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

Friday, October 31, 2008

Juggling books when you don't know how to juggle

I have so many books going in my life that it would be embarrassing to write about them all. But I'll write about the most recent. I seem to be doing a good job lately of starting books and then placing my bookmark in them long enough to permanently disturb the binding. The Rebecca Notebook by Daphne Du Maurier is currently experiencing that kind of spine damage from the 'men of Jane Austen' bookmark (the idea came from the PBS site) I personally made. Then I dove into Possession by AS Byatt for which the word 'brilliant' seems an appropriate adjective, if generally overused. I have finally gotten around to Mister Pip by Lloyd Jones, the Booker Prize winner of 2007, which is a quick read and charming and delightful so far. I began Brokeback Mountain by Annie Proulx but guess I wasn't in the mood for something so seriously serious so, though it's just a short story of fifty or so pages, it hasn't been finished yet. (Oh my, this is getting embarrassing.) Carson McCullers' Member of the Wedding is good, but not so cheery to say the least, so that's on the backburner right now. And, finally, I'm fortunate to have an advance reading copy of a novel coming out in February called Addition by Toni Jordan. It's always fun to get to read something early. Did I mention my re-read of Pride and Prejudice?

So I should have loads of commentary in the weeks to come. (One would hope I'd be finished in that time.) Meanwhile, I'll have to carve out a little time for figuring out why I'm such a freewheeling reader.

Small joys

Recently one rainy afternoon I was able to walk into one of those cavernous warehouse stores where everything is at dramatically reduced prices and the smell is a bit musty.

It was wonderful.

Actually, not everybody finds it that way; I read a review (you can Google reviews on anything it seems) that stated pretty much the same description as the one above but which put in the caveat of its not being a place for "the faint-hearted." Perhaps. But I love it because it is quite the place for low-cost book lovers. Situated on several tables and shelves are books, the majority for anywhere from one dollar to four dollars. I found Katarina Witt's book for 99 cents which caused a little excitement even though I've dipped into Katarina Witt's book and I didn't care for it. There were hardcovers and paperbacks, obscure and popular. And there was not a bad children's section, which is heartening in tough economic times when one hopes that kids can still be furnished with needed imagination- and knowledge-boosting materials. My big purchase came in at just under two dollars. What did I get for less than the price of a Starbucks coffee? Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire and a neat matching bookmark. Who needs Borders bargain section?

Lookie here!

Here's a post in the Guardian's book blog about literary crushes. So similar to my literary lonelyhearts post earlier this month one wonders if the writer is a GBBS reader....Well, maybe not. But what fun it is to read the many responses. It seems people are wild for their protagonists. And there are some good ideas from the commenters. Lord Peter Wimsey? Good taste, Joana!

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Am I missing something?

I found this interesting tidbit in a small story about the high quality of libraries in Wyoming that ran in the September 13 issue of The Economist magazine. The article was entitled Why Cowboys Read.

"Libraries are especially thriving in the conservative rural heartlands. The average Wyoming resident checked out nine books in 2005-06, compared with an average of five in California and two in Washington, DC."

I was struck by the statistics given here. Is it just me or does the amount of books annually borrowed from libraries seem awfully small in each of the three geographical areas the article mentions? Two books on average in DC? Nine in Wyoming?

I always see the library bustling. Where are these library-goers reflected in these statistics? I suspect that they're hidden - the numbers would probably be zero if it was not for a small, dedicated group who all but raid their libraries and utilize them for all their taxes are worth. It's likely these few borrow so very many books that it makes it appear as though the hundreds of thousands of residents in these places each take out a few books a year. That's quite a feat for this bit of the population.

But what about the others? Do they read? Do they actually have the cash to buy every book they want to enjoy or need to consult? Please tell me they realize there's a life beyond Barnes and Noble. Where else than a library can a person get just about any book they're looking for - either on the spot or through interlibrary loan - in any language and have it handed to them free of charge, entrusted to their caretaking for a period of weeks? This is an experience that ranks up there with the shopping high or even day-tripping fun.

If others do not wish to avail themselves of the resource and pleasure that is the library, dear fellow booklovers, all I can say is, well...more for us.

Monday, October 13, 2008

Another site about upbeat books!

Fun book seekers! I was trolling the web and found that GBBS is not the only site dedicated to uplifting reads. Positively Good Reads features a Chicago Sun-Times article by its creator addressing the way so many fine, truly literary works can induce a state of depression in their readers. It also lists many reading recommendations. Here's a place with oodles of reviews to mine and titles to discover or remark on, "Hey! I didn't know that one was upbeat!"

Sometimes it's just nice to read good writing that buoys you, isn't it?

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Literary lonelyhearts club post (Well, not exactly...)

I was perusing another lit site today and ran across a great question I decided to pose here. Anyone out there ever have a crush on a literary character?

I'll 'fess up. When I was little and read Little Women I had a crush on Laurie, as I'm sure many girls had had before me and have had since. What's funny to me is that I pictured him so differently from the description Jo provides in the book. "Curly black hair, brown skin, big black eyes, handsome nose, fine teeth, small hands and feet, taller than I am, very polite for a boy, and altogether jolly." Although I have no doubt my Laurie was polite (for a boy) and jolly, in my imagination he was a fair-skinned, auburn-haired, lanky young man. At least I had the height thing right. I'm not how sure my imagination strayed so far from the author's intention - Alcott gave such a detailed description! - but I quite liked my Laurie and he fit very well into his role in the book. Why didn't Jo want him to love her, I wondered? Silly girl! Prof Bhaer wasn't alluring to me at all.

Is there a literary love of your life? Or just a wee bit of a crush? Feel free to reveal which characters you fancy. (Don't be shy - I'm pretty sure none of them are blog readers.)

Emma, are you ready for your close-up?

As you can see to the left the results are in and in the first poll inspiration, uplift and sensitive handling of themes seem to be key points looked for in good books. Emma Woodhouse was the favorite by far for cover girl in the second poll. Thank you to everyone who voted in the polls!

Monday, October 6, 2008

First Term at Malory Towers is dated but delightful

Now, you see, this is what I wish kids were still reading. Good old fun stuff with no mention of wetbars anywhere to be seen. Kids just being kids, getting into mischief, making friends, unabashedly loving their schools, having fun. Apparently, at some point in history kids enjoyed this sort of thing.

Some kids, the kind who like old-fashioned stories, still will. There are plenty of old-style or at least very Englishy, terms here like 'jolly,' 'hark,' 'hols' for 'holidays, and 'dormie' for dormitory. Characters feel swells of love in their hearts for their boarding school, Malory Towers, and the author's not writing it out of sarcasm. No worrying about being nerdy (or dorky or whatever the kids call it these days). The book is as unashamed of its own feelings and statements as tiny children are. When was the last time you saw a child of three worry about being cool? You don't because they don't. And neither does this book.

This story of a girl's first term at a boarding school is not the tightest writing. It's just fun. No big storyline is really carried through the novel; it's just a string of engaging events linked by the theme of a student's first year. The point of view is sometimes from one character, sometimes from another in a way that is just simple rather than confusing. This is not great literature in the tradition of Pride and Prejudice but it's great anyway and is, in its own way, a classic.

Thoughts on reading Enid Blyton's First Term at Malory Towers

I might have read Enid Blyton's Malory Towers series when I was a child. I might have thoroughly loved it and it might have led me to other Blyton books which would probably have led, as reading books does tend to do, to discovering other authors who, as it stands now, have gone unread.

I might have, but I didn't and I find it sad. This is not because I didn't read as a child, but because I can see both my reading life and the rest of life being made richer in the process. There's a world of authors out there for children but when you're nine years old you don't scour libraries worldwide to make sure you're not missing out on anybody's good books. So, this British writer, whom I know that the little Jemima would have adored, has only been discovered and enjoyed in later life, when things are much different for the reader.

Taking in a book, experiencing and processing it, is quite different from childhood to adulthood. I'm not quite as absorbed in boarding school tales today as I would have been as a ten year old. But, then? Boy, would I ever have been! Still, I'm able to appreciate (with a slightly saddened heart) what I would have loved at that age.

My reading life as a child seems to have run like a parallel universe to my actual life. It wasn't exactly me driving that yellow convertible in River Heights and solving mysteries with Bess and George, or me frustrated with my older sister Beezus and being babysat and fed graham crackers and apple juice with annoying Willa Jean. Nonetheless, Nancy Drew and Ramona Quimby hung around me, affected my views on the world, and helped inform my fantasy life. That was my reading life. But there was room for more. So, I know Enid Blyton's Darrell Rivers, student at the idyllic Malory Towers, would have had a place there, as well. When I find books like the Malory Towers series, then, I think to myself, there's my lost reading life. There are all the books that went unread and could have filled up a second childhood of sitting on the porch or the couch at the bay windows on a sunny afternoon with my small nose pointed toward the page.

Linguists talk about a critical age at which language must be learned by children or it will not be learned properly or at all. From my experience I'd dare to suggest that there's a critical age for experiencing the transporting nature of stories. If you don't take the trip that books offer at that moment in life, you've declined ever taking quite the same journey.

But, alas, that's over and what can be done, really? To find that there are so many good books in the world that no child could possibly ever read them all is an embarrassment of wealth. So I only scraped the surface of what was out there? So what? There's a reward in itself to being a grown-up who lingers on the thought of lost reading lives, understands what she did have and wonders about what she could have had.

Thursday, October 2, 2008

Comments on Daniel Tammet's Born on a Blue Day, A Memoir

Daniel Tammet's lovely book is called Born on a Blue Day, A Memoir. Tammet is an Englishman who was born with autism and synesthesia. It is a crisply written autobiographical work, a window into the brain of an individual with mental abilities that are unfathomable save for some bits of insight he provides. The descriptions of the workings of his mind are invaluable to those who do not have his conditions. One reads Born on a Blue Day and breathes a sigh of thankfulness that a member of a population which can have such a challenging time expressing itself is able to benefit the rest of the world with such an account. It is written in a clear and relatively understandable manner and, at times, the synesthesia can actually sound somewhat relatable, begging the reader to wonder if the claims that we are all to some degree synesthetic must not be true.

To get a taste right away for what synesthesia is Tammet entitled his book with a reference to his condition. He was born on a Wednesday which, to him, is a day that is the color blue. This type of association is what synesthesia is about; two unrelated things, a number and a color or a texture, perhaps, are connected. Some of the descriptions by Tammet are made up of wonderful images. He writes, for instance, that, "Thirty-seven is lumpy like porridge, while 89 reminds me of falling snow." Tammet describes his method of calculation which incorporates these synesthetic qualities. He supplements his explanations with drawn diagrams showing the calculative process. Chapters are headed not only by chapter titles, but also by sketches which I suspect are visual representations of the numbers. Such a nice touch to see what 3 looks like in Tammet's mind by glancing at the beginning of chapter three.

Particularly touching is his description of falling in love and, indeed, love is a theme that arises time and again in this book. It seems to be a theme in Tammet's life. This is capped off by Tammet's recitation of 1 Corinthians's famous lines of what love is and what love is not. The quote is a fitting end to a book which seems to have love as its refrain - the love of a son for his parents, parents for their son, sibling's for each other, friend for friend, man for man. It also underscores the irony of how the feelings of the autistic are so easily misunderstood by the rest of society.

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