Sunday, September 26, 2010

Freedom to read

As you have likely heard, this week through Oct. 2 is Banned Books Week. Sponsored by the American Library Association, the week heralds the importance of maintaining access to thought-provoking and controversial literature.

The list of frequently banned or "challenged" books is astonishing - see here for examples of some of the banned classics. Then maybe pick a book that's unorthodox or unpopular - even better if it's something that makes you uncomfortable - and read it. I read Lolita this year; that addresses a topic I could not find more repugnant, and yet my life is far richer for having read it. Can anyone recommend something new for me to try? I am working on pushing myself outside of my political and cultural comfort zone.

In that vein, blogger and author Zetta Elliot has pointed out that the lack of diverse voices within published books is its own form of censorship. If authors of color and those who are otherwise marginalized (lower classes, queer, whatever it is) aren't able to get their books to the marketplace, what are we, as a society, missing? As I pointed out before, the ghettoization of black writers into the "African American Interest" section of bookstores limits their exposure to readers and readers' exposure to their ideas. I hope we can continue to work to overcome that.

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Empress, by Shan Sa

This is for Historical Tapestry's blog challenge, S is for Shan. (and Sa.)

In the seventh century, Chinese emperors were building towering pagodas, designing meritocratic administrative systems, and consolidating an empire of about 50 million people, among many other advances. One of the emperors responsible for that flourishing progress was a woman - China's first and only empress to rule in her own right. History has been unkind to Empress Wu, condemning her as a conniving child-murderer and tyrant, even while admitting her accomplishments. In Shan Sa's Empress, Heavenlight, as we come to know her, has a chance to tell her own story.

Heavenlight is born to a commoner father who, through his service to the first emperor of the Tang dynasty, gained noble status and a noble wife. He is a good man, but when he dies from shock at learning of his Emperor's death, he leaves his wife and three daughters to the unkind mercies of his merchant family. Twelve-year-old Heavenlight achieves escape by impressing a general with her quick with and unique charm, as he arrangers for her to earn a place in the royal household.

Heavenlight finds herself among ten thousand "beauties" vying for the attention and the bed of the new emperor. Her path from there to Empress, ruling in her own right, is astonishing and engaging. She falls in love with both men and women, she contends with plots swirling around her, and she tries to stay true to her convictions and her country.

This book is translated from the Chinese, and as it is from a culture I don't know, a language I don't speak, and a period in history I am completely unfamiliar with, it is a little difficult to judge. The narrative does not unfold seamlessly, but that could be a cultural difference. Sometimes I had trouble differentiating between Heavenlight's desires or dreams, and what actually happened to her, but that could be a translation error. In sum, this was a fascinating book that exposed me to a rich culture and history that I knew nothing about, even if it was not always a compelling read. I would recommend it, though, as Heavenlight is an unforgettable character and her world is mesmerizing.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Lovely, just lovely

What a pretty weekend! It's been so pretty that I haven't been productive at all. I was going to work on a stop-motion film (finally bought some video editing software, am super excited!), and always hope to write, but I didn't do either. What I did do:

- Watched The Triplets of Belleville, an animated adventure in awesome craziness
- Ate delicious Malaysian food on a roofdeck
- Went to the Textile Museum
- Discovered a lovely secluded park where I read (working on my next Historical Tapestry book :) )
- Sawed off one of those really annoying security tags from a skirt I bought (2nd hand, and the tag was still on). This might be the greatest victory of the weekend.
- Watched my husband jump out of a plane and wished I had done so too. Maybe we will ...

Now I'm drinking chai (just a little bit of honey!). Really, does it get any better? I might squeeze one more outdoor activity in ... or maybe I'll just write. Choices.

Could the weekend not be over yet, please?

The intro to the Triplets of Belleville, provided with the warning that the Josephine Baker "cameo" is creepy.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Gardener to the King by Frederic Richaud

This is for Historical Tapestry's blog challenge - R is for Richaud

The cover and title of Gardener to the King might lend a prospective reader to assume this slim novel is a light-hearted court romance, but Frederic Richaud's debut novel pulls far more weight than a first glance would suggest. The story of Jean-Baptiste de La Quintinie, gardener at Versailles to King Louis XIV, turns out to be not a lace-edged ode to royal glamor but an earthy exploration of individuality and existentialism.

La Quintinie is an appealing figure, a modest man who prefers his gardens to the courtier's balls, though he is kind-hearted enough to give the courtiers the benefit of the doubt and to love his King. When not spending time working the rows of his cabbages or pruning his fruit trees, La Quintinie wanders the French countryside, learning the peasants' wisdom and sharing his own. But when international and domestic events bring difficulty to the French, the King's response and the peasants' hardships make La Quintinie re-evaluate his loyalties - at a time when even a whisper of treason can, and does, send the King's subjects to the rack.

This was a charming read, executed in clear, crisp prose (much of this credit, I imagine, goes to translator Barbara Bray). Richaud is gentle about reminding us of the time period, resulting in a sense of gradual immersion rather than rich historicity. For such a short book, it works perfectly. His light touch on the descriptions also leaves the reader with time to contemplate the political and philosophical questions the author raises. I don't know if Richaud's subsequent novels (all historical, I believe) have been translated yet; if not, this is good motivation for me to work on my French!

Monday, September 6, 2010

Cemeteries and memory

I visited a few cemeteries this Labor Day weekend - three, in fact. I love old cemeteries because they are a tactile reminder of the richness of humanity and history. They remind me how many lives have been lived all over our world, some short, some long. Each of those lives memorialized holds a story, even if it's an ordinary one. I suspect, though, that each name carved into a headstone had a secret or a powerful moment, and I love imagining them. Even the infants' and the children's graves tell a story, one of their parents' mourning and of the difficult times they were born into. I read this morning in Scientific American that as recently as 100 years ago, a quarter of children died of infection before their fifth birthdays. The cemeteries we saw over the weekend bore this out, with family plots sometimes half-filled with tiny tombstones memorializing young children.

For a storyteller, cemeteries are both symbolic and a source of inspiration. How do we remember the stories our lives told? Who were these people? What does death mean for us? I have a book of Parisian cemeteries, with entries on the lives of the noteworthy, famous, and talented buried there. I love flipping through it and reading the entries; it's like an abbreviated social history. And each glimpse of a life makes me want to learn more.

This morning, I learned of a newish development in "death care" and tombstones (hat tip - Husband). One can now insert a barcode onto the headstone, and when a smartphone or other scanning device reads the barcode, they will be directed to a website with stories and photos. That's certainly more effective as a memorial function (at least for the short term, as long as society has the technology to read those barcodes and the websites to display the information). From a storyteller's or a romantic dreamer's perspective, such a function is much less provocative. And it is hard for me to avoid the sense that putting a barcode on someone's headstone commercializes them, makes their life into a commodity, even though that's just by association.

If that takes off, or if we develop other ways of memorializing ourselves, with videos embedded in mausoleums or 3-D holograms leaping from grave sites, I wonder what cemetery-wandering in the future will be like. Will it be harder to stretch our imaginations? And does it matter?

Princess Nijma

Princess Nijma