Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Libraries

I haven't been reading anything lately that really merits talking about so I decided to instead write something inspired by Amanda Nelson's confession on Book Riot.

She purged.

her home library that is.

I have lived in a number of countries now as a voracious reader. It's hard. You read books and you want to own them forever. I mean, forever. But then I know I have to move and airline baggage weight restrictions are getting stricter and stricter. I no longer purge per say, mainly because I don't accumulate books anymore. I have been here for just under three years but I have less than 4 months left in the UK and I've managed to only accumulate 45 books in 3 years. This still sounds like a lot to me but at least 16 of those I know I can drop in a heartbeat. They cost me maybe 50p and are general popular paperbacks. Along with some tough decisions I'm maybe down to 10 books. Those can fit in the box with my sewing machine and the dearest 3 are going to Greece with me. 

But I haven't always been this...minimalist. I am one of those book fetishists. I dream of a day when I'm settled in a house and I have walls of books I've read and enjoyed. I enjoy a lot of books, I'm sure I can fill a lot of walls. I grow sad when people tell me they hate reading. I grow even sadder when people tell me they're replacing their library with an ereader. I decided to not go to a magnet high school where I would've been a lot less bored primarily because they were so proud to have a bookless library. I took the tour through that library and saw nothing I liked. That I had the following conversation in my high school library:
Librarian: "Hmm...well...I'll let you take this book out. But, perhaps don't have it near you when you sleep."
Me: Huh? Why? Is it going to suck my blood?
Librarian: "No, not your blood. But the mold is not healthy for your lungs."
Me: .....
still doesn't make me regret my decision. And my years as a book mender in my university library hasn't dampened my appreciation of old books despite needing to renew my tetanus shot.

In the USA, I once moved house with 32 boxes of books.
32 boxes.
By the time it was time for me to move across the Atlantic, I probably had 35? boxes. It's hard to say, I had made a room in the attic into an overstuffed library. Considering I was planning on a very long-term move to Europe, this was unreasonable. Even the book fetishist in me considered that was overkill. I was pushed to a purge-a big one.

At first, it was cathartic. I mean, why was I keeping the Faulkner I hated reading the first time, hated more the second time, and probably even more the third reread. Pretension? Yeah, a little. Like a trophy kill? Yeah, a little. Now it would go away. Begone you irritant! Was I ever actually going to read that book? I barely got past the first 10 pages! How did this book get on my shelves?! Did someone buy it as a gif-oh yeah, it was a gift. A rather misguided gift.

Then, it got hard. It used to be my favorite book! But...I'm a little embarrassed by it? And have no wish/need/desire to reread it? But I was so fond of it! Oh god, oh god. And all those reference books. I'd need them for my MA. But, I couldn't bring them. But I might be able to use them again! But! But! Oh god, the agonies that certain old textbooks put me through. (2 of them later ended up coming to the UK when I really needed them.) I soldiered through it-the agonies of WHAT IF? What if I decided I liked that author? What if I needed a basic primer on African archaeology? What if a friend really wanted that book in the future?

 I left 12 boxes of books back in the USA. They include my favorite all time books, beautiful leather bound books, books that are difficult to find again, and books that are useful. I can confidently say that every book in those boxes are tied to very specific memories. 

I still go through them and on my every visit to the US, I pare them down just a little bit more. It's surprisingly slightly easier to get rid of some of those old loves with the distance and since I have a smaller pile of TBR choices, I'm actually reading them (and then usually donating them). I don't regret any of my purged books. 

I got rid of them responsibly. I checked through them and separated out the useful books in library compliant bindings. The local library system has a pretty serious theft problem so they were missing a lot of those Faulkners I hated so much. I warned them before I dumped my books. It was a courtesy. ~345 books is a lot to find on your doorstep during budget cuts that made catalogers redundant. I crowdsourced all my friends-were they interested in any of these? Luckily most of my friends love books so they took books off my hands. The ones with value got sold off. The ones with absolutely no value, out of date, etc got 'donated' to a local pulper. Textbooks went to Better World Books and most of the others went to various charities. It was absurdly harder to get rid of the books than it was to accumulate them but it was worth it. I miss none of the books I got rid of despite my purge being so drastic and dramatic.

How?

I use my libraries. In fact, librarians usually know my name. Even when I'm only someplace for a month, if there's a local library, you'll find me in it...and not only for the wifi. A lot of those classics I've meant to read are out of copyright and therefore available online courtesy of the Gutenberg Project or the Girlebook project. These are the main resources I draw upon so that I don't feel bad about letting that copy of a YA book go.
The other day I had the unbeatable urge to reread the Sabriel series. My much loved copies of the series (and short story collection) are back in the USA, loaned to a friend. Thanks to my library I reread them with no problem.

I live in a house that has never purged any books. No one in this house had a library card despite at least three members being voracious readers and another was an academic. There are children's adventure books from 1976 (1975 is in the next room) in a stack next to my bookcase-dated ideas enclosed in cheap bindings. In an adjacent stack is probably 1/10th of the entire series of Red Dwarf magazine/books that is spread throughout the room. A whole shelf of review books for standardized tests that no longer exist. There are whole rooms full of books no one has actually read, will not read, and will not read again. I feel like the building must be sinking under the weight of all these books. All these books are dusty, falling apart under the pressure of their neighbors. The stacks falling over and covers denting. They are whole worlds forced to sit still-simply taking up space-due to the indifference of their owners who simply cannot pay them attention because they don't know what they have.
Is that not sad?

I don't think you have to purge your library. I understand the urge to surround yourself with some of your best friends. I know the comfort of having your own book with your own dogears, notes, bookmarks in it rather than a copy you have to return. I just think everyone should take some time once in awhile and really think about what's on their shelves.

Thursday, May 23, 2013

A Monster Calls-Patrick Ness

A Monster Calls-Patrick Ness

the facts
satisfaction: Up
pages: 215
gender: M
nationality: UK
year: 2011
YA Novel

"At seven minutes past midnight, thirteen-year-old Conor wakes to find a monster outside his bedroom window. But it isn't the monster Conor's been expecting-- he's been expecting the one from his nightmare, the nightmare he's had nearly every night since his mother started her treatments. The monster in his backyard is different. It's ancient. And wild. And it wants something from Conor. Something terrible and dangerous. It wants the truth. From the final idea of award-winning author Siobhan Dowd-- whose premature death from cancer prevented her from writing it herself-- Patrick Ness has spun a haunting and darkly funny novel of mischief, loss, and monsters both real and imagined."

Heartwrenching, this cuts down deep into that basin of despair it's all too easy to fall into when your loved one is dying and there's nothing you can do about it. I've felt dipped into that despair before in literature with The Sickness but nothing like this. This is almost visceral. The words death and cancer are never actually used but you, the adult reader, know exactly what's happening, you know what the real life conclusion is most likely going to be. When the monster finished telling his first story I knew I was going have to renew my tissue box because I was going to end up in tears. The writing is tremendous-ornate enough to draw you in but light enough that it floats above all the heavy themes the book is built upon. And it's not all doom and gloom, there's an amazing thread of humor woven throughout that renders its grown-up too fast hero a proper teenager.

And to add to that, there's Kay's absolutely atmospheric illustrations. They are moody befitting the most gothic of tales. They leave just enough to imagination but illustrate the crucial moments nonetheless. I'm almost reminded of Gammell's work in that they can both convey a lot of dread in a deceptively simple way but Kay won't keep you up at night.  (As an aside, thank you publishers for using black thread to bind the book-nothing gets me twitchier than seeing a white line through black space.)

 

 I'm serious, I finished this book and immediately reread it...I cried the second time too.

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Please Look After Mother-Kyung-Sook Shin

Please Look After Mother-Kyung-Sook Shin

the facts
satisfaction: up
pages: 261
gender: F
nationality: S. Korea
year: 2008
Novel in translation

"When sixty-nine-year-old So-nyo is separated from her husband among the crowds of the Seoul subway station, her family begins a desperate search to find her. Yet as long-held secrets and private sorrows begin to reveal themselves, they are forced to wonder: how well did they actually know the woman they called Mom?"

Quite a heart wrenching and heart warming tale of unrecognized sacrifice and how we take things and people for granted until they're gone. I don't really know too many people who don't at least sometimes feel like they're selfish to their mothers. Or at least look back at teenagehood and wince.

It was quite well done that there was such a sense of place (this was definitely not set in the West!) but even after the spirit turns into a bird, it feels so universal. This mother is the Far Asian archetype-poorly educated but did everything for her childrens' benefits. Shin pours a lot of dedication and love into her writing so that the focus is on the feelings not on style or any fancy literary devices.

I can see this being too sentimental or melodramatic for some but there was just enough plot and I got drawn so far into the family that I forgave it. Instead, I just gave my mother a call just to make sure she didn't get lost.

With this book I've officially finished my GWC challenge.

Thursday, May 16, 2013

Gone Girl-Gillian Flynn

Gone Girl-Gillian Flynn

the facts
satisfaction: up
pages: 463
gender: F
nationality: USA
year: 2012
Novel

" On a warm summer morning in North Carthage, Missouri, it is Nick and Amy Dunne’s fifth wedding anniversary. Presents are being wrapped and reservations are being made when Nick’s clever and beautiful wife disappears from their rented McMansion on the Mississippi River. Husband-of-the-Year Nick isn’t doing himself any favors with cringe-worthy daydreams about the slope and shape of his wife’s head, but passages from Amy's diary reveal the alpha-girl perfectionist could have put anyone dangerously on edge. Under mounting pressure from the police and the media—as well as Amy’s fiercely doting parents—the town golden boy parades an endless series of lies, deceits, and inappropriate behavior. Nick is oddly evasive, and he’s definitely bitter—but is he really a killer?
   As the cops close in, every couple in town is soon wondering how well they know the one that they love. With his twin sister, Margo, at his side, Nick stands by his innocence. Trouble is, if Nick didn’t do it, where is that beautiful wife? And what was in that silvery gift box hidden in the back of her bedroom closet?"


So after the disappointment of NW I was a bit hesitant to immediately dive into that season's other majorly hyped book especially as it was supposed to be clever.

My trepidation was unfounded because I adored this.

This is cleverness and wit done superbly. The novel pushes and pulls at your expectations and perceptions to create a rather chilling portrait of the ill effects of narcissistic disorder and pure manipulation. This is a thriller and at every point it exploits your natural trust by presenting two of the most unreliable narrators I think I've ever read. While it is shocking you it's also sprinkling humor everywhere in places you don't particularly expect it. This cleverness does not sacrifice narration and the book goes at breakneck speed towards its conclusion.

The writing is sharp and somewhat vicious. You get to know Nick and Amy in every which way-they are laid wide open with all their faults exposed to the least forgiving light. The writing does not shy away from anything and actually sent chills down my spine. The toxicity of their relationship practically oozes out of the pages but you want to keep reading.

The ending is a bit of a let down and might be the main reason for most of the negativity about the book. I finished the book angry. But I've been thinking about it and I can't imagine any other possible ending that would stay true to the characters and to the novel so I've accepted it. I'm definitely going looking for more Flynn.

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

NW-Zadie Smith

NW-Zadie Smith

the facts
satisfaction: side
pages: 294
gender: F
nationality: UK, of color
year: 2012
Novel

 "Zadie Smith’s brilliant tragi-comic new novel follows four Londoners - Leah, Natalie, Felix and Nathan – as they try to make adult lives outside of Caldwell, the council estate of their childhood. From private houses to public parks, at work and at play, their London is a complicated place, as beautiful as it is brutal, where the thoroughfares hide the back alleys and taking the high road can sometimes lead you to a dead end."

I was really happy that I finally got this book after being in queue for well on four months. I've been to see Zadie read from On Beauty and have read her previous novels and many of her short stories and essays. In short, I was hoping for the Zadie Smith I'd read before.

And that was a trap.

Now NW is clever. There's all sorts of literary devices being used here and the symbolism is everywhere. NW could be NorthWest or it could be nowhere like where all the characters go to. All sorts of things can be read into subtext if you're that sort of reader. So many coded social and linguistic events march through these pages that one starts to feel hit over the head with them.There's a definite nod to modernism and Virginia Woolf. Dare I say there was a bit too much of this stylistic flourish and a bit too little adherence to her characters?

Ok, so the first chapter with Leah was very depressing to me for personal reasons so I slogged through it to arrive at Guest with Felix, the most interesting character with the most drive in the whole book. There's a purpose to his chapter, things are going to happen and you feel it. But his chapter ends and we then get to spend a lot of time with Natalie/Keisha. I really couldn't get into her at all. And then her breakdown just seemed weird and random and like it was wasn't really thought of because of the character but because the book had been going along without any climax or outright conflict for way too long. I guess I can't understand a character who worries she has no personality, reverts to teenagehood, and then returns to no personality woman.

I found this such a struggle to read and I kept falling asleep partially because I could not discern a real point. I kept grasping for clear reasons why I didn't really like it. Was it that I dislike London and live in Sheffield which is a city for those who hate living in cities? And for that matter, what was the theme? Was it roots? Time? Simply creating a sense of place? What I have loved most about Smith's writing-her philosophical wit, her similes and metaphors were occasionally allowed to come to the surface but for the most part it was a cleverly constructed piece of writing that felt like it forgot it was to be a narrative. There are novellas in here but the characters you spend the most time with are not really well done so the novel itself falls a bit flat.

Thursday, May 9, 2013

Map of Love-Ahdaf Soueif

Map of Love-Ahdaf Soueif

the facts
satisfaction: up
pages: 516
gender: F
nationality: Egypt
year: 1999
Novel

"At either end of the twentieth century, two women fall in love with men outside their familiar worlds. In 1901, Anna Winterbourne, recently widowed, leaves England for Egypt, an outpost of the Empire roiling with nationalist sentiment. Far from the comfort of the British colony, she finds herself enraptured by the real Egypt and in love with Sharif Pasha al-Baroudi. Nearly a hundred years later, Isabel Parkman, a divorced American journalist and descendant of Anna and Sharif has fallen in love with Omar al-Ghamrawi, a gifted and difficult Egyptian-American conductor with his own passionate politics. In an attempt to understand her conflicting emotions and to discover the truth behind her heritage, Isabel, too, travels to Egypt, and enlists Omar's sister's help in unravelling the story of Anna and Sharif's love."

I put off reading this book because of its length. I looked at this brick of a book and thought "oh dear", this might be hard-going. 

I was wrong. This is a brilliant tapestry of a book weaving together historical and fictional characters. It is a story of worlds and cultures colliding and how they've always done so.

Written in the 1990s, this book is still relevant even in today's "rapidly changing political climate". I remember, when "Arab Spring" occurred in Egypt , people were surprised. Wasn't Egypt relatively stable? Wasn't it different from the rest of the Arab world? We're so used to thinking of Egypt only in terms of its archaeology, the Ancient Egyptians with their advanced civilization and ignoring the current Egyptians for whom the Ancients are only one part of the story. And then, as events unfolded, there was respect for the "extraordinary" effort of those who guarded the museum. But even a passing glance at Egypt's history would reveal the legacy of colonialism which Egypt shares with the rest of her continent and the "nationalists'" long term agenda of education. 

With Map of Love, you get a sense of these histories and realities that place Egypt securely into the modern world couched within an intriguing plot full of individuals who break the mold and a beautiful ease of language. I think many non-Arab readers stand to learn a lot (though it is fiction) but they'd do so with an ease and pleasure. I loved it and actually might want to reread it again. 

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Prisoner of Paradise-Romesh Gunesekera

Prisoner of Paradise-Romesh Gunesekera

the facts
satisfaction: up
pages: 385
gender: M
nationality: Sri Lanka
year: 2012
Novel

"When Lucy Gladwell arrives in Mauritius from England to live with her aunt and uncle in their grand plantation house, her mind is full of the poems of Keats and tales of romance . She is nonetheless unprepared for the beauty, fecundity and otherness of this island paradise between Africa and India, where she is to be waited on hand and foot by servants and free to let her thoughts drift on the sea breeze. If only they did not drift to such problematic subjects as the restrictions of colonial society, or the bigoted outbursts of her uncle, or the disquieting attractions of Don Lambodar, a young translator from Ceylon, himself entangled in thoughts of iniquity and desire and facing a decision which could risk his precarious position. Under the surface there is growing unease. For it is 1825."

So back in Mauritius for me, the book draws you in with its lush island setting full of hopes for Lucy. The Ceylonese provide a foreboding tone but much of the first parts are spent historical world building this fascinating period in Mauritius history. This is an island that "escaped" the ravages of the French Revolution and so is trapped between French and English colonialism, brown convict labor and black slaves. But the viewpoint is from a complacent upper class so this tension mostly simmers-bubbling occasionally to give the upper class a hint of instability but also a sense of all the problems being elsewhere enough that life goes on.

We instead live inside Lucy's head-a liberal who hopes for freedom, a strong suffragette feminist-and Don Lambodar, the exiled Ceylonese Prince's melancholy interpreter. Both are newcomers to the island but Lucy feels uickly at home while Don allows for the viewpoint of an outsider trapped in his Sri Lankan past. Their romance reminded me of a more modern Jane Austen-there's a certain amount of fate, shyness, and misunderstandings going on but with a modern treatment of their difficulty to figure out what to say to each other. My favorite part in fact was how the modern language made these societal bound interactions more accessible. There're hints of wry humor throughout which makes it a very pleasant read.

I found the ending a bit confused, perhaps a bit rushed. Too many things happen at once making its point too ambiguous. Was it a statement on society? on marriage? on the political situation?  and why the final bittersweetness? I didn't really understand why Gunesekera gives Lucy everything she wanted while giving no further solution or hint about the political constraints on Don. The ending kind of leaves you with a sense of "this was a great book...but the ending brings it down to 3 stars."

Thursday, May 2, 2013

Foreign Bodies-Cynthia Ozick

Foreign Bodies-Cynthia Ozick

the facts
satisfaction: side/down
pages: 255
gender: F
nationality: USA
year: 2010
Novel

A t the center of the story is Bea Nightingale, a fiftyish divorced schoolteacher whose life has been on hold during the many years since her brief marriage. When her estranged, difficult brother asks her to travel to Europe to retrieve a nephew she barely knows, she becomes entangled in the lives of his family. Over the course of a few months she travels from New York to Paris to Hollywood, aiding and abetting her nephew and niece while waging a war of letters with her brother, and finally facing her ex-husband to shake off his lingering sneers from decades past. As she inadvertently wreaks havoc in their lives, every one of them is irrevocably changed.

This took me awhile to read. Partially because real life was fairly busy but also because I was so bored by the book. I just didn't care about any of the characters (even Lili got uninteresting) and it was just all well-written mundanity. The drama that propelled the plot all seemed self-inflamed to me and in their place I'd just be like calm down and stop making me your messenger. There was so much ego in this was it was nigh unbearable. The kids, Julian & Iris, were so self-indulgent that they just annoyed me entirely. The brother and ex-husband are horrible men-utterly horrid people. Paris seemed so romanticized which was a bit confusing because I think the whole point of the time setting in post-war was to not have a romantic Europe but rather the fragmented post-war chaos.

It was all well-written but there was absolutely nothing else drawing me to read it. I finished it because I was waiting to see if there was a climax or confrontation of any kind but not really, it seemed. I feel like the description ended up being misleading or perhaps I merely missed something crucial for its appreciation.