Monday, March 23, 2015

Tolstoy and the Purple Chair

In Tolstoy and the Purple Chair, Nina Sankovitch chronicles the year that she spends reading a book a day to help her process her oldest sister's death.  Since her sister's  death several years prior Nina feels as if she has been both stuck in the tragedy of her sister's death and running away from it.   In this year, Nina makes some very interesting observations and shares many important insights that she gained during her year of books, particularly on how much we can learn about life and ourselves from books.  However, these interesting thoughts quickly get lost in the rambling style of the book. She frequently uses the story lines of the various books she has read to explain the different lessons the books are teaching her, but she often uses two or three different books to establish a point when one book would do quite well. The structure lacks focus and over the course of the book, I was never quite sure why the opening chapter was present or even exactly how many kids she has.  And to be perfectly honest, I'm still not even entirely sure why Tolstoy is included in the title.  While mentioned, Tolstoy and his books play no central role at all in Nina's year of reading for healing.  The book reads more like something written for personal reflection not public consumption.  And while the ideas that Sankovitch shares are deep and important, they take a lot patience to find.  

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

 2015 PEN/Robert W. Bingham Prize for Debut Fiction Longlist

The UnAmericans
Molly Antopol
(W. W. Norton & Company)

Cynthia Bond

Black Moon
Kenneth Calhoun

Phil Klay
(Penguin Press)

Ride Around Shining
Chris Leslie-Hynan

The Dog
Jack Livings
(Farrar, Straus and Giroux)

The Wives of Los Alamos
TaraShea Nesbit

The Heaven of Animals
David James Poissant
(Simon & Schuster)

Love Me Back
Merritt Tierce

Time of the Locust
Morowa Yejidé
(Atria Books)

Monday, March 16, 2015

Wikimedia v. NSA

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) on March 10 filed a complaint against the National Security Agency (NSA) to challenge its interception of millions of text-based international communications (and likely many domestic ones as well) via fiber-optic cables running throughout the United States.  They claim that the government's actions both go beyond the few limits imposed by the FISA Amendment Acts of 2008 and challenges the constitutionality of the acts themselves because they violate both the First and Fourth Amendments to the Constitution.  The plaintiffs in this complaint include the Wikimedia Foundation, PEN American Center, Amnesty International USA, The Global Fund for Women, Human Rights Watch, The Nation Magazine, the National Association for Criminal Defense Lawyers, the Rutherford Institute, and the Washington Office on Latin America.  A copy of the complaint can be found on the ACLU's website.  The ACLU filed a previous complaint in 2008 challenging warrantless wire-tapping in Amnesty v. Clapper which was officially dismissed in 2013 prior to Edward Snowden's release of information regarding the NSA surveillance activities.  PEN has claimed that the awareness of the government's surveillance of journalists has led to rampant self-censorship and violates the basic principles of freedom of expression.  I think the fear goes deeper.  For most, it is not the knowledge that the government knows what they are writing or saying that is the problem.  It is the knowledge that there may be severe repercussions for those words.  Freedom of expression is based on the idea that everyone is entitled to his or her own opinion and to expression that opinion free from fear of prosecution for those beliefs.  Disagreement with the government's actions and policies should not be considered dangerous and anti-patriotic but instead an essential element of a deeper form of patriotism that demands that our nation continue to live up to its founding ideals.  Fear should not be the only dictator of national and international policy.

For more information on Wikimedia v. NSA please see:

Sunday, March 15, 2015

PEN on the ALA Youth Media Awards

Miranda Paul on the PENAmerica blog has highlighted the diverse nature of the winners of the American Library Association's Youth media awards.  According to Paul the winning books covered non-majority narratives (covering issues typically avoided in children's literature such as race, gender, and sexuality) and included a variety of formats such as graphic novels and novels-in-verse.

For more information on the ALA Youth Media Awards check out Miranda Paul's article on the PENAmerica blog Diversity Within Diversity: 2015 ALA Youth Media Awards "Change the Landscape" of Recognition in Children's Literature and the ALA's press release on the 2015 award winners at

Friday, March 13, 2015

Did Tolstoy Lie?

Can Happy Stories Be Interesting? Rachel Kadish reveals the answer in her book, Tolstoy Lied.  In the book, Tracy Farber, a young American literature professor in New York, explores this idea and searches for her own unique happy ending.

According to Tracy, Tolstoy lied.  His theory that “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way” just can’t be true because that would mean happiness is completely uninteresting.  But to Tracy, she’s happy in her own way, being independent and single, so why can’t stories of happiness be just as interesting and meaningful as tragic ones?  This is the premise of her new secret project, secret because she is up for tenure at her university and can’t afford to do anything risky.  She has to play by the silly rules of academic politics as her friend in the department Jeff always reminds her.  Then Tracy meets George and everything seems to change and start going her way. But as things become more serious, George seems to change and Tracy is confronted by the reality that she may too have to change to be with the man she loves. Tracy just doesn’t understand why she can’t be in love and still be herself but everyone in her life seems to be telling her that its not possible.  As her love life hits a snag so does her professional one as Tracy becomes part of an escalating conflict with a more senior colleague, Joanne,  because Tracy believes that Joanne is pushing Tracy’s graduate student, Elizabeth, too hard.  Jeff, tells Tracy to let Elizabeth to fend for herself.  But Tracy just can’t and before she knows it, the situation explodes just as her love life comes crashing down around her.   Worse, Tracy gets blamed for the entire mess, which makes no sense to her.  Tracy’s struggle to stand up for herself can drive the reader mad at times, but by the end, it feels as if the reader has taken the emotional journey with Tracy and learned her lessons as well.

By the end, Tracy’s story becomes entirely relatable because who hasn’t felt as if the world is going crazy around them?

Thursday, March 12, 2015

 Technology and Libraries: Can Technology Enhance Libraries or Will It Make Them Obsolete?

In the world of books, libraries have always held an important place.  I've clearly commented on their importance repeatedly in my previous posts, but it seems like more and more these questions about the role of libraries in the future are popping up in the media.  This recent article on Hopes and Fears is just one of many examples. However, I believe that Hopes and Fears took an interesting approach in their coverage of this issue.  Instead of one cohesive article, they documented the views of various experts from libraries to technology professors and draw no permanent conclusions, leaving it open to the readers to weigh the arguments on their own.  Interestingly enough, even though most are experts in technology, none saw libraries dying away completely, only adapting to changing times and conditions.  Perhaps we should clue politicians and governments into these views?

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Barron's Insulting Blunder

Barron's in the seventh edition of its AP European History prep book made a shocking error.  In a table meant to explain different political ideologies to students, Clarence Thomas' name was placed in the same box as that of the Klu Klux Klan as examples of more conservative view points that tended towards Reactionary or Facist.  The fact that this escaped notice is inexcusable as both poor historical writing and academics on the part of the writers and lazy editing on the part of company.  Whatever your political view point, the mistake represents two different but equally bad lessons to students. First, it insultingly equates a Supreme Court justice with a hate group (one that hates him I would like to point out) which is both insulting to Justice Thomas personally and to the justice system more largely.  Secondly, this mistake diminishes the threat that the Klu Klux Klan poses to Americans today as well as the damage that they have wrought since their inception during the Reconstruction period of the South after the Civil War.  Not to mention it leaves students with completely inappropriate examples of facists.   In a way the book is explicitly harming students' education and ability to succeed on the AP exam.  While I cannot quote CollegeBoard on this issue, presumably those examples would be deemed unacceptable evidence on the exam.  This mistake goes beyond any political view point and provides ammunition to those who oppose the balanced, analytical, legitimate historical education that is the goal of most academics to provide to their students.  This mistake was first identified according to the LA Times on the conservative website the Daily Caller, by education editor Eric Owens.  While the article goes a bit far in its own rhetorical claims, it provides the pictorial evidence which leaves no doubt of the severity of Barron's error.

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Bailey's Women's Prize for Fiction Longlist Announced!

Today the longlist for the 20th annual Bailey's Women's Prize for Fiction was announced.  This award which was organized in reaction to the lack of women authors considered for the Booker Prize despite women authoring significantly more new titles than men awards 30,000 pounds to one woman annually who the committee has determined to have written the best full length fiction novel of the year published in the UK.  The panel of five female judges changes annually and is made up women who are leaders in their respective fields.  This years panel includes Shami Chakrabarti, Cathy Newman, Grace Dent, Helen Dunmore, and Laura Bates.  Look out for the announcement of the shortlist on April 13th!
For more information on the Bailey's Women's Prize for Fiction see their website at:

The Longlist:
Rachel Cusk: Outline
Lissa Evans: Crooked Heart
Patricia Ferguson: Aren’t We Sisters?
Xiaolu Guo: I Am China
Samantha Harvey: Dear Thief
Emma Healey: Elizabeth is Missing
Emily St. John Mandel: Station Eleven
Grace McCleen: The Offering
Sandra Newman: The Country of Ice Cream Star
Heather O’Neil: The Girl Who Was Saturday Night
Laline Paull: The Bees
Marie Phillips: The Table of Less Valued Knights
Rachel Seiffert: The Walk Home
Kamila Shamsie: A God in Every Stone
Ali Smith: How to be Both
Sara Taylor: The Shore
Anne Tyler: A Spool of Blue Thread
Sarah Waters: The Paying Guests
Jemma Wayne: After Before
PP Wong: The Life of a Banana

Sunday, March 8, 2015

In Celebration of International Women's Day

Here are Encyclopedia Britannica's 10 Women Who Changed Literature:

Anna Akhmatova 
Jane Austen 
Zora Neale Hurston 
Emily Dickinson 
Alice Munro 
Toni Morrison 
Murasaki Shikibu 
Virginia Woolf
The Power of Naming

Literature and the arts and humanities in general have always faced the question of significance.  Today many people ask what is their value in an increasingly technology-based, math and science focused global world.  Sam Sacks' article in the New Yorker provides one answer.  While the value of the arts is too big of a topic to ever really be captured in one short article, there are an infinite amount of smaller points that can be highlighted effectively.  Sacks analysis on the recent increase of nameless characters in literature demonstrates how literary trends can reveal much about the way people think about the world and give us a way in to question our own assumptions about how society and the world function.

Friday, March 6, 2015

The Giving Book: A Review of the Library Book

 The Library Book, fitting in with my trend of loving to read books about books, is a collection of short stories and essays all centered on the theme of the importance of libraries.  The range of stories includes essays that describe the writer’s formative personal experiences in a libraries, essays on the politics of libraries, and creative short stories emphasizing the magic that is held inside a library for many people.  As a whole it is a strong collection of writing, but a few essays stood out as particularly apt in my mind.  The first piece that really caught my attention was Hardeep Singh Kohli’s story “The Punk and Langside Library”.  This tale took to heart one of the most important writing lessons I have ever learned: show, don’t tell.  Kolhi’s unexpected encounter with the punk teen demonstrates how not everything a library has to offer is contained in a book.  As a community meeting ground, libraries can also help to foster cultural understanding in the simplest of ways: allowing people of all backgrounds to come together and just be.  On the other end of the spectrum was the last essay prior to the afterword by Karin Slaughter.  Reprinted from The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Slaughter’s article argued passionately that libraries are an essential element of freedom.  Interestingly enough, it is the only essay in the collection written from an American perspective.  This to me seemed a fitting way to end the book.  Because though it clearly has a different voice and setting (a refreshingly familiar one to an American reader) than the essays written by the British authors, its themes were identical and show the universal nature of the impact libraries can have.

But what makes this book special is not just the stories it contains but purpose behind the book itself.  Published in February 2012 by Profile Books in London, all royalties produced by this book go not the contributors, but to the Reading Agency, a charity based in England that works to improve libraries as a community resource and to encourage reading among both adults and children throughout the UK.  While I believe that reading any book is always personally empowering, it is always nice to know there is a measurable effect in the outside world as well.  For this reason alone, I would encourage people to go out and buy this book regardless of its quality.  Because readers don’t encourage others to read who will?

For more information about the Reading Agency check out their website at:

Wednesday, March 4, 2015

Book Row: A Book Nerd's Dream

In Book Row Marvin Mondlin and Roy Meador succeed in conjuring up the idealistic and sheltered haven that once was the cluster of used and rare book stores that for much of the early to mid-twentith century found their home on Manhattan's Fourth Avenue by Union Square.  For most of us modern book lovers, we will have never seen such a literary community of that scale in the United States.  It is only something that we imagine lives on in the elite world of European universities well away from the world of Iphones, laptops and electronics of all kinds.  Even for the most dedicated young readers its hard picture people who spent all their time and energy concentrated on books and were able to resist the temptation of more modern distractions.  But according to Mondlin and Meador, not only did these people exist but for a while they thrived and their memories still live on.  In what is only a moderately nostalgically tinted depiction, Mondlin and Meador do a fabulous job of recounting the long and illustrious past of Fourth Avenue's Book Row from inception to collapse.  Their detailed descriptions bring to life the images of these long ago bookstores with sights and smells that inhabited these dusty shops.  But really best of all are the voices of the characters who made up this place that Mondlin and Meador memorialize.

Their extensive use of interviews infuse character, charm, and life into what could have been a dry and dull historical account of Manhattan's secondhand book trade.  Because it is the people who lived this life who draw in the readers. Not just anyone is going to pick up a book titled Book Row: An Ancedotal and Pictorial History of the Antiquarian Book Trade.  Those who do love book and the book business and will relate strongly to the cast of strange and distinctive characters who populated Book Row over the years.  For many of us book people our passion is not something everyone in our lives can relate to, and this book is filled with stories of not only those who would but who felt that passion strongly enough to base their lives around it.  Essentially these are the romantic starving artists (though there are quite a few of those too scattered throughout book, along with some not so starving artists) of book lovers.  The dream that not quite everyone can commit to living but loves the idea of.  If you get dreamy and caught up in the imaginary past world of books, this book will enthrall you.  If not, it will simply be a book filled with a lot of people and references you know nothing about.