Thursday, September 30, 2010

The Last Banned Book I Read

Like many classic works of American literature, sometimes we don’t read them until a teacher plops a copy on our desks or they show up on a college “recommended reading” list. True, I have randomly picked up books like Moby Dick, The Catcher in the Rye (banned as late as 2001), Cat’s Cradle, and The Sun Also Rises (also banned, and burned in Nazi bonfires), but I’m more likely to go for a contemporary novel. As a novelist and as a person I want to be well rounded, but since I write contemporary novels this is what I usually like to read.

Then I got an interesting freelance assignment last summer to help write test prep questions for an international academic competition. Each year the organization chooses a theme; this year it was The Great Depression. The students were to address it from a bounty of angles: the literature of the times, popular music, the economy, politics, the legal milieu, and how geological conditions contributed to the Dust Bowl in the Midwestern United States that further depressed the economy and pushed a large chunk the population west.

Before the category assignments were given, I bought a copy of The Grapes of Wrath. I applied to the company to write about literature, film and poetry, so I thought I’d get a head start. But because I was fairly new to the team, a freelancer with more experience scored the literature category and I was assigned to geology.

Although I find the fossil record and many aspects of geology fascinating, science was never my strongest subject. But I still had my copy of The Grapes of Wrath and I felt it calling. All I knew of Steinbeck were the novels my teachers assigned me – The Red Pony and Of Mice and Men (banned and/or challenged so many times the references take up two pages in the list of classic banned books.) I didn’t know much about Steinbeck’s life and why he chose to write about this particular subject, but his prose style hooked me from the first page.

As I read, I could see why some people wanted it banned. Yes, we have the usual complaints about taking the Lord’s name in vain, the cursing and the sexual references (which are laughably tame by today’s standards) but the biggest one was that Steinbeck took the side of the fledgling unions, which, at the time, was tantamount to declaring yourself a communist. Although the record shows that nobody who wanted this book off the shelves or out of the hands of young people referenced its politics.

Many an artist, writer or filmmaker had been blacklisted for writing about communism, back in the days of the McCarthy witch hunts, and it was extremely brave of Steinbeck to write this novel. Which made it that much more appealing to me.

Not only is he a brilliant writer, but in pinpoint focus he takes a snapshot of what life was like for a subset of Americans during this time. How deep their struggles, how they bore their losses and kept their heads high and moved on. In a community where you lose your land, can barely afford to eat let alone bury your loved ones when they die, it makes complete sense that a preacher would lose his faith in God, a father would want to work to feed his family no matter the consequences, and occasionally people would swear. I can’t imagine a world where a book like this would be banned, where the only fossil record of the Dust Bowl years would be found in dry textbooks and not through the eyes of the Joad family.

What’s the last banned book you read? Did you like it? Do you think it deserved to be banned?

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Read A Banned Book This Week

This is Banned Books Week, during which I am paying homage to my freedom to read the written word, and to raise awareness about the great works of literature that have been challenged or banned from bookstores, library shelves and high school curricula since their publications. Books have gotten banned or challenged for as many reasons as you can dream up, including profanity, sexual content, violence, and offensive references to racial or religious groups. For instance, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is a perennial favorite for challenges, because of Mark Twain’s use of a racial epithet regarding African-Americans. Catcher in the Rye is another common target, because it has been called “sexually explicit” and some object to its religious viewpoint. The Twilight series is the latest honoree to join the list, because some parents object to depictions of sex with vampires.

While not too many books get banned up here in fairly liberal New York State (although the folks who organized Banned Book Week assert that books have been challenged or banned (and sometimes burned) in every state in America), my first inkling that there were some books adults would rather I not read came when I was in fifth grade. I was a voracious and early reader. As a preschooler, I’d sit on the floor of the family room and read our encyclopedia, volume after volume. I was probably the only white, exurban four-year-old who knew what a kumquat was. In grade school I tore through the community and school libraries, then I started reading whatever my parents had around the house that looked interesting.

I’d brought one of those books to school. What looked interesting from my parents’ library was Robert Crichton’s “The Secret of Santa Vittoria,” a popular novel published in 1966 and made into a movie by award-winning director Stanley Kramer in 1969. It was a good story, about a small town in Post-WWII Italy that tries to hide its treasure trove of wine from a looting band of German soldiers.

I can find no record of its being challenged or banned, and apart from its references to torture during wartime, it was not exactly the stuff of controversy, or at least until my teacher saw it in my desk.

“Do your parents know you’re reading this?” my teacher asked.

“Yes,” I said. He looked at me funny, kind of squinty-eyed like he was deciding how to handle the situation, and then he let the subject drop. But I had a sense that I shouldn’t be reading this book. I didn’t know why. Was there sex in it? I can’t remember, but there probably was. Swearing? Probably, but I heard a lot of it around my house, so it was no big deal. Did somebody take the Lord’s name in vain? Since it was Robert Crichton, I wouldn’t doubt it.

I have read countless books since then, many of them on the list maintained by the American Library Association as the most frequently banned and/or challenged books of the 20th century, and many had been assigned to me by my teachers. Among these are The Great Gatsby, The Grapes of Wrath, To Kill a Mockingbird, Color Purple, 1984, Lolita, Of Mice and Men, Catch-22, Brave New World, Animal Farm, Slaughterhouse Five, The Lord of the Rings (which was burned in Alamogordo, New Mexico in 2001 as satanic) and the seemingly innocuous A Separate Peace.

I can’t speak for everyone out there, but the reading of these books did not corrupt my mind or person, and I consider myself much richer for the experience of reading them. Many of these works (and the others on the list) are brilliant, sparkling examples of literature that examines the plight of mankind in its evils and its glories. They capture moments in time, some we would rather forget. Like the Salem witch trials. Nazi Germany. American slavery. Japanese internment camps. The subjugation of women. The civil rights movement. Homophobia. These stories use language appropriate to situation and the time; they portray characters that are either victims to their (our) failings or villains in their (our) taking advantage of those failings. Maybe that’s why so many individuals and organizations over the last century have sought to ban these books. Because literature—especially great literature—is a mirror of a civilization, and it shows the utter humanness of us. And maybe some would choose to hide that from the next generation, either in a misguided attempt to shelter them or in a dastardly attempt to control them.

Monday, September 27, 2010

Outsourced Should Be Out of NBC's Lineup

You’ve probably seen what I call “One-Bit-Wonders” — sitcoms based on one overarching joke that fails to deliver once that one joke has been played, and usually played out. Maybe you remember “Twenty Good Years,” a show which, owing to its pedigree and star John Lithgow, should not have failed so miserably were it not for its premise: two grumpy old men daring each other to do the things on their “bucket lists.” How many times can you watch a couple of guys skydive without feeling that the show has kicked the bucket? Or last season’s “Accidentally on Purpose,” with the fabulous Jenna Elfman, which revolved around her pregnancy following a poorly-considered, post-breakup hook-up with a stranger many years her junior, who then moves in with her. After the jokes about cougars, morning sickness, and swollen nipples run out, where is there to go?

Now we have another candidate for cancellation. Unless you don’t have a television or have some kind of political beef with NBC, you’ve probably been watching teaser ads for the sitcom “Outsourced” for about the last three years. When a network does this, for me it sends up a ginormous red flag that might as well say, “We know this show sucks. Therefore we’re going to ram the only funny bits into your eyeballs until you become a zombie, only able to stagger about chanting its title, network and time slot.”

The premise of “Outsourced” is that employee who works for an American novelty company returns from management training to find that all of the company’s sales jobs have been outsourced to an Indian call center. If he wants to keep his job, he must move to India and manage the center’s employees. And from what I’d seen in those meant-to-be-hypnotic, earlier-mentioned clips, the comedy seemed cheap and slightly offensive. Was the producer’s intention to leap on the zeitgeist of anger from having our jobs outsourced to countries like India? Make fun of it as a form of catharsis? Yeah, okay, who hasn’t called his or her credit card company and spoken to someone with an Indian accent named “Bill?” It’s funny. Probably half of the stand-ups in America use this in their routines.

But the routine is getting tired. When “Outsourced” premiered as a romantic comedy in 2006, perhaps it had more impact. Industrialization has moved quickly in the past few years, and now some of India’s companies have their own call centers in other, less-developed countries.

Which leaves us not with a sly commentary on the state of the world but a weak, fish-out-of-water, culture-clash, cringe-worthy comedy. The program felt lazy, as if the writers had no new ideas and merely reached for the low hanging fruit in cross-cultural humor: making fun of the Indian characters’ names, their English, their food, and, of course, the novelties the company sells. (You can even buy some of them at Then a cow wanders by the windows.

Ben Rappaport plays Todd, the American boss who manages the call center. I didn’t get much of a feel for this character, who came off as a bit of a lightweight with clumsy delivery. But that could just be Rappaport’s relative inexperience as an actor. This is his first television role.

High points are Rizwan Manji, who plays Rajiv, the assistant manager who wants Todd’s job. He has great comic timing, as does massively talented Indian stage and screen actor Sacha Dawan, as call-center employee Manmeet.

But overall, like the turbaned gentleman who leaves the room glaring at Todd every time he speaks, I wanted to follow him out and be done with this farce.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Top 10 Reasons to Write Top 10 Lists

10. They’re fun to write. More fun than say, articles about dust mite allergies or zebra mussels. Although you could probably come up with a pretty amusing Top 10 list about dust mites. Go ahead, I dare you.

9. People seem to like numbers. Not as much spelled out, though. “3” is sexier than “three.” Don’t you think? Why else is the TV show “Numb3rs” spelled with a “3” instead of the “e?” Oh, those crazy TV people…

8. Because Top 10 lists more engaging, you’ll probably get more reader comments, possibly including suggestions for additional numbers to tack onto your list. Which can be fodder for your next Top 10 list. Let your readers become part of the process and they’ll be more likely to bookmark you. Or secretly hate you for ripping off their stuff. You’ll never know, will you?

7. Many of us are accustomed to making lists: shopping lists, to-do lists, bucket lists, lists of people you shouldn’t have slept with if you weren’t drunk and feeling sorry for yourself. You’d be slipping right into a format that a lot of people already find comfortable. Especially when drunk, feeling sorry for themselves, and probably surfing the web anyway cyber-stalking their old hook-ups.

6. Double duty! Some professionals, citing the public’s decreasing attention span, suggest ditching the Top 10 list for the Top 5 list. Write them all out, and then tuck half in your “repurpose” folder for days when you can’t get your eyes to focus in the same direction.

5. David Letterman was probably damned frustrated to learn that he couldn’t copyright the concept. Revel in your freedom!

4. Top 10 lists come up higher in Google searches. Usually among the top 10 listings.

3. You’ll have something cool to post on

2. The organized structure makes them more appealing to read, and for your readers to share with their friends. Then they’ll share with their friends, and so on, and so on, and…hey, maybe even David Letterman will see it and hire you and…nah, wait. That was the dream I had last night. It involved a Top 10 list about why he should hire me, and a restraining order.

1. If you plan your Top 10 right, you can write it fairly quickly and then move onto that article about dust mite allergies or zebra mussels.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

F. Lancer, At Your Service

While I enjoy working from home and not having to worry about the state of my hair or if my socks match, it's an eye-opening experience to work in-house and step into someone else's workspace and corporate culture. Not only does it break up the monotony of staring at the same set of walls and watching the dirty dishes pile up, I also get an instant group of colleagues to fill that void I sometimes feel for human contact.

And, if I'm lucky, the coffee won't suck.

I've freelanced at ad agencies, small publishers, newspaper offices and even for a diamond merchant who had their employees practically frisked every time they entered and exited. These were short-term gigs, but for a while I was fortunate enough to slip into a regular, in-house freelancing slot with a large publisher of industrial magazines. One of the titles was produced solely by freelancers: writing, editing, and composition. It was a good gig. If my usual clients were a little slow, I knew that I had at least five days of solid, well-paying work each month.

It was also the first time I worked in such a large office. The publisher had its own four-story building that spanned most of a city block. On each floor, cubicles upholstered in neutral gray stretched half a football field to the windows. It was a busy hive; proofers and typesetters ran galleys about with singular focus. As I ran my own proofs around, I would take mental notes only as an outsider can. Most employees appeared to like their jobs, until you got talking with some of them. Most employees had a kind of pallor that comes from working beneath old-style fluorescent lighting. And they all had little nameplates velcroed to the outsides of their cubicles. First initial, last name. Not only had I never worked in an office that large, I'd never worked in one where employees had their names on their office doors. Or, whatever serves as a door in a cubicle.

There was no nameplate on the freelancers' cubicle, because we changed up so frequently, but for five days out of the month, that real estate was mine. Even though I was "just a freelancer," I wanted my own identity, my own statement. I felt that I was as vital to the organization as anybody else on the production floor. Not only could I come in at a moment's notice, they didn't have to pay me benefits, and I did good work. Isn't that important enough to any employer to rate a cheap, plastic nameplate?

No dice, said Human Resources. Nameplates were only for permanent employees. So I enlisted the help of my temporary colleagues. J. Carter helped me find a blank name holder. M. Rizzo showed me how to open it and slide in the printed insert. Since this was before the days of desktop publishing, I made my own insert with a piece of paper cut to size and a black magic marker. I slipped the paper inside the holder, snapped it closed and stuck my brand-new nameplate outside of my cubicle.

My name was F. Lancer. I thought it would be funny, a private joke with my fellow freelancers who occupied the cubicle the other three weeks out of the month. I didn't realize my name would confuse some people. Several of them actually asked me what the F. stood for. I told them it was "Frieda" and they believed me.

I even started answering to it. When I moved to New York, and sadly had to leave most of my clients behind, I also left the handcrafted nameplate velcroed to my former cubicle. It was to let those who would come after me - Frank Lancer, Francis Lancer and their sister Felicity - show the company that they are just as vital as any J. Carter on the production floor.

May they wear it with pride.

And join me at International Freelancer's Day on September 24th.

Friday, September 17, 2010

The Execution, If Not the Spirit, Of Atonement

Years ago, I worked as the office manager for local Jewish couple in their home-based business. And that home was beautiful: rustic, nestled into the woods, with a million-dollar view. The surroundings–and the equally calming pace of the work–filled me with a joy that I never experienced in any other job.

My work tasks, however, were not always so calming. One of my bosses could have a temper and made micromanagement an art form. Our skill sets and adaptation styles, as they say in human resources management, did not mesh particularly well. But I’d take a deep breath and soldier on. I needed the money, I needed the benefits, I definitely needed one big fat perk they offered me: if I was caught up with my tasks and the phones weren’t busy, they encouraged me to work on my novel. And where else are you going to find that, with Jewish holidays off, to boot?

After I’d been there a couple of years, the husband started a new business. Since this venture was product-based, and it was brilliantly innovative, launching the business required a lot of work. For him, and by extension, for me. I made a lot of breathless runs to UPS. I stayed late to type memos and proofread proposals he brought to my desk at 4:45 and absolutely needed to have done before I left. I helped him develop what became not just a great selling product, but a book as well, with virtually zilch appreciation. (But I’m grateful he did take the time and space to thank his cats in the book’s acknowledgments.)

Look, I don’t need a lot of praise, and I’m not here to whine. I’m fairly low maintenance, I’m an independent self-starter, but once in a while, just a little thanks for a job well done? Please? One day he even blew up at me for not thanking profusely enough a woman who had rushed to get one of his products made. “You have to make this right,” he said to me, repeating the phrase several times, each time louder than the last and with more expansive hand gestures.

The normally calm air tightened between us.

Then the eve of Yom Kippur arrived. I was closing up the office for the night when he poked his head in the door and said, “Whatever I did last year, I’m sorry.”

I blinked at him, too stunned to reply. Only later did I get angry. This man prided himself on his wholehearted re-embracement of his Judaism and overall spirituality. He meditated daily. He belonged to study groups, men’s groups, chanting groups. On Fridays he and his wife donned their tallis shawls, picked up the loaves of challah I had called the bakery to reserve, and performed a Shabbat service at a local nursing home. I couldn’t reconcile his spirituality and good deeds with why I only rated a blanket apology.

While I was never a practicing Jew (it’s my birthright, not my preference), I’m familiar with the intention of Yom Kippur. I love the idea of setting aside a day to reflect upon the past year in the hopes of bettering the treatment of your fellow human and yourself. In fact, he was the only person who has ever apologized to me – blanket or otherwise – during Yom Kippur.

Perhaps I should be grateful. Maybe that was the only way he knew how to apologize, but it was, in its own way, an offering. His example was a reminder to be more accountable for my own behavior, because who among us is perfect?

So on this Yom Kippur, not only am I sorry for whatever I did to you last year, I’m sorry for whatever I’ll do to you this year, too.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Oprah's Last Pick

Even though Oprah isn’t supposed to make her last book club pick known until tomorrow’s show, people in the book industry are already reporting that it’s going to be Jonathan Franzen and his brand-new bestseller, Freedom.

If so, this could be interesting. Those of you old enough to remember 2001 (the year, not the movie) might know that Oprah picked Franzen’s previous book, The Corrections, for her famous book club. When he learned of her intention, he said that some of her previous picks had been “schmaltzy” and “one-dimensional.” (I truly hope he wasn’t thinking of Toni Morrison.) When the Big O heard of these comments, the offer was withdrawn. So there, dude. Next time you have a beef with someone who wants to put a stamp on your book jacket that will blast your sales through the sky, try to keep your opinions off the record.

Perhaps choosing Franzen again will allow Ms. Winfrey a chance to clear past wrongs, like not being gracious enough to endure his snobbery. A way of coming full circle, of rising above it, a perfect end to her network run. And if Franzen accepts graciously, a way to write (and right) his own karma.

Although the decision, if the decision truly is Franzen, may have a backlash of sorts. Recently, Jennifer Weiner, along with Jodi Picoult, has taken up the extremely valid issue of women commercial fiction writers not getting their due by major literary reviewers. While not singling out Jonathan Franzen, she did use him as an example of how male authors, no matter how few and far between their publications, get more space in primary print real estate like the New York Times. I agree with her wholeheartedly, but I fear that the brouhaha is only giving Franzen more sales. Guaranteed that Weiner will have a well-placed comment or two if Oprah gives her stamp to Freedom.

I think Oprah should turn the whole thing upside-down and choose a writer so far off the radar that it will make front-page news in places where people don’t read books. (I refuse to say where that might be, because I’ll get nasty emails, and since you are clever, you have already written this joke in your heads.) And no, I’m not talking about Oprah choosing me. Although that’s an interesting take… if she wants to clear her karma, or at least atone for a small sin or two, why not choose an up-and-coming writer, an unknown, who gets very little if no press coverage and whose book isn’t even in print yet? Brilliance!

But here’s my favorite potential Oprah pick–a woman who has been tirelessly campaigning for the job, who even wrote a book dedicated to trying to get into the Oprah book club. And that’s Kathy Griffin. I love it–the woman who was ballsy enough to have a Pap smear on national television… the last pick for the Oprah book club. And what an even more magnanimous gesture on Oprah's part than choosing Franzen.

What a way to go out.