access to books, Banned Books Week draws national attention to the harms of censorship, and all of the books featured during this week have been targeted with removal or restrictions in libraries and schools, by individuals or groups. While books have been and continue to be banned, the fact is that, in a majority of cases, the books have remained available, unless you happened to be in Alamogordo NM, where not only Tolkien but the Harry Potter series by J.K. Rowling were committed to the flames.

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Although we are still a month out from Banned Book Week, I strongly feel it is an issue that needs to get publicity not just for one week of every year but all the time.  However, I know how difficult this would be so, in my attempt to stand up for an art form that gives me great pleasure, as well as broadening my mind and horizons, I am going to focus all of my posts for the week of 22-28 September 2013 with books that have been challenged since the beginning of the 21st century.  I will be choosing four books and proudly showcasing them on the blog.

I am giving you all advance warning of this, in case there are some people out there who would rather not see these books blazoned across their computer screen, and they will know to give my reviews a miss for that week.  I will not just be showcasing the books that week, but also listing why these books were challenged and also giving a little background on the Authors.  List of nominees for this week of challenged books are:

2001 – Fallen Angels, by Walter Dean Myers
2002 – Harry Potter (series)*, by J.K. Rowling (because I have never read any Harry Potter books)
2003 – The Amulet of Samarkand (The Bartimaeus Trilogy, Book 1), by Jonathan Stroud
2004 – The Alice Series, by Phyllis Reynolds Naylor
2005 – Like Water for Chocolate, by Laura Esquivel
2006 – The Handmaids Tale, by Margaret Atwood
2007 – The Chocolate War, by Robert Cormier
2008 – His Dark Materials trilogy, by Philip Pullman
2009 – Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil: A Savannah Story, by John Berendt
2010 – Running with Scissors, by Augusten Burroughs
2011 – The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen: Black Dossier, by Alan Moore
2012 – The Glass Castle: A Memoir, by Jeanette Walls
*Please note, where books are part of a series, I will only be featuring the first.

One last thing to bear in mind, and an indication of just how out of hand some of these book challenges are becoming; in 2010 in the Menifee, Calif. Union School District pulled the Merriam-Webster Collegiate Dictionary because a parent complained when a child came across the term ‘oral sex’.  Officials for the District said, at the time it was pulled, that they are forming a committee to consider a permanent ban of the dictionary; whether they went ahead with this is not known.

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Review: Harem Slave: One Thousand Nine Hundred and Four Days of Hell on the Persian Gulf (Human Trafficking Series) ~ Nancy Hartwell Enonchong

Harem Slave

Harem Slave is not your predictable formulaic sex-slave novel; it is above all, a gripping and often suspense-filled documentary of the harrowing life of a victim of human trafficking. It is, in many respects, a survival guide for girls who find themselves in such unthinkable circumstances. Intended for mature readers, Harem Slave is not gratuitously pornographic, but due to the subject matter, does contain considerable erotic material.

Tammy Simmons is every parent’s dream daughter: 18, blonde, a majorette, and unimpressed with how beautiful she is. An honor roll student preparing to enter Georgetown University, she seems destined to take her comfortable place in upper-middle-class America. She has taken to heart the high moral principles instilled in her by her tight-knit family, and dreams of being a diplomat. While visiting friends in Europe, however, she is abducted, and to her stunned disbelief, shipped to the Middle East and sold as a harem slave to an 81-year-old sheikh. He is scandalized when he discovers she’s not the buxom Swede he ordered, and sells her to the brooding and cantankerous Sheikh Saud. A year later, she becomes the property of Sheikh Fahd, who dyes the girls in his Rainbow Harem different colors; she is Miss Green. When Miss Purple furtively poisons him, she is bought by the handsome but mentally imbalanced Prince Ibrahim, who has been known to put slaves to death so he and his guests can enjoy their fresh corpses at his lavish parties. Fortunately or unfortunately, instead of taking her into his own harem, he leases her to an elite gentlemen’s club, part of a dark underworld on the Persian Gulf where brothels cater to every taste, every perversion, every excess. She quickly learns that brutality, even in the “nice” clubs, is the norm: in the worst, life expectancy is calculated in weeks. Disciplinary problems are threatened with being sent to a “snuff club,” where they are tortured to death as entertainment. To this point, Tammy has managed to adjust to slavery without completely negating her persona, but now, she almost comes unglued. She has no other choice, if she wants to survive, but to swallow her self-respect and obey orders. It’s a constant struggle. She is proud of herself for not falling apart during one particularly horrible assignment – and then is immediately trundled off to another that’s even worse.

How Tammy remains sane in this horrific environment is a tribute to the resilience of the human spirit, to the power of love toward those who deserve it the least, and to the defiant determination to find glimmers of joy – even lasting love – in a life awash with daily humiliation and degradation. Her caring heart, courage, and ability to understand her masters as fallible humans grappling with their own sets of demons are ultimately the keys to her salvation.

3 Thumbs-Up

This book is intended for mature readers only, and the overly sensitive may be wise to pass it by.

In this novel, the Author touches upon an ‘out of sight, out of mind’ topic – human trafficking and, given the topic I was expecting a little more than the book actually delivered for me.

The main lead character is female and unfortunately, at no point in my reading this book did I actually find myself caring about her.  She possessed all the traits of the over privileged and wealthy teenager, who always knows better than those around her, and disregards all advice given to her.  Because of this, and as harsh as it seems, I was really made to feel as if she got what was coming to her.

The book itself is intended to be a compilation of actual events that happened to women caught in the world of human trafficking, but it really stretched believe at some points with the women’s reactions to their ‘owners’.  I understand all about Stockholm Syndrome, but none of the behaviour exhibited by the characters evenly remotely put them in this category.  This does not mean that the book is not well researched, it is actually very well researched and written, but despite this it still sat firmly in the women’s soft porn genre, rather than giving me an insight into a criminal world that needs exposing.  I felt that so much more could have been done with this topic to make it a voice for those who are either still in ‘captivity’ or have recently been rescued.

Another downside for me, in the Kindle edition, was the erratic and choppy formatting.  I really don’t need a page full of half sentence paragraphs that I have to try to make sense of, on top of everything else that is happening.  A little more time with proofreading and editing would also have helped in taking care of some other errors that appeared throughout the book.  Usually I can work with these and they don’t detract from what I am reading, but in this case, it just made my experience a little harder to swallow.

I am not a prude, and like erotica, but I like it when it is open and declares itself as such, not comes in the disguise of something else.  If you are a reader that enjoys bondage and cruelty, then this would be for you.  If, however, you are looking for an informative read on human trafficking that could be used as a rally cry to help end this activity, I feel you may be sorely disappointed.

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Review: A Vision of Angels ~ Timothy Jay Smith

Vision

A terrorist attack planned for Easter Sunday in Jerusalem sets off a chain of events that weave together the lives of an American journalist, Israeli war hero, Palestinian farmer, and Christian grocer.

Alerted to a suicide bomb plot, Major Jakov Levy orders the closure of the border with the Gaza Strip. Unable to get his produce to market, Amin Mousa dumps truckloads of tomatoes in a refugee camp. Paul Kessler, an American journalist, sees it on television and goes to Gaza for Amin’s personal story.

Hamas militants plot to smuggle the bomb out in Paul’s car and retrieve it when he returns home, but he’s unexpectedly detoured on the way. Meanwhile, a Hamas member confesses to the plot, and the race is on to find Paul and retrieve the bomb before the terrorists can.

A Vision of Angels is a human drama set against the background of the Middle East conflict. Ultimately it’s a story of reconciliation and hope, but not before events as tragic as a modern passion play change the lives of four families forever.

4 Thumbs-Up

This is a book that could so easily have become derailed and ‘preachy’, as the subject covered within its pages is one we see and hear about daily on our national news; the conflict between Israel and Palestine.  So I was wonderfully relieved to see that the Author dealt with this volatile area with an unbiased and caring pen.  Too many Authors take sides in their writing when covering this topic and, I’m happy to say that Timothy J. Smith is definitely not one of them; he conveys through his writing a feeling of truth, familiarity and understanding.

There is not one main lead character but many, as the novel is written from a variety of different points of view that are all equally represented; there is no hint at all as to whether the Author leans one way or the other in his beliefs.  Through the eyes of his characters, the people who live in Israel and are subject to this everyday (to give spoilers would really be wrong in this review), we are able to understand the history of the area, what has happened and why it is still happening now.  To me this was the absolute strong point of the novel; it meant I could really empathize with the characters, and see through their eyes how futile and complicated the situation there really is.  For some readers though, they may feel it hard to empathize with the characters as this, after all, is a novel about the concept of war. Whilst all the characters are dynamic and complicated, they will incite one of two emotions in the reader, empathy or a general disdain.

The story moves at a cracking pace; it’s tragic, suspenseful, desperate and desolate and the conflict at times is brutally confronting; something we all need in this present day to make us take note to what is happening outside our own comfort zone.  Unlike our daily media reporting this novel is able to give the situation an underlying human perspective, which we all too often fail to acknowledge.

Ultimately, this story is a depiction of how continuing conflict can cause individuals to lose track of what is going on, and the actual reason they are at war. How it tears families apart while at the same time it bringing them back together.

To get a better understanding of how this works, how the characters and circumstances work together in this region, you really need to read the novel.  To try to describe it here would be to do an injustice to a sensitively covered topic, which has us reeling in the modern media.

I would definitely recommend this novel to lovers of international political and contemporary fiction and anyone who takes a keen interest in world affairs.

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