Amanda Gates
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A Musings - September 2008

This week is Banned Books Week presented by the American Library Association. If you click on the link and search around on the site, you'll come across a list of frequently challenged books, such as The Color Purple and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, as well as the top 100 most challenged books from 1990-2000 and 2000-2007. No. 1 on the 2000-2007 list? Harry Potter. Others include:

I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, by Maya Angelou
The Perks of Being a Wallflower, by Stephen Chbosky
Catcher in the Rye, by J.D. Salinger
The Giver, by Lois Lowry
Blubber, by Judy Blume (she's on the list FIVE times)
The Things They Carried, by Tim O'Brien
Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry, by Mildred Taylor
The Lovely Bones, by Alice Sebold
Goosebumps series, by R.L. Stine

(Other links, Pop Culture Junkie, PopCandy and the Guardian (via PopCandy))

And many, many more. I fortunately went to schools where, not only were these books in our libraries, we actually read them in class. My parents trusted me to make my own choices when it came to reading, knowing I was mature enough to handle the issues, and if I had questions I could come to them. It continues to surprise me that we still live in a society where parents and officials are so uncomfortable with important life issues such as racism, slavery, sexuality and growing up that they fight to keep kids from reading some really great authors. Maya Angelou! Toni Morrison! Lois Lowry! These women are amazing, award-winning authors for a reason. Don't they know that, in most cases, when you tell a child she can't do something, she's going to find a way to do it anyway - especially when it's as harmless as reading.

What about you? Do you see any of your favorite books on the lists?

Posted: Tue, 09/30/2008 - 02:56 | Comments: 2


I know this isn't book related, but it's something I want to publicly celebrate. When our country is in such turmoil, we have no idea what's going to happen next, and we feel near hopeless, it's nice to have a distraction. If our Minnesota Twins can be that distraction, I'm grateful to them. I know the seasons isn't over, I know we still have three games left to play, and I know the White Sox our nipping at our heels, but when you're down and you need to be reminded of what it means Not To Give Up, see our Minnesota Twins sweep the dreaded Sox in the second-to-the-last series of the season to claim first place in the Central Division.

Thanks guys, for giving us something for which to cheer.

(Photo Carlos Gonzalez, Star Tribune)

Posted: Fri, 09/26/2008 - 03:11 |

I absolutely loved this story on CNN about how, ever since the Twilight series hit the shelves, the little, rainy town of Forks, Wash., has seen an increase in visitor activity. Forks is where Bella moves to live with her sheriff father in the beginning of the first book. It’s where she meets Edward and Jacob. It’s where the books end.

When researching real towns for the setting of her stories, Meyers was looking for a specific place. What did this place need? Well, for vampires to be comfortable there and able to walk around amongst mortals, it needed to be a place with the least amount of sunlight possible. In truth, Forks is one of the rainiest places on the planet—more than a foot of rain falls each month. Ideal for vampire inhabitation.

At the time, Meyer couldn’t have known what her books would do for Forks. She had no idea Twilight and the following sequels would be so popular, but ever since those books first started topping the charts, Forks, a town that was losing steam and watching its citizens leave for brighter horizons, has seen an influx of new life.

Thousands of visitors have traveled to Forks, hoping to see in front of their very eyes, some of the magic they read about in the books. And town residents are taking notice. As the article says, one guy has taken it upon himself to find houses that match the description of Bella’s and the Cullens’, found a spot on the beach that matches that of Bella and Jacob’s favorite hangout, and the local hospital even has a spot reserved for Dr. Cullen. How frickin’ cool.

As someone who has a large understanding of hospitality and tourism because of my job, I know how important it is for small towns to find that specific draw. I know how important it is for local chambers or visitors centers to hype themselves in an effort to bring in more tourists. Tourists = $$$. So, because of this understanding, this story touched my heart and made me so happy for Forks. So proud for this little town I’d never even knew existed before two months ago. Maybe someday I’ll be able to check out Forks, too. For Meyer’s personal experience during her first visit to Forks, and a slideshow of photos, see here.

(Map courtesy of Stephenie Meyer's Web site.)

Posted: Wed, 09/24/2008 - 06:44 | Comments: 1

A coworker lent me Loving Frank by Nancy Horan. She really liked it and it was on my Amazon Wish List, so I thought I'd give it a try. Here is what Kathy Piehl of Library Journal had to say about the book:

In 1904, architect Frank Lloyd Wright designed a house for Edwin and Mamah Borthwick Cheney, respectable members of Oak Park, IL, society. Five years later, after a clandestine affair, Frank and Mamah scandalized that society by leaving their families to live together in Europe. Stunned by the furor, Mamah wanted to stay there, particularly after she met women's rights advocate Ellen Key, who rejected conventional ideas of marriage and divorce. Eventually, Frank convinced her to return to Wisconsin, where he was building Taliesin as a home and retreat. Horan's extensive research provides substantial underpinnings for this engrossing novel, and the focus on Mamah lets readers see her attraction to the creative, flamboyant architect but also her recognition of his arrogance. Mamah's own drive to achieve something important is tinged with guilt over abandoning her children. Tentative steps toward reconciliation end in a shocking, violent conclusion that would seem melodramatic if it weren't based on true events. The plot, characters, and ideas meld into a novel that will be a treat for fans of historical fiction but should not be pigeonholed in a genre section.

My coworker warned me not to Google the real-life characters in this book, so I wouldn't ruin the ending for myself. I've kept this in mind, but now I'm glad I didn't read any reviews either because there are a lot of spoilers out there! Tragic conclusion - oh my!

I'm enjoying this book for several reasons. Mamah is a strong, independent woman, particularly for the early 1900s. She was fighting for suffrage, and searching for meaning in her life. She loves her children but isn't defined by them, and struggles with what to do in a loveless marriage. While I would never promote a married woman to have an affair, I find it so fascinating that in this time, when divorce was hardly the norm, Mamah and Frank did what they did. Mamah struggles with her actions - running away to be with Frank - but I'm not sure if she suffers enough (at least as of now as I'm only halfway through the book). But she firmly believes love conquerors all. And while I can be a romantic, I think she shouldn't forget her responsibilities back home. Could a mother really leave her young children behind like that - no matter how unhappy you are in a marriage? It just screams selfish to me.

But, even if I feel Mamah is selfish and making some tragic choices for a woman of her time, she's still an empathetic character and a woman some may admire. Also, being from Minnesota, it's interesting to read more about Frank Llyod Wright. As the review says, he's from the Midwest - the prairie and nature were his muses - and we have several Wright and Wright-inspired homes in the Twin Cities.

How do you feel about historical fiction? Is it hard to decifer the truth from the fact? Or don't you care?

Posted: Tue, 09/23/2008 - 04:01 |

When I read novels that I think are just novels, but then make me think about things on another level, I still get amazed. As someone who would love to write a novel one day, I think, Would I be able to do that? I don’t know. Or, maybe it just comes out of authors naturally, because that’s the only themes they know. Like, with Harry Potter - themes, include oppression, fear, bigotry, but also love and hope. Was Rowling purposely creating stories around these themes, or because that’s what our world is like in real life, it’s only natural for those themes to fill the Potter books?

Same goes for The Host. You think you’re reading a book about alien invasion, but then you start thinking that it’s about so much more. It’s about war, living underground away from the enemy, loving someone you shouldn’t, discrimination, but also kindness and acceptance.

To go off course just a touch, when he was doing press for I Am Legend, Will Smith suffered some bad PR when he made a comment along the lines of understanding that when it came to the Holocaust, in Hitler’s mind, he thought he was doing the right thing. Of course people flew off the handle, but Smith in no way meant he agreed with Hitler. If you watch the movie, you see Will Smith’s character capturing the creatures, trying to “cure” them through medicine, and then unfortunately killing them. In his mind, he was doing the right thing – trying to save humanity. However, in the minds of the creatures, he was murdering them when they could quite possibly coexist. Now, I’m not saying that Hitler was right – God, no – but from his perspective he thought he was and I can see how convincing him otherwise would be near impossible.

So, since I’ve given those themes a lot of thought because of that movie, a book about alien invasion strikes a similar nerve. As a human, I can’t possibly think that aliens invading our planet is good, however, these aliens think they’re doing the right thing. Then, when an alien befriends humans who she shockingly discovers are murdering her kind to try to stop the invasion, she’s upset. But, in the humans’ minds, that’s what they need to do. Keep fighting. So, how do you reconcile that?

Both I Am Legend and The Host, and many other books and films, reflect our real world. We don’t believe what you believe, so we’re going to put a stop to it. You have to protect yourselves, so now we’re at war. The stronger “team” wins.

Coexistence. Whether male or female, black or white, Christian or Muslim, straight or gay, alien or human: Why is that so hard?

On a bit lighter note, Do you believe in aliens? Will they come here someday? Have they already arrived? Maybe we’re all already aliens? I’m kidding with that last one. Sort of. ?

Posted: Thu, 09/18/2008 - 04:15 | Comments: 1

I just came across this really cool local idea today when I was reading a Star Tribune blog (the guest blogger is someone I've worked with before, so I'm always interested in what she has to say). StoryLineMN offers kids stories by phone. Just dial up the number, and kids can listen to a story read by local actors. Each month has a theme, and there's a new story each week. How cool is that? I even called up and listened to a story - and I'm not even the intended audience. As Lucie writes in her post, this is a great way to entertain kids when you need to get something done around the house.

Again: Why didn't I think of this? So simple, yet so brilliant. Plus, it promotes literacy! If there are any moms and dads out there who try it, let me know what you think.

Posted: Tue, 09/16/2008 - 08:43 | Comments: 1

Now I’m reading The Host, Stephenie Meyer’s novel for adults. This is a story about Earth being taken over by aliens. When the story begins, aliens have infiltrated most everyone on the planet, with just a few rogue humans out there trying to survive. The aliens (centipede-like creatures) are placed inside captured humans and then go about daily life as humans would. Many stay in the same relationships their “hosts” were in, live in the same homes, etc. The aliens came to Earth because they believed, that through violence and irresponsibility, we were letting our planet go to crap. They were appalled by our way of life. Aliens disbanded our currency programs - who needs money if we all just trust each other? – drug addicts cleaned up, criminals went straight, everyone wins a medal in the Olympics, no one fights or disagrees, and so on.

Melanie Stryder is a 20-something human who moves around constantly with her little brother and Jared, a man she met while on the run and fell in love with. One wrong move and Melanie is implanted with Wanderer, an alien who has lived on several different planets in the universe. Wanderer’s job is to read Melanie’s mind so she can lead the other aliens to the few humans who are left. However, Melanie is a lot stronger than Wanderer gives her credit for, and she won’t succumb. Soon enough, Melanie and Wanderer are mixed up in adventure together.

At first, it was a struggle to get into this book, with the conversations between Melanie and Wanderer a little harder to follow, since they took place inside the same head. However, that only lasted for a chapter of two. Then things got really good. As humans, we should hate the aliens, yet you end up feeling empathetic toward Wanderer. Also, as someone who opposes violence and wishes we could all just live in peace, to me the alien Earth seems a little nice, actually. However, without differing opinions, doesn’t that actually make for a boring place to live? Meyer writes about this from Wanderer’s point of view [note: the “souls” she talks about are she and the other aliens]:

I’d never lived on a planet where such atrocities could happen, even before the souls came. This place was truly the highest and the lowest of all worlds – the most beautiful senses, the most exquisite emotions…the most malevolent desires, the darkest deeds. Perhaps it was meant to be so. Perhaps without the lows, the highs could not be reached. Were the souls the exception to that rule? Could they have the light without the darkness of this world

Meyer’s writing is similar to her Twilight books, in that it’s simple and fun, yet asks meaningful questions and also presents lots of action. While I’m not as enthralled with this book as Twilight, it’s right up there and I like that it feels a bit more adult-like. I’m also not one to read about aliens, but same went with vampires, so go figure. :)

Posted: Mon, 09/15/2008 - 07:47 |

I check in daily with USA Today's Whitney Matheson and her PopCandy blog. Last week she got an e-mail from a teenager starting her first year of high school. The teenager was asking for some advice. Whitney put out the call and several readers offered some great tips for getting through high school angst. This then led Whitney to start a series of posts about movies, TV shows, books, etc., that are either good reads/watches for teenagers or that represent teenagers in a good way.

Here is a link to her list of 25 Great High School Books. I actually haven't heard of several of them. But I definitely agree with Catcher and the Rye, The Outsiders, Harry Potter, Brave New Girl, The Perks of Being a Wallflower and A Separate Peace.

(I don't agree with Running with Scissors. This book disturbed me to no end and I was in my 20s when I read it. I really wouldn't reccommend it for teenagers, especially since I believe Burroughs did a little exaggerating and a childhood like this is most definitlely NOT ordinary.)

I've tried to think of books I would list or recommend, but I don't do well under the pressure - my mind goes blank! But, what about you? What do you agree or disagree with? What tomes would be on your list of best high school books?

Posted: Thu, 09/11/2008 - 03:56 | Comments: 1

I don't like to cook. I love food, but I just can't get into cooking. Sure, I'll whip up the easy things like pasta and tacos, but spending a long time cooking a meal just doesn't interest me. I don't have the patience, or I'm just too anxious to eat, that something quick is always better. I think a lot of it comes from my mom. She worked all my life, so quick and easy meals were key. Plus, she had to cook for me and my dad, who are probably some of the pickiest eaters out there, so her options were already limited. Also, I hate the grocery store. When you're a busy person and your only time to go to the store is on the weekend, it's just not the most fun activity, you know? All this makes cooking meals just one of those things that has to be done and not fun, which is too bad because I love to eat.

A few years ago, probably around the time I got cable, I got way into the Food Network. I loved Rachael Ray and Giada and all the FN staples. But as simple as they make the dishes look (even you, Sandra Lee) they're never that easy. I have several cookbooks at home - many RR 30-minute meal books, plus a Bride & Groom cookbook with recipes - are you kidding me? - that are next to impossible unless you're on Top Chef. But one cookbook has been top notch for me: Southern Living's Our Best Easy Weeknight Favorites. I didn't even buy it. My aunt gave it to me, and she probably got it free through a subscription or something. But one day, the hubby and I flipped through it and found numerous options to try and we still cook these up several years later: meatloaf (I'm a pro at this meal and have even added my own twist), enchiladas, pizza sandwiches, parmesan chicken and several others.

Now it's your turn: What cookbooks do you swear by?

Posted: Tue, 09/09/2008 - 22:23 | Comments: 2

I’m loving The Likeness. Cassie, the undercover detective, has been placed in the shoes of a murder victim, Lexie, who Cassie looks like exactly. While her partners try to use all their powers to discover who Lexie really was on the outside, Cassie lives in an old mansion with Lexie’s four roommates. Having prepared through video clips and any and every fact the cops could give her, Cassie morphs into Lexie and becomes a part of the family, all the while trying to find her killer.

The roommates are very interesting characters – Abby, Daniel, Rafe and Justin. The five are unbelievably close. The mansion holds a mystery (why do all the local residents hate the group so much?), each roommate has a past they keep secret and Cassie has to discretely infiltrate the town, the roommate’s personalities and the house to discover whom Lexie was and why anyone would want her killed.

The book is very engaging, giving the reader hints along the way as to who possibly could be the killer. You fall in love with the roommates, but then you question their motives. It’s also sad to think that they believe their friend is still alive. While trying to remain professional, Cassie does fall into the group easily and starts to like them a lot. All the harder for her to possibly discover one or all of them is up to no good, or if anything, eventually have to tell them their friends is really dead. While it’s fiction, it does make me think about real undercover cops. How hard would it be to pretend to be someone else, especially within a dangerous situation? Always looking over your shoulder, hoping you don’t let on that you’re not who you say you are?

The author, Tana French, has a good way with language, including a lot of detail about the town, the characters, etc., but all in a very engaging way. Even if there’s not much dialogue for several pages, and you’re just sitting inside Cassie’s mind, the paragraphs are engaging and the pages go by quickly.

Posted: Mon, 09/08/2008 - 04:23 |