Archive | September, 2010

Updating Enid Blyton: Banned Books Week 2010

29 Sep

The Three GolliwogsEnid Blyton is one of the most translated and most sold authors of all time. But her books have also made many an appearance on lists of challenged and banned books for many years.

I have been reading for a while that Hodder who publish Enid Blyton books like Famous Five, Five Find-Outers, Naughtiest Girl and Secret Seven is giving the Famous Five books a make-over. They want to bring the language out of the 1940s and make the stories timeless! Certain gender sensitive issues are also getting some gentle updates.

According to Telegraph’s “Enid Blyton’s Famous Five

To this end the books have been revised line by line, leaving the plots intact but cutting many of the old-fashioned expressions, such as “golly”, “rather” and “awfully”, and replacing numerous other words: “Mother” and “Daddy” with “Mum” and “Dad”, “bathing” with “swimming”, “jersey” with “jumper” and so on. There are photographs of actors posing as Julian, Dick, Anne, George and Timmy the dog on the covers, rather than the original illustrations by Eileen A Soper, whose line drawings previously also brought the key incidents of the books to life within the pages. (The old editions are still available for more traditionally minded readers.)

Traditionally minded, yes, that’s me.

Taking the nuances of language out of these stories is bound to change the experience of reading them. To place a story in a time period certain language and social markers are needed. Stripping the books of these markers is going to change the story even if the publishers are very careful not to change plot points.

When we were reading Enid Blyton in the 1980s and ’90s it was already completely outdated, both in ideas and language. Add to that, the geographical distance and cultural differences. We didn’t call our parents “Mother” and “Father”. We didn’t mean “swimming” when we said “bathing”  and we didn’t wear “jerseys”. I’m still not sure what “awful swotter” means, but none of this detracted from our enjoyment of these stories. We went ahead and devoured those pages of adventures.

A story can’t, for the most part, be separated from its time. These books were written post WWII and there are echoes of the fears and realities that were prevalent at this time. Enid Blyton might have been racist and not much of a feminist. But she was writing about her time, and her writing reflects the world that she saw around her. I’m not saying that racism and gender inequality is okay, but maybe we should admit that’s the way it was at one point in time.

Famous FiveMaybe the publishers and parents should stop taking the books so seriously and appreciate their ability to entertain kids even when the language is not familiar.

Language was different and it keeps changing – so why not give kids a taste of a world that is different from the one they are used to? Rather than pretend that men and women were always considered equal or that no one was considered less of a human being because of their race or colour, maybe these books should be used to introduce kids to a time when things were different. Go beyond the adventures as it were, and get them thinking and talking.

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Banned Books Week: Sep 25 to Oct 2

25 Sep

CensorshipIn India, censorship is rampant! It takes many forms and makes its appearance at many levels. But in a strange twisted way, we live in a society that is both highly censored and has the most freedom.

There is a pervading sense that, if one is lucky and has the power and money/knows the right people, one can get away with almost anything – sans consequence – corruption, murder, just to mention a few.

But you will also call down the wrath of “morality” and self-appointed guardians of “Indian culture” upon yourself for many other issues that you might think are your business: what you wear, who you talk to, who you marry, what religion you follow, smoking, drinking, partying, holding hands in public (with someone of the opposite sex), celebrating a silly Hallmark day… These are just some of those things that are closely watched. Watch out for swift punishment if you put a toe out of line when the wrong people are watching.

Strangely, but strangely, I have not been able to find too many books that have been banned here. Apart from religious and political, non fiction books, these are the novels that have been banned in India:

God of Small Things – Arundathi Roy (which I have read and quite liked)

Satanic Verses – Salman Rushdie

Lajja – Taslima Nasreen


American classrooms have a lot more drama, with parents objecting to racial, sexual and violent content in books earmarked for study in classrooms. The American Library Association lists all the Banned and/or Challenged Books.

The Banned Books Week aims to celebrate free thought and support books that have been challenged or banned. These novels have been challenged and swept away by censorship at different points in history. Ideas, ideals, prejudices change over time and what was sensitive or shocking or against moral standards at one time, is no longer measured by the same standards. While reading these books, the fun is to imagine living in the period when it was published to understand why it was banned.

The anarchist in me delights in having read some of these books from the Banned list.

Not having found anything to protest about closer to home in this regard, I look across the seas to lend my support to books that are being stifled in the here and now.

Speak by Laurie Halse AndersonOne of them that I’m interested in is Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson.

Aimed at Young Adults, this novel tells the story of high school freshman Melinda. Already a social misfit, she becomes a pariah when she calls the police while at a party. This leads to several arrests. But the real reason Melinda calls the cops is because she has been raped by a senior. The story then focuses on how she deals with this trauma.

Protest: Some parents have asked that the book not be included in school curriculum, labeling it soft porn.

Dr. Wesley Scroggins has objected to certain books being allowed as part of school curriculum.

Blogs like Mindful Musings and others are showing their support for the book by organising giveaways of this and other challenged books that include Slaughterhouse Five by Kurt Vonnegut and Twenty Boy Summer by Sarah Ockler.

I reserve comment until I have had a chance to read it myself, but at this point in time, the allegations seems rather exaggerated. I’m not one to blindly trust the establishment, but I have trouble believing that the school curriculum authorities would have included a book that is soft porn. I have no doubt that the description of the rape is disturbing, but calling it soft porn seems way off base.

I’d like to read the book to judge for myself, but or the time-being, I’d rather throw my support behind freedom of expression!

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A Matter of Shame… Perhaps

21 Sep

In the larger scheme of things, not being able to finish reading a book is not such a big deal. But in my own small little world, it is enough to shake the foundations of my existence (excuse the drama). But even the biggest book lovers, bibliophiles and book worms, I’m sure, have come across those tomes that for one reason or the other never get read.

These are not necessarily books that you hate. In fact, if I hate a book, it is more likely that I will get to the end, just to validate my opinion of it. No saving grace until the last page? Okay, then I can go ahead and check – strongly dislike. But these ones are a little harder to explain.

So here are the books that are currently in my Hall of Shame:

A Son of the CircusA Son of the Circus – I loved, really loved, John Irving’s World According to Garp, which is the reason I picked up this book. I’ve been trying to get through it for over a month now, but other books keep getting ahead. Maybe I’m not in the frame of mind to read about a circus in India in the ’80s. If it had been set in exotic foreign lands, I might have been able to imagine the romance of it. Knowing the dark reality of circus life in India perhaps takes away from my enjoyment. This one is not a lost cause however, I will be trying my hand at it again.

Lord Of The FliesLord of the Flies – Should I have read this when I was a 10 year old boy? Maybe it’s something that appeals to that demographic. In which case, it was a lost cause even when I was 10, no? Since I would have been a 10 year old girl, not a boy. I know, this isn’t a children’s adventure book. It addresses important social issues and is a highly challenged and much discussed book. For those reasons, I will hang onto it. It’s not a very big book and when I’m in the frame of mind for a thought provoking allegory, I will reach for this one.

White MughalsWhite Mughals – Although not the main reason I haven’t managed to get through this one, a contributing factor is that the book is so heavy. Not the subject matter – the physical book. It’s unwieldy and heavy. I’ve got as far as 100 pages and then – the plot needs to move forward. Descriptions of nautch girls and the eccentricities of an English gentleman need to blossom into more. I want to know that there’s a story… and people that I’ll care about. But I loved Darlymple’s Age of Kali and City of Djinns, so this one gets another try as well.

DuneDune – I’m really disappointed about about Dune. I’ve tried it 3 times because it sounds like something that’s right up my alley. Sci-fi, fantasy, that sort of thing. Somehow, this world did not draw me in – neither did the characters. It’s as if every explanation and every plot point is too laboured. Too much explanation and yet not enough. That combined with multiple threads like the new worlds, enemies, magic, politics, and what not, I just lost the plot about 200 pages in. Will not be going in for round 4. So if anyone wants a slightly dusty not heavily used copy of Dune, send me a mail. Oh, wait, that means I need to add that email link on my blog!

So here, at this point in time, these are my albatrosses. At least one will be given away with some regret, others will continue to collect dust until my time comes for them. Then they will be given another chance to delight and entertain.

Any suggestions on why I should give one of these a go soon(er)? What are your albatrosses?

Book Reviews: The Reader and The Book Thief

17 Sep

I happened to read these books one after the other – The Book Thief first and then The Reader. And since I’m feeling very ambitious today, I’ll attempt to tackle both these books – New York Times Best Seller and critically acclaimed, no less – in one post!

I’m not combining them just because of their serendipitous proximity in my meandering reading plan, but rather because they both tackle Nazi Germany, with books and reading as common ingredients. They follow very different paths though in style and story-telling. And while I really liked The Book Thief, The Reader left me cold and a little annoyed.

The Book ThiefThe Book Thief by Markus Zusak is told from the point of view of Death – apt since it was a busy time for him, giving him the advantage of many perspectives and a broad overview of the life and times. If I remember correctly, it was on one of those lists: Books for Book Lovers… It is a delicious read, one of those that I’ll definitely go back to and reread.

Synopsis: The protagonist is 8 year old Liesel, the book thief. She starts her book stealing career with the unlikely Gravediggers Handbook. This book serves as the means by which she learns to read. She continues stealing books and devouring them. Liesel’s foster mother is a rough-around-the edges woman who does not know how to show that she cares. Although she constantly abuses Liesel, she does grow to love her foster daughter.

Her foster father teaches her to read, comforts her when she has nightmares, plays the accordion to entertain her, and is her companion and champion in many ways. He is forced to become a member of the Party to protect himself and his family, but he has definite anti-Nazi views. Liesel’s best friend is Rudy, who wants to be Jesse Owens – he is her companion in all her adventures and thieving forays. Into this enters Max Vandenburg, a young Jewish man whom the Hubermanns (Liesel’s foster parents) hide in their basement. Liesel’s interest in books and reading is also what helps the community band together and survive during some life-threatening situations.

In spite of the the horrific nature of the subject matter (Nazi camps, atrocities against Jews), there is a child-like innocence and openness about this book that made me fall in love with it. The characters, starting with Death are caricatures, but believable and very likable all the same.

The ReaderThe Reader by Bernhard Schlink pales in comparison. I would not get excited about it even if there was no comparison. Even The Graduate-like beginning with an affair between a school kid and a much older woman was not all that engrossing. The rest of the story, in spite of the moral dilemma that is tackled, was just ehh…

Synopsis: [Spoiler Alert] Michel Berg, a school kid, has a tempestuous affair with a much older woman, Hanna. Through the period of their relationship, Hanna insists that Michel read out to her from classical literature. The relationship is strange, not because of their age, but because Hanna is stubbornly secretive and does not really open herself to Michel. She suddenly disappears and leaves town, leaving Michel devastated. When Michel sees Hanna again many years later, he is a law student and she is a defendant in a war crimes case. During the course of the proceedings, Michel realises that while Hanna was not totally innocent of the crimes she was charged with, she is letting herself become a scapegoat rather than admit her shortcoming – the fact that she can’t read. This is the fact that the case hinges on, and would have ensured that Hanna did not bear the brunt of the accusation.

I was not thrilled with Hanna’s character right from the beginning – too broody and not enough explained. Michel having difficulty getting a handle on his life because of his relationship with Hanna was annoying and not convincing to me.

Books and reading play a big part in both books – in The Book Thief they foster learning, bonding and exploring. In The Reader, they have deeper, darker repercussions.

To wrap up: The Book Thief gets a definite “Like” from me and The Reader a “Don’t Like”.