Sunday, September 28, 2008

Banned Books Week: Celebrating the Freedom to Read

September 27th kicked off this year’s Banned Books Week. Its purpose is to raise awareness of how many books are being questioned or challenged by certain groups who then want those books to be pulled from schools, libraries, and bookstores. Some reasons for objections are the content is too sexual, too violent, too vulgar in terms of language, too offensive to certain racial or religious groups, and/or too supportive of homosexuality. Not only do some of the reasons sound outrageous but to allow books to be pulled from the shelves because they go against someone’s point of view takes away not only the author’s right to express his or her opinions but the reader’s right to read whatever it is he or she wants.

Through the efforts of the American Library Association (ALA), books are no longer being banned. They are however still constantly being challenged- which is the attempt to remove the books from the shelves or school curriculum and restrict people’s access to them. The ALA makes sure that they remain available for everyone.

In lieu of Banned Books Week, I decided to read one of the most challenged books of 2007- “And Tango Makes Three” by Justin Richardson and Peter Parnell. (I was surprised to see most of the titles, as this one was, were children’s books.) Based on actual events in New York City’s Central Park Zoo, this picture book tells the story of two male penguins who’ve partnered up and became “adoptive” fathers. The reasons for challenging this book includes “anti-ethnic, sexism, homosexuality, anti-family, religious viewpoint, and unsuited to age group”.

I thought the story was sweet. Despite the subject matter, there was nothing offensive or preachy about it. It’s not like the penguins were doing the deed. I don’t understand how this can be considered “anti-family” when it’s just showing another type of the modern definition of what makes a family. As for “unsuited to age group”, I did wonder if kids should be reading about things they can’t fully comprehend. (“And Tango Makes Three” is targeted for the preschool and early grade school crowd.) But some people might actually find it comforting there are books aimed for kids that deal with controversial topics- not only of homosexuality but death, racism, terrorism, etc.

Books sometimes have a way of reflecting the unsettling parts of society and its people and I think the offensive faults people find in others or in books are just what they’ve been afraid to tackle in their own lives. While we can’t control people’s opinions even if they are hateful and offensive, we can choose to listen to them or not.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Neverending Stories: Sequels, Prequels, & Spin-offs

Is it impossible to leave good enough alone? In Hollywood, classic films are often being remade with disastrous results or getting franchised with unnecessary sequels. While I suppose it’s nothing new, this trend seems to be more prevalent in the publishing industry these days as well.

“Rhett Butler’s People” by Donald McCaig was the much touted authorized novel based on Margaret Mitchell’s classic “Gone with the Wind” released in late 2007. This is told through the eyes of the hero hoping to complement- or complete?- the original.

As much as readers would wish to find out more about the characters they’ve come to care about but unfortunately the pages have run out, a continuation of the story might actually ruin their experiences if the new stories are not written properly or for the right reason. Of course, no one is forced to read the recent incarnations but wouldn’t you want to know what happens next? Or even before?

To celebrate the centennial anniversary of L.M. Montgomery’s “Anne of Green Gables”, her heirs thought it would be fun to release a prequel hence the publication of “Before Green Gables” by Budge Wilson earlier this year. It looks at Anne Shirley’s life before she was adopted by the Cuthberts.

I was browsing through the children’s section of a bookstore- I forget which one- when I came across “The Diamond of Darkhold” by Jeanne Duprau. Just recently released, it’s supposedly the fourth and final title in her Books of Ember series. Then again, I thought the first three books were it so this came as a surprise. However, I guess this was inevitable since “The City of Ember” movie comes to theaters next month. I don’t know what the author’s original plan was- if this book was a natural progression to the story or not. Unlike “The Prophet of Yonwood” which was a prequel, “The Diamond of Darkhold” is a direct continuation of “The City of Ember” and “The People of Sparks”.

I also saw a display for Gregory Maguire’s “Wicked” and related merchandise like journals and calendars. Not that it needed more publicity considering its success on the bestseller lists and as a Tony award-winning Broadway musical. I didn’t realize that a third volume was coming out next month. “A Lion Among Men” would be a return to his reimagined Oz after “Son of a Witch” and focuses on Brrr, the Cowardly Lion. Of course, this trio of tales were based on L. Frank Baum’s original Oz series. This is a release I’m actually excited about.

On the other hand when I found out there would be more releases from J.K. Rowling and Stephenie Meyer, my first thoughts were, “Enough already! I get it. Your books are popular and you guys are super rich!” Even though not a continuation of the Harry Potter series per se, Rowling’s upcoming December release of “The Tales of Beedle the Bard”, it’s still a part of that world.

Maybe I’m still reeling from all the hype and hoopla that came with the release of Meyer’s “Breaking Dawn” and the overwhelming disappointment on how the Twilight saga “ended” but I was not happy to learn she planned on continuing it by retelling the series through the vampire’s perspective with “Midnight Sun”. And I only found out because of the news that someone had leaked a partial copy of an early draft online without her permission. Despite her claims, this seemed like a publicity stunt- not that she or her books need it. I would go so far as to compare her to the cast of MTV’s “reality” TV show “The Hills” as just another fame whore. Of course, I could just be jealous of her success.

There’s apparently also going to be a “Sex and the City” for teens. Or, at least, its author Candace Bushnell has just signed a deal with HarperCollins to publish at least two books targeted for a younger audience. The first will be about main character Carrie Bradshaw’s life in high school. “The Carrie Diaries” has a publication date for fall 2010.

Characters are not the only things that can be carried over. Ann Brashares is using the school in which the characters of her popular “The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants” attended as the premise of her new trilogy. “3 Willows: The Sisterhood Grows” will be available January 2009.

The biggest news and shock for me was learning that Douglas Adam’s widow has approved a sixth installment in her late husband’s “Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy” series. Entitled “And Another Thing…” (due out next October) will be written by Eoin Colfer of Artemis Fowl fame.

Whether most of these sequels, prequels, and spin-offs can live up to the quality of their original counterparts is still left to be seen. But sometimes I think it’s best to leave the characters to their happily-ever-after.

Monday, September 15, 2008

Something Unexpected

I thought my night was going to be like every other night I’ve been having- uneventful, quiet, and spent all by myself. I had settled myself at my building side patio dining on my specialty peanut butter sandwiches and a Java Monster energy drink. I had my journal and a book to keep me company. And, really, it was quite nice just sitting there watching the leaves fall and scatter themselves across the Park blocks.

Then I caught sight of a very distinctive looking truck passing by. It parked on the university grounds and the passengers then proceeded to transform the vehicle into a makeshift kitchen putting up “wings” on three sides creating awnings. Rugs and pillows were thrown around and they put out a “free tea” sign. They were obviously setting up for something. I thought it was another concert performance by a local band that always seem to be going on. Or, worse, some kind of hippie demonstration to try and legalize marijuana or something horrible like that. But when a patrol car went over and then let them go about their business, I figured it was all good.

I even thought it was just some experiment to see how many people they can get to stop by- something along the lines of “if you build it, they will come” mentality. Despite how much I want to know what’s going on, I don’t ask and end up forming my own conclusions and scenarios which usually turn out to be wrong. This time, though- maybe it was the caffeine- my curiosity got the best of me and I walked over and asked one of the people setting up what they were doing.

They were from the City Repair Project- a non-profit organization who crate naturally-friendly and artistic places for people to gather and be more of a community. They were responsible for many of the colorful benches, murals, street paintings, memorials, and other funky looking structures all over Portland. In one part of town, they drew a Fibonacci-inspired sunflower design in a busy intersection to promote their togetherness initiative. A project they did with PSU was the benches outside the library shaped in stacks of books.

The truck was their mobile teahouse- or what they called a “T-horse”- and it obviously got people’s attentions as it did mine. I learned all this throughout the night as I had decided to stay around awhile. I grabbed a cup of herbal tea and a plate of homemade carrot cake- later I went for seconds on banana bread which I originally thought was meatloaf- and sat down in their lounge area. Normally, I’m a shy guy but I ended up socializing with the volunteers and other curious passers-by. A few people from my building were there as well. A band even came out to play their “world twang” type of music and some people danced.

Once again, I was amazed by how everyone seemed to be dedicated to a cause or two. Even I had started volunteering since moving to Portland. I thanked the volunteers for the nice event and good food and told them I’d definitely be checking out future “place-making” activities. It was an unexpected fun night and something different for me.

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Literary Arts

Portland is probably the most literary city I’ve ever lived in. Literary Arts have done their fair share in “enriching the lives of Oregonians through language and literature” since 1984. At first, the Collins Gallery exhibit at Central Library focusing on the organization’s contributions seemed kind of boring to me but as I looked around and found out more of what they were about, it ended up being quite fascinating.

There were books by, pictures of, and correspondences from authors who have participated in the company’s various programs or won their Oregon Book Awards. The letters were fun to read, especially the ones in which the writer would explain for whatever reason why he or she was turning down the invitation to take part in the Portland Arts & Lectures series of talks and readings. It just seemed to prove how immensely guarded and private some writers are. One of the more famous rejection letters came from science fiction writer Isaac Asimov and, during the exhibit reception, the executive director of Literary Arts shared that a more recent rejection was from Barbara Kingsolver who was the most asked for author. On the flip side, there were also letters by those who’ve enjoyed participating in the program. Matt Groening, of "The Simpsons" fame and Portland native, even donated back his speaker’s fee to them. The curator also explained there were even some meanly written letters by authors who just refused to come at all, ever, but he decided not to put those in display.

I liked seeing how Literary Arts have promoted literature and encouraged interactions between the writers and readers. There were examples of Poetry in Motion cards, which I’ve seen and read while riding public transportation. Writers in the Schools (or WITS) was a fairly recent program they’ve started in which they bring a professional writer to a high school and for one semester would teach creative writing to the students. Literary Arts also offers grants and fellowships to writers. In the panel discussion following the reception, one of the panelists (which included famous local author Ursula K. Le Guin and the owner of Powell’s, Michael Powell) told a story of how one writer used the money he was given to fix a leaky roof over his writing desk. I think it’s small simple acts like those that sometimes make the difference. Other topics included a short history of Literary Arts, their impact in the community and cultural landscape, and future plans and programs.

The audience seemed highly educated for the most part. But the refreshments of wraps, fruits and vegetables, cheese and crackers, cookies, coffee, and lemonade also attracted freeloaders and homeless people. One such person actually stationed herself by the food during the reception and then another one attended the panel discussion only to snore through the whole thing. Overall, though, the event was attended by people who were appreciative of Literary Arts and everything they’ve done to make Portland a city of readers.

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Six Months In: Not a Case of Premature Evacuation

It’s been six months since I’ve moved to Portland. I really couldn’t have picked a more perfect place suited to my lifestyle and personality. I have a nice studio apartment overlooking the Park Blocks and Portland State University. I can take leisurely walks to my favorite places- the Riverfront, Central Library, Powell’s, and Pioneer Courthouse Square- or ride the streetcars and trains in the Fareless Square to get there. What’s been so wonderful about living here is getting to do and see new things.

I’m living a truly independent life and all the ups and downs that comes with it. I’m volunteering at a library bookstore but it’s kind of strange that it has helped me more in terms of giving me something to do which I enjoy tremendously than I seem to be of any real service to it. And Portland has also enriched my life with art and culture. I’ve attended bookstore and library events, community celebrations, and museum exhibits- all for free.

Unfortunately, not everything is perfect in Portland. I am still unemployed and my bank account continues to dwindle. Without a source of income, a part of me can’t really give in to the idea that this is my home now because I might have to leave it all behind. I also find myself struggling for simplicity. Even I who has no job have let superfluous things clutter my life and made it more complicated than it needs to be. I wanted every aspect of my life to be simple and perfect right away but I realized that those things take time.

Moving to Portland definitely marks a new chapter in my life and that’s one of the reasons why I wanted to share my experiences in this blog. Even though there’s still a lot to be desired for, my life is not as bleak as I sometimes make it seem. Leaving Las Vegas wasn’t a case of premature evacuation. I was all about goals and lists- actually I still am- but I’m also about the experiences and the adventures as well now. Maybe that’s what I needed to learn- to enjoy the journey, enjoy life.

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Coming Up Roses in the City of

I like free. So, when I learned the Portland Japanese Garden was having a free admission day, I figured it was something I should check out. Located in Washington Park, I thought the only way to get there was by train and bus which weren’t free- and, in fact, just had a recent fare increase- so I wasn’t as keen on going after all. (I had actually walked to the southern outskirts of the park before and with Portland being such a hilly and foresty city, I thought I had reached a dead end.) Fortunately, I had just checked out “Portland Hill Walks” by Laura O. Foster- a travel book exploring different walkable and scenic routes in and around the city. The book showed me an alternate access through the northwestern edge of the park. I’m not an outdoorsy kind of guy but for the sake of doing something different, I decided to take a hike.

The walk I was undertaking was a 3.5 meandering trail through a small section of Washington Park’s 40-acre. Of course, that distance didn’t factor what I had to walk to get to the starting point which was on 24th and Burnside. I wanted to follow the book’s directions as closely as possible but that proved a bit difficult for me. I think a little knowledge of what trees were which would have helped me as they were sometimes used as guide posts. And some routes ended up being closed for construction or the sprinklers were on but I had no desire to walk in mud.

Even on the first stretch of the walk, under the shadows created by the overlapping branches of the giant trees and surrounded by the strange sounds of nature, I was already worried about getting lost and being bitten by wild animals or crazy homeless people. I was relieved then- in more ways than one- to see the first building mentioned in the book- a restroom in the style of Snow White’s cottage. After making use of the facilities, I checked out the Oregon Holocaust Memorial. The cobblestone path leading to the wall of names were littered with bronze statues of what the victims might have carried with them and dropped along the way as they were led to the concentration camps- a pair of shoes, a child’s doll, a suitcase, etc. That and reading the quotes by people who lived through the horrific ordeal made for a very somber experience.

Part of my trek took me to the Arlington Heights neighborhood which boasted an avenue of various architecturally styled houses. From a tract home next to a Colonial, then a Tudor and a Mediterranean villa, the one I liked most had a magnificent stone staircase with grottoes and benches that seem to invite anyone to come and sit awhile but really wasn’t allowed since it was on private property.

Back in Washington Park, the first major attraction I came across was the International Rose Test Garden, I didn’t think I would enjoy myself there but the beauty of the place with its roses and roses in every color imaginable- intense and vibrant- coupled with their sweet fragrant scents made it quite a highlight. There was even an amphitheater where it was easy to imagine concerts being held there during the summer nights. It would have been silly of me if I didn’t take the advantage of the creative and positive energy coming from the place so I sat down on the grassy steps and wrote in my notebook as children played across the lawn and stage.

I was lucky to have gotten there in time for a tour of the grounds- and for the garden’s final bloom of the season. A volunteer guide or Master Gardener from the Oregon State University showed a tiny group of us around the over five-acre land through the thousands of roses there. Each of the varieties were given such fanciful nicknames like “Sweet Inspiration” and “Lavender Dream” and some even after famous people like “Julia Child” and “Diana, Princess of Wales” for no discernable reason to me. I found it interesting that in “the city of roses”, it is illegal to pick them, a fineable offense of $500. With its free admission though, anyone can enjoy the International Rose Test Garden practically anytime they want. There were also great views of downtown Portland and Mt. Hood in certain spots.

After that, I went to my original destination- the Portland Japanese Gardens- which was just a short walk away. I took the complimentary shuttle to the main entrance where the staff was holding a membership drive trying to get the increased number of visitors to join or renew. With its prime location nestled in the hills of Washington Park far away from the noises of downtown traffic, it was like being in an authentic Japanese garden. An art show and sale was finishing up its run in the Pavilion. Overlooking the verandah was the Flat Garden, and like the Sand and Stone Garden, its sand was carefully raked with symbolic designs. There was also a traditional ceremonial Tea House but what I liked most were being near the waterfalls and crossing the Moon and Zig Zag bridges over the ponds with the koi swimming about minding their own business. I decided to take the meandering pathway I saw riding up the shuttle out of the Japanese Gardens, passing through the Antique Gates. Unfortunately, there weren't tour guides so I had to show myself around with the aide of a map. I’m sure I missed a lot of important and interesting details and for that I was disappointed with the experience.

It was then time to continue back on the trail so I made my way back towards the International Rose Test Garden, walked past it downhill, and true to what was written in the guidebook, heard the sounds of the children laughing and playing in the Rose Garden Children’s Park before actually seeing it. Further down was the converted Elephant House- now a picnic area and restroom. The rest of the walk was uneventful since it was on the same road as what the cars used to come and go. After passing two reservoirs, I came to the formal entrance of Washington Park. Up the brick staircase were the Lewis and Clark Memorial with its 34-foot rectangular granite column and the bronze statues of “Sacajawea” and “The Coming of the White Man” which were both unveiled during the early 1900’s. This was also where some of the paths mentioned in the book were closed off for construction so I had to use the best of my abilities to find my way back. Luckily, the walk was a loop and I saw the very familiar English Tudor restroom.

Now that I was semi-familiar with this portion of Washington Park and found a beautiful place I wouldn’t mind visiting again in the International Rose Test Garden, I think I’ll end up taking this hike again (and other hikes mentioned in the book) because there are still trails I have yet to explore.