30 January 2006

Bibliophile reviews Geisha (memoir, anthropology)

There are books I like to gobble up like candy, and then there are books I like to savour, like a long-drawn out meal where the food is so delicious you don’t want to stop eating. This is one of the latter type of book. It has taken me nearly a whole month to read, and I have therefore had ample time to digest it.

Author: Liza Crihfield Dalby
Year published: 1983
Genre: Anthropology, memoir

In the 1970s, anthropology student Liza Crihfield went to Japan to conduct a study of geisha for her Ph.D. thesis. The book is part anthropological study, part memoir, of Crihfield’s year among the geisha, who invited her to join their ranks, which she did, working as a geisha for about six months. She discusses geisha culture and historical fluctuations and changes in their fortunes, their private lives and their education, dress, social status and standards of conduct. It is a fascinating subject, and written in a very readable style, often with sly humour coming through.

One of the things Dalby tries to do in the book is to debunk the western myth that geisha are nothing but prostitutes and slaves to men’s whims and fancies. Neither myth is entirely true, but because westerners rarely see beneath the surface, things are interpreted in this way. Dalby takes care to stress that geisha are artists whose job is to entertain at parties with singing, music, dance and conversation, and because Japanese women rarely attend parties with their husbands and (at that time, don’t know what it’s like now) women were generally not among the high-ups in companies who would entertain clients, the geisha’s customers are mostly men. A geisha make take on a patron – i.e. become a mistress - but the relationship will, these days, be built more on the need for intimacy and companionship rather than money. Some individual geishas are prostitutes as well, but the group as whole is not. As to being anti-feminist – these was a time when the only way a Japanese woman could be financially independent and not have to marry was to become a courtesan, a prostitute or a geisha. Geisha were socially acceptable, while the other two were not, and so geisha were possibly the most independent women in Japan. In modern Japan this is no longer true as more opportunities have opened up, but even now if a woman wants to pursue a career in the traditional arts of singing, music or dancing, her best choice may be to become a geisha, because she can support herself financially while practicing her gei (art).

Much of the charm of the book is the author’s obvious love for the subject and her writing style. When academics write for laypersons – i.e. “the public” – rather than for other academics, they sometimes fail miserably because they are used to writing in a factual, impersonal style that tends towards dryness and which “the public” find boring, or because they make the mistake of dumbing the subject down too much. Not so Liza Crihfield Dalby. Her writing style is simple, flowing and personal and she allows her obvious love of and respect for the subject to shine through. She explains things in clear, beautiful prose without speaking down to the readers, and draws up an image of the “flower and willow world” of Japan that may not be accurate today, 30 years after she did her study, but which stands as a snapshot of the geisha culture as it was then.

Rating: Highly recommended, good reading, especially if you are interested in the subject. 5 stars.

26 January 2006

Bibliophile reviews The Rule of Four (mystery, suspense)

Well, finally I have had time to sit down and write a book review, which is pretty good considering I have only been able to read a handful of books this month.

Authors: Ian Caldwell & Justin Thomasson
Year published: 2004

Two undergraduate students at Princeton University, Tom and Paul, get sucked into a mystery when another student who has been helping Paul with his thesis research is murdered, and it appears that his death has a link to the thesis, which is about an obscure and strange novel from the Renaissance period, the Hypnerotomachia Poliphili (a real book, BTW). Prior to Paul’s taking on this assistant, Tom had been helping him solve the riddle of the book, which (in the novel) is one big cryptogram. Tom had become nearly as obsessed with it as his father, a Hypnerotomachia scholar, had been, but pulled out in time before his obsession could ruin his relationship with his girlfriend. What follows is an investigation into the dead man’s connection to the Hypnerotomachia, an old journal that holds a clue as to the mystery, and a desperate attempt to solve the final cryptogram before something evil happens. (You wouldn’t want me to give too much away, right?)

First a few words about the style:
I hate present tense storytelling longer than a short story, especially when, as in this book, the story is being told in flashback but using the present tense. If the whole book had been written in this manner, I would probably not have finished it, but it is rescued by the alternate chapters that are in ordinary past tense. All the action takes place in the present tense, while the past tense is used for flashbacks into the backstory that explain the present tense narrative. Whether this is due to firstbookitis or not, I don’t know. Authors have always experimented with different styles of writing – indeed the literary world would not be nearly as colourful and interesting if they didn’t. But unfortunately, sometimes these stylistic experiments fail, and this one does so by being annoying.

As to firstbookitis, well there is plenty of that to go around.
Repetition is rife – we are told over and over about how Tom’s father, who was obsessed with the book, was killed in a car accident and how Tom and Paul met and became friends. Cutting out the repetitions would make the story shorter and more streamlined.
Another firstbookitis symptom is that the story tries to be too many things at once: thriller, adventure, coming-of-age story, 2 mysteries, conspiracy story, college novel, metafiction, even a love story. It takes a very good, experienced writer to pull of such a multi-genre story and not have it come out like he was trying to cram 15 stories into one.
It’s probably due to the different tenses used in alternate chapters that I feel as is there are two narrators, which should be counted as another firstbookitis symptom. The whole story is narrated throughout by Tom, but you can see plainly that two people wrote the book, which is unfortunate exactly because there is only one narrator. This would not have been a problem if there had been two narrators, for example Tom in the present tense chapters and a partially omniscient narrator in the other. (For a brilliant example of a book by two authors where it would take deep text analysis to find out who wrote what, see Neil Gaiman’s and Terry Pratchett’s Good Omens).
The authors have perfectly captured the atmosphere of university and made it dark and brooding as befits a mystery/thriller/conspiracy tale. This is unfortunately a big fault in the story – the atmosphere is overplayed to the point of becoming a character in the story. The descriptions of the tunnels (read the book if you want to know which tunnels) and of snow and darkness are lovingly and beautifully crafted, but just too long.

The murder mystery is simple and a reader with experience of mysteries can figure it out before the halfway point. The bibliomystery is harder to figure out. You realise quickly that it’s about either a treasure or a secret, but what it is only unfolds gradually, and that is what kept me reading. Once both mysteries are solved, the story, instead of going out with the climactic bang it attempts, instead sort of fizzles out in the altogether too predictable denouement. At the end of the last chapter, I thought to myself “Is that all?”, and put the book down, disappointed.

All in all, here is a book that, once read, I have no desire to read again. Once the bibliomystery was solved, there was nothing left to enjoy about the book. Don’t get me wrong – I’m not saying you shouldn’t read it, but there are better books out there. 2,5 stars.

There, I’ve done it, and not one mention of that book by Dan Brown… or the one by Umberto Eco.

23 January 2006

More bookmarks online: printables

Printables for everyone:

Free Printable Bookmarks. Cute bookmarks with motivational sayings. Includes some for Mother’s Day.
More free printable bookmarks. Designed by children’s book author and illustrator Jan Brett. All bookmarks include her name (OK, I know I said I tried to avoid promotional stuff, but these are really lovely).
Free bookmarks from Graphic Garden. Really cute bookmarks, some in horizontal (landscape) format.

Printables for kids:

Bookmarks from abcteach. Loads of bookmarks, mostly with educational themes.
DLTK's Crafts for Kids. Create personalised bookmarks online.

I think I'm going overboard with this bookmark mania. Now I've bought a laminating machine...

20 January 2006

Bookmarks online

After I wrote the bookmark post, I though it would be fun to see what the web has to offer in the way of bookmarks. I googled “bookmarks” combined with all the methods I could think of for making them and found oodles of websites offering either printable bookmarks or instructions on how to make them from various materials. I found so many that I decided to make a separate post with just links.

I even found sewn, crocheted and knitted bookmarks. While I think such bookmarks are beautiful to look at, they do tend to be a bit too thick and slippery to stay inside a book that’s being carried around, so they are best reserved for books that will stay in one place, and should not be left in for long, as they could leave marks.

The printable bookmarks should be printed on heavy paper, cardstock or photo paper, and laminated for durability and to protext the books from possible stains or chemicals from the printer ink.

I have tried to avoid advertising bookmarks as much as possible.

First the crafty stuff:

A collection of links to crocheted bookmarks. In order to make crochet and knit bookmarks as thin as possible, use the finest thread and smallest hook/needles you can handle.
Four lovely knitted bookmarks
Melissa's Knit Bookmarks. Another collection of knitted bookmarks.
Make your own patchwork bookmark. The method can also be use to make gift tags or cards, in which case you use double-sided iron on adhesive and iron the design onto cardstock.
Heather's Friendship Bracelets. This is a huge collection of instructions on how to make friendship bracelets. So why is it in a collection of bookmark links? Well, if you can crochet, knit and sew bookmarks, why not knot/weave them? You can also use the instructions to make lovely cords for your bookmarks.
Printable origami bookmarks.
Printable folded bookmark.
Cut-and-fold paper bookmarks
Seminole Patchwork Bookmark. This is actually made from paper, but looks like Seminole patchwork.
Magnetic Bookmarks. On a website for kids, but handy for anyone on the go with books.
Creativity portal. Instructions and ideas on how to make your own bookmarks, plus several links to bookmark sites.

If you want to make a cord and tassel for your bookmark, twist, knot or braid the cord, and add a tassel. Here’s how to make it.

This is getting a bit long. I’ll continue next time with more links.

19 January 2006

How to make a simple origami bookmark

Here are some instructions on how to make a simple origami (paper folding) bookmark:

Take a square of paper. It can be patterned origami paper, gift paper or even office paper, just as long as it’s easy to fold. The square should not be much bigger than 10 cm/4 inches across, unless you intend to use the mark for a big book. The images show what the paper should look like after you follow each step of the instructions. The two sides of the paper are shown in different colours to make things easier, and the edges and fold lines are shown as black lines.

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Fold the paper in half diagonally (corner to corner), and then unfold. Repeat with the other two corners. This is to find the middle and to make the rest of the folding easier. If the paper is thick or stiff it can help to reverse the folds.

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Fold three of the corners in so that they meet in the middle. You now have a piece of paper resembling an open envelope. For the next two steps, ignore the flap.

Image hosted by Photobucket.com
Fold the square diagonally in two. You now have a folded triangle with a triangular flap coming out of it.

Image hosted by Photobucket.com
Fold the triangle in half again across the middle. You now have a smaller folded triangle with a flap.

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Look at the end the flap is on. You will see two pockets inside the triangle. Tuck the flap into the one farther away and slide it in all the way. Crease to secure.

You now have a book-corner protector or a corner bookmark. Just slide onto the corners of pages. The bookmark is thick and a bit heavy, and will hold better if you stick the corners of several pages into it rather than just one.

Apologies if the design is copyrighted - I was taught it by a friend and have no idea where she learned it.


After the book came along, the bookmark was an inevitable invention, and is probably as or almost as old as bound books. I don’t know how the ancients who wrote on scrolls remembered their place, but surely they had some equivalent of the bookmark. Many older, bound books, and some new quality editions have a built-in bookmark, a fabric ribbon that is sewn or glued into the binding. Very handy and not likely to get lost even if it falls out between the pages.

Like bookplates, bookmarks are a collector’s item, and while some collectors use their bookmarks, others just collect them. You can get them in most bookshops and many souvenir shops. Some are plastic or laminated and will last for ages, while others are made from thick paper and will age along with your books.

For some, the joy is in making and owning or giving one-of-a-kind bookmarks, for others, it’s having as many different ones as possible. Some prefer to use impromptu bookmarks. I have found several such improvised bookmarks (along with bookmarks designed for the purpose) inside second-hand books. The most common ones I have found in this way are receipts and airplane boarding passes, but I have also found banknotes, stamps, postcards and post-its, and numerous pieces of paper, often with notes or drawings on them. I lost my I.D. card in a book when I was about 13 and didn’t find it again for several years.

I prefer made-for-the-purpose bookmarks, but will use whatever comes handy if I haven’t got a bookmark. I have a couple of durable plastic ones, one of which is my favourite – a picture from Saint Exupéry’s classic The Little Prince. I also have some extra long ones I made out of an old calendar, and one made of papyrus, a souvenir my aunt brought me from Egypt. Most of my bookmarks, however, are promotional ones from bookshops or libraries. Both the National Library and the Reykjavík City Library regularly change their bookmarks, and while a good number of them are promotional, some of them contain artwork as well. I have a few National Library bookmarks that commemorate exhibitions at the library or the birthday of a famous author, and from the City Library I have a series of bookmarks depicting the Icelandic Yule lads, and another series where a picture was divided into four parts and you got one quarter of the picture per month until you had the whole thing. I have a couple of very nice ones from both libraries commemorating the anniversary of H.C. Andersen that I want to laminate for durability.

Next post: Learn to make an origami bookmark.

Questions for my guests:
Do you have a favourite bookmark?
What interesting or unusual bookmarks (or other items) have you found inside second-hand books?

18 January 2006

Ex libris

I love books. Anyone who visits this blog can see that. But this is not about books. Rather, I would like to discuss book paraphernalia, namely two items that were created for the ease of book owners and readers: ex libris and bookmarks. Today it’s ex libris.

Ex libris is a Latin phrase meaning, literally from books, but over time it has become a fancy name for bookplates or book labels because it is a common inscription on bookplates, there used to mean from the library/books of.... When books were rare and expensive commodities, their owners would declare their ownership by pasting an ex libris on the inside of the cover. These early bookplates would be specially designed for that owner alone. Typically, the bookplate would include the owner’s name, plus a crest or even a full coat of arms and a motto, and sometimes an admonition to potential thieves, books being precious and valued property.

Bookplates developed over time and heraldic content became rarer and was often replaced by symbolic designs. Death’s heads are common on old bookplates, denoting the brevity of life and the inevitability of death, owls appear as symbols of wisdom and education, and so on. Sometimes the symbols would be personal and sometimes they would simply be small works of art with no special symbolic meaning. Some book owners would own several different designs of bookplates, perhaps changing the design periodically or using different designs for different genres of books.

Over time, ex libris design became quite an art form, and many famous artists and illustrators have designed bookplates, usually commissioned by book and art lovers.

In this age of cheap paperbacks, book plates have fallen out of fashion. It feels rather ridiculous to put a fancy label in a book that is not going to last long, and so the number of bookplate users is today only a small fraction of what it was when most books were hard-bound and long lasting. Many have come to see them as snobbish as they are now mostly used by people who buy and collect hardcovers, or as pretentious relics of another age. They are, however, avidly collected.

I think many ex libris are beautiful works of art and would not mind having them in my books, but I have also seen some that were not so beautiful, usually because they contained sexist, racist or just generally hateful designs.

I would like to have bookplates in my hardcovers, but I still have not found a design I like. I will probably end up designing one myself, something simple that I will not easily grow tired of.

Here are some links to websites that feature bookplates:

American Society of Bookplate Collectors & Designers. Has some short articles, links and samples of bookplates.

The Art of the Ex Libris. Has many examples of bookplates.

Some printable bookplates, courtesy of Nick Bantock.

Many bookplates for kids and teenagers, and a short article.

More bookplates for kids, plus a couple of links to even more.

15 January 2006

Bibliophile’s reading report for 2005

I finally found time to sit down and finish my reading report. In addition to the books reported here, I started but did not finish several books, and read chapters and parts of about 15 school and academic books (required reading and research for assignments).

Off we go:

Total books read in 2005: 282
Fiction: 202, or 71,6 %
Non-fiction: 80, or 28,4%

Total no. of pages: 60355
Re-reads: 15
Library and loan books: 156
E-books: 50
Audio books: 8
Translated books: 14
Average number of stars per book (out of a possible 5): 3,6

Languages: Danish (2), English (265), Icelandic (14)

Breakdown by genre:
Crime, mystery and action: 86, or 30,5%
Romance and chick-lit: 29, or 10,3%
Fantasy and sci-fi, supernatural horror included: 28, or 9,9%
Teen and children’s literature: 22, or 7,8%
Novels that defy genre classification (also known as literature): 16, or 5,7%
Books about books and reading: 12, or 4,2%
Biographies, autobiographies and memoirs: 12, or 4,2%
Travel: 11, or 3,9%
Other: 66, or 23,4 %

I will publish a list of my most read authors of 2005 later this week.

11 January 2006

Just a quickie to let you know I'm not dead...

I know I haven't blogged much lately, but I have been working on my yearly reading report. I also have several reviews in the works, including two about mystery authors.

Until then, if you're interested in the woes of being a graduate student, check out my other blog: Not about books

02 January 2006

Bibliophile’s reading resolution for 2006

I’m not much for making new year’s resolutions in general (hence the “try to”), but here are my reading resolutions for 2006:

1. I will try to read more of my own books and fewer library books.
2. I will try not to buy any more books until I have cleared some space in my TBR bookcase.
3. I will try to read more Icelandic books this year.
4. I will get rid of books I do not intend to read again, ASAP.