Santa brought my smart four-year-old grandniece a Rapunzel’s Tower for Christmas. She served me coffee in the tiny cups, breakfast on the tiny plates, and had me assist her as she painted the wallpaper with a magic brush and water, which revealed birds and other images amidst the tree branches. (We had a lot of fun.)
This gift is the latest in a series of toys and dolls she’s received that celebrate the world of princess fairy tales. For lack of a better term, she’s kinda princess-crazy. I found out that her cousins had even dressed her up as a princess on Christmas Eve. Goodness!
This morning, the princess craze came up during a meeting I had with fellow librarians and the fine folks at Sonic, America’s Drive-In. Adrienne and I from the Oklahoma Department of Libraries, Emily from the Metropolitan Library System, and Nancy and Becky with Sonic were discussing plans for the 2012 Statewide Summer Reading Program. (Sonic has been a corporate partner for the program since way back in 1998. They’re the best!) When Nancy mentioned that Sonic provides toys with an educational component in their Wacky Pack children’s meals, as opposed to the Ariels and Sleeping Beauties found in other restaurant kid meals, I said that was great, and I admitted that I was having a problem with the whole princess thing. Just what kind of message are we sending to our young girls, anyway?
Becky noted the recent marketing strategy of making more toys and products in pink—including fishing tackle boxes and camouflage clothing!—to attract girls and women. She also mentioned a YouTube video of a young girl commenting on gender marketing. (See below.)
Once our meeting was over, I headed down to my car, started the engine, and turned on the radio, which was tuned to KGOU, an NPR station. Right then, on the Dianne Rehm Show, a woman was talking about pink toys! (Really, you can’t make this kind of stuff up.) Turns out the guest was Peggy Orenstein, who has much to say about gender marketing and its possible impact on girls in her book Cinderella Ate My Daughter: Dispatches from the Front Lines of the New Girlie-Girl Culture. From the book description:
Pink and pretty or predatory and hardened, sexualized girlhood influences our daughters from infancy onward, telling them that how a girl looks matters more than who she is. Somewhere between the exhilarating rise of Girl Power in the 1990s and today, the pursuit of physical perfection has been recast as a source—the source—of female empowerment. And commercialization has spread the message faster and farther, reaching girls at ever-younger ages.”
You know when there are reality shows featuring toddlers in tiaras that there’s a problem. Still, like Orenstein, I tend to believe that girls will be girls, and boys will be boys. Why fight nature? But that doesn’t mean we need to harden the gender differences within our culture. More than anything, I think I share a belief with the author that children should be children. The author investigates her concerns like a master sleuth. More from the book description:
She visited Disneyland and the international toy fair, trolled American Girl Place and Pottery Barn Kids, and met beauty pageant parents with preschoolers tricked out like Vegas showgirls. She dissected the science, created an online avatar, and parsed the original fairy tales. The stakes turn out to be higher than she—or we—ever imagined: nothing less than the health, development, and futures of our girls.”
This is definitely a book I want to check out.
In another part of the forest, my smart eight-year-old grandnephew received a BB gun for Christmas. But that’s another story…
I adore my little niece and nephew. They are sweet, kind, intelligent children and they have loving parents who offer them unconditional love and who do a good job of teaching them right from wrong. It’s just that their “Great and Powerful Uncle Bill” (that’s how I sign my name in their gift books and greeting cards) tends to worry.
And before I leave you, here’s that YouTube video of young Riley ranting about pink toys.
I. Can’t. Wait.
Internet Movie Database page on The Hunger Games
The Hunger Games Trilogy fansite
Other Okie Reads posts related to the trilogy:
• End Game
As professional consumers, Americans know that few things are as advertised. Take the Rapture in Tom Perrotta’s new novel, The Leftovers. The people who populate Earth in Perrotta’s latest aren’t even sure if the sudden departure of millions of fellow human beings *is* the rapture. It appears to be more of a random harvest, taking both believer and non-believer, the secular and the spiritual. Meanwhile, many God-fearing believers who banked on being taken up find themselves left behind.
Better to call it a “rapture-like” event, or simply the “sudden departure.”
The unknown quality of the tragedy only adds to the author’s exploration of how people deal with loss. How many of us have cried “Why?!” to heaven in Job-like despair? It’s horrible, but there are no answers, and there’s nothing anyone can do about it.
And so… we go on living, searching for something that will help us put all these pieces back into some comprehensible shape. And that is what The Leftovers is all about.
It’s the story of the Garvey family of Mapleton, Massachusetts. None of the Garveys have departed, but they must now survive in this strange, new world:
• Father Kevin is serving as the town’s new mayor, trying to speed the healing process in his community.
• Mother Laurie abandons her family to join a cult called the Guilty Remnant, whose members take a vow of silence, wear white robes, and follow people around and stare at them so as to be a constant reminder that the world is ending and we better be ready. (Oh, and they are required to always be smoking when they’re out in public, to emphasize the fact that the end is near, so, like, “why worry about lung cancer?”)
• Teenage daughter Jill, a witness to the disappearance of a friend, is reeling from the departure.
• Son Tom is following the prophet Holy Wayne, who apparently has the ability to absorb the pain of others for a brief time.
It’s also the story of Nora Durst, a woman who lost her entire family to the departure. Her pain and guilt are palpable.
As I followed these characters on their journey, I was treated to an inside look into the Guilty Remnant, the fall of Holy Wayne, the cruelty of fanaticism, the odd and surprising connections that operate around us, and—ultimately—the harvest of hope that I immediately recognized as grounded and true, for it’s the harvest that has kept mankind going since our beginnings. It’s the one that says, “Here. Look what I’ve found.” There is a reason to go on. There is a reason to live.
Perrotta has a way with words. Beyond the story of these lost souls, readers are treated to a dose of writing that rings as true as that final harvest.
If you haven’t read Perrotta before, you may be familiar with two movies adapted from his novels: Election, a dark and hilarious work about an ambitious and insufferable high school girl and the male teacher who tries to get in her way; and Little Children, a trip through suburbia accompanied by pedophilia, infidelity, and redemption.
Brian Selznick’s new children’s book, Wonderstruck, is out now, and it’s a wonder to read. I’m halfway through it and will do a review later. Please don’t think this book is just for kids. It’s great for adults, and would make an absolutely wonderful shared reading experience with the young people in your life.
Wonderstruck tells two intertwining stories. One story stars young Ben in 1977, and is told in prose. The other story is about a girl named Rose in 1927, and is told completely through Selznick’s amazing illustrations. To find out more, watch this tantalizing trailer from Scholastic Press.
Selznick is also the author behind the award-wining The Invention of Hugo Cabret. Like Wonderstruck, it is told with both words and pictures. The book has been made into a movie by Martin Scorsese and will debut on the big screen this Thanksgiving. But you can watch the trailer now!
It was released way back in 2009, but it’s currently number one on both the trade paperback and e-book fiction New York Times bestseller lists. It’s been made into a hit movie with lots of Oscar talk, especially for lead actress Viola Davis. It’s a summer reading pick by Oprah Winfrey, and the release of the movie has made it a selection at book clubs across the country. A colleague at a conference in Chicago a couple of weeks ago waxed glowingly of the book and told me she plans to see the movie. A colleague at work told me there was no way she was going to see the movie. It’s hot. And it’s controversial.
It is The Help by Kathryn Stockett. Is it another landmark book and film on the civil rights movement, or (as one writer put it) is it “just another example of Hollywood’s interest in black stories, but only if they are told from a white protagonist’s viewpoint?”
The Help is about three women in 1962 Jackson, Mississippi: two black maids and child caregivers (Aibileen and Minny), and a white college graduate who has returned to the south (Skeeter). Skeeter aspires to be a writer, and she has been told by a professor to write about what bothers her. What bothers Skeeter is the racism and hypocrisy in her community, and she convinces Aibileen and Minny to spill their stories about life as black maids in Jackson.
Since Aibileen and Minny are major players in the story, it’s not tokinism that is causing the controversy. Much of the controversy revolves around the fact Stockett is a white writer, which immediately provokes many readers to first question the authenticity of such a story. Is it honest? Is this just going to be another story of a liberal white person standing up for the rights of black people? What does she know about the experience of black maids during that era? (Stockett’s family was cared for by a black maid until she was 16, when the maid died.)
Similar questions were raised when Rilla Askew’s novel about the 1921 Tulsa Race Riot, Fire in Beulah, was published in 2001. But leaders in Tulsa’s black community were quick to see the honesty and authenticity of Askew’s work and her five years of research into the clouded event. More than anything, there was an appreciation that the truth about the slaughter of people and the destruction of America’s Black Wall Street was finally seeing the light of day.
Stockett is finding it harder to win positive reviews from many critics and readers, despite the book’s phenomenal success. She is criticized for the dialogue she writes for Aibileen and other black characters (“You a kind girl”). She is criticized for the dialogue she writes for the white characters (Where is the southern accent?).
She is accused of making Aibileen an Uncle Tom, a “good” minority, a person who absolves the white people around her. The archetypes of Uncle Tom and Mammy are invoked by the characters and setting of The Help. Those archetypes add to the criticism that The Help ignores real history about the state of Black America in the 60s.
I suspect it is mostly a good thing when a book is the subject of debate in America. If nothing else, maybe more people will read it to find out for themselves, or read the reviews and discussions going on surrounding the work to understand the cultural, historical and social issues that are being debated.
Just take a look at what people are reading, writing and watching on the web about The Help:
The Queen’s Castle: Excerpts from Jet magazine and other items on The Help.
NPR: The Help Draws Audiences, and Ire
CBS News: Katie Courie interviews Kathryn Stockett
Check out this article on NewsOK about women who have cleaned homes, past and present.
Okay, it’s your turn: Have you read The Help, or seen the movie, or both? What’s your reaction? Are you staying away from the book and movie for some reason? Tell me, tell me, please…
Let me start by saying Larsson gives up any pretense of presenting a mystery in Hornet’s Nest. The first book, The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, had a strong mystery plot, which also served to introduce us to the oddity that is protagonist Lisbeth Salander. The second work, The Girl Who Played With Fire, had a mystery that opened more doors to help the reader understand why Lisbeth is the way she is. With Hornet’s Nest, Larsson kicks those doors down.
While the book lacks a mystery, it’s still a thriller. Like the previous books, it takes a while for Larsson to set the pieces in motion; but once he does, you’re off on a wild ride. Larsson introduces the other players who have conspired to make Lisbeth’s life hell on earth. The thrill comes from seeing how Lisbeth and the advocates around her apply their ingenuity, determination, and bravery to see justice win over corruption. Those advocates also include, of course, star journalist Mikael Blomkvist (or as an angry Lisbeth refers to him, Mikael F***ing Blomkvist).
It’s a pleasure to see Lisbeth prevail, and a pleasure to see our strange girl patch up her relationship with Blomkvist. The stage seemed to be set for the next seven books in Larsson’s planned 10-part series: Lisbeth and Mikael forming an odd couple that would solve mysteries and bring down misogynist thugs and corrupt politicians and businessmen. Two misfits against the evil in the world.
Alas, we may never get to see another book, just when the doors have been kicked open. Swedish law may prevent anyone putting pen to paper to try to see Larsson’s grand work completed. We will also never meet Lisbeth’s twin. Nor will we delve more into the problem of violence against women, perhaps the true theme of these works. But we still have these three books which make a very satisfying package. (Or am I wrong about this being the end?)
What is it about Lisbeth? These books are monsters, breaking sales records all over the world. Yes, they start slow but they soon become can’t-put-’em-down books. Our heroine lacks any sense of social graces. She’s rude, vindictive and unable to relate to most of the world. Does she have Asperger’s Syndrome? Perhaps. Yet, we understand why Lisbeth could be the way she is, because she has lost all trust in the world due to the extraordinary abuse she suffered.
Tiny in stature, she is an intellectual giant with a photographic memory and superhuman computer skills. Readers are amazed at her ability to snatch victory from overwhelming defeat. We root for Lisbeth, because we believe every human being has the right to be in control of her life and to live free. Perhaps that’s the simple reason I love the Girl.
• And here’s what I had to say about the first book a year ago. (Has it really been that long ago?)
Have your read Larssen? What did you think of the books?
Why do you love the Girl?
So… we’re starting a new feature here on the Okie Reads blog that is literally talking about books. We’re going to do short interviews with friends and colleagues about the books they have been reading, and share their thoughts with our readers.
First up: Abraham Verghese’s Cutting for Stone. Verghese is a doctor and academician who has written extensively about disease and its impact on individuals and cultures, as well as about medical ethics and the physician/patient relationship. Cutting for Stone is his first work of fiction.
I noticed fellow library staffer Rebecca Barker reading the book last fall. Since Verghese’s novel takes place in Ethiopia, where he grew up, and Rebecca had been to Ethiopia, I was intrigued to get her take on the work.
Q: What does the novel’s title, Cutting for Stone, refer to?
A: At first, I saw the title referring to the connection between the gall bladder surgeries performed on patients and the Hippocratic Oath’s inclusion of “do no harm.” Toward the end of the book, I related the cutting away of issues between the characters to establish relationships between father and sons.
Q: So, some cutting away needs to be done in order to find the connections?
A: Yes, to find the love. I think the theme of the book is love; love of brothers, man and woman, adoptive parents. Love of country, medicine and self.
Q: How does the author balance his interest in medicine with the format of a novel?
A: The book is full of stories about particular afflictions Ethiopians suffer and the medical procedures employed to help them. I could easily envision the surgical procedures since he describes them so well. At the same time, there is a theme in the book of keeping the patient’s welfare at the forefront. I was interested to learn that Verghese works at Stanford and interacts with patients regularly. He teaches interns to focus on the patient rather than the medical equipment for diagnosing disease. Sounds like a man with a heart for humanity.
Q: You’ve been to Ethiopia, and you have friends there. How well do you think the author captured this part of the world? Did you learn more about the country than you previously knew?
A: Verghese brought back vivid memories to my mind of the country and the people of Ethiopia as I saw on my trip. He included a historical perspective of which I knew only a little, but by and large, he refreshed my memory of beautiful people who live graciously in a stark and difficult environment.
Q: Sounds like this book gets a definite thumbs up from you.
A: I highly recommend this book, one of the best I’ve read in the past few years. The warmth and passion kept me engrossed from beginning to end.
And there you have it, an unqualified recommendation.
Have any of you out there in the blogosphere read Cutting for Stone? If so, what was your take on the work?
When my Aunt Lela was sent home with hospice several years ago, I was in charge of her initial care. One of the first items of business was gathering supplies so we could give her a proper sponge bath. I gave my nephew a list of items to pick up. My nephew looked at the list and asked, “What’s a dish pan?” I laughed.
My friend Ann told me a tale about her niece opening a cabinet filled with record albums. “What are these, Aunt Ann?” she asked. We laughed.
It’s always a little funny to me when a young person asks about a strange product or device from the past. Times do change, and we all remember asking our parents and grandparents about something we found in the kitchen drawer or out in the tool shed. But I get a rather odd feeling when I contemplate the fact that young people have never known a life without certain products or conveniences. I never knew life before television. Today’s young people have never known life before the Internet. And because they were born cyber babies, they have taken to this technology like the proverbial fish to water. My first phone was wired to the wall and confined to a room. Their first phone is a mobile texting device that can access a variety of social media websites. It’s a little unnerving for those of us who remember life before the triumph of personal technology.
While we love our modern devices and services, what kind of price do we pay for spending so much time with them? Susan Maushart wondered the same thing, and she decided her teenagers were spending way too much time connected to cyberspace. She decided to disconnect the family for six months, and tells the story in her new book, The Winter of Our Disconnect: How Three Totally Wired Teenagers (and a Mother Who Slept with Her iPhone) Pulled the Plug on Their Technology and Lived to Tell the Tale.
Not only did Maushart pull the plug on the Internet, she turned off the TVs and the video game box, and restricted use of cell phones. What followed is what the author calls an “immersion in RL (real life).” Saxophone was practiced, board games were played, books were read, grades improved, and face to face conversation became the norm. You can read more about the family’s experiment here, and how it changed their lives.
And now the big questions for those of you with children or grandchildren: How do you think technology is impacting your young ones’ lives for good or ill? Have you ever restricted a young person’s use of technology? What is family life like with today’s technology versus the family life you experienced while growing up?
Don’t have young people in your life? Then, tell us how your life pattern has changed with the advent of technology. Do you have fewer face-to-face get-togethers with friends? Or has cyberspace and social networking actually improved your social life?
All good questions. Let’s talk. Post your comments, thoughts and concerns below. Thanks!
Over the Christmas break, I read the novel Room.
If you’ve heard about Room in the press, or happened across some “best of” lists with brief reviews, you can probably understand why a few of my friends questioned the wisdom of diving into this new work by Emma Donoghue—especially during the “most wonderful time of the year.”
On the surface, the book sounds dark and depressing; obviously, Donoghue had to go to a dark place to write this. But our world is full of darkness, and one job of art is to illuminate this darkness in order to discover what it might say about our world and the human condition.
Five-year-old Jack is the protagonist, hero and narrator of the tale. The reader discovers very early that this intelligent and imaginative young boy is confined to a small room along with his mother, Ma. In fact, Jack was born in this 12-foot-square room, and he has never seen the outside world, since the only “window” is a high skylight. Ma has made a decision to make Jack’s whole world this room, telling him the people, animals and things he sees on television or reads about in books are not real—they’re just “pretend” things. Other than Ma and himself, the only other real things are Old Nick, the sinister man who occasionally visits in the night, and the food and other items Old Nick brings into the room.
When Jack makes a discovery soon after his fifth birthday, Ma decides to tell Jack the truth about their predicament, the truth about this fortified prison, and the truth about the outside world—truths Jack finds hard to believe. She also solicits Jack’s help in a do-or-die plan of escape, for Old Nick is suffering from the recession. He’s lost his job and is having trouble paying bills. Ma knows she and her son will never be left to live if Old Nick’s home reaches foreclosure.
I won’t give any other particulars away—there’s so much more to discover in this book—but I will tell you that Room is ultimately a life-affirming work. It’s a celebration of the love between mother and child, and a celebration of the resiliency of the human spirit—especially the spirit of a child who has been given the love, support, and nourishment every child needs.
While there are many tears in Room, this can be a funny book at times, and it is often a wise one. Jack’s observations of his world can make the reader chuckle, but they can also be oddly revealing, casting a new view on this tired and cruel old world.
If you decide to tackle Donoghue’s amazing book, know that Jack and Ma may linger with you long after you shut the door on this room.
A library for Ma and Jack by Emma Donoghue.
After you’ve read the book, visit What Jack Didn’t Know by Wendy Smith.
Room is packed with themes about parent/child relationships, child development, the concept of home, and so much more. It’s ideal for a book club discussion.
It’s hard to believe it’s been more than 30 years since the publication of Gail Sheehy’s landmark Passages: Predictable Crises of Adult Life. I read that book soon after its publication, and I can attest that it has been helpful in navigating the decades of my life, especially the 30s and 40s. Now, this is not to say that I have avoided those “predictable crises” along the way, including a classic mid-life crisis that put me in a deep funk. It’s just that I knew what was going on. Life can be scary, and information helps. Still, even though you can understand a crisis from an intellectual perspective, it’s very personal when it’s happening to you.
I thought about Passages after I finished Michael Cunningham‘s new novel, By Nightfall. Forty-something Peter Harris is a high-end art dealer and gallery owner in New York. He has a successful wife, Rebecca, who he married for love. He lives in an enviable space in SoHo, and enjoys the company of the rich and influential. But there are clouds on the horizon. He is struggling to relate to his young adult daughter, feels distanced from his wife, and wonders if his career has reached its apex, with professional stagnancy or decline around the corner.
When Rebecca’s troubled younger brother, Mizzy, comes to live with them, Peter’s midlife blues grow into a fully-bloomed existential crisis.
It’s a common condition when we start to feel the clock ticking on our own mortality. Have we made the right choices? Do we have time to again experience the exhilarating feeling of new love/new career/new life/new insert here.? Have we left something important behind? What is the meaning of all this? And true to midlife crises, there is often a catalyst that becomes an obsessive focus around which our larger existential questions are posed. For Peter, the catalyst is his brother-in-law, Mizzy.
The joy in reading this book, beyond Cunningham’s sublime writing, is wondering if Peter is going to chuck it all, come to terms with his situation, or find renewal within his current life. The joy, for older readers, may be recognizing yourself.
The biggest joy, for me, was the last line of the book. First lines of novels are celebrated and quoted often: “Last night, I dreamt I went to Manderley again.” “I am an invisible man.” “Mrs. Dalloway said she would buy the flowers herself.” No matter how masterful the last line of a book, we stay away from quotations because we don’t want to give anything away.
I’m going to give it away. I’m going to show you the last line of By Nightfall, if you want to see it. Just highlight the area below:
He begins to tell her everything that has happened.
It’s a simple sentence, not particularly artful unto itself, but magnificent in the context of this latest wonder from Cunningham.