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The Book Beat - March 7, 2021

Happy Sunday, book friends! There wasn't a ton of book news this week (yes, we WILL discuss the bookshelf that converts into a coffin, promise), but then Dr. Seuss's estate made a statement and book-talk became THE talk of the week. And, unfortunately, unlike my dream of where books outrank reality TV, politics, or Kayne/Kim as concerns in this country, this book-talk caused much criticism and uproar. So, of course, I'm going to comment! I promise, I'll make it quick and, of course, I had to include my freshly made teal faux card catalog dresser in this pic with the Seuss books we own. I'm no DIY/Fixer Upper devotee, but I think this turned out pretty cool. And teal, naturally.

I think you all know me pretty well after reading a few of my columns to know how I feel about the censorship of books; I'm not a fan. And that's what's so intriguing about this story about six of Dr. Seuss's books. Dr. Seuss Enterprises, the entity that publishes and profits off of the late writer/illustrator's books, decided, after a year of discussions with experts and educators, to stop publishing these books because of culturally insensitive imagery. Read their statement here. When the story broke, I researched Theodore Geisel's history and found this illuminating article about his own reactions to the criticism of content in his books. He also wrote an essay where he critiqued racist humor. As I've always said, doing extra reading to get some context to certain things is always helpful in forming opinions.

My take is simple: If Seuss Enterprises decided to stop publishing books that they profit off of, that's their prerogative; they are the ones who represent the late Theodore Geisel and continue to put his books out into the world. We wouldn't have them if they weren't publishing them. And, we DO still have them since they aren't coming to collect all the copies that exist. Some entities (eBay and Chicago Public Library) are taking them out of rotation, most aren't (New York Public Library). Also, Dr. Seuss wrote over 60 books; so there are 54 more that will continue to be published and available to kids to buy brand new. Good books. Books that promote positive things like environmentalism (The Lorax), individuality (The Sneetches, written by Seuss to speak to anti-Semitism), and trying new things (Green Eggs and Ham). No book burning. No banning. No cancellation. Just a publisher making a change to what they profit off of to promote progress in thought/ideology.

One more thing...The Lorax movie goes like this: greed creates a situation where a town full of people are living a certain way. A young boy realizes that the status quo isn't good, decent, or healthy. He works to reveal the true reason for the way things are, changes the narrative, opens the peoples' eyes to something better, and progress happens. More generally, progress only comes with change and that change is very often ignited by going from "that's the way it was, and it was wrong," to "this is right, and the way it should be."

And now, onto more book news!

Shelf Life (& Death)

You all know that I LOVE books. But I'm not sure I'd want to be buried with books...or, as this article offers, IN my bookcase. Shelves of Life was created by furniture designer William Warren for the booklover who has a deep connection with symbolic objects--in this case their books and bookshelf. Their connection is so strong, that they can convert their bookshelf into their coffin for when they die. It's morbid for sure, but I can at least appreciate the sentimentality of it. Still, throw a copy of Pride and Prejudice in with me, but I don't need a bookshelf staring at me day in and day out reminding me of my ultimate demise.

Nabokov's Ode to...Superman?

In 1940, writer Vladimir Nabokov immigrated to America (escaping the Bolsheviks in Russias and the Nazis in Germany). At first, he struggled with the English language and had trouble getting his writing published. Thirteen years before Lolita, Nabokov tried to get a poem published in The New Yorker. They turned him down. The poem? "The Man of To-morrow's Lament," an, at times, racy poem about of all things, Superman. How Nabokov was inspired to write this poem is quite sweet. His son, Dmitri, was a big Man of Steel fan, so Nabokov would read him comics before bedtime. After reading Superman #16, he decided to write a poem where Superman/Clark Kent laments in a first-person monologue about not being able to have children with Lois Lane. More specifically, Superman imagines his vigor on his wedding night causing his honeymoon suite to explode.

At once thought lost, this poem was found and has FINALLY been printed for all to enjoy (well, if you pay to get past the paywall of the Times Literary Supplement, which, lucky for you, I do!). I can't print it here for obvious copyright reasons, but I will share this article, which gives us some interesting tidbits. It's definitely got some inneundos ("I’m young and bursting with prodigious sap...") but also presents a rather sweet concern by a guy who just wants to have a normal life with the woman he loves. There are also some illusions to Hamlet that credit the exalted talent of the author. It also, unlike most of Naborov's work, is blatant in its source. The poem speaks to the yellow sky, gold statue, Clark's glasses, and even repeats the exact same words Lois says on the comic's cover. After 80 years, this comedic poem by one of the world's most serious authors has been found and shared. What fun!

Up Close and Personal with Authors

One of the good things about social media is getting to interact directly with authors or even just hearing about their struggles writing or about their personal lives. The pandemic has offered countless opportunities to hear authors speak on Zoom events. I even participated in a Friday night Zoom happy hour with several romance writers and it was so fun!

The author who is interviewed in this article, Angeline Boulley, has a YA book coming out in two weeks about an 18-year-old Native girl who reluctantly goes undercover on her Ojibwe reservation to solve a murder case (it sounds so good!). From this article, you get a lot about the story and nothing about Boulley. Yet this week on Twitter, she posted this:

What an uplifting message! Yes, social media can be a cesspool at times, but the access we can get to the creators of the art we love (or, in my case, how 46-year-old aspiring writers can find relatable inspiration) can be heartwarming and humanizing. This message certainly was. And, now, she encouraged me to buy this book!

Reading Roundup

I didn't get as much reading done as I planned this past week, although I'm almost done with The Final Revival of Opal and Nev by Dawnie Walton, which I'm really enjoying. It's giving me Daisy and the Six vibes, which I also really enjoyed.

I did finish The Upstairs Wife by Julia Fine (3/5). I will write a longer review of that one soon, but just a quick sum-up. This book speaks to postpartum psychosis through the first person point-of-view. While some of the critiques of the stresses and terrors of motherhood rang true, the intensity of the overall narrative didn't grab me. I think it's because I've never experienced something so personal, harrowing, and intense. I did love learning more about Margaret Wise Brown and her lover/tormentor Michael Strange, but the narrative on the whole left me underwhelmed. Yet, if you like horror books and love a very personal thriller told through first-person POV, this might be the book for you.

My plans for this week include finishing Opal, and hopefully getting done Infinite Country by Patricia Engel and either What's Mine and Yours by Naima Coster or The Lost Apothecary by Sarah Penner. Those and Opal came from Book of the Month Club this week! Book mail day is ALWAYS a good day! I also picked up Klara and the Sun by Kazuo Ishiguro. I love his writing. I read his short story, "A Village After Dark" for my Short Story a Day Challenge in 2020. My critique is here. If you're overwhelmed by your TBR pile, try reading a short story or two to feel productive! I highly recommend this one.

Bookstagram Snaps of the Week!

Women's History Month Spotlight:

Begum Rokeya

(also known as Rokeya Sakhawat Hossain)

Instead of asking, "What did Begum Rokeya do?" it would probably be better to ask, "What didn't she do?" A Bengali feminist thinker, writer, educator, and political activist, she is widely regarded as a pioneer of women's liberation in South Asia.

Born in 1880 to a wealthy Muslim family, Rokeya defied her traditional upbringing by learning English. Her brother, who was educated at formal schools, held up a big, illustrated English book and told Rokeya, “Little sister, if you can learn this language, all the doors to the treasures of the world would be open to you."

Armed with a language that other Muslim women were denied access to, Begum defied her traditional upbringing to live a life being outspoken about the roles of women in Muslim society. She was particularly focused on how women were held back from achieving true equality because they were denied access to formal educational opportunities. She, herself, dreamed of opening a girls' school.

At 16, Rokeya married a 30-year-old bureaucrat, Sakhawat Hossain, who encouraged her to write and helped her work to achieve her dream. In the early 1900s, she published her first writings, including Matichur in 1905 and her most famous work, Sultana's Dream in 1908.

Sultana's Dream (available in Kindle version) is short (30 pages, a quick read) but essential satire. It features a protagonist, Sultana, dreaming of walking around a feminist utopia called Ladyland. In Ladyland, men are secluded (the opposite of the Muslim/Indian practice of purdah, the seclusion of women). While there, they do the domestic work and childrearing traditionally done by women. The Queen of Ladyland made sure all women were educated in science. The women, in turn, figured out how to harness the power of the sun as energy and created other technological advances (laborless farming and flying cars), while the men focused on growing their military arsenal (and bemoaned the women's "sentimental" endeavors). Sultana questioned her tour guide, Sister Sara, by saying that in her land, the men rule because they have bigger brains and are stronger than women. Sister Sara points out that elephants have bigger brains than men and lions are stronger than men, yet men have figured out a way to rule over them. Just as she's getting a ride in a flying car, Sultana wakes up.

Royeka finally opened her school, Sakhawat Memorial Girls' School, in 1909. Sadly, her husband had died the year prior. She ran the school for 24 years. On some days, she literally had to walk from door-to-door to collect students for class due to her country's culture being hostile towards women getting an education.

Royeka also wrote poems, essays, and short stories, and spoke at conferences, advocating for women's empowerment. When she died in 1832, her final essay, "The Rights of Women" was unfinished. Every year on December 9th, Bangladesh celebrates Royeka Day to honor her legacy and works.

Cover of the Week:

The Lost Apothecary

By Sarah Penner

This GORGEOUS cover is otherworldly in its beauty and bright, shiny design (perfect for the subject matter). It's by book-cover artist Elita Sidiropoulou (IG: @elita_ki). Using Shutterstock imagery and a gold foil bottle illustration, this cover mixes two art media to reflect the various mixtures present in the story. The colorful flowers on the cover are beautiful, but, at the same time, some flowers are toxic and can be used to kill. This beauty/deadly dichotomy is also referenced by the book's narrative: an apothecary shop caters to women who wish to use poison to seek vengeance on the oppressive men in their lives. More about this book is below...

Hidden in the depths of eighteenth-century London, a secret apothecary shop caters to an unusual kind of clientele. Women across the city whisper of a mysterious figure named Nella who sells well-disguised poisons to use against the oppressive men in their lives. But the apothecary’s fate is jeopardized when her newest patron, a precocious twelve-year-old, makes a fatal mistake, sparking a string of consequences that echo through the centuries.

Meanwhile in present-day London, aspiring historian Caroline Parcewell spends her tenth wedding anniversary alone, running from her own demons. When she stumbles upon a clue to the unsolved apothecary murders that haunted London two hundred years ago, her life collides with the apothecary’s in a stunning twist of fate—and not everyone will survive.

With crackling suspense, unforgettable characters and searing insight, The Lost Apothecary is a subversive and intoxicating debut novel of secrets, vengeance and the remarkable ways women can save each other despite the barrier of time.

Sounds great, doesn't it? I'll keep you posted on what I think!

Keep healthy, keep safe, and keep reading!

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