Protecting Our Children from Lesbians and Sherlock Holmes: Two U.S. School Districts Get a Jump on Banned Books Week

Two posts on recent cases of censorship in school districts:

Haruki Murakami Yanked from School District Reading List

Haruki Murakami’s Norwegian Wood was removed from a New Jersey school district required reading lists, days before classes were scheduled to begin for the year. Apparently, this book and Tweak: Growing Up on Methamphetamines “were both pulled from the list after parents complained about their gay sex scenes.”

Now I can’t speak for Tweak, but Norewegian Wood is on my bookshelf at home, although I haven’t read this particular Murakami title yet. However, based on other books of his that I’ve read, I have to assume that this is a rather knee-jerky bunch of censors. I’m guessing that most of the book is about a lonely man (perhaps a woman) with a love of at least one, if not more, of the following things: jazz, Anglo pop culture, and/or whiskey. Occasionally, I might also guess, s/he pines after someone younger than him, while other times, s/he talks to a particularly receptive cat. Devastating for young minds, I’m sure. Has anyone read this (or Tweak) who might care to comment?

Elsewhere, (via GalleyCat, which was itself via New York Magazine) a Virginia school district has removed “Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s A Study in Scarlet, the author’s first Sherlock Holmes novel, from sixth-grade reading lists after a parent complained that it was anti-Mormon.” Apparently, the book will still be available for older students. GalleyCat has helpfully linked to a free copy of the book on the Project Gutenberg website. Because as we all know, nothing makes a book more popular than trying to ban it.

And apropos of book banning leading to popularity, check out this recent Unshelved comic strip: http://www.unshelved.com/2011-8-24

Banned Books Week runs from September 24 – October 1 this year.

Aiding and Abetting

I’m planning a trip to Scotland in the not-so-distant future and so I thought it would be a good time to familiarize myself with the work of Muriel Spark. I gather from the little I’ve read about Ms. Spark thus far that Aiding and Abetting is not one of her more “important” works, but as a slim volume of truly imaginative, satirical, and irreverent fun, I think it really holds up. For a work of less than 200 pages, there’s just an incredible amount of plot—three equally creative and crazily spiraling plot lines all together—but somehow she makes it work. There are books in which “nothing happens” and yet everything happens. This, I would say, is a book that demonstrates the opposite principal. There’s a lot going on, and yet, very little has come to anything at the end of the novel.

Aiding and Abetting takes a historically factual murder case as its (loose) premise. In 1974, the 7th Earl of Lucan (nicknamed Lucky), an inveterate and generally unsuccessful gambler, decided to murder his wife. Instead, he accidentally murdered his children’s nanny and only injured his wife. He went into hiding the same night, and was never found by the police. It’s generally assumed that he was able to evade capture because he had the help of a network of other titled friends in England, who for various reasons, elected to help him escape rather than turn him in for his crime.

From here, Spark “absorbed creatively” and “metamorphosed” Lord Lucan’s story, blending it with a parallel tale of Hildegard Wolf, a famed German psychiatrist whose unorthodox method of spending most of her clients’ very expensive sessions talking about herself has gained her a high level of prestige in Paris, where she now lives. Dr. Wolf has a secret of her own, however: as an impoverished student in Germany, she infamously defrauded faithful Catholics all over Europe by posing as a stigmatic. When she was exposed, Dr. Wolf (then “Blessed Beate Pappenheim, the Stigmatic of Munich”), escaped the country, went into hiding, and completely reinvented herself as a successful, but actually uncertified psychiatrist.

The story begins as Dr. Wolf is introduced to not one, but two, Lord Lucans, both of whom want to employ her as their psychiatrist, and both of whom attempt to blackmail her on the basis of her background as a false saint. Spark adds one last thread to the increasingly complicated—but not difficult to follow—plot: the daughter of one of Lucan’s former friends and one of his former gambling partners are both engaged in an impromptu manhunt for Lucan, who they are certain is still alive.

I gobbled the story down easily over the course of a rainy weekend (the would-be hurricane Irene); the novel is broken down into 19, short, segmented chapters which each follow one or two of the running storylines. It’s made for fast reading. And while the psychology employed throughout the book is not particularly deep or convincing, there is a delightful, whimsical absurdity that forgives any false analysis that Spark might throw in. It’s all very much kept at the level of farce. Consider the reaction of Jean-Pierre, Hildegard’s companion of five years, when she finally reveals her past to him: “Why…did you not tell me before about your exciting early life as a stigmatic?”

The novel is not without more complex themes, of course. Overall, it could be argued to be a book about self-created myths, about the false personas that everyone creates to hide either their real selves, or the selves they no longer choose to be. We are who we choose to say we are; we are the product of the stories we tell about ourselves. And there’s always some truth in those stories. Hildegard, for instance, continues to insist—even while on the run, fearing exposure from her blackmailers—that “I caused miracles. I really did cure some people. Strangely enough I did.” The story that she told about herself—that she was a blessed stigmatic—may have been untrue, but it was real enough to feel like a genuine miracle to the people who believed in her.

The one element of the novel that I felt a bit ill at ease with was the final sequence wherein one of Hildegard’s patients, a grandson of a chief in central Africa, arranges for both Lucans to be invited to Africa (therefore out of Hildegard’s hair), only for one of the men to be eaten by cannibals.

Now, don’t get me wrong: I think the level of absurdity in this crazy ending is just pitch perfect, and on a narrative level, I’m actually all for the cannibals. Unfortunately, for a book published in 2001 and set in the 1990s, this turn of plot (and the various scenes of dialog leading up to it) has a rather anachronistic, Olde Worlde colonialism about it. The chief is referred to as “a wily fellow” who later decides that his grandsons “would benefit by consuming an earl.” In the best case scenario, this seems a reductive portrait of an African chief; in the worse, it’s simply ethnocentric and racist. It doesn’t help that a Mexican character earlier in the book is referred to as a “sage brown fellow.” It’s possible in both cases that Spark is affecting the prejudices of her emphatically stupid and dull Lord, but I’m not sure these scenes can be attributed to character flaws—it’s a little too implicit in the narrative itself.

For sheer imagination, flowing plot, and a dark sense of humor, though, the book is rather stellar. I look forward to reading more of Spark’s work in the future.

Melville House’s International Crime Imprint and the Kayankaya Thrillers

It’s been a summer of (crime) series for me. I reviewed the three novels in Daniel Woodrell’s Bayou Trilogy earlier this month, and have also just written a review/editorial on Melville House’s new “International Crime” imprint (MIC) and four of this line’s first published novels: the “Kayankaya Thrillers” by German author Jakob Arjouni. Arjouni has actually been published in the US before–three of the novels that MIC is releasing were already translated into English and published in the US, only to go out of print. But I’d venture to say that these reissues will basically be introducing his work to most Americans for the first time.

There have been a smattering of reviews of  the series (mostly Kismet) that you might be interested in checking out:

On Kismet:

Peter Rozovsky at Detectives Beyond Borders has also reviewed the whole series. You can see his posts here.

The full text of my review of the series is on The L Magazine website here; the full text is below.

***

“Crime=Culture.”So says Dumbo publisher Melville House about their new imprint, Melville International Crime. MIC represents the publisher’s latest venture to expand their existing catalog of fiction in translation, but although Melville House has introduced innovative series before, cultivating a line of international crime novels is not a particularly new idea. Gowanus-based Akashic Books launched its city-specific Noir series in 2004, and Soho Crime was dedicated to armchair travel and murder long before the Stieg Larsson boom. However, it is interesting to see a boutique press like Melville turn its attention to genre fiction.

Among the first books published by MIC are the “Kanyankaya Thrillers” by German author Jakob Arjouni. His private eye Kemal Kanyankaya is a character straight out of Hammet and a quintessential outsider-investigator: an ethnic Turk raised by adoptive German parents, he has always lived between two worlds in his hometown of Frankfurt, never entirely comfortable in either.

Happy Birthday, Turk! (easily the best in the series) finds the down-and-out Kanyankaya hired by a Turkish woman to track down the killer of her husband, a laborer whose death isn’t a high priority for local police. More Beer takes the suspicious conviction of four “eco-terrorists”in a bombing and murder as its premise; in One Man, One Murder, a German man hires the PI to find his girlfriend, a Thai prostitute who was kidnapped while trying to collect forged visa papers. Kismet, the most recent installment, finds Kanyankaya facing off with a violent Croatian gang. All unfold in a matter of days and are laced with Kanyankaya’s engagingly laconic sarcasm. There’s also a frank brutality which affirms the high stakes of each case and the lengths that Kanyankaya will go to get his man: he’s drugged, attacked by rats, suffers joint dislocations, is locked in a room full of tear gas, and is roundly beaten on numerous occasions.

Individually, however, the series is spotty. In both More Beer and One Man, One Murder, the intrigues become so entangled that it’s hard to care when Kanyankaya reveals whodunit—after making several key discoveries to which the reader is not privy. The detective’s understandable bitterness at being treated as an interloper or a fetish object feels increasingly belabored as he subjects every potential client to the same litmus test: “You must have checked the Yellow Pages. But why Kanyankaya, why not Müller?”And while he continues to investigate several cases after being fired and gives an impassioned speech about disenfranchised immigrants in Germany, he’s by no means an idealist. Treating housewives, prostitutes, buddies, and corrupt officials with equal disdain, it’s hard to believe that he ever cares much about the people involved in his investigations—he just wants the satisfaction of winning.

With this new imprint, Melville is capitalizing on their strengths in ways which stand to benefit both their current and potential audiences. Crime fiction fans are generally completists who want to read all of a favorite detective’s cases—even the rocky ones. And Melville has a knack for series—they’ve resurrected the novella as a viable (and marketable) form with their brilliant “Art of the Novella” line, establishing their press as a quality arbiter of taste while also engendering something like brand loyalty.

By expanding into international crime fiction, Melville stands to create a similar loyalty among new readers. Any even marginally good crime novel serves as a shorthand introduction to the social concerns, epochal tensions, and defining fears of its culture, the way the Kanyankaya thrillers address Germany’s struggle with immigration, cultural inclusion, and nationalism. Crime is culture, made accessible.

Fun Reads for Friday

Just two today:

Reykjavik is Declared a UNESCO City of Literature via Visit Reykjavík

There are some great tidbits in this short article, not least the fact that Reykjavík is only the fifth city in the world to earn this designation and also the first one for whom English is not the native language. For reference, the other Cities of Literature are Edinburgh (Scotland), Melbourne (Australia), Iowa City (USA–really? Because of the Writer’s Workshop??) and Dublin (Ireland). Also a good quote from Reykjavík’s mayor, Jón Gnarr, who is himself a talented actor, writer, and comedian. Says Gnarr:

“This is a great honour for Reykjavik. Icelandic art and culture is internationally known and this title confirms just how valuable our cultural heritage actually is. Our culture is the most valuable of all our resources”

What States Have the Highest Concentrations of Librarians? via GalleyCat

More sad news about the decline of working librarians in the last 30 years. There are two different ways of counting librarian populations in the quoted survey, which was complied by Social Explorer: largest librarian populations in general, and highest concentration of librarians, based on the overall population. It breaks down thusly:

Considering the nation today, the states with the largest librarian populations are: Pennsylvania, Illinois, New York, Texas and California.  Meanwhile, the states with the highest concentrations of librarians (or librarians per capita) are: Vermont, D.C., Rhode Island, Alabama, New Hampshire.

The rest of the report gives all sorts of information about librarian demographics from 1880-2009, for instance, it’s not always been a profession dominated by women (although that has basically been the norm since the 30s), and as a profession, we’re apparently at the height of our marriageability(62% of librarians are married today, vs. 1 in 3 in 1880). The GalleyCat article has some nice links to other organizations and sites tracking librarian data, but for the full Social Explorer report, see here.


The Bayou Trilogy

I recently reviewed Daniel Woodrell’s “Bayou Trilogy” for Reviewing the Evidence. Woodrell came across my radar when I saw the film adaptation of his book Winter’s Bone, which was a tense, atmospheric, and evocative story of a young girl trying to step into her parents’ shoes, to save her home and take care of her two younger siblings. I decided to wait for the images of the film to subside a little before reading the book, so the reissue of three of Woodrell’s previous books–all starring Detective Rene Shade–was very welcome to me. And while I wouldn’t necessarily suggest that you sit and read all three books in a row (that gets a bit monotonous), each maintained a very cinematic quality, as well as a flare for regional descriptions and dialog. My full review is below, or you can read it as it was published, here.

***

Although Daniel Woodrell has been earning the respect of critics and cultivating a devoted fan base for quite some time, his “country noir” novels, as he has named them, have garnered renewed attention in the last year, thanks to the astonishing success of the movie adaptation of his 2006 novel Winter’s Bone. This spring, three of Woodrell’s early novels—starring his shambling Creole detective Rene Shade—have been republished as The Bayou Trilogy, and are sure to gain the author even more acclaim for their cinematic, gritty, and occasionally poetic portrayals of the perpetually backsliding town of St Bruno, Louisiana.

 Woodrell fills St Bruno with a colorful cast of downtrodden men and women for whom double-dealing and neighborhood loyalty are a way of life. Foremost are the Shade family, who play pivotal roles in all three novels in the trilogy. There’s Ma Blanqui, owner of the pool hall where her itinerant husband, John X., had once made a name for himself before he abandoned her and her three boys. The oldest of the brothers, Tip Shade, owns the Catfish Bar, whose clientele make a habit of avoiding the police. The youngest, Francois, is an up-and-coming District Attorney. And right in the middle is Rene, a failed boxer turned cop who treads a fine line between the law-abiding and criminal worlds of his family and hometown.

Under the Bright Lights opens, as do all of the novels in the trilogy, on an over-confident, back country hood who is already in over his head, although he doesn’t know it yet. Woodrell’s first line introduction of this young would-be hit man provides the reader with a succinct initiation into the dark, subtly mocking humor, drawling dialog, and simmering violence that characterize all of the author’s work. “Jewel Cobb,” we’re told, “had long been a legendary killer in his midnight reveries and now he’d come to the big town to prove that his upright version knew the same techniques and was just as cold.”

Muscle for the Wing, the second novel in the trilogy, finds Rene rekindling the soured friendships of his past in order to track down the killer of a local policeman who worked as a guard for underground poker games frequented by some of St. Bruno’s most powerful men. The Ones You Do introduces Shade’s infamous ne’er-do-well father, John X. Shade, who is on the run with his adolescent daughter (Rene’s half sister) after her momma ran off with a local gangster’s fortune.

The novels are all very similar—especially in tone and pacing—which can lend to monotony if read in quick succession. Woodrell’s plotting is also a bit shaky: in particular, the racially-charged murder and political scandal in Under the Bright Lights quickly becomes muddled and its resolution is a bit over-determined. But plot is really a secondary concern here. Woodrell has a spot-on ear for the patois of his bayou residents and a gift for characterization that extends into the psyches and pasts of both his anti-heroes and their adversaries.

Each of the novels in the trilogy opens at a running start, and Woodrell keeps up the constant, frenetic pace throughout the books. The stories all unfold over the course of a few days, and are staged in a series of iconic locales: the Marais de Croche swamp, underground poker games, a strip club on the edge of town, an elegant and crumbling cathedral. It’s no wonder that two of Woodrell’s novels have been made into movies (prior to Winter’s Bone his book Woe to Live On was adapted by Ang Lee). Reading his novels, one can easily imagine watching them unfold on screen.