This blog is basically about how good books are nice and bad books are the pits. And then I get grumpy.

Thursday, May 29, 2008

Books about books

I love to read books about writers or other 'book people' and the works they have produced over the years. It really doesn't matter if these book people lived long enough ago to already be considered a part of history or if they're contemporary, they're interesting to me. But most people don't write books about their experiences until they've done a good bit of living. Likewise, a great deal of contemporary authors are profiled in magazine and newspaper articles, rather than book-long biographies. Consequently, these memoirs and other works are instantly of the historical variety.

And, thus, it is not surprising that Bookends: Two Women, One Enduring Friendship by and about antiquarian book dealers Leona Rostenberg and Madeleine Stern, as well as Melanie Rehak's Girl Sleuth: Nancy Drew and the Women Who Created Her, are both imbued with the nostalgic atmosphere of bygone Americana. Bookends is a fast, easy read and tells the a story of two women each of whom loved books, achieved higher education degrees, and never wed in a time when for young females marriage was de rigeur and advanced schooling not so much, really. It is engrossing to read about their excursions to Schrafft's and Stern's Columbia University experiences in the New York of the early twentieth century. Rostenberg inherits a fairly centrally located imposing house in the city from which they base their book business, at least in the earlier years. So there's a lot of opportunity for one's mind to create a playground of old New York landmarks and of book-buying and -selling tales which, presumably, is the kind of thing the reader of such a book would enjoy.

Girl Sleuth by Rehak is even more absorbing a read, especially for a Nancy Drew alum like me. It had me hunting through boxes and boxes of childhood memories and digging out my old Nancy's. Girl Sleuth weaves the history of the day - which happens to be the late nineteenth century up to the present - into the machinations of the Stratemeyer Syndicate, responsible for the creation and production of the Nancy Drew mystery stories. Contrary to what one might think by reading the book's title, it was a man who conceived the idea for the Nancy Drew mysteries. But it was, indeed, one learns from Girl Sleuth, women who fleshed her character out and launched her to eventual superstardom. The books were ghost written with the use of outlines provided by the Syndicate - really, a sort of mass production assembly line kind of way to produce books. Surprising, then, that they held and continue to hold the allure of good stories for young girls.

That said, I'm wondering what today's Nancy Drew's are like since they seem to still be in production. I remember reading an article about them a few years back and it didn't sound all that promising, something like a teeny-bopper romance instead of an elegant mystery, but apparently Nancy's gone through some metamorphoses and, hopefully, they've got her back to form.
Recommendations, therefore, on Girl Sleuth and Bookends for those with a sense of wanderlust that can only be cured by a bit of time travel to bookish places of the past.

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Addendum to 'The accessories of reading'

Hello All,

In the interest of attribution, though I suspect this is unnecessary, I did want to make clear that my previous post included a play on the sweet song My Favorite Things by Rodgers and Hammerstein from the musical The Sound of Music. It was meant to be obvious but I have a nasty little worry that if I don't explicitly explain this I'll be getting something akin to a slap on the hand or worse. So I would like to acknowledge and thank the owners of the rights to this song, just in case it is not considered to be sufficiently in the public domain or covered by fair use for the kind of wordplay that I tried to have some fun with a few days ago.

Just a note that if I ever do quote or reference other materials in any of my posts, I do not mean to infringe on anyone's rights. No harm is intended.

After all, imitation is the highest form of flattery! ;)


Monday, May 19, 2008

The accessories of reading

Bookmarks and bookends and personalized bookplates,
Big shelves and small shelves with doors made of glass plates,
An old, first edition to which the cover barely clings,
These are a few of my favorite things....

Okay, I guess the old, first edition is a bit of a stretch as I haven't got that kind of inventory in my personal library, but you get the picture. I like books and bookish things. What booklover doesn't love the accessories that go with the hobby? It's why bookstores nearly double as gift and stationery shops.

I especially like bookmarks. They're economical. They're sweet. They can convey a sage quotation or beautiful photograph. They're art. And they're easy to collect.

Happiness is an impulsive bookmark purchase!

A bookmark is a lovely pick-me-up when you're down, consolation buy when you can't afford that book you've been eyeing in the shop window, or just a little treat for no reason at all. And when you give a book as a gift, it is both utilitarian and decorative to add a bookmark as an adornment on the top of the wrapped gift - an inexpensive, multi-tasking item that buoys spirits as it marks your page.

I do love my bookmarks. So often they're doing their job hiding away mid-chapter never to see the light of day unless one of the books they've been paired with is getting some attention. And then they're just brushed off to the side, ever at the ready to resume their duties once I have need of them again. So I thought I'd take my shy little page markers out for a photo shoot and give them the attention they deserve. Get ready for your close-ups, you most favored literary accessories. Smile!

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Literary looks-ism

Readers can be a looks-ist group.

For example, 'Don't judge a book by its cover' is true, but how closely do we follow that old maxim? When it comes to cover art a lot of us act like a crow attracted to a shiny object. We flock to the glossy photos and drawings that ornament the fronts of our hardcovers and paperbacks and skip over duller covers.

A more apt example might be the pick-up scenario at a bar. You're sitting there on your swivel stool. On your left is a mass-market paperback, thick, with smudgy print and a cover that shows off its picture about as well as a passport photo shows off its owner's image. On your right is a trade paperback, the front cover as showy as an 8 1/2 x 11 glossy, strong paper and clear print, with a little special illustration accompanying the beginning of each chapter. And why not throw in a hardback on the next stool - although you find its great-looking form, stylish jacket and luxuriant pages too intimidating to approach.

So there you are sandwiched between these two candidates vying for attention. Trade paperback clearly comes from some wealthy corporate bookstore or posh independent bookshop. Poor little mass-market paperback obviously stepped off a supermarket check-out counter shelf. Whose do you approach? Quality over quantity? Or what if the books are the same title? The same content, but different packaging? Fearing you can only afford a beer when a gin-and-tonic might be more to trade's liking, do you apt to offer a Sam Adams to the mass-market and settle? Or do you scrape together your pennies and get a cocktail for the trade just to have a looker on your arm?

Like the speaker in Dorothy Parker's short story, I usually fall for the one on the right. But it's not fair...or economical. I once opted for the trade version of P.S. I Love You instead of its smaller counterpart because it came with a nifty Cecilia Ahern bookmark and a bigger picture of Gerard Butler on the cover. Looks-ist, I tell you.

But I do love my trade paperbacks, even more possibly than my hardcovers. The latter serve to remind me how much money I spent. The trades are, in this way, friendlier.

It's a shame, really, because a person could afford so many more books if she bought all mass-markets. But what's really a shame is how much you have to spend these days for a book, trade or otherwise.

At one time, if memory serves me, most books were the smaller size. How much more egalitarian that was! And since there was little to compare it to, who cared? But no, publishers had to introduce a new way to discriminate, this time involving inanimate objects.

I feel quite ashamed, really. I just bought a trade edition of DuMaurier's Rebecca, that I'd been eyeing. It finally was in the bargain section at about a third of the regular price. But I already had a copy, gotten as a teenager and now held on to for sentimental reasons. Isn't that good enough? Apparently not for me. Sorry Rebecca. Still, sentiment can sometimes trump looks, and you'll always have a place on my shelves.

Monday, May 12, 2008

Litter-ature, and a note about negativing...

Sorry. By the end of this post I will have been guilty of negativing. I don't really mean to negative anything. But when speaking about certain aspects of literature these days, I find it difficult not to negative. Actually, they seem to deserve to be negatived.

Now then, I think I have sufficiently introduced into my vocabulary the verb negative, (presumably rhyming with derive or revive.) The verb negative, you ask? Yes, I timidly answer. But I confess that I, too, am not convinced it's a true verb. Having run across this odd usage of the word in some scholarly tome about English language negation, I've been peppering my informal conversations with it as a way of expressing 'to be negative about,' (as in, That's a perfectly good score for such a difficult final exam, so just don't NEGATIVE it!). And, since my discovery of this term dovetails with my plan to reflect on my rather dim impression of some of today's young adult literature, I thought I'd put it to written use.

I believe that will conclude my use of negative. Don't want to overdo it all at once...

Unfortunately, it does not conclude a bit of a rant on a sub-category of books which I think would warrant much more use of the term.

A disclaimer: I haven't read these novels. I'll admit it. But I've tried. As a matter of fact, I have two of them, both library books, sitting on my desk waiting to be read, but I doubt I'll be able to do much more than just skim them. The A-List by Zoey Dean and Don't You Forget About Me by Cecily von Ziegesar are each one of a series called the A-List books and the Gossip Girls books, respectively. But I lump them together, books of this ilk. To me they're just those awful-looking books that we adults are feeding kids, the mental equivalent of serving junk food for dinner.

Why awful? Aren't I being terribly unfair? Well, I have tried to read them, as I said. So, I'm not totally their stranger. And I've read about them, for what that's worth. Check out this article by Naomi Wolf from the March 12, 2006 edition of The New York Times entitled, Young Adult Fiction: Wild Things.

While covering mature themes, these books do not seem to aim to educate. They seem, to a self-confessed non-reader, to glamourize the inane and the mean. At least, this is what I've gleaned from surveying their covers, captions and content. The titles are catchy, I'll grant you, but what do they mean to impart to the people of that impressionable age for which they're written? Nothing, I imagine, but a sense of fascination that will persuade these kids to plunk down their money in exchange for insipidity like All I Want is Everything, Nothing Can Keep Us Together, Dial L for Loser, Best Friends for Never. The cover art is often photos of glaring, sullen teenage girls glossed up and looking disdainful of whomever dared to pick up the book.

It's not hard to find fodder for criticism. Even if the inanity only goes as far as a few twists on popular sayings, why give that particular age group more superficiality to absorb? And why try to make it attractive? Who does it help? I assume it helps the publishers and authors, but does it do anything for the kids reading the books? This is a far cry from the the young adult reads of yesteryear. Wet bars? Martini's? In a kids' book?

But I guess it's par for the course in today's world. Still, does the book industry really need to be aiding and abetting in the dumbing down and spicing up of the upcoming generation's entertainment? And, if there are saving graces buried somewhere in these books, why must they have titles that reflect and promise to deliver such negativity?

So, now I don't know. Should I actually go ahead and try, again, to read one of these books? There are only so many hours in a day and there are so many actually good books I wonder if the investment of time is worth it. Unless I find a redeeming quality there, somewhere.

Maybe, I'm just negativing.

Tuesday, May 6, 2008

Touched by an e-mail writing author...

There are papers tucked into copies of some of the books in my library. They're folded business-letter style and sit on my shelves waiting to be taken out, dusted off and unfolded carefully one day when they are brittle and yellowed. They're just copies of emails. In this computer age there's really no reason a computer print-out of an email should be handled so gingerly. Somewhere in cyberspace, I'm told, the message will always be hovering. So if I lose one, who cares?

I guess it's just a mark of a book-lover to fancy that a folded sheet of 8 1/2 x 11 that slips out of a novel five years from now is more romantic, will bring back more memories, than will logging on to a Mac or accessing data stored on a CD. So when I write to an author, this is what I do. And I think it makes my shelves more interesting, adds another story for them to tell beyond the dramas and comedies that already occupy spaces there.

It's a relatively new activity for me, this writing to authors. So far everyone I have written to has responded, and nicely, too. In one case I read Melanie Jeschke's Inklings and, knowing some places and people were based on the real thing, thought that I may have met someone whose fictional counterpart dwells in the pages of that book. I got a couple of really lovely emails from Ms Jeschke while we tried to sort out if my own inkling was right. In another case, I found what I thought to be an allusion to one character's future in the ending of Lorelei Mathias's Lost for Words, emailed, and was let in on the fact that it was actually the writer's joke about the book business. Another time, I happened upon Megan Crane's English as a Second Language in the store (a signed copy!) and enjoyed it. So I told her!

I think that these writers are not yet such big names that they can afford the time to email back to a reader. Not that I begrudge them a healthy readership, but I think it's rather nice that there are writers who are being read but are not so phenomenonally successful that they become unapproachable due to time, work, ego, or whatever. (And, as for being successful, I think just getting something good written and published and enjoyed by a few people who can then discuss it is being successful.)

I've got itchy fingers. I'd like to write to someone else. I'd better get reading....

Sunday, May 4, 2008

This is not an example of one....

Some writers are blessed with an ability to produce thought-provoking or unusual titles for their works, not the formulaic kind that just consist of the main character's name or maybe a noun and adjective. Perhaps it's their editors writing them, but somebody has a talent for it.

Every once in a while I'll run across an impressive title and store it somewhere in my memory where it settles in a corner and gathers dust until something jogs the gray matter and the title resurfaces.

There have been so many over time and I haven't kept track of them so I am QUITE irritated because I know there are more and I'd like to remember them. What a fun thing that would be for bibliophile list-maker to be able to do! But the thing is I can only recall one of them and it's a great one, but I know there are more and perhaps one day they'll come to mind but where's that mental list when I need it? Well, you see the frustration, don't you?

So, here's a list of titles because they deserve a mention somewhere of how great they are and because it's always nice to re-read great writing, or even to re-read that lure, that tease, that encapsulation of an idea that takes 70,000 words to fully articulate, the title.

The Heart is a Lonely Hunter by Carson McCullers (the best title on this list by far)

I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou
(so expressive)

Anne's House of Dreams by Lucy Maud Montgomery

Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe by Fanny Flagg (a noun phrase anda prepositional phrase!)

Unaccustomed Earth by Jhumpa Lahiri (Yeah, it's just an adj and a noun, but what a combo!)

How Elizabeth Barrett Browning Saved My Life by Mameve Medwed (intriguing)

Tolstoy Lied, A Love Story by Rachel Kadish
(a short complete sentence that makes the reader wonder,"Lied about what?")

I am America (And So Can You!) by Stephen Colbert (have no idea what it means, but love the enthusiastically bad grammar)

Love's Labour's Lost by William Shakespeare (a play this time - gorgeous use of alliteration, though again, what does it mean?)

As you can see, it's not an exhaustive list and maybe more reflective of guilt and misery than this blog's name indicates. Still,not a bad list since the books and play on it make me want to know more (especially since I haven't read them all yet!)

Anyone have a favorite title of their own?

Thursday, May 1, 2008

Trees or books? What's a lover of words and paper to do?

My former English professor called it one of life's great pleasures: reading outdoors.

How ironic then that that master work of nature, the tree, so loved by so many as cool company on a hot summer day of reading in the park, is threatened by the same people's love of books. You go out, maybe it's spring, everything is blooming and blossoming, maybe it's rained and the darkened barks and newborn leaves are smelling fruity in the breeze. You sit on a bench and pull out a dog-eared copy of your favorite annual re-read and breathe a sigh of regret that what you hold in your hands was once a fruit-smelling, life-giving tower of nature just like the ones around you. But worse is when you buy a new glossy copy of some recent release or old classic and know that you just contributed to the demise of a tree.

Sounds like dog-eared copies may be the way to go, as this article in the The Guardian seems to point out, at least if you want to read with the clear conscience that seems requisite for outdoor reading enjoyment.

Looks like book-swapping is big nowadays and may be a good way to help the cause of tree survival, but check out the reaction of the author mentioned in this piece. It's a legitimate issue - authors should get paid. But I balk at the comparison to the file-sharing woes of the music industry. One might want to ask her, ever heard of libraries, sister? They circulate books. And what about friends who share books? Should they be stopped? The book swap sites talked about in this article are like the "take a book, leave a book" program also mentioned, just on a large scale. Does their size render them somehow wrong?

I love a new book as much as anyone, but there's merit in this book swapping idea. Were I only so loyal to nature that I did more of it, but occasional used book-buying of hard to find titles is about as close to it as I get. Kudos to those who book swap. Love those books, love those trees!

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