Thursday, November 20, 2008

The Best Books You Probably Never Read

I don't mean to suggest you aren't well-read; I just mean these books are fairly obscure and most of them are children's books, so you might not have heard of them before. But they're worth a read even if you already have kids of your own.

The first is Briar Rose by Jane Yolen.  I read this when I was 12 years old and I've never forgotten it.  It's the story of a man in a concentration camp during World War II, but it's told alongside the original German version of Sleeping Beauty. By the way, the original is no bedtime story.  Every other chapter tells the heartache of the prisoner, and every other chapter tells the fairy tale, only the stories are intertwined.  It was the first book I ever read about World War II and concentration camps, and it was the best one, too. 

The second is my response to the Stephanie Meyer phenomenon, Twilight.  A note to all of you secret vampire-book fans -- L.J. Smith beats the pants of off Meyer anyday.  In the 1990s, she came out with a series of books called The Vampire Diaries; they're now being sold alongside Twilight at most chain stores, the trilogy repackaged as a fat black book you'll probably overlook if you ever wander into the adolescent book section (don't worry; I won't tell if you do).  It's the story of Stefan, his twin Damon, and Elena; like Twilight, it's a love story, but unlike Twilight, the main character has a spine and some intellect (sorry, Bella fans).  Stefan is the good vamp who wants to resist his nature; Damon is the bad one who wants to embrace it. And of course, as with all tween books, Elena has trouble choosing.  But unlike most tween books, the story is fantastic, the characters well-developed, and the imagination inspiring. At least, it was when I was 12. . . . OK so it's probably no Harry Potter but I loved it and still do.

The final book is not a kid's book: Phantom by Susan Kay.  I'm completely biased on this one for two reasons -- 1. I have always loved the story of Phantom of the Opera and 2. It's the catalyst for my life's devotion to literature.  Phantom is Kay's retelling of the Phantom of the Opera story, with much more emphasis on Christine's relationship with the famous masked man living in the catacombs of Paris's opera house.  It's a romance, and a complicated one, since Christine is engaged to (Pierre?).  I read it when I was 12 (I see a pattern developing here) as part of an AR reading program.  My history teacher interviewed each child and asked him/her questions about the book they selected, in part to see if the child read it, but in part to see if he/she interacted with it.  My history teacher, who was amazing, heard me babble for weeks about the book,  picked one up for herself, and read it.  So, when it was time for my interview, she knew enough about it to ask the meaty questions.  The end of the book (this gives nothing away) is undecided; Christine enters a room to be with the ailing Phantom, but the author doesn't take us there with her.  She just describes Christine as she exits.  The suggestion is that Christine finally gave the Phantom what he wanted, but nothing is overt.  Mrs. Jones asked, (and it was an appropriate question, given the scene), "What do you think happened at the end?"  

Well, I'd never been asked a question like that before.  I had always been told what happened in a book. I'd learned to take notes, write down themes, regurgitate answers on exams, but I'd never been asked my opinion about something unclear in a book before.  I answered her, and she gave her idea of what she thought, and we went on our way. It was a really small moment but it changed everything.  Books were not pages of facts but stories with endless possibilities.  Everyone has to know about this, I thought.  

And so, here I am today.  An innumerable amount of books later, I have a completed dissertation, set a defense date, and I'm one good committee's nod away from getting a chance to work at what Mrs. Jones only started.  So here's to optimism, good teachers, memorable books, and the holidays to read (or reread) as much as possible.

Thursday, November 6, 2008

Youth and Hate

Yesterday, I was saddened to learn that students at my alma mater, Baylor University, strung up a noose and burned Obama memorabilia upon learning the results of the November 4th election.  I don't like to think of myself as naive, but perhaps I was, thinking that the Obama supporters might get a brief (say, 1 day?) grace period to breathe.  Apparently, I was wrong. 

It turns out Baylor's was not an isolated event.  Two of my friends have posted blogs about encountering hate first-hand; one, Lisa, whose post can be found in my blog roll, said one of her students posted the following status update upon hearing of Obama's victory:  "The white house is called the white house for a reason!!!!!"  Her school is now in arms.  Another, Claire, said she'd been accosted on facebook immediately after mentioning the election day.  Her "friend" asked her what reason she could possibly have for celebrating the downfall of our nation.  My own acquaintances have not been so openly bigoted, though some have posted that they now feel free to "have all the babies they want so that someone else can care for them."  

The problem, for me, isn't that these people were hateful.  This world is so big and the thinking often so small that I don't wonder that sexism, racism, and classism still exist. No, the truly disturbing characteristic that all these stories share is that every one of the slurs I mentioned were made by someone young.  

It's not that the youth were supposed to be pro-Obama; it's that the youth are supposed to be forward-thinking.  They're the people who have grown up attending integrated schools.  They have been friends with children who have homosexual parents.  They are the most technologically connected generation the world has ever known, which means that what they don't know or understand, they can research in the time it takes to ride the subway or wait for a fast-food order to be filled.  In other words, they should know better.  They can't claim ignorance.  They can't say "well, the world has always been divided by sex or race" because it hasn't, for them.  Their opens minds are supposed to take us one step closer to erasing sexual and racial barriers.  But if the youth are the ones stringing up the rope, what are we supposed to do? If the youth burn hope in bonfires and yearn for a more violent time, how will change come?


Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Last-Minute Thoughts on Election Day

It's election day, but this post isn't about  who I think you should support.  It's just a few last-minute thoughts that have been running around in my head in the past few weeks. It'll be the last post on politics for a while -- at least, as far as I can predict. =)

1.  Democrats do, in fact, have moral values.

2.  The word "liberal" is not dirty.  It just indicates a belief in the idea that the government shouldn't get to tell you whom you can marry or what you can do with your body.

3.  People who say "Let's put God back in America again" (as the billboard down the street from my house pleads) are suggesting the Constitutional framers put him there in the first place.  The framers were pretty freaked out by government-regulated religion, so this is misleading. 

4.  The founding fathers, while admirable in some regard, were not the keepers of Christianity or virtue.  Ben Franklin was a man-whore.  Thomas Jefferson slept with his slaves. At one point, John Adams was more fond of a monarchy than a republic.  Very few were Christians; some were Deists, if they claimed a religious belief. None of them wanted equal rights for women or other marginalized figures. The 18th century really isn't the most idyllic time, so wanting to restore its "values" doesn't really make much sense. 

5.  People who vote for Barack Obama are not anti-America, or insane, or morally defunct. People who vote for John McCain aren't gun-waving Bible-thumping idiots.  Most people have given a lot of thought to the candidate they're supporting. Maybe I don't agree with McCain's policies, but I can still respect voters who disagree with me.  

6.  People who wear flags (in any form), live in small towns, or enlist in the military are no more American than I am.  We are equally American, whatever that means.

7.  There is no real America and fake America.  There's no "America."  All nations are constructed. Most are stolen from someone else. 

8.  All people who run for president are, to a degree, elite.  It's not a bad thing. I want the person running the country to be better than I am.

9.  Just because the media talks about how volatile John McCain's election has been doesn't mean it is "in the tank" for Obama.  Reporting the facts, just because they're upsetting to one political party, does not indicate bias.  So invoking the phrase "liberal media" doesn't mean that the news organization in question is making up information, just because that information happens to be unfavorable.  

10.  None of us is red or blue.  We're all just people, living in the same country, together, no matter who wins or who loses.  

11.  Fear is no reason to vote for or against a candidate.  If Barack Obama becomes president, we are not going to become an Islamic socialist anarchy.  If John McCain becomes president, we are not going to turn into a theocracy.  People who resort to politics of fear are relying on an argument ad metum fallacy to sway your vote, which is, by its definition, faulty logic.