Kay: What’s Up, Doc?

2004 postage stamp featuring Dr. Seuss and some of his iconic characters

Tuesday, March 2, was Read Across America Day, a promotional gambit dreamed up by the National Education Association to promote literacy. March 2 is also the birthday of Theodor Geisel, also known as Dr. Seuss, the children’s book author. In past years, these two events were conflated in a partnership agreement between the NEA and Dr. Seuss Enterprises, publisher of the late author’s estate. 

No more. This year on March 2, Dr. Seuss Enterprises said it would stop printing six of Dr. Seuss’s books because of racist and insensitive imagery, and in celebrations for Read Across America Day, the NEA has left out Dr. Seuss’s name to promote books of diversity.

This analysis of Dr. Seuss’s work was first articulated that I know of a few years ago, and at the time, it floored me. As a kid, I loved Dr. Seuss’s work. I reread my favorites many, many times, and I can probably recite a lot of Green Eggs and Ham and The Cat in the Hat by heart. I had no memory of any racist language or images.

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Kay: Read Any Banned Books Lately?

Well, I missed it: the week of Sept. 27–Oct. 3 is Banned Books Week. I guess I missed that headline because I was too busy reading.

Banned Books Week was the brainchild of the American Library Association and other organizations in 1982, when the Supreme Court ruled in Island Trees School District v. Pico that school officials can’t ban books in libraries simply because of their content. Now more than 14 organizations sponsor the week and reach an estimated 2.8 billion readers and 90,000 industry professionals.

The banned book lists are based on information gathered from media stories and voluntary reports sent to the American Library Association’s Office for Intellectual Freedom from communities across the United States. However, surveys indicate that 82–97 percent of book challenges—documented requests to remove materials from schools or libraries—go unreported.

I read about the list back in the 1980s and was shocked to discover that Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye, a book that had profoundly moved me, was on it. It turns out that The Bluest Eye is one of the most frequently banned books of the last decade. Other classics that have hit the list in the last 10 years are Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck, A Brave New World by Aldous Huxley, and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain. To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee seems to have made the list every year since it was written. (For more frequently challenged books, go here.)

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Kay: What Next?

The view from my living room window, 10am, Sept. 9, 2020.

A friend gave me a $50 gift card to Amazon for my birthday a few weeks ago, and today, while we in California’s Bay Area are living with skies that look like the apocalypse, I spent it on ebooks.

I was frightened when I woke up this morning to dark red skies—fires are all around us but haven’t been of immediate danger. However, when I first moved to California, a big fire erupted just a mile or two behind my house and burned through more than 3,000 homes and killed 27 people. Most of my street evacuated voluntarily at that time, but I had faith in the fire department and the hydrant at the end of my block. My faith was rewarded, too: the fire came no closer than about three-quarters of a mile. Continue reading

Kay: Finding New Authors with StoryBundle

One of the four books offered in the “Glitter and Hope” StoryBundle

One of the four books offered in the “Glitter and Hope” StoryBundle

I recently fell onto the mailing list of an outfit called StoryBundle, an organization of which I had never heard until then. They’ve been operating at least since 2017, so that’s my bad. And while I’m not one to promote shamelessly (and full disclosure: I have no connection to these folks whatsoever and have not benefitted from their program), their operational model is an interesting one.

StoryBundle groups books by indie authors and sells them for a short time at a low base price (usually $3), inviting purchasers to pay what they will, as long as it’s at least that base amount. In the current bundle, you’d get four books for that $3. If you pay a minimum of $15, you get 11 books—the original four, plus seven more “bonus” books.  You choose how much of your payment goes to the author and how much goes to StoryBundle, and a portion of your payment can go to a charity of your choice, as well. Continue reading

Kay: I Blame Jennifer Crusie

For the last couple of decades, I’ve traveled during the holidays, enduring the long lines at the airport, the crowds, and the bad tempers that the season seems to bring out in revelers. This year I stayed home. I went to a small dinner party, I had a couple of people over, and on New Year’s Eve, I stayed home and watched most of Good Omens with David Tennent. I thought I’d probably get the new year off to a good start if I had good omens.

Alas for my other activity, reading. I spend two weeks reading. A lot.

No good omens there.

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Kay: Lost in Libraries

The one-year-old Central Library in Calgary, Canada

Probably most of us following this blog started our reading careers in a library. I know I did. I worked in a few, too. They were cool places in the humid summers of the American Midwest. Libraries in California, where I live now, struggle for funds to stay open. Thanks to a local referendum that passed with more than 2/3 majority, my main library is now open 60.5 hours/week, and my local branch is open 28 hours/week, a gain of 12 hours over previous years. Thank you, fellow taxpayers!

So it was with interest that I read in The New York Times about what libraries are doing to attract and keep patrons. The amenities some of them offer almost (or absolutely) overshadow their book collections. Continue reading

Kay: What’s onYour Shelf? I’ve got “The Devastating Boys”

Here’s my last installment (probably, anyway) of my personal Books of Summer. I’ve been cleaning off book shelves while I recover from surgery, and it’s been interesting for me to see what I’ve held onto unread for years, sometimes decades.

This week I polished off The Devastating Boys, a short story collection by Elizabeth Taylor. This Elizabeth Taylor is not the American movie star and beauty queen of the mid-twentieth century. The Elizabeth Taylor of The Devastating Boys is a well-respected but largely unknown English novelist. Kingsley Amis described her as “one of the best English novelists born in this century.” Here’s a link to an uninspiring Wikipedia bio and an insightful critique of her writing and times in The Atlantic.

I’d read Taylor’s In a Summer Season a while back, and I didn’t finish it. I thought it had dated too much, I couldn’t empathize with the characters, and I wasn’t in sync with the satire. So I was skeptical about this collection of short stories. Continue reading

Kay: What’s onYour Shelf? I’ve Got “A Dog’s Ransom”

I’ve been catching up on reading as I recover from surgery, and I picked this book to read next because I like mysteries and our Lady friend Marie mentioned that she’d read a Patricia Highsmith. I thought I’d see how A Dog’s Ransom, the book I have, holds up.

First, let me say: Patricia Highsmith. This woman can write psychological horror really well. She wrote Strangers on a Train, which was made into an Alfred Hitchcock film (two strangers on a train agree to murder each other’s’ wives) and The Talented Mr. Ripley (a man takes over another’s identity). I haven’t read all her books, but I’ve read these two, and they are both very unsettling. Random acts spin slowly out of control, events spiral downward without anyone able to stop them, bad things happen to good people, the crooks go unpunished—it’s like that, on Every. Single. Page. Continue reading

Kay: What’s onYour Shelf? I’ve Got “Sleep No More” and “One Night Stands and Lost Weekends”

I’m continuing my pursuit of tidier (and ultimately empty) shelves—reading and then passing along the books in my office—and I’ve shot through two anthologies of short crime fiction by two well-known writers.

The first, a short (194 pages) collection called Sleep No More by P.D. James, is just terrific. I’m not a huge fan of the short story; it always seems to me that characterization can suffer with the shorter length. But James (whose novel-length detective protagonist is Adam Dalgliesh) has really nailed these. Dalgliesh does not appear in any of these stories; each presents a new set of characters who, remarkably, might get found out, but often get away with murder.

My favorite story, I think, is the longest one (maybe because it’s also the most amusing): “The Murder of Santa Claus.” It’s a rather satiric nod to the old-fashioned, country house Christmas story, where the characters eat goose, pull crackers, and sit before the fire, drinking sherry. Here’s how it starts: Continue reading

Kay: What’s onYour Shelf? I’ve Got “In the Pond”

I’m reading the books that I’m clearing off my shelves, preparatory to making more room in the office. This week I finished In the Pond by Ha Jin.

It reminded me of a family event. Years ago, at the high school graduation party of her daughter, my cousin lifted the three-tier, professionally decorated cake off the table to show it to her guests. In a sequence of moves that would put a Melissa McCarthy movie to shame, my cousin slipped on something, her foot shot forward, and her arms jerked up. The cake separated from the plate and summersaulted high into the air before the horrified gaze of all the guests, doing a beautiful swan dive straight into the retired, but still usable, chamber pot.

Somebody went out for donuts.

The story of Shao Bin, as Ha Jin writes it in In the Pond, is like that. A self-educated scholar and self-taught artist who works at a fertilizer plant in China, Shao Bin feels deeply wronged—and his wife deeply disappointed—when he is not assigned a bigger apartment for his growing family. Instead, only the party cadre “earn” larger spaces. Shao Bin—everyone—knows that the apartments are not allocated by need, as party rules dictate, but by party alliances, kickbacks, and bribes. He takes action, drawing a cartoon mocking the party leaders, which the local newspaper publishes.

This maneuver sets off a cascading series of events in which things can only go from bad to worse. Shao Bin applies for other jobs and is accepted for one, but the fertilizer factory party chairmen refuse to let him go because they don’t want the other workers to know that Shao Bin is qualified for such a good position. Bin applies to college and is accepted, but the factory party chairs refuse to let him attend because he is needed to draw propaganda at the plant. (And with slogans like “Utilize Methane; Turn Waste into Treasure,” who can blame them?)

Shao Bin challenges the leaders at every opportunity, breaking up meetings, writing letters of complaint, drawing cartoons and even graffiti to protest the actions against him. In time, the leaders at the factory find a solution for their troublesome worker, but it comes at a price—and it’s not exactly what he expects.

Winner of the National Book Award in 1999 for Waiting, Ha Jin paints a picture of life in a provincial Chinese town, with its depictions of the pettiness of the officials and their scheming to maintain status, that feels very true to life. And I had to root for Shao Bin, who takes up his narrow calligrapher’s brush to confront the powerful party leadership, with repercussions that reach far past his home town and the Harvest Fertilizer Plant. This book is dark and funny, even as you see the cake take off into the air and know that it can’t land anyplace good.