You Want To Recognize Banned Books Week
Want a book on race, representation and Hollywood or are considering a new exercise routine
I visited the Hobart Book Village, a tiny town in upstate New York that’s home to eight (8!) independent bookstores last week. Each of the stores is slightly different — there’s a mystery store, a rare books store, a children’s bookstore and more.
It took Mom and me a little over an hour to get there, and it was well worth the drive. At the used bookstore, I found a copy of Katharine Hepburn’s memoir of filming “The African Queen” titled The Making of “The African Queen:” Or How I Went to Africa with Bogart, Bacall and Almost Lost My Life. I never knew such a book existed and am excited to dive in.
At the New York Books & Ephemera store, I picked up a small trinket for one of you! I’m raffling off a pin perfect for book lovers. To enter, comment below with a book you recently enjoyed or are looking forward to reading.
And, now, what to read if…
You Want To Recognize Banned Books Week
Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson
This week is Banned Books Week, an annual event fighting censorship and celebrating the right to read whatever we want. It first launched in 1982 in response to a sudden increase in challenges of books in bookstores, libraries and schools and is now coordinated by a coalition that includes the American Booksellers Association, the American Library Association and others. Today, their work remains relevant as books that feature LGBT characters or discussions of police brutality are targeted for removal from school libraries.
It seems to me that one of the best ways to fight book bans is to read — and celebrate — their targets. With that in mind, I’m recommending Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson, a YA novel that is both brilliant and devastating. Anderson writes about Melinda, a high school freshman who has shut down and nearly stopped speaking after surviving a rape over the summer. It’s written as a diary, giving the reader insight into Melinda’s fragile state of mind and attempts to rebuild.
While Speak first hit bookshelves in 1999, it was the fourth most-challenged book in 2020, according to data collected by the American Library Association, for containing a “political viewpoint, bias against male students and including rape and profanity.” From where I’m sitting, these are bizarre critiques. If Speak has a political message, it’s that those who commit sexual violence should be held accountable for their actions. That’s hardly a radical or dangerous message for students to hear. Anderson is participating in a Banned Books Week Twitter chat on Wednesday from 7-8 PM EST. You can get more information here if you’re interested.
I was lucky enough to hear Anderson speak with YA author Elizabeth Acevedo at an event recognizing Speak’s 20th anniversary in 2019. As the country continued to struggle with the fallout of the #MeToo movement, I realized I was sad that Speak remained so relevant. I can only hope that 20 years from now it will feel like an artifact of another time, not a reflection of society.
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The Emmy Awards Have You Thinking About Race and Hollywood
Interior Chinatown by Charles Yu
Netflix’s “The Crown” and Apple TV+’s “Ted Lasso” swept the annual TV awards last Sunday. And while people of color earned nearly half the acting nominations, only four behind-the-camera artists of color won primetime awards, an outcome that led to a resurgence of conversation about Hollywood, race and representation.
If you want a thoughtful examination of those issues, look no further than Charles Yu’s Interior Chinatown. The novel follows Willis Wu, an aspiring actor, as he attempts to make it big in Hollywood. Early on in the book, he reflects, “Ever since you were a boy, you’ve dreamt of being Kung Fu Guy,” but the best roles he’s received are “Generic Asian Man,” “Background Asian Man” and “Delivery Man.” That changes when Willis is cast in a regular role in a Law & Order spoof. While he’s initially ecstatic for the break, he grows frustrated with the stereotyped role he’s asked to play, such as when he’s directed to use a fake foreign accent.
Yu, a former TV writer, wrote Interior Chinatown as a screenplay. It’s printed in Courier font, with wide margins and stage directions. The text alternates between Willis’ life and the script for the show he acts in. It makes for a reading experience that requires some focus, but it’s definitely worth the effort.
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You Have a Complex Relationship with Exercise
The Secret to Superhuman Strength by Alison Bechdel
I’m on record as hating that exercise improves every aspect of my life. When I’m in a good exercise routine — my current regime includes regular barre and spin classes, plus walking the dog — I sleep better, write easier and more. And yet, at the moment, I sometimes find actual exercise a less than enjoyable experience.
In The Secret to Superhuman Strength, renowned cartoonist Alison Bechdel reflects on her lifelong relationship with exercise, tracking her years spent running, biking and doing yoga. Despite her constant quest for self-improvement, she finds that she’s depressed and relying on alcohol to get through the day. Throughout the graphic memoir, she puts her experiences in the context of other writers’ and philosophers’ attempts to find enlightenment through exercise and the great outdoors. The result is a book that’s as much about our relationships with other people as it is about exercise.
The Secret to Superhuman Strength builds on themes Bechdel explored in her two previous memoirs, Fun Home and Are You My Mother, but readers new to her work will find a lot to enjoy here as well. Bechdel’s skills as a researcher, writer and cartoonist are all on full display, creating an immersive, engaging read.
That’s it for me today. You can catch up on last week’s recs here and you’ll have a Q&A in your inbox on Thursday.
And don’t forget to comment to enter the raffle!
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I recently read "In Five Years" by Rebecca Serle and I loved it. In the beginning I was worried it was headed in the "Something Borrowed" territory, but I was so glad it didn't. By the end I was sobbing and grateful for my best friend.
I loved Interior Chinatown, even if I had to reread a few paragraphs every once in a while to make sure I understood what was happening. I recently saw The Secret to Superhuman Strength in my local library, so I'll definitely check it out!