In England, during WWII, ‘Everyone Brave is Forgiven’

brave.jpegSeveral years ago a friend of mine breathlessly begged me to read a novel she had just finished. “I’m not going to tell you what it’s about except to say you have to read it.”

So I picked up “Little Bee” by Chris Cleve. Here’s the quote from the flap inside the dust cover: “We don’t want to tell you too much about this book. It is a truly special story and we don’t want to spoil it. Nevertheless, you need to know something, so we will just say this: It is extremely funny, but the African beach scene is horrific. The story starts there, but the book doesn’t. And it’s what happens afterward that is most important. Once you have read it, you’ll want to tell everyone about it. When you do, please don’t tell them what happens either. The magic is in how it unfolds.” A little too clever, but, OK, they had me.

Then I started reading this tedious, untidy novel peopled with stupid characters I didn’t care about entangled in a plot that had little point. It’s memorable to me only in that I wished I had stopped reading after the dust cover, as it was the most interesting aspect of the book.

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Classics Challenge reads a book that was banned

Are you taking the challenge? See the next category at the end of this post.

The only thing that saddens and dismays me more than when people try to get a book removed from a school curriculum or a public library is that school districts and library boards have to listen to crackpots who request this.

These incidents are usually started by an overprotective parent who doesn’t want a child exposed to ideas that may “corrupt” them. But when you do a little research you’ll discover that people have asked that works ranging from those by ancient Greeks to Toni Morrison and J.K. Rowling. That’s when you realize it’s not the work itself, it’s the ideas in the work, and the way they challenge the status quo that scares people. Some people, I should say, not all. But, as you know, it’s always, sadly, the loudest, most ignorant bitcher who always gets heard.

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The Classics Challenge is back with new menu items and a few leftovers

For the last few years, my wife and I have challenged ourselves to read classics. I confess we stole the idea from this person who actually offers prizes for people who participate. So few readers of this blog let me know whether they’ve joined me, and even fewer comment or let me know the book they’re reading that I offer no incentives except the joys of reading classics.

Today I offer the categories for the 2017 Classics Challenge. Play along and let me know how you’re doing. Remember, our arbitrary ruling on what defines a classic is that it must be at least 50 years old.

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Words on words: Two odd little books I kind of think I liked

The greatest thing about being curious is that you explore things many others would dismiss out of hand. That is also the worst thing about being curious.

That’s how I came across two recent books that were intriguing, touching and, I think, ultimately rewarding. I must confess, though, I’m not sure that I completely liked either of them.

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‘Fortunes’ explores the Chinese experience in America

fortunes.jpgI picked up Peter Ho Davies’ “The Fortunes” because I had read a brief review that said it was a fictionalized account of one of an event that stunned me at the time and has stayed with me over the years.

In 1982, the year I graduated from high school and not all that far from where I lived, a young man named Vincent Chin was beaten to death outside a strip club in a Detroit suburb by two autoworkers. The men were upset, so the story went, that they were out of work because of the surge in sales of Japanese-made cars. They took out their anger on Chin, who was at the club celebrating his bachelor party. Chin, though, was Chinese, making his death that much more senseless.

The Chin case is just one of four sections of “The Fortunes” that examines the experience of Chinese in the United States. It’s a history tarred with racism that is rarely acknowledged. Davies’ fascinating novel shines a bold, unblinking light on the experience and left me thinking.

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Two novellas leave me thinking, and that’s a good thing

As you may know from regular reading, I like short books.

I know, it’s dumb, but sometimes (like with the book I’m reading now, “A Lady Cyclist’s Guide to Kashgar” by Suzanne Joinson) authors just don’t know when to call it a book. Life’s short, so I respect authors who can get in and out of a story without too much padding. It’s even better when they leave a reader with something to think about.

That’s the case with two short novels I read late last year that I still think about. They couldn’t be more different in theme or style, but both pack a punch.

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A new year, a new challenge: Making this blog better for all (but mostly for me)

Gentle Reader,

The 2016 Classics Challenge ended by kicking my butt.

Three categories—and you may remember this was a shortened list of categories—went unread. I would say at least a dozen other books I read went unblogged about due to lack of time or because I had nothing to say about them.

So you’ll see a few changes on Shelf Improvement this year. You might say I’m improving my shelf. Come on, that’s funny.

1: The page dedicated to the 2016 Classics Challenge has been renamed the 2016/17 Classics Challenge, so it doesn’t look as though I’ve been a slacker. I will add new categories soon.

2: I won’t choose categories for you. Feel free to attack what book you want in whatever order you want. It’s all about reading, not keeping up with me. And, truth be told, the conversation I envisioned never really happened. I had envisioned my own little online book club and I’m disappointed it hasn’t happened yet, but that’s life.

3: I’m planning on doing a bit of catch up, so look for a flurry of reviews. These reviews will be, in general, shorter so you, Gentle Reader, won’t be daunted by them. But more important, I won’t let them pile up, either.

4: I’ll also try to read relevant books, as reviews of newer works seem to get more readers.

So here’s to a better year for this blog and its devoted readers. But mostly, for me. I don’t need the guilt of not keeping you challenged or not blogging.