Wednesday, November 25, 2015

What I Learned from Paring Down My Library or 5 Absurd Ways to Judge Books

As you may know, I recently reduced my personal library from 700+ books to 449, using the KonMari method from The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up. Although Ms. Kondo whittled her own books down to a Hall of Fame of 30, this number feels comfortable to me. I always wanted a substantial home library, and I feel better knowing that I consciously chose each one of these books, and can continue to do so. As I went through my books, I kept tally marks of books in each genre, paperback and hardback, and also wrote down the names of those books that especially touched me, my "Hall of Fame." My Hall of Fame consists of 46 books, so if I ever need to reduce my collection further, I know what I want to keep.

I also learned a number of other absurd facts about my preferences in books, which I will share for your amusement and edification.

1. I dislike Dover Thrift editions. Every single Dover Thrift edition I owned ended up in the discard pile.

2. However, I am extremely attached to Puffins Classics editions. Every single one of my old, torn Puffins Classics editions made it through the purge, including books for which I have duplicates.

3. The largest genre I own consists of international literature paperbacks (62). I was surprised because I had not realized I was that worldly of a reader, but then I realized I was counting British and Canadian as international, and I own all of Jane Austen's (9, including duplicates) and most of L.M. Montgomery's oeuvre (10).

4. I don't care about owning plays. As a devoted theatre fan, I had purposefully built up a library of esteemed plays. Every single one of them ended up in the discard pile, except for Cyrano de Bergerac. I'm not counting Shakespeare here, since he fits into my 16th/17th century British literature genre (yes, I have enough of those to have a genre).

5. Almost every single book that ended up in my Hall of Fame is there not so much because of the content, but because that particular physical book was given to me, or recommended to me, by a loved one. That was an incredibly powerful realization.

Thursday, November 19, 2015

Bookish (And Not So Bookish) Thoughts

1. I'm more than 70% done with my NaNoWriMo word count!!! I think my novel may need to go over the 50,000 words, but it looks like I'm going to win on my first try! I rigged it a little, since I've purposely avoided doing it until such year as I had enough time. Also, I got some advice from a friend who's done it in the past that really helped. She told me to get as far ahead as I could in the first few days, and that even if I write, say, 4,000 words in one day, don't use that as an excuse not to write the next day. When she told me that, I laughed because I thought there was no way I could write 4,000 words in a day, but I surprised myself by writing 4,000 words the very next day and over 5,000 on one other day. Keep in mind, this is definitely an Ann Lamott-esque first draft, but 38, 769 words and counting!

2. My library reduction project has been started and completed! Using the KonMari method as outlined in The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, I went from 700+ books in my personal library to 449. The piles of books are still on the floor and I still need to come up with an organizational method, but now, each and every one of the books I own has been chosen by me. And that is a really amazing feeling. I also learned all kinds of interesting things about my preferences in books, which I'll probably talk about in a separate post.

3. I'm also using the KonMari method for tidying up the rest of my life. The method starts out with clothes, which was easy for me, since I hate clothes, but books are second, and that is obviously huge for me. On to komono (miscellaneous items), papers, and, what I'm dreading most of all, sentimental items. I'll let you know if it works!

4. The library system that I've been using for my entire life recently demanded proof of residence, and while I work and spend almost 100% of my family and social life in that county, I technically no longer live there. I am really upset. Besides the fact that I'm emotionally attached to my library card, which I've had since I was five (did I mention I'm dreading discarding sentimental items?), it's an especially good system where I can almost always get what I want, unless it's super brand new. I stalked the web catalog of the library nearest to my residence, and it took 12 tries to find a book that I want that they actually have available. Boohoo. =(

5. I celebrated paring down my library by...ordering myself new books! Okay, actually, they are more pity party books because I ordered them when I was really upset about the library thing. Needless to say, neither of these books are available at my local library. Also, I bought the Japanese flower print spiral notebook because I am really happy that I realized I specifically like using spiral notebooks of this size with inspiring images on the cover (a side effect of the library tidying, wherein I also discarded never-used journals).

Sunday, November 8, 2015

Books Read in Autumn

These books all fall in an awkward category between late October, after I scheduled the October Books post, and early November. Thus, Autumn.

58. The Writing Life by Annie Dillard

An instructor that I worked with gifted me with this slim volume a few years ago. It never felt like the moment to read it until I was ready to embark on NaNoWriMo (I'm past 16k!). While I've felt guilty for not reading it before, I'm glad I waited. It had a special resonance now. Although this book is ostensibly a book to help writers, it's not about the art of writing so much as it is the art of writing. The ironic, or perhaps, unironic observation I've made on books about writing is that they read so well. Each word has purpose, depth, motivation. What most captured me about Dillard's book is an image of a plane swirling in the sky, and even though it seems like it has nothing to do with writing, it gave me a vision for what to do.

59. Ancillary Mercy by Ann Leckie

I cannot be a slightly impartial observer about this one yet. Maybe later.

First Impressions:

It's not as good as the other two, and yet, it's the same. The same pitch-perfect tone, mood, Leckie captures the exact cadence of a machine that is in some ways more human than humans, and yet...she captures the intricacies of humanity and society in the panoramic and the particular. My only complaint really is that it didn't go in the direction I predicted or wanted, but I still ate up every morsel and wanted more. Maybe that's really the worst of it. The novel continues the story, there's no universe-shattering climax, unlike the first book, not even as much of a climax as the second book really, and there's still so much we don't know...this has to be a series. Ann Leckie, I'm begging you.

60. The Night Watch by Sarah Waters

The story of four young Londoners during and after the Blitz is told in reverse. Waters' writing is exquisite, and the plotting works, but only because the setting is a backdrop for a set of character studies. The book might have been just fine, an example of beautiful writing, but not as well-plotted and complete as her later book, The Paying Guests, which I read earlier this year. However, I had a visceral reaction to one of the characters, a very unpleasant one, so much so that I almost put the book down. I won't say which, but one of the characters reminds me of someone I used to know. And it is this that makes the taste of the book stick in my mouth, makes my thoughts return to it again and again, trying to use it as a lens to figure things out. And this is the terror and beauty of books sometimes, sometimes what hurts you most about it can elevate it too. It says much about the talents of the author that she is able to bring this character, and all the characters, to such vivid life.

Friday, October 30, 2015

A Room of My Own

"If you want a room to write in, just get a room...If it doesn't leak, has a window, heat in the winter, then put in your desk, bookshelves, a soft chair, and start writing."

"We make these exquisite rooms of silence and then long to write in noisy, chaotic cafés...It is natural in our studios to have books lying open, at least one cup half filled with old black tea, papers spread out, piles of unanswered letters, a graham cracker box, shoes kicked under the desk, a watch with a broken second hand lying on the floor."

-"The Writing Studio," Writing Down the Bones: Freeing the Writer Within by Natalie Goldberg, p.103

I'm reading Writing Down the Bones by Natalie Goldberg as part of my preparation for NaNoWriMo, and nothing relieved me like reading the words above. I've been trying to perfect "my room" for more than a year now, and it's still messy and full of boxes and papers and piles on the floor (read: books). I've been meaning to pull it together for November, but now I feel like, maybe, it's better if I don't. Maybe my writing will be more natural if it happens in my natural state of mess. That's where I am right now. And that's okay if that's where my room is too.

Having a room of my own, both literally and metaphorically speaking, has always been important to me. While Virginia Woolf is not my favorite for numerous reasons (not least that she basically created the myth that women writers of Shakespeare's time did not exist), I agree with her basic premise that women (and everyone) need rooms of their own. People need space to create, to think, to be.

And this is mine.

Thursday, October 29, 2015

Books Read in October

54. Outlander by Diana Gabaldon

I took Outlander when it turned up at the Little Free Library nearest me. I'd been meaning to see why it's so popular, especially after the TV show came out. Not enough to get it until it was right in front of me, though. I haven't seen the show, and I'm not especially eager to now, but if it came on a channel I was watching, I wouldn't say no.

That's kind of how I feel about the book. It's amusing, it's engaging--I'm one of those people who finds the idea of a 1940s woman who suddenly ends up in the 1740s interesting--but it doesn't go anywhere I especially appreciate with it, on an intellectual level anyway. Outlander, in my opinion, is extremely well-done costume drama *cough* erotica *cough*. For those purposes, it serves admirably. Gabaldon creates a convincing atmosphere of 1740s Scotland and a compelling chemistry between Claire, the 1940s English nurse, and Jamie, the 1740s Scottish outlaw laird. As a cherry on top, Gabaldon's rendering of Scottish accent into dialogue is actually pretty likable. I enjoyed imagining how all those "wouldnas" and "wee lassies" would sound. But, since I'm not a member of that culture, I don't know if that would be offensive or not. Anyway, if you want to dream of hunky Scottish men in kilts, this is your book. If you have more of an interest in time travel and history--meh.

55. Make Your Home Among Strangers by Jeanine Capó Crucet

My mom and I went to hear her read at a local author event, and Mom got the book for me. I was especially excited because she read a section about writing centers, and I really enjoyed hearing about how the book came about. One of the comments she made that resonated as I was reading was how, as a college counselor, her students asked her for a novel about first generation college students. There weren't she thought, I have to write it!

This is really that book. I imagine a lot of first generation college students relate, and as someone who works with a lot of first generation college students, especially students from immigrant families, it's both familiar and informative for me. I wasn't overwhelmed by the Ariel Hernandez (read: Elian Gonzalez) subplot, but it was interesting to get a Cuban-American perspective on that. It was strange to me though that the white people in the book were all like "obviously, he should go back home!" because that's not at all what I heard from most of the white or other people around me, but interesting. Really, though, I would recommend this book to first generation college students and people who are interested in that experience.

The message of the book is a bit depressing (it's not a secret, it's in the title), but raw and honest. We're all making our homes among strangers, but I hope someday we can conceive of ourselves more as belonging in many places rather than fitting in none.

56. Blood and Iron by Elizabeth Bear

I started Elizabeth Bear with the Eternal Sky trilogy, since that came out right when I first started hearing about her. While I've read a lot about her other works, I finally dived into the Promethean Age this month.

My observations from Eternal Sky and what I've heard about her work in general rings true here: Bear just throws you right in the deep end. You will spend the first several pages desperately trying to figure out what the heck is going on. You'll pick it up, but then it will get harder from there. You won't fully ever understand what's happening, but it will start to become so immersive you won't care.

To me, Blood and Iron is not so much a book as an exquisite smorgasbord of Celtic myth, faerie tale, and dark imagination. It's like Bear mixed it all up, threw it all in, and it It's unconventional, it doesn't all make sense, but it's so lovely and (if you're like me), you're just so happy to have kelpies and Morgan le Fey and the Weyland Smith all inhabiting the same space that you'll forgive any inconsistencies and callousness. I definitely think I detect a Mists of Avalon influence, and probably lots more I'm missing. Bear must be prolifically read in Celtic myth. Tam Lin is the most overt, but, really, everything.

Recommended to the special readers who live for the deep swirly pools of fantasy.

57. Taming the Star Runner by S.E. Hinton

I picked this up at the Bookcrossing booth at the Gaithersburg Book Festival just because I saw S.E. Hinton's name. I have feverish memories of the other two books I read by S.E. Hinton: Opened The Outsiders to read the assigned first chapter, finished it by midnight; Found That Was Then, This Is Now lying around the house (turned out it was my sister's), finished it by midnight. Although I've waited a few months to tame Star Runner (sorry, couldn't resist), I opened it one morning, and you guessed it, finished by midnight.

Star Runner doesn't have the same complexity as the other two books (That Was Then, This Is Now remains my favorite), but it's got similar ingredients: a writerly bad boy MC, cursing, shenanigans, and literary references. This one throws in a horse barn in Oklahoma and lots of horse riding girls (ironically, the MC Travis refuses to put girl characters in his book), but it's a reliable fast-paced story with Hinton's unmistakable spark. Also, apparently, there's a movie.

Especially recommended to teens, but older fans of Hinton's other books will enjoy this too.

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Top Ten Things That Scare Me in Books

Happy Top Ten Tuesday!

Ok, I could only come up with four. But they're doozies.

1. Threats to the reader

Look in the margin. I can't even talk about it.

2. Madwomen in the attic

3. Being Trapped in Animal Form


4. Roald Dahl

Involves characters trapped in animal form, among other things.

Friday, October 23, 2015

How I Read Poetry

So, it's not National Poetry Month anymore, but I read poetry anyway! I liked individual poems I'd read by Billy Collins, specifically "Introduction to Poetry," so awhile ago, I picked up Sailing Alone Around the Room. Probably when I was in that phase a few years ago when I thought I should read poetry, but I didn't really want to. I picked up The Romantic Dogs by Roberto Bolaño around the same time. I remember buying the latter at Kramerbooks.

So, earlier last month, I put both books in my purse and walked around with them for a while, like I did Leigh Stein's Dispatch from the Future and Liliana Ursu's Lightwall. I guess I must read books of poetry in twos, one in English and one in translation? No, I have no idea what the reason is for this completely random trend. I also bought both of those books way before I read them.

But I think the trick with poetry (for me) has been both forcing myself into the opportunity of reading poetry AND giving myself permission to say no. For both Leigh Stein's and Liliana Ursu's books, I read and liked almost every single poem. At first, this was the case with the Billy Collins book, but in the middle, a lot of the poetry just stopped interesting me. So, I skipped it until I found ones that I liked. With the Bolaño book, I really wasn't into a lot of it. I liked reading the English and Spanish side-by-side, since I could actually understand some of the Spanish, but with the exception of a few, and some fascinating wordings, I couldn't get into it. And that was okay. Maybe I'll try again someday. But I feel like I'm finally getting the value of trying to appreciate art that isn't immediately gratifying, or perhaps depends more on accumulated life experience. It feels like growing. And that's something I never want to stop doing.

How do you read poetry? Do you make an effort to read genres you find challenging? Has your perspective on types of art changed over time?