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25 November 2012

Rereading and My Library

I now have over 1000 books, which is not bad, if I consider the financial limitations of the first few years of young marriage and parenthood.  I look forward to acquiring several thousands more.  Amongst them are some I have not read.  I look at them fondly because I know I will someday.  As for the rest, I often reread books.  I can go back to happy places, exciting, dangerous, ancient or imaginary places.  Every time these stories are familiar and new.  I can visit brilliant conversations and enjoy the scenery all over again.

The second and third readings are especially delicious because I notice details that were not obvious the first time.  To read a book ten years later is to read a new book.  I am cursed with the memory of endings, unlike BPR, but my view point and experiences in the mean time add fresh twists to the understanding of the book.  There are the books that I reread once a year, these include 'The Lord of the Rings', 'The Book of Tea', 'Pride and Prejudice' and 'Please Don't Eat the Daisies'.  Why I go back I do not know, maybe it is seasonal, or maybe it is because we all have friends and like good friends, we want to see them again.

Sometimes, I read a book again around the time I want to share it with my children.  I did this with Sherlock Holmes before giving the book to my son.  My daughter is reading 'Life of Pi'.  She saw the previews of the film and thought it looked cool.  I gave her the book and this morning she opined that Pi is an idiot.  Last week Pi was clever on account of what he did with his name.  I hope to read the book again once she is done with it.  My children like it when I say "Oh, I read that at your age."  They open up; Ask questions that would be awkward with "I" or "me" in them... Last night, on a long drive home, my daughter and I had a serious conversation about 'The Outsiders' which, I too, had to read in seventh grade.

Familiar books are soothing when I am stressed.  Books are often the cure to a horrible day with a cup of tea.  Jane Austen, Terry Pratchett, Okakura, Isabel Allende, Fannie Flagg, J.K. Rowling, Tolkien, Jean Kerr... I could keep going. I reread all the time while reading new books.  'The City and the City' by China Mieville has been calling recently,  I think it is time to visit that strange place again.

None of this would be possible without my books at home.  Libraries have opening and closing times as well as other patrons.  There is a limit to how many books I can lift in one go or even check out in one go.  Though I must write that those difficult years mentioned before were made bearable by a lovely local library one passage away. I can underline cool bits and stick book markers in different places.  I can enjoy them over and over again.  Some would argue that a tablet is better for my purpose but on a tablet I do not own the book.  I pay for the privilege to read X book on their tablet.  This is a privilege they can take away and per the very small print, they are not obliged to tell me why.  Should my tablet fall in the bath tub, it is apparently, my problem and I have to procure a new one or lose the books,  should the software change radically as happens faster and faster these days, or the new and improved tablet make mine obsolete then I have to go shopping again.  Tablet makers are in the market to sell tablets, not books.  If 'Pride and Prejudice' falls in my bath then all I need is a blow dryer.  The only tablet plus I can think of is that it makes reading easier for my mother when her eyes get tired in the evening; she can opt for bigger letters.

There is the satisfaction of owning books.  I can pick one up on a sleepless night, read my favorite chapter and put it back, no need to check if the batteries are charged.  Books add warmth to a home.  I always notice when there aren't any and I somehow feel suspicious of the inhabitants of said home.  "We have no time to read."  "My wife doesn't like to read."  She does like it when they both watch tv together, if he reads, he is "ignoring" her.  A house without books feels like a hotel room to me... no personality.  Several persons of my acquaintance are not allowed to keep books at home.  If one book comes in another must go out.  It is pointed out that libraries are to keep books.  I have noted that the enforcers of these rules are not readers themselves and only tolerate the time their partners read, if at all. I never had this discussion with BPR.  When he met me, I was surrounded by books.  I could not afford to ship them to Europe, where we eventually settled 17 years ago so I set about buying books to make a home.

Yes, there is time to cook or garden or read or whatever you love to do with and without your family.  If you happen to have a garden at hand or an excellent kitchen, that is all to the good, so why not books at hand to reread?  Books remind me that I never stop learning, even from the same book.  Books leak (the Librarian at Unseen University would agree) knowledge and perspective and often change my life in magical ways because of it.

22 November 2012

'A Blink of the Screen' by Terry Pratchett

I did not know what to expect when I bought this book.  I had not read Pratchett short stories before.  Fortunately, I was surprised and entertained in new ways.  His personal comments before every story showed his vulnerability as an author.  It seems he is never satisfied, which is well and good. I like a writer who wants to improve himself but he is still sending stories out into the world with a very English "hope for the best but expect the worst" attitude.  No cockiness anywhere.

The start was perfect.  An unadulterated story by a 13 year old Terry.  His first story published.  My daughter perked her ears up at this and laughed right through it.  I smiled and thanked the universe that adults in his world encouraged him.  From then on the stories were new and familiar all at the same time.

"The Glastonbury Tales", a poem about picking up hitchhikers to Glastonbury was funny, and dare I write the word?... cute.  At least that is how his naive passengers seemed to me.  As for the bewildered, patient, atheist driver, well his generosity and patience speaks for itself. Granny Weatherwax is one of my favorite Discworld characters.  I haven't seen her in a while so it was a relief to read of her troubles at the top of the non-existent ranking of witches.  But, one of my favorite stories was "The Hollywood Chickens".  Fantastic imagination, who else can get into the mind of a chicken? Or wants to?  Once I figured out what the chickens were in fact, up to, I realized that you cannot go against your nature.

I recommend this book to those poor souls who have resisted Pratchett thus far but want to briefly see what all the fuss is about.  Anyone who likes Pratchett probably already has this book.

Terry Pratchett
ISBN: 9780385618984

18 November 2012

'The Strange Affair of Spring Heeled Jack' by Mark Hodder

"Exciting, clever, fun, fast paced and inventive"

Weird this.  BPR found this book and thought I would like it.  I started it and then stopped.  I was distracted by other books.  I think.  I picked it up again a week ago and did not put it down.  It was exciting, clever, fun, fast paced and inventive.  A good, entertaining read.  Why then did I put it down?

I think I have mentioned before that Melville was one of the most boring authors I was obliged to read in university.  I did not want to know the provenance of every item a protagonist picked up.  Flash forward a few years later and I need to read in peace (i.e. an escape), because of a (finally) napping baby but I have nothing to read.  'Moby Dick' is on the shelf.  Inward groan, but I pick it up.  I laugh and laugh.  The whole scene at the sailors inn and the decision to sleep or not to sleep with the harpooner is one of my favorite literary scenes.  I was so impressed with the book that after I finished it I researched sperm whales as well as modern fishing and whaling.  Super cool, I understood the book, finally captured a sense of Captain Ahab as he is envisioned by his author and I laughed.  Great book, naturally a classic... so why did I not like it before?

One of my theories is that books come to me when I am ready to read them.  By ready I mean mood, experience, timing... you know, life.  Some books are life changing.  'The Book of Tea' by Okakura comes to mind.  Other books are humorous if you get the joke, Terry Pratchett needed a couple of attempts before it clicked.  'The Strange Affair of Spring-heeled Jack' has a great deal of action as well as a complicated plot in an unfamiliar/should be familiar setting.  Two issues come to mind when I think about last week.  First, it was a quiet week.  I had the time to concentrate and stretch out on the sofa.  Second, because it was such a quiet week I needed some excitement, if only vicarious.  Otherwise, my life outlook has not changed so much in the six months since BPR gave me the book.  What I mean is that Melville and Pratchett and several others were reintroduced to me after I had had some life altering experiences.  Okakura was a life altering experience.

Other readers of my acquaintace shrug their shoulders and say "I was not in the mood" or more often, "the book didn't grab me".  I disagree.  It is not the wrong book, it is the wrong person (or state of mind) for that book.  Books, well written books, are always ready for an audience.  Well written books can be reread.  It is often the audience that is not ready for a book.  This theory has compelled me to pick up books that I have put down, sometimes years later.  I am often very glad I did.  Mark Hodder has done a wonderful job.  I look forward to meeting him again.

Mark Hodder
ISBN: 9781906727208

14 November 2012

'Ash' by James Herbert

"War criminals, nazis, a pedophile bishop, terrorist priest, aristocratic murderer, aggressive lesbian nurse, massive spiders, murderous cats, paid assassins, illegitimate children, legitimate shameful children, etc, etc..."

I have never read anything by Herbert.  It turns out he's written many "chiller" books.  I chose 'Ash' because Halloween was all around us and this looked appropriate.  It had a haunted castle, mysterious organization, handsome tortured hero named David Ash. It's a good name.  The beginning, the set up, as it were, is promising.  A dying castrated, bloody, levitated body is always a good start.  A hired medium that dies of fright is good too.  Then I hit a problem, or several problems and these problems make me laugh; as any Hogwarts alumni will tell you, laughter is the cure and the shield to fear.

The problem is that once the first monster appears, they keep appearing.  No chance to ponder with horror the levitated, bloody old man surrounded by black orbs.  That is at least supernatural.  The castle's legitimate inhabitants are monsters from our nightmares too.  There are war criminals (named and notorious), nazis, a pedophile bishop, terrorist priest, aristocratic murderer, aggressive lesbian nurse, massive spiders, murderous cats, two paid assassins, illegitimate children, legitimate shameful children, etc, etc...  Eventually, the supernatural manifestations are a relief.  All the monsters and nuts living in one castle in Scotland with genteel dinners and walks on the lawn, well, all I do is laugh.

I think the author wants me to believe that like attracts like and that is why so many monsters live amongst monsters.  But, my gut tells me that Herbert (perhaps unconsciously) thinks the inhabitants deserve the haunted castle, which is why I (the reader) do not care much what happens to any of them.  Perhaps if the hauntings of the castle feature more and the inhabitants less or the residents are more sympathetic, then I would be afraid for them.  Chilly, it is not, but it is entertaining if not in the way the author intended.  David Ash, tortured soul that he is, does his best to bring some reason to the bizarre circumstances and the narration.  I like him and I am curious about what he can accomplish if he is allowed to do his job.

I have to get someone's opinion who has read more Herbert in order to compare because I am not impressed.  I like many of the ideas in the book, only it is too many ideas in one book.

So who does scare me?  Stephen King scares me.  John Ajvide Lindqvist so scares me. Go on try them...

James Herbert
ISBN 9780230706959

11 November 2012

'Women and the Making of the Modern House: A Social and Architectural History' by Alice T. Friedman

"Some of the 20th century's most popular and influential architects were not far seeing when it came to women as clients"

Too many independent books stores are closing these days.  I picked up this book in a lovely shop in the center of town.  About 3 years ago they were in trouble because they could not compete with Amazon.  They stayed afloat with old books, second hand books.  They closed because they cannot compete with ebay.  I do like to browse and these stores carry books beyond the usual commercialized best sellers.  Without this book store I would not have run into this gem.  The title alone was interesting, the book itself and the houses are impressive.

The book is a "social and architectural history" with a concrete twist.  All the houses described in the book were commissioned by women or by families where the women played an unusual role.  The 20th century brought many changes to how women viewed themselves, spent their own money and chose to live.  It is a natural extension of a new identity that the houses women commissioned would have several breaks from the way men built homes.  Women use their homes as men would use a conference room.  To women the community begins with the family, but does not end there and these homes often reflect the larger role women wish to play.

Some of the 20th century's most popular and influential architects were not far seeing when it came to women as clients.  I was at times shocked by how Frank Lloyd Wright treated a client by misrepresenting her character to bolster his own reputation at a point in his career that no longer needed it.  Ludwig Mies van der Rohe was even nastier.  He created a famous glass house for a female client that put her on show.  There was by design no privacy or even the option to invite a guest because he assumed a single woman would have no guests.  Yes, it was a glass box but what Friedman does is contrast this glass house to another famous glass house of the time that solved the issues of privacy and the right to intimacy (the owner and architect, Philip Johnson, was gay).

All is not moaning about men though.  The house that Robert Venturi built for his mother is unique and intellectual, yet sensitive to his mother's wishes and habits.  My personal favorite is the Constance Perkins house built by Richard Neutra.  He built this house on a tight budget.  What he delivered is the result of listening to an intelligent client.  The house is perfectly suited to her life socially and privately.
The essays are intelligent and well researched with exhaustive bibliographies.  I learnt too much to describe here.  Different houses are discussed along with their social context and of course female inhabitants.  The essays are not overly long and now that I have read all of them once I can go back to individual houses and reread.

Alice T. Friedman
ISBN: 9780810939899

10 November 2012

A Family Amongst Books

I feel privileged to live in a home where everyone likes to read.  My husband and both my children usually have a book going that is not tied to school or work.  There are books in every room in the house and next to every bed.  And all this within sight of Mac, iPad, and iPhones.  I am a sceptic of people who assert that modern technology discourages people from reading attentively and for pleasure... Good, I have all that out of my system...

My personal irritation is book choice and recommendations.  It is rare that any of us read the same books.  The exceptions being His Dark Materials, Harry Potter and Harry Dresden... Strange but true.  You see with everything else we differ.  Maximum one other person will pick up the same book.  BPR (Beloved Proof Reader) can occasionally be bullied into taking a book with him but won't finish it.  My son will a. ignore me; b. read and groan about it; c. distract me by pointing out a different book he is reading already.  My daughter is much more straight forward, she ignores me and reads what she pleases.

Curse them!

I want to share, talk, gush about books.  My view of ideal family life is to sit around the dinner table harmoniously talking about books... cue my son... "Mom, you're such a nerd".  Book or reading clubs are out of the question.  Reading choices are not my own, or heaven help me, picked by Oprah.  Then we have to discuss.  Some people enjoy the direction and format of the discussion.  Others point out that they get to read books they would not have otherwise read.  I do not like polite book dissections.  I studied English Lit. and have become allergic to reading circles.  As for reading choices, I pride myself on reading pretty much anything and everything.  There is no such a thing as a topic or genre that I would not have read.  There is merely opportunity, mood and money.

So here I am begging my family to read a book I have enjoyed.  My results are mixed:

Neil Gaiman - success
Jasper Fforde - fail
Terry Pratchett - both
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle - success
Jane Austen - fail

I could keep going and I do, much to the irritation of my son who feels compelled to at least reply.  This is how he found himself reading 'Kafka on the Shore' by Murakami this past Summer.  My daughter continues to ignore me...  But all is not as pathetic as it seems.

You see there is magic in discussing books with family members, especially if our tastes are so different.  There is no need for formal statements, logic or even politeness.  They already know how smart or stupid I am and can grasp any idea in flight rather than me having to explain myself in detail with impressive vocabulary.  Whether they like the idea or not is an entirely different matter.  The discussions are honest with no need to be politically correct.  There is passion and frustration and love and maybe a good bottle of wine and loads of treats.  Maybe it is a good thing these family talks don't happen often, we'd all be exhausted.  Nevertheless, books or films shared let me learn about unknown sides of my family.  We invent a family language together.  Inside jokes are created and key words or terms can bring smiles to all our faces weeks later.  Yes, I wish it happened more often, but I am grateful it happens at all.