31 December 2011

End of year pondering: Thoughts on personal libraries, collecting and decluttering

It occurred to me, as I was preparing to add my e-books to my library database, that library size really doesn‘t matter any longer, at least where space is concerned. You could have a library with the same number of volumes as America‘s Library of Congress (over 22 million volumes), and yet you could carry it with ease in your pocket. In terms of the sheer number of owned books this is a great big opportunity for bibliophiliac one-upmanship. 

There are a little over 800 titles in my e-book collection, mostly free books downloaded from Project Gutenberg and other websites that legally offer e-books for free, plus a few I have bought or been given. Altogether they take up about 650 megabytes of hard drive space, which is enough to fill the largest hard drive available for the type of laptop I own, and then some. That hard drive takes up about the same amount of space as a small powder compact.

The 2 terabyte external hard drive I use for backing up the contents of the computer and to store stuff that doesn‘t need to be immediately accessible in the computer is the size of a thick trade paperback and could hold a library of 25 to 30 thousand volumes. You can get a more capacious hard drive into a box that size, how big I‘m not sure, but with modern technology being what it is, we  keep being able to store more and more information in less and less space all the time. Just look at SD cards - they are already offering ones with a storage capacity of 64 gigabytes, so the Library of Congress example I mentioned above is no science-fiction. It may even be possible right now, or if not, it will become possible within a few years' time, to store all that information in a box the size of a packet of cigarettes, or more likely on a memory card the size of a fingernail. 

The thing is, however, that if you want people to be impressed by the number of books you own, it is a lot easier to do so without being suspected of being a brag or a liar if you own a lot of physical books. All you have to do is bring into your home a non-bibliophile, by which I don‘t necessarily mean a non-reader, but let‘s rather say someone who reads books without feeling the overwhelming bibliophiliac urge to possess as many of them as possible. Then all you have to do is wait for them to notice the numerous and impressively overflowing bookcases. This will almost certainly lead to the question „How many books do you own?“ and that, inevitably, will lead to the follow up: „Have you read them all?“

This way, you don‘t need to work the contents of your Kindle or your hard drive into a conversation to get the desired awed or envious reaction, which can be difficult in any case, since non-bibliophiles tend not to like talking about books in general, only the books they are reading or have recently read (if any).

Among us bibliophiles I foresee this development: a few non-discriminating collectors, and by that I mean people who collect books in general as opposed to specific books, will start scouring the Web for all the free books they can find, regardless of whether they will ever read them or not. When they feel the collection is sufficiently large, they will begin one-upping each other left and right in a modern version of the Battle of the Books, in which the war will not be waged between the armies of the Ancients and the Moderns, but will instread be fought in a series of duels in which the last bibliophile standing will be the one with the biggest number of books.

As a collector, you see, I know how easy it is to lose control over the collecting urge. I am currently in the process of decluttering my home by throwing out, donating and using up several of my collections which have gotten out of hand. They include quilting fabrics, paper, yarn, craft supplies and, yes, books. I hasten to add that I do not collect any of these things indiscriminately, but merely what I plan to use. Unfortunately I operate on the „out of sight, out of mind“ principle, which means that rather than buy and use I buy and store for later, for that near-mythical time known to most pack-rats: when I have the time to do the project or read the book. Now, however, I am in a situation where I find it necessary to be careful with my money (the house is being repaired – again – and a large bill is looming) so I am now, finally, spending my time making and doing rather than buying and storing.

Phase one of this unusual situation is to try to use something from my pantry and/or freezer every time I cook something, instead of constantly buying new stock and ending up throwing out the old because it has expired. Phase two is the TBR challenge. Phase three is to use up some of the colourful paper scraps and leftovers from my bookbinding projects, and to finish at least one partially done craft project. I am turning the paper into beads, bowls, baskets and Christmas decorations, and the craft project is to finish the granny square crochet afghan I started making 5 years go. If I keep this up, by next spring I will have a nice pile of paper crafts  to sell through the handicrafts co-operative I am planning to join next summer, and an afghan to curl up under next winter while I continue the TBR challenge and get going with watching – before the technology becomes obsolete – all the DVDs I have accumulated. There still remain the quilting fabrics, but I‘ll climb that hill when the paper mountain has finally been conquered.

You might think that adding all those aforementioned e-books to the library database will destroy the TBR challenge, but no, that challenge is specifically to make room on my shelves for more TBR books and to prevent the necessity of buying more shelving. The e-books are a blissful extra, a bonus and a guarantee that I will not  run out of books to read even if I have to spend the next 20 years under house arrest. I just have to be careful not to start buying e-books unless I have definite plans of reading them. 

30 December 2011

Reading report for November 2011

I had this ready at the start of the month but have only just realised that I never published it, so here goes:

I finished 9 books in November, of which 4 were TBR challenge books. I have now reached the TBR goal for this year: to get the TBR stack below 800 books by reading and/or culling. I took a long look at my bookshelves yesterday (make that December 5th) and made a drastic cull, bringing the TBR down to 791 books. I plan to continue with the challenge in 2012, and will probably begin with a goal of going below 750 TBR books.

This almost became the first month for a very long time in which I did not finish one mystery or thriller, but because the journey covered in The 8.55 to Baghdad was inspired by Agatha Christie and her journey on the Orient Express, I decided to reread Murder on the Orient Express. Knowing what the outcome of the mystery would be allowed me to concentrate on other things about it, and it struck me how brilliant Christie was at drawing, with a few deft strokes, a menagerie of diverse and interesting characters.

The Books:

  • A Season in the Highlands. 5 romance novellas, comprising: Jude Deveraux; Unfinished Business (contemporary, paranormal); Jill Barnett: Fall From Grace (historical); Geralyn Dawson: Cold Feet (historical, paranormal, Christmas); Pam Binder: The Matchmaker (time travel); Patricia Cabot: The Christmas Captive (historical, Christmas)
  • Agatha Christie: Murder on the Orient Express. Murder mystery. Reread.
  • Andrew Eames: The 8.55 to Baghdad. Travel.
  • Justine Hardy: Bollywood Boy. Travel, film.
  • Nora Roberts: The Bride Quartet, comprising: Vision in White; Bed of Roses; Savor the Moment; Happy Ever After.Contemporary romance.
  • Kevin Rushby: Children of Kali. Travel, history.

26 December 2011

Down Under by Bill Bryson

Originally published in July 2005, on my original 52 Books blog.

This is the account of Bill Bryson’s (broken up) journey around Australia, to visit its biggest cities and some interesting sights, natural and man-made.

Bryson is obviously an australophile. This book is a virtual love letter to Australia, especially its natural beauty, and in a lesser way to its people. Even though he writes in his usual humorously mocking style, and criticises certain things, especially environmental policies and the less than helpful staff at hotels in a certain city, the book is for the most part a very positive and affectionate, sometimes glowing, account of this interesting country. Besides covering his impressions and travel experiences, Bryson gives some account of Australian history and the country’s attractions, and the book can, in fact, be used as an informal guide to some of the places he visited. He seems to have been very diligent in hunting down and exploring unusual little museums and sights, some of which may not even be mentioned in guide books.

I have previously read four of Bryson’s other books: Made in America and Mother Tongue, both of which are about the history of the English language, and two travel books, Notes From a Small Island and The Lost Continent. I liked the language books - they were funny and good reads, even if some of the etymology was a bit suspect, but I didn’t particularly like the travel books. I found them to be so overloaded with Bryson’s signature self-deprecating humour that it went over the top and started sounding like whining. I would also have liked to read less about him and more about the country he was supposed to be writing about. There was also something, some spirit or spark that was missing from The Lost Continent (not to mention the hostile, almost sarcastic, undertone) and I had to force myself to finish it.

The American title
Here, finally, is a travel book from Bryson that deserves all the praise that has been heaped on him as a funny travel writer. He writes about the country and people and has toned down the self-deprecation to an acceptable level so that it is actually funny instead of “here-he-goes-again” tedious, but it is rather sad that he should feel the need to make some rather mean-spirited comments about people who are supposed to be his friends. Don’t get me wrong, I sometimes couldn’t help laughing, but I still think they are mean. Of course, I don’t know what the people in question are like - maybe they are mean right back at him, but it doesn’t feel very friendly to me. But these are minor faults in an otherwise good book.

Rating: A great and sometimes funny introduction to Australia, its people, cities and sights. 4 stars.

23 December 2011

The Imps with the Bags

Swearing is said to feed the Devil, and swearing during Christian holidays must be extra nourishing for him. Here is a moral tale of just that:

It is said that a long time ago, in a valley in the north of Iceland which is no longer inhabited, there were once seven farms. It happened that one Christmas Eve the farmer who owned the farm nearest the mouth of the valley was guarding his sheep while they grazed. In the twilight he noticed seven half-grown boys walking on the bank of the river and heading towards the valley. All were dressed in black, with caps on their heads and carrying folded-up bags. They were moving very fast and running with a strange and grotesque gait. 

The farmer felt very uneasy upon seeing this sight and stared after the lads until they disappeared around a hillock. He wondered who they could be, and finally came to the conclusion that they must be imps, come to collect all the swearing people did over the Christmas holidays, to feed their master and themselves. 

When he came home that night the farmer spoke to his people and told them to avoid all swearing until Twelfth Night was over, promising to give them a nice treat if they were able to do this. The people promised to behave and everyone watched themselves carefully over the Christmas season and no-one swore at all. 

But on the morning of Twelfth Night when the milkmaid walked into the cow byre everything was topsy turvy in there: the cows were all loose and tied together by the tails and so wild that she could hardly handle them. During her struggle to get everything settled she got angry and said: “What a damned mess!”

That same day the farmer was tending to his sheep in the same spot as on Christmas Eve, and in the twilight that night he saw the same seven lads coming down the valley. Six of them were fat and glossy-looking and ran down the river bank with much noise and laughter, carrying very full bags. Behind then stumbled the seventh, skinny as a rake and sullen-looking. His bag was empty except there seemed to be a little something in one corner of it. His companions teased him relentlessly and laughed at him. 

That night the farmer told the people what he had seen and gave everyone a nice, big extra serving of food.

Copyright notice: The wording used to tell this folk-tale is under copyright. The story itself is not copyrighted. If you want to re-tell it, for a collection of folk-tales, incorporate it into fiction, use it in a school essay or any kind of publication, please tell it in your own words or give the proper attribution if you choose to use the wording unchanged.

19 December 2011

Cover Her Face by P.D. James

Originally published in July 2005, on my original 52 Books blog.

Such a gorgeous cover!
When a conniving and secretive young housemaid at the Maxie mansion is murdered, the local constable immediately calls in the Scotland Yard. The Yard’s representative is Chief Inspector Adam Dalgliesh, who goes about his job of investigating and interviewing suspects and witnesses, in a thorough, calm and apparently unemotional manner. He uncovers seething emotions, hatred and passions that bubble just under the surface, and finds that most of the people who were at the mansion the night of the murder had good reason to dislike or even hate the murdered woman.

This, the first of P.D. James’ popular Chief Inspector Dalgliesh books, is a rather Christiesque story. Dalgliesh uses Hercule Poirot’s preferred method of gathering together the suspects to unveil the killer, and the story is a country manor mystery in the Golden Age style, as so many of Agatha Christie’s books were.
The characters of the main witnesses and suspects are developed in depth before the crime takes place, only the victim’s full character is left to be uncovered as the story progresses. Dalgliesh is very much in the background all the time, and it is his implied rather than actual presence that drives much of the latter part of the story.

Roy Marsden as Dalgliesh
Just as I kept seeing George Baker in my mind when reading the Inspector Wexford book I reviewed recently, I pictured Roy Marsden, who played Dalgliesh on TV, in my head whenever Dalgliesh was mentioned. This is the unfortunate thing about knowing a character from the screen before ever reading about them - you find it difficult to separate the on-screen representation from the character on the page. Not that it mattered, Marsden was the perfect choice to play Dalgliesh.

Rating: Another good beginning to a mystery series that I plan to pursue further. 3+ stars.

14 December 2011

Off on a tangent

Yesterday, a barely remembered comment from a Terry Pratchett novel about a professor at Unseen University sent me to google to look up from which book it came. The professor in questions was commonly referred to as the "reader in the loo" or something similar, but the results that came up for that sentence (sans quotation marks) sent me off on a tangent. Among the search results on the first page was the following Wikipedia entry, which has to be one of the weirder ones to be found in that estimable encyclopaedia (not that the entry is in any way silly, but it's weird that the subject made it onto WP in the first place). It's a long entry, too:

Wikipedia: Toilet paper orientation

Apropos of this, here is a challenge for you, Dear Reader: To find a more unexpected or strange Wikipedia entry and post it as a comment to this post.

13 December 2011

List love: A funny dozen

I present you with a dozen funny novels I have enjoyed through the years. Indeed, some of them are on my perennial re-reading list, e.g. nos. 2, 6, 7 and 10.

Some will have you laughing out loud while others might have you bubbling with barely suppressed laughter through the read. Not all of them may appeal to all of you, as they range from dark satire to  airy parody to pure slapstick, but there is something in there for almost everyone. In no particular order:
  • Catch-22 by Joseph Heller. Satire. About the absurdities of army life and war.
  • The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams. All of the books in the series, but especially the first one. Very good science-fantasy and a parody of the genre, and also very funny.
  • Three Men in a Boat, to say nothing of the Dog by Jerome K. Jerome. A funny collection of the travel misadventurs of three men and a dog on a boating holiday in the Thames.
  • Auntie Mame by Patrick Dennis. The adventures of the unflappable Auntie Mame as seen through the eyes of her nephew.
  • Rumpole of the Bailey by John Mortimer. A Short stories about a canny old lawyer. If you can find a more humorously cynical old codger than Rumploe, please let me know.
  • Moving Pictures by Terry Pratchett. Actually, all of Pratchett’s books are funny to some degree, although the humour has become darker as the Discworld series progresses. I decided to pick this one. Because. No, just Because. Oh, all right, I if you must know, it was all the movie references and twists. And the talking dog. And the …. Look it’s a funny book, all right?
  • Cold Comfort Farm by Stella Gibbons. Parody at its best. Gibbons took every cliché from the rural novels so popular at the time and molded them into a classic humorous novel.
  • The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole, Aged 13¾ by Sue Townsend. Teenage angst has never seemed so funny.
  • Bellwether by Connie Willis. Two scientists investigating trends collide with the assistant from Hell and comedy ensues.
  • My Family and Other Animals by Gerald Durrell. His descriptions of people and animals sparkle and he had a wonderful eye for the absurd.
  • The Moving Toyshop by Edmund Crispin. The chase scene is classic comedy gold that I would love to see on the big screen.
  • Appleby’s End by Michael Innes. Innes wrote wonderfully quirky detective stories but this one is probably the strangest of them all, and quite funny in a rather surrealist way.

12 December 2011

From Doon with Death by Ruth Rendell

Originally published in June 2005, on my original 52 Books blog.

Margaret Parsons, a dowdy housewife, disappears from her Kingsmarkham home, and is found murdered the next day. During the investigation, suspicion fall on several people, including her husband, a former boyfriend, two former school friends, and their husbands. Finally, when Wexford and Burden discover a cache of inscribed books from “Doon” to “Minna”, they begin to piece together a story of obsession and desire, going back more than a decade, and make a startling discovery as to the identity of “Doon”.

This is the first book in the Chief Inspector Wexford series. Like many other readers, I first became aware of Wexford as the leading character in a series of very good TV films based on the books, starring George Baker as Wexford. For some time I wasn’t even aware they were based on books, and even when I did realise it, I still was not very interested in reading them. Then I started becoming interested in crime mysteries again, literature I had mostly given up reading in my late teens. Now that I have finally got round to reading the first in the series, I definitely plan to continue.

George Baker will always be Wexford to me
The book is deftly written, has some interesting and intriguing characters, and presents a motif that is common in Rendell’s other stories: obsession. (I may not have read any of her other Wexford books, but I have read some of the non-series books). I quickly figured out certain relevant facts about the killer, and if I had not had to divide my attention between the book and other matters, I would in all probability have realised who the killer was rather sooner than I did.

Rating: A good beginning to a series that promises hours of reading pleasure. 3+ stars.

06 December 2011

Review: Bollywood Boy by Justine Hardy

Genre: The stated genre is Travel, but Film and Social History could just as well apply
Year published: 2003

A glimpse of the Hindi movie industry’s newest heartthrob, Hrithik Roshan, sent Justine Hardy on a year-long exploration of the whole Hindi movie phenomenon. She interviewed people in the movie industry, including a film journalist, a small-time director, actors and actresses and a former movie choreographer, to gain insight into the industry, but it is her interviews and conversations with the ordinary people, the fans, that are the most interesting and illuminating. Always at the centre of the narrative is Roshan and Hardy’s ever more comical attempts to get an interview with him (it took a loooong time).

In the end we don’t get a very deep insight into Bollywood, just a look at the surface glamour and glitter, with the occasional deeper glimpses of the dangers involved (organised crime both extorts money from the film-makers and backs their projects) and the dark side of an industry that chews up people and spits them out much like its Hollywood counterpart.

This is a well-written and often funny romp, with occasional very serious subjects thrown in for balance, and makes a fine appetizer for people wanting to get a taste of the Hindi film industry without digging too deep. 3+ stars.

P.S. If anyone can recommend a book or documentary that gives a more in-depth look at the Hindi film industry, please leave the title in a comment.

05 December 2011

Pastures Nouveaux by Wendy Holden

Originally published in June 2005, on my original 52 Books blog.

My first introduction to chick lit was the much praised Bridget Jones’ Diary, which I frankly hated. IMHO, the movie, for once, was better than the book. It didn’t stop me exploring further, however, and I have read several books belonging to the Genre: good, bad and indifferent. I’ve even reviewed some in this blog.

Warning: SPOILERS ahead

Two very different couples’ lives begin to interweave when they move to a small village in England. They are the practically broke illustrator Rosie and her ill-tempered columnist boyfriend Mark, and filthy rich actress, evil stepmother and bitch queen Samantha and her husband, Guy the financier. Also involved are a noisy family of slackers who live next door to Rosie and Mark’s cottage, a farmer who becomes attracted to Rosie (who seriously considers dumping Mark for him), a reclusive rock star, a former Bond girl and Guy’s teenage daughter, who has every intention of breaking up her father’s marriage to Samantha.

This frothy concoction is a combination of satire, seriousness and slapstick, and tackles, among other things, relationships, pretentiousness, social climbing, and the bleak future facing some farmers. Parts of it read like a slightly more sophisticated print version of a Carry On movie, and many of the supporting characters are broadly drawn stereotypes, while others are more three-dimensional. I only wish I could say that about Rosie’s big love interest, the rock star, but unfortunately he is a cardboard cut-out of the reformed bad boy type, and his infatuation for Rosie is, frankly, unconvincing. If Holden had used up a hundred pages more in giving him a more rounded character and developing the relationship between them and a hundred pages less in showing the reader just what a social-climbing bitch Samantha is, this might have been a good book. As it is, it only just rises above mediocre by virtue of its sparkling humour and the delicious descriptions of Samantha’s decorating mania and her big party.

Rating: A so-so book, recommended for some delicious comic passages. The love story is weak, but if you have fantasies of being swept off your feet by a rock star, by all means go ahead and read it. 2+ stars.