Books & Action: THE DIARY OF ANNE FRANK

The news of the bookish world in the wake of this new America has been the massive sales of Orwell’s classic 1984. And by all means, read this book if you haven’t yet: it will certainly help you understand why phrases like “alternative facts” are so dangerous, especially when uttered by spokespeople of the government. But it occurs to me that another book deserves as much attention right now. While Orwell’s prescient novel illustrates the future that could be before us, The Diary of Anne Frank gives us a voice from the past that illuminates something that has happened before, and is happening again, right now.

Right now, immigrants and refugees are being denied entrance into America on the basis of their religion. If the idea of an angry, hostile leader using religious identity as a strawman villain upon which to place a nation’s woes sounds familiar to you, it should. As the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum notes, “Hitler and other Nazi propagandists were highly successful in directing the population’s anger and fear against the Jews.” This rise of anger and hatred led directly to the loss of up to 6 million Jewish lives. And for a long time, America stood on the sidelines under an ideology which included the phrase “America First.” The fact that these were literally the words invoked by Trump makes me fear his ignorance of history: it would seem, as the phrase goes, we are doomed to repeat it.

Anne Frank wrote her diary while in hiding from the Nazis. She wanted to be a writer, and she hoped the diary would be published someday. She intended to document her story, to make sure it would be told. I read The Diary of Anne Frank as an eighth grade student, and I was immediately struck by the maturity of her prose, her clarity and compassion as such a young writer. She would have grown into a voice for the ages. At the same time, I was struck by how much she sounded just like me and my friends, like any thirteen year old girl. She writes about her crushes, her hopes for the future, her fears. She wrote both to escape reality and to document it. She wrote for companionship and imagination. I identified so strongly with her.

You might be thinking to yourself, “we do not have concentration camps. We are not to that place in this country.” Before you let this line of thinking put you back into comfortable complacency, let me bring you to the reason I have been reminded of Anne Frank and her diary. If you think, “America then couldn’t have done anything for Anne Frank, and America now isn’t doing anything like what happened to her,” I have important news for you: the Franks were among the many Jewish refugees denied entrance into the United States. There were prevalent fears that Nazi spies would infiltrate under the guise of refugee status (again, this should sound familiar), but even without that, “America first” ideologies created, if not hostility, “global indifference” towards Jewish refugees.

Here’s the thing: we are not to the point of the Holocaust yet. We are still in position to act. We are still in position to save lives. And turning away immigrants and refugees from Muslim majority countries is an alarming sign that we are repeating the mistakes of the past.

So, what can you do to help? One thing is to donate money. The ACLU has accomplished the first major victory against Trump’s policies (which you can read about here), and they need support to keep doing this important work. If you can give monthly, please do. Donate here. The International Rescue Committee is another important organization working to help Syrian refugees, who are living through one of the most unimaginable crises of modern history. Learn more about the IRC and give what you can here. You can also contact your representatives to express your disapproval of this policy. Here is a spreadsheet listing the current statements (or lack thereof) made by U.S. Senators, but don’t forget your representative in the House. This action will be especially helpful if you live in a zipcode that usually votes for the sitting representative, and will carry even more weight if you are or have traditionally been a member of their party. This issue should be bipartisan: religious freedom is at the core of our foundation as a country, and even prominent Republican leaders spoke out against a Muslim ban (it is difficult not to interpret their silence and/or support now as cowardice–I am deeply disappointed). Americans of all party affiliations should be concerned by the example we are setting to the world, should be upset by the complete reversal of our identity as a global symbol of promise, security, and the hopes of a better life for all people. This is not the America I was taught about in school: then again, it may very well be the America that the Frank family encountered, the America that sealed their fate. Let us not be that America again.

If any person would have the right to feel bitter and hopeless, it would have been Anne. Instead, she wrote the following passage, and as I am certain I could not say it better, I will leave you with her voice, and hope that we can carry it with us like a flame through this darkness:

“It’s a wonder I haven’t abandoned all my ideals, they seem so absurd and impractical. Yet I cling to them because I still believe, in spite of everything, that people are truly good at heart.

It’s utterly impossible for me to build my life on a foundation of chaos, suffering and death. I see the world being slowly transformed into a wilderness, I hear the approaching thunder that, one day, will destroy us too, I feel the suffering of millions. And yet, when I look up at the sky, I somehow feel that everything will change for the better, that this cruelty too shall end, that peace and tranquility will return once more.”

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THE RULE OF SCOUNDRELS series by Sarah MacLean

STOP. WAIT. I can already hear you. Do you know how? Because I worked in a bookstore. I worked with amazing, kindhearted, open-minded booklovers with myriad interests. As a cohort, we had at least every conceivable bookish interest represented. Almost. For although we didn’t mock genres or readers, there was certainly one section that none of us could seem to speak to from much personal reading experience–and if any of my coworkers were romance fans, they kept quiet about it. And I think this is, in part, because even if there isn’t derision and mocking, there is a sort of unfortunate shame attached to the romance genre in the bookish world. This ideology is so persistent, I’m even a little nervous about posting this entry at all.

A BRIEF RANT TO RID YOU OF YOUR IMPLICIT SEXIST NOTIONS:

If you are the type of reader who finds yourself agreeing with Jonathan Franzen about the state of literary culture a lot (which, to each their own, I suppose), I will probably not change your mind with this post. But if you are someone who doesn’t mind the occasional popcorn-y page-turner in the form of science fiction, fantasy, mystery, thriller, children’s literature, etc., then I have something very important to tell you. *Leans in, whispers* The only difference with romance is that it’s traditionally liked by mostly women, which means society has deemed it unworthy of our time and attention. *Leans back out*

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And before you think I’m scolding you, let me assure you that the reason I feel this needs to be stated is that I didn’t realize it, either. Frequent readers of this blog will know that I have been actively trying to emerge from a literary-snobbishness that eschewed most genre fiction (started, as it were, when a high school teacher gave me a Franzen novel). And don’t get me wrong: I still love literary fiction that forces me to confront hard truths (books that many might call depressing). I still love slim experimental novels that barely fit into any genre at all, much less conform to narrative conventions. I still laugh at jokes written by Victorian authors (this is a preview of a future blog post, but you guys, George Eliot is freaking hilarious). These tastes don’t have to be mutually separate from–for lack of a better definition–occasionally reading something with a happy ending. But I was skeptical, I really was. Of all the genres I’ve sampled, slowly and with joy, romance was the very last. I honestly didn’t know what I could find there. But while working at the bookstore, I was always nervous that someone would ask me for a recommendation from that section and I would have nothing to offer them.

That’s part of why I consumed book recommendation podcasts like Book Riot’s GET BOOKED, where host Amanda Nelson talked frequently about her entrance into the romance genre. Like me, she had been skeptical. But also like me, she had spent periods of her life (not to suddenly get too personal and be a downer, but) deeply sad. The years after graduating college have had some really hard moments, both on a personal level and, of course, globally, politically, socially. It hasn’t always been easy to find joy. So when I finally got a kindle, I thought, okay. I searched for the author most recommended by the Book Riot crew for romance newbies, and with the last couple of bucks in my Amazon gift card, I downloaded the first book in Sarah MacLean’s The Rule of Scoundrels series. And when I was finished, I downloaded the next one. I didn’t read them exclusively, but I always kept the next one on hand for when I needed a moment away from the world. Just a moment, just in bursts, but it was enough to stay a part of things. It was enough to be able to come back to other books–to other parts of life–and face what was there.

It’s a bit of a shame that I feel the need to offer this, but if you want credentials, here are some. Sarah MacLean is a graduate of Smith College and Harvard. As I was reading the first novel, I kept track of words that had appeared in my GRE vocab review flash cards, and I lost count. I’m sure that there are poorly written books in the romance genre, as in every genre, but Sarah MacLean’s books were not poorly written at all. I admit, I went into the genre with lowered expectations for the quality of prose I would encounter, and I felt a little sheepish and ashamed by the quality of prose in front of me, how much better it was than I was expecting. If you haven’t tried romance because you don’t think you could handle the clichéd, hackneyed writing, I can assuage you of that concern in this series at least. I can also assuage you of another concern I had, which was that these stories would rely on outdated gender stereotypes. MacLean’s heroines are not blank slates for the reader to step into, nor are they carbon-copy princesses to be adored. They are funny and smart; they have ambitions and desires completely unrelated to men. They just also fall in love.

Does all of that mean these books were gritty and realistic? Of course not. They were light and fun. Characters bantered much too witty for real life. Public declarations of love were much more lavish than would be fair to expect from any real person. Things seemed like they were going to go badly for everyone we liked, but then they suddenly went perfectly for everyone we liked instead (in fact, the “happily ever after” ending is such a staple of the romance genre that it is shorthanded as HEA in discussion, and to many readers, a novel doesn’t count as a true “romance novel” if it doesn’t include said HEA–a point that might sound familiar to you if you’re a fan of the CW drama Jane the Virgin). And yes, there were scenes for which the oft-blurbed word “steamy” would definitely apply. Like, good lord.

And, maybe the above isn’t your thing. That’s cool. I didn’t think it was my thing either (turns out, when done well, it is). But I really liked these books. I can definitely see reading more Sarah MacLean in the future, as well as perhaps some of the writers she recommends, when my anxiety is becoming debilitating. And that’s just it: as paradoxical as it sounds, escapist fiction has been keeping me moored to the real world in these past months, enabling me to make phone calls and donations and stay present and vigilant. I’m not recommending anyone bury their heads in the sand, but if you need a reprieve in order to get back out there and do good work, and would like for that reprieve to include a sweet and smart happily-ever-after, I offer you Sarah MacLean. Don’t be ashamed of girl stuff.

BIRD BOX by Josh Malerman

I’m back!! A lot has happened in my life. A lot has happened in the world. Storytelling in all of its forms is important; paying attention to what is happening is essential. But I *think* I am correct in saying that, if you are becoming paralyzed in the struggle, it’s okay to spend a little time hiding in a book. So often, the word “escapist” is used as a term of derision among readers. While I certainly think books should challenge us, should expand our viewpoint, should exercise our thinking, make us smarter and more thoughtful and more engaged, I also don’t think we should discount the ability of books to transport us, to envelope us completely in a world that isn’t our own. I also don’t think books fit neatly into binary categories of, say, “escapist” and “paradigm-confronting.” I think many books–the best books, probably–do some or all of these things at once.

So, having established that I don’t use “escapist” as a bad word, let me tell you this: I don’t remember the last time I started a book and was compelled to finish it before the day was over. It has been a LONG time. But I escaped into Josh Malerman’s Bird Box, consuming it in one fitful, feverish day, carrying around my little eBook from room to room. I was spending a lazy day at my boyfriend’s place, and he kept laughing at me as I actually gasped, or sat up, or muttered “no, no, no” under my breath during particularly tense scenes, until eventually he had to experience it for himself. He downloaded it that night, and he was finished with it by the next afternoon.

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Bird Box is a horror novel that takes place after an inexplicable catastrophe dominates, and destroys, our world. Early reports come in of people suddenly struck with a violent frenzy, killing themselves and sometimes others. It spreads quickly, and what early skeptics dismiss as a hoax quickly becomes looming, terrifying reality. The unifying link, first whispered in rumors before becoming incredulous news reports, is that everyone who acts out does so after they’ve seen…something. No one knows what it is, because once you learn, of course, the secret dies with you, but as the death toll rises, one idea takes hold until it has become the new reality: there are creatures, outside. Creatures that are growing in number. Creatures that don’t seem to hurt you unless you look at them. For the story’s protagonist Mallory, trying to protect her two children, this means years in a boarded-up house. Years of walking blindfolded to the well for water, teaching her children how to hear well enough to move through the world without sight, training them to awaken without opening their eyes. But now, Mallory knows the time has come to try to give them more than this. She and her children must make a journey out into the wilderness, amidst the creatures. Mallory has no idea what they’ll encounter out there; she can only hope that they can fight, resist, and survive what they can’t see.

My favorite horror movies have always been ones based not in gore and shock, but in deep, unsettling suspense. I am pleased when I don’t see the monster for a long time, when I have to fill in the blanks with my own mounting horror. This book has taken that concept to its most logical extreme, and I completely loved it. In this aim, Malerman has created a novel that strikes me almost as an extension of the American gothic tradition. The horror of gothic novels is rooted in the unknown. In Europe, this came in the form of the crumbling ruins and dark passages of castles long abandoned, mysterious to those that encountered their remains. In America, there were no abandoned castles: the unknown waited in the woods. Today, as the wilderness rapidly shrinks and it seems impossible to imagine a stretch of land too large that doesn’t contain a gas station, the “unknown” is shrinking along with it. In this novel, Malerman has returned it to us, robbing us of the certainty of surveillance: the idea that nothing is out of reach of our cell phone cameras, that nothing bad could happen under our watch…a certainty that, it would seem, could use some destabilizing.

Above all, though, Bird Box is a great, frightening story, with a strong protagonist in Mallory. The theme and tone of this book actually remind me of the film The Babadook, particularly in the ways that the emotional horror of the events are given as much weight as the literal horror (not that there isn’t plenty of that, in both stories). Mallory is a bit like the mother character in that film, as well, struggling through her own horror in the aim of protecting her childhood, wondering whether her motherhood can shield them all or has actually become its own monstrous presence in their lives. She is fiercely compelling, and you want her to make it to the end, no matter how impossible it seems.

This book terrified me, enraptured me, enthralled me. I haven’t read that many horror novels, but somehow, it was exactly the kind of story I needed to be pulled into. As I was sitting straight up and gasping, I was outside of myself. The book left me plenty to ponder afterwards, but in the moment, I was experiencing something more visceral. Something heart-pounding. And I think I needed that, too.

Stay brave out there, friends. And ignore the tagline; keep your eyes open.