Thursday, September 30, 2010


Every year the last week of September is Banned Book Week. I clip on my banned book pin, I read up on what books are currently in danger of being pulled from schools, and I get ranty about the rights of readers and writers. Free speech! Literature to the masses! Down with censorship! And yes, I believe in all of those things. Strongly. But it occurs to me that not everyone knows what I'm so up in arms about.

We live in a glorious culture, one where if you want to you can stroll down here to the bookstore and buy any of the books that were banned this year. It is fantastic. And it leads people to ask me, again and again, what it means to ban a book. After all, it's right here on the shelves. Customers can put a banned book right in their hot little hands and take it home. How forbidden could it possibly be? Turns out quite a bit if you don't have the means to buy your books.

When a book gets banned it is pulled from libraries and schools. Sure, some retailers (I'm looking at you Wal-Mart) will refuse to stock a book if it is banned, but most chose to listen to dollars rather than angry letter writers. What this means is that we are removing those books from a significant portion of our population and culture: the poor and the young. Think about the books you read in school. The books that impacted you, shaped your life, and helped you grow into the person you are. Now recognize that the odds are at least one of those books is banned. Possibly several of them.

Banned books are rarely as inflammatory as the now notorious Catcher in the Rye. In fact, most of the books we placed on our banned book shelf this week are indistinguishable from their non-banned peers. A Light in the Attic? Banned. To Kill a Mockingbird? Banned. The Diary of Anne Frank? Banned. (For being a "downer" no less.) Blood Meridian, one of the most horrifically violent books I've ever skimmed (I'd say I read it but I couldn't face it)? Not banned. These books have the sole distinction of aggravating the wrong person, and that person fought to have them silenced. And that person succeeded. Or did they?

So long as we, as readers, educators, writers, booksellers, or just plain old conscientious citizens, continue to fight for our right to read we cannot lose. If you hear about a book being challenged write a letter of support. Defend your schools and libraries. And read. Read read read, and share those books with everyone you can. Our freedom to read is one of our most precious rights. Revel in it. Defend it. And fight for it when need be. The children of the future will thank you.

- t

*To learn more about Banned Books Week visit the American Library Association.*

Monday, September 27, 2010

Experiences in Adolescent Literature or Why Haven't I Grown Up Yet?

This semester I decided to enroll in CSU's Adolescent Literature course. This has been an interesting experience because:
a- Adolescent Literature is generally (always) easier to consume than Chaucer or Keats.
b- We get to revisit at least one book from our own adolescence.
c- This class will consume all of my free reading time until finals are over in December.

The reading is easy, but nonetheless time consuming. In addition to the 13 predetermined books assigned, we are required to read an additional 3000 pages of adolescent books of our choosing.

So don't be surprised if every blog post between now and December 17 is talking about adolescent books. And don't be surprised if you come into the store one day and I'm throwing a fit because Jimmy texted Janie, but she IMed me that she didn't like him, and no one sat by me on the bus ride to school, and my parents don't understand me AND NO ONE EVER WILL EVER EVER. Just kidding.

I am beginning to realize, though, that there is still a lot of teen left in me. I didn't expect to enjoy the books we've been assigned as much as I have. The last one, in particular, struck a chord within me. Black Box by Julie Schumacher was beautifully and dramatically written, ideal for any teen, especially girls. This book tells the story of Elena, whose older sister Dora is placed in the hospital's psychiatric ward after an attempted suicide. Elena struggles with how to tell people at school where Dora is, how to keep her own life in balance after her family's upheaval, and ultimately feels responsible for "saving" her sister. I was surprised to find that I was crying by the time I finished. Recently my younger sister has had to deal with problems that no one should have to handle, and I related to Elena's sense of helplessness and inner-conflicts.

Black Box isn't the only one of these books that has touched something within me. The others have either reached the child-like part of my soul that I had been neglecting or made me consider that maybe I'm not as grown up as I like to believe. The issues handled in Schumacher's book reached me at the age of 21, and I think the message would have still reached me if I were thirty years older. We are not all as wise and mature as we like to pretend. Often we feel like outcasts, misunderstood by those closest to us, and many other emotions usually deemed "teenage." I shunned these books before because I assumed that I had learned everything there was for an adolescent to learn, but I am still vulnerable to the world. While these books may be simply written or have a 16-year-old protagonist, they still offer solace, advice, and most importantly, permission to admit that maybe I'm not as grown up as I appear to be.

Saturday, September 25, 2010

"Oh God! No More Elves!" Or, An Argument for Genre Fiction

Being an English major and working in a bookshop is an interesting combination.
If I had to make a comparison, I'd say it's like visiting Disney world, applying for a job there on the off chance that they'll hire you, and then being handed a mop and a bucket with the instructions, "Wait at the bottom of Space Mountain."

What I mean is, in being instructed how to write, you learn all of the dirty little secrets that plague the literary world. Like working at Disney World and learning that Mickey is just a guy in a suit. The most distressing secret to me, I would have to say, is the advice "If you want to be taken seriously, you won't write genre fiction."

It's not just advice, either: in the creative writing department, it is strictly forbidden to write anything 'genre' for a class. Professors tell us specifically that genre fiction has no place in their English department.

When I first learned this, I was crushed.

For background: I grew up with genre fiction. My Dad read me Hubbard's Battlefield Earth when I was four. My favorite books when I was learning to read were Star Wars offshoots and the Chronicles of Narnia. When I discovered Dungeons and Dragons, I read nothing but the Forgotten Realms books. When I was in High School, there was a period where all I read was H.P. Lovecraft. My favorite author is still Neil Gaiman.

I love genre fiction.

But here is my Professor, telling me that I can't write anything that even comes close. Apparently, the realism fixation that started with Hemingway hasn't quite left us. So I learned to like Raymond Carver and Jack Kerouac, finding solace in the arms of Cormac McCarthy and nonfiction comic authors like Alison Beschedel. They're all fantastic authors; I could easily recommend any of them to most anybody.

Slowly, I came to resign myself to the fact that the Top Fifteen Bestseller lists had an average of three books concerning either the Holocaust or Post-Colonialism at any given time. With authors like Nicholas Sparks and Kathryn Stockett dominating the charts, it seemed like there was no hope for genre fiction. My professors were right. And it seemed I was all right with that. Maybe literary realism wasn't so bad, after all.

But there was something missing.

After a while, I began to crave spaceships. I wanted sword-fights. I wanted a good ol' zombie invasion.

Which brings me to my point: I can appreciate realism. I really can. But there are some things it just doesn't do for us, like post-apocalyptic wastelands and dragons. It's my opinion that the strength of so-called 'genre' fiction lies with the theoretical: there are some things that Hemingway just can't get across with drunken expats and crippled ambulance drivers.

Genre fiction allows for speculation into things that just couldn't happen, otherwise. In doing so, authors of genre fiction can explore the symbolism of a particular fantastical aspect to its fullest extent; using things that don't exist, genre fiction can shine a brighter light on the things that do.

I believe it is folly to state that you won't be taken seriously if you write genre fiction. I mean, look at Kurt Vonnegut or Haruki Murakami: their books aren't exactly "true to life," but Sirens of Titan and Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World are two of the most poignant and emotionally charged books that I've ever read. One of them has space-ships. The other has unicorns.

In other words, genre fiction is like getting a job at Disney World and realizing that, even though you have to clean up little kid spew, Space Mountain is still a pretty rad ride. Every so often, it's worth riding even though all of the serious Disney World employees are standing back with their arms folded saying "I can't take you seriously. You ride Space Mountain."

Guys. Come on. You work at Disney World.


Monday, September 13, 2010

Book Trailer for the Next Big Blockbuster

You may not have known that the powers that be make trailers for books, much as they do for movies. These trailers are designed to fascinate, titillate, and otherwise raise interest in the book.
So, Ken Follett has a new book coming out. It's Called Fall of Giants, and is the first in a trilogy that spans the twentieth century. You may already be a fan of Ken because of his historical doorstopper, Pillars of the Earth, and its sequel, World Without End. I myself enjoyed these two books immensely and am very much looking forward to his new series. So, click on this link to learn more about this book. Sure to be a great holiday gift! You can read it very quickly yourself before giving it away! (Sorry, Mom.)

Thursday, September 9, 2010

The Hugo Winners, or, Aren't We Smart!!

So the Hugo winners have recently been announced. If you are an SF/F geek like I am, you've been waiting for quite a while to see who will be honored. This is the big one for science fiction, just the the Edgars are the big one for mysteries. And we've got the Pulitzer and Man Booker for the more literarily minded of us. Speaking of which, I'm reading Wolf Hall now, and I'm charmed.

But this is about the biggest fan-voted award for science fiction. The reason that I'm crowing is because we have already selected the winners for Best Novel, Best Novella, and Best Novelette as book club selections, long before the awards came out! Check it out, if you will, in our book club section of our website.

This month, our Strange Worlds book club is reading Peter Watts' first book, Starfish. He just won Best Novelette for The Island, which you can also read for free on his website.

This month, our Traps and Trenchcoats mystery book club is reading The City and the City by China Mieville, which tied for Best Novel with Paolo Bacigalupi's Windup Girl, which we are reading NEXT month for Stange Worlds! I am swooning because Paolo Bacigalupi will be here IN PERSON on October 25 to answer the question of what it feels like to have your first novel win the Locus, Nebula, Hugo, and Jack Campbell awards. Also, he's very cute. (Don't worry, Paolo, I'm married. I'm just sayin'.)

As if all this madness wasn't enough, we will be reading a selection from Charles Stross in January for Strange Worlds (Glasshouse). He just won Best Novella.

Plus, two of our other author selections, Roger Zelazny and Octavia Butler, were just inducted into the Science Fiction Hall of Fame this year.

So, in short, our science fiction book club rocks. We've got incredible taste and the ability to select the biggest and best authors for your reading and discussion pleasure before anyone else has figured it out. You are welcome to come visit our merry crew- we meet at the store on the second Thursday of every month at 6pm. We're friendly. Live long and prosper.

Friday, September 3, 2010

Choose Your Own Book

Who else remembers Choose Your Own Adventure books? Was there anything cooler in the 80s and 90s? Forget the slinky or the Rubix cube, pass me a box of those slim, white-covered tomes. Never has the second-person point of view been so popular and beloved. You could go anywhere or do anything. How else could you pilot a space ship and then go on to become a prisoner of the dreaded ant people all in the same afternoon? Now that’s magic.

For those of you who missed this phenomenon, Choose Your Own Adventure (CYOA) books allowed you to become the protagonist of the stories. At the end of each scene you got to choose what course of action to take. Do you hide from the goblins or go in sword swinging? Do you try to rescue the martian slaves, or do you take up trade with their captors? The choice was always yours. And often, if you picked a “poor” path, you died gruesomely. Hence the need to read with your thumb in the pages as you skipped around. If you were a cheater like me that is. What can I say. I tended to explode from my own heroics.

Part of the charm of CYOAs was the re-readability of them. Sure, one story was usually a short event, but you could read the same book over and over and it would be different every time (assuming you changed things up). As I aged I found myself wishing they made something similar for adults. I even toyed with the idea of writing one myself, but other pursuits always won out. A few authors did try, but never with much success. (Example: Pretty Little Mistakes by Heather McEltatton.) Why adult CYOAs never took off will always be a mystery to me. I suppose videogames had something to do with it, but that is just a guess. Well, imagine my surprise when I heard this week that there is a growing popularity online for what are being called word games, which are in all rights grown-up CYOAs for the digital age.

Choice of Games just released their newest contribution to the realm of online CYOA reading, Choice of Romance. While I don’t read romance novels I think the idea of a CYOA romance is sheer brilliance. How many times have you chastised a character for going with the wrong man/woman? I know I have more times than I can count. So here is your chance to set it straight. Think the Duke is a tyrant and prefer the soldier? The choice is yours.

So my question now is this: are we finally ready for adult CYOAs? Will the trend reach a resurgence? Will I be happily clearing shelf space in the future for a new section? Or should we renounce all of this? Keep books squarely in the realm of the passive, and leave our adventuring for other modes of entertainment? What do you think?

If you’d like to read new and exciting adult CYOAs, turn to page 42.

If you’d like to read only standard books, turn to page 11.

(Note: CYOAs came out in 1979 and they continued to release new titles until 1998. You can still order reprints both through us and through their new publisher, and we currently have several of the lovelies in stock here at the Firehouse, if you are so moved. Happy reading!)

- t