Saturday, October 30, 2010

BTT: Halloween Horror?

This week's question:

In honor of Halloween this weekend:

What reading skeletons do you have in your closet? Books you’d be ashamed to let people know you love? Addiction to the worst kind of (fill in cheesy genre here)? Your old collection of Bobbsey Twin Mysteries lovingly stored behind your “grown-up” books? You get the picture … come on, confess!

Honestly, I don't have any books that I'm ashamed to let people know that I love. I shout them loud and proud, pretty much. I love the "Flowers in the Attic" series by V.C Andrews. I still reread them every couple of years. I love "The Dirt" by Motley Crue, and I really want them to write a sequel (I don't think Nikki Sixx's "Heroin Diaries" counts). I enjoy reading Hollywood biographies and autobiographies, but only of the messes. Someone who worked consistently from the age of 25 until their 60s or beyond, stayed married to the same guy she met in her late 20s for her whole life, and enjoyed raising her three happy kids in their beautiful Hollywood home? ZZZZZzzzzzZZZZZ. I want to read about the starlet who was an overnight success, slept with half of Hollywood, lost it all and was found in a seedy motel with a needle in her arm at the age of 27.

But I'm not ashamed of it. Even though I list some "guilty pleasures" on my author list. I'm not ashamed of liking whatever it is I like. I don't think anyone should be. We're programmed so heavily to always act a certain way all the time, and I'm saddened to think this extends to our 'me' time. Can't let anyone know I'm reading Danielle Steele, no way world, I am a Phillip Roth kind of girl! "Keeping up with the Kardashians?" UGH! I was just passing through on my way to PBS. I'm kind of saddened to think that people restrict themselves so much.

Reading is kind of a private thing, typically done in the home, so who are you hiding it from? Your husband? Your kids? I say, let it all hang out, and don't be ashamed to check out those bodice-rippers or spy thrillers or cheesy Hollywood bios along with the rest of your usual fare.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

A scary book, just in time for Halloween

I'm a few pages away from finishing the scariest book. I know what they mean now when they talk about not being able to look away, because as scary as it was, I just had to keep reading. The book was about a world where these large faceless corporations were in total control. Somehow, many of the people that lived there were unaware of this. The people at the bottom were forced to do dirty, backbreaking work with toxic chemicals for pennies. The people at the top were manipulated and controlled into working long hours to give most of their money to these corporations in exchange for the things made from these toxic chemicals.

What's the worst part of this story? It's a nonfiction book, and it's about you and me. The Story of Stuff, by Annie Leonard, tells the tale of all the mundane items we're surrounded with, how they're made from carcinogenic chemicals and resources extracted at great price by poor people. She shows how we're manipulated into buying more and more, through planned obsolescence and advertising, and how our so-called durable goods have been so complex that no one can fix them when they break. She shows how most of the Stuff we own is generally thrown out fairly quickly, how we've poisoned the earth and trampled on people in third-world countries to obtain all this crap that never really goes "away" once we kick it to the curb.

Leonard does a good job of portraying how we're all sort off caught in a web. She doesn't aim to make an individual feel bad, because there's no real way to be "good" in this sort of system. No way to avoid consuming the carcinogenic chemicals that are in virtually everything we buy. No way to truly reduce your environmental impact to zero.

And yet, throughout the book, she continually offers alternatives and shows signs of hope. A flooring giant has begun taking responsibility for its products through its entire life, offering a sort of "tile" model for its carpets, since anyone who's recarpeting is really just looking to address the worn portion where the traffic pattern was, and the parts that were under furniture usually still look decent. They also experiment with renting carpets to offices the way they rent copiers: the company will service it and replace it when it's worn. A professor has developed the GoodGuide to help people consume better.

Other people are simply realizing that buying all that crap is stupid and choosing to define themselves more as parents, brothers, sisters, sons, daughters, Kiwanis members, hikers, literacy volunteers, Catholics, etc. than as Gap shoppers, iPhone users, Balenciaga devotees, etc. It's a growing trend, coinciding neatly with the recession and people's reduced ability to buy crap. Also, the people in Third World countries that always get dumped on are beginning to fight back. Leonard calls Bhopal the "resistance capital of the world" as its residents continue to agitate to force Union Carbide to clean up its mess. Leonard writes of working with communities in Haiti to force the city of Philadelphia to take back its incinerated garbage ash from its beach (incinerated garbage ash is loaded with toxic heavy metals and carcinogens).

This is a very difficult book to read, not mentally, but emotionally. And heaven help you if you have to buy shampoo or anything in the middle of it. I had to, at the end of a very long workday, with no time to research how bad the product I planned to buy was. I wound up just getting what I always getting, washing my hair with it next to my toxic PVC shower curtain, drying it with a dryer probably made by Third World people forced off their land into factories, then laying my head down on my toxin-laden pillow, pulling the sheets dyed with carcinogenic chemicals over my head, and curling up next to my toxin-laden mate with my toxin-laden cat.

That's how you'll start to look at everything. When I went into work the next day, it was hard not to warn my co-workers against getting their cans of pop from the vending machines. (Aluminum cans, along with PVC, are the things Leonard tagged as "stupid stuff" that are so costly and dangerous and pointless, they should just be eliminated. I wanted to scream, "Don't you know how they made those!" but of course, they probably don't).

But it's definitely an important book. It's one everyone should read, because I don't see how you could read it and not want to help. Leonard gives lots and lots of advice as to how. It will scare you, but not nearly as scary as the alternatives.

Saturday, October 9, 2010

She's Not There

It takes a talented writer to bring out the humor in a serious topic, even more so when it's something that happened to the writer him (or her) self. I think society has made a lot of progress towards understanding and accepting homosexuality. But transgender is a whole other thing. It strains the tolerance of otherwise accepting people, who just don't get it. Their issues get lumped in with gay and lesbian issues, but it's a whole different thing.

Jennifer Finney Boylan's She's Not There is something I encourage everyone to pick up, then. Not just because it'll help towards understanding, but because it's a good and funny and heartbreaking read as well.

Boylan's best friend is a favorite writer of mine, Richard Russo. They taught together at Colby College and remained friends all their adult lives, even as the guy Russo knew as Jim got to the point where he could no longer deny what was inside of him and began going through the process of becoming a woman. Despite the presence of a crossdressing villain named Finney in Russo's novel about academic life, Straight Man, I wondered if Boylan was more the model for Hank, the protagonist pain-in-the-ass prankster. One of my favorite moments in She's Not There was a reproduced email correspondence between the two when Boylan was in transition. Russo poured his heart out about his difficulties in trying to readjust to the fact that his best drinking buddy was now female and closed it with something like "Then again, my biggest problem has always been myself." Boylan shot back with a one-line reply: "Funny, my biggest problem has also always been yourself."

One great thing about Boylan's two memoirs that I've read so far is that they read like novels: great characters, a plot that really moves, lots of detail. I like how, in this one, Boylan takes advantage of her unique perspective. Anyone who's ever wondered whether women get discriminated against in buying cars, who has an easier time shopping for clothing, if men and women actually think differently, etc. can actually find some answers in this book from someone who's in a position to tell you. It's a wonderful book, I highly reccomend it.

Sunday, October 3, 2010

Adults only? An interesting debate

There's an interesting debate about library use and rules going on at Free Range Kids right now. You can read the post that sparked it here, but basically, the author of the post (who is also an author of children's books) and her husband were shooed out of the children's section of their local library because they didn't have a child with them. The rationale they were given was that "we can't have people hanging around and looking at the kids."

Based on that, I knew what I thought. I think society has gotten incredibly hysterical about "stranger danger" and has made all sorts of normal behaviors suspect, from sitting on a plane next to a child to giving out Halloween candy, to just smiling at the sight of someone else's kids having fun in public. This seems to be another sad and pathetic example of that, especially since the library was deserted when the writer and her husband were shooed away. There weren't even any kids for them to ogle.

But then I read some of the comments, especially those from public librarians. They stated that the goal was to provide a separate space for the kids, away from both the creepy people that genuinely do like to hang out at libraries and the overbearing yuppies who treat it as their personal office. They want it to just be a sort of "adult-free zone" where the kids can get into books without any disapproving stares, and from a practical standpoint, without having to fight for space with people who have the entire rest of the library.

I can see both sides of the issue, I guess. I always think it's bad to keep anyone away from any kind of book. But I also confess that I've been irritated many, many times by the screams of a bored child whose mom, in her infinite wisdom, dragged her into the adult section while she looked at adult books when the children's room was RIGHT. FUCKING. THERE. and full of things Young Screamer would have found more to her liking than the newest Lauren Weisenberg. Maybe if that mom had felt better about leaving her kid in there, the rest of us wouldn't have been treated to her Symphony of Boredom.

And while Lenore's blog focuses on overprotective parents, there are the other kind, too. The kind that see any supervised, kid-friendly environment and think: FREE BABYSITTING. The kind that will leave their three-year-old in the Kid Zone at Barnes and Noble while they go get their hair done. Those parents love libraries, too, and you know that if "something happened," they'd suddenly take a huge interest in their parenting duties and would sue. Maybe the policy was to address that issue, too.

I think it has to be applied judiciously, though. There are all sorts of legitimate reasons to want to use that space. In my city library, I see lots of new immigrants there who are trying to learn English. When you're switching entire alphabets, "Make Way for Ducklings" is probably a more appropriate place to start than the newspaper. Teachers use it to get books out for their classes. Museum educators use it to get books out for programs. Parents may want to use it when their kids are elsewhere. Students taking courses in children's lit, teens who have to babysit, there are a million reasons why. Many commentators pointed out that it's often simply the most attractive place in the library. Would you rather read your book in a beanbag chair by the 10-foot tall windows that overlook the park, or in a dimly-lit 1970s fake-wood cubicle?

I guess, sadly, a policy is needed to make sure adults are considerate, though. I think the librarian in the original example went a little overboard, kicking out obviously harmless people when the library was empty. But you see so much selfish and bizarre behavior in libraries that, sadly, there needs to be some way to curb it. No, you can't keep kids safe forever, and yes, the people who flock to libraries that need social services have the right to be there too. But you don't want to chase out the library's core audience just because our society fails so miserably at mental health care.