HELP: I have too many books!

BOOKS = Cluttery Uncoolness


Tune you should be listening to for this post: Piano Man by Billy Joel


It’s twelve-o-clock on a Saturday and I’m giving books away for free. There’s no one sitting next to me, and I’m just drinking some tea. 


You can turn the song down now and help me figure out how to get rid of my books. There are those (and you know who you are) that say that Dust Mites multiply. My books multiply. My books have sex without me knowing it and suddenly there are more in my closet, in my boxes, and on my shelves. My books are literally like bunnies. 


I know where to take my books. I know what to do. Pick out books which have no meaning to me and take them to the Good Will or the dump. Probably the Good Will since I can’t afford to take them to the dump and I no longer drive a truck. 


How does a book lover who is not a book collector get rid of her books? How can I get rid of them? It’s a sickness. I have books that I haven’t touched in months. I have two bookshelves that need to be dusted. I don’t have enough room to even look at my books. My place is too small. 


I’m scared that the sheer number of words in my place might intimidate a future guest. I need to de-clutter. No more paper. No more books. No more teacher’s dirty looks.


But, seriously. What am I without my books? I’ve always been known as the Fake Librarian with books ready for friends and family members whether they wanted them or not. But my friends and family are decreasingly excited by my books. Nerds are no longer cool. Geeks have taken over. I don’t even play video games, so I can’t be a Geek. I want to be Cool, but it’s so hard with all of these books around. 


Should I pick an arbitrary number of books to have at any one time? Should I just keep the books that make me look Cool--capital “C” intended--even if they aren’t my favorites? Should I start color-coding my books to undermine the Dewey decimal system? 


Or should I just go alphabetically and get rid of all the books from Q-Z? Or will that be enough? Are there any authors in that range that will be offended if I put their books in the trash? Not that they will know, but I WILL KNOW.


All suggestions should be directed to the comments section immediately. AND I’m not the only one in these shoes. READ THIS and you’ll understand my deep and undying pain.

Characters (and an author!) that make a lasting impression

Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn

Every once in a while, you come across a book that makes a lasting impression.  Gone Girl was, for me, just that sort of book.  The amazingly well written characters' voices, combined with the masterful plot -- in which information and clues were slowly fed to the reader, keeping you guessing until you found out the truth, and even then the suspense was skillfully maintained -- had me hooked until the very last line of the book.  And that last line, incidentally, may be my favorite last line ever, as it was so perfectly in keeping with the character's voice.

Gone Girl is about a woman who goes missing, and her husband is the prime suspect.  His narration switches off with excerpts from her diary.  The story starts on the morning where she goes missing, and then backtracks to tell how they met and how, in their five-year marriage, things have gone downhill.

As a writer myself, pacing is one of those things I struggle with, so I have immense respect for any author who manages to pull off such perfection as found in Gone Girl.  As I mention, Flynn feeds little clues and bits of information so subtly and so slowly that you go back and forth on what you think happened.  In fact, the husband's narration is so skillfully done that he never actually says anything that tells you, unequivocally, whether he did it or not -- his side of the story is vague enough that you are never really sure.

In one of my favorite examples of how well done the pacing is, at one point the husband mentions in his narration his "disposable" cell phone.  It was the first time it had been mentioned, but it was done so casually that I actually thought I'd missed something important -- skimmed it and forgot it -- earlier on.  I even spent a few minutes backtracking, looking for an explanation of the cell phone earlier in the chapter!  It was mentioned quite a few more times before the narration gets to a point where it's explained -- and it turned out I hadn't missed anything, after all, because it was part of a major bombshell that the author dropped about halfway in.

I highly recommend Gone Girl, and I also recommend taking your time with it -- there are so many subtleties that it really deserves a close reading in order to fully appreciate the author's skill in crafting the characters and the plot!

Mink River by Brian Doyle

A small press gem of Northwest literature

This novel is set in a small coastal Oregon town, and seeing as how I live in a small coastal Washington town, so much about this novel seemed familiar. Not just the setting - of rivers and wet undergrowth and tall trees - but the way the characters both interacted and segregated themselves.

"Segregated" is a loaded word. It took me several minutes of dithering before I decided to use it. But I live in a town which is directly adjacent to tribal land, with a tribal village right across the water from the town. Considering how few people live here, how far we are from everything, it's ridiculous to think that two populations could live almost entirely separate from each other, coolly pretending that the other does not exist, but that is what happens here. I recognized that dynamic in this novel.

Mink River has been compared by many reviewers to the works of James Joyce and Dylan Thomas, and with good reason. The tone is similar, the language equally sparse yet dense. The richness of the language works against Mink River, in that I found it difficult to read very much at one time. It takes work to digest, like a large meal. You don't want to glut yourself.
Magical realism seems to have had its heyday in the literary world, but it still works if employed with a deft touch. Mink River may occasionally become a little too much enamored of its own cleverness, but it avoids the trap of being too precious. All of the characters are too flawed, too raw, too vulnerable for that to happen. You worry that a book like this will veer off into the "quirky but lovable characters" territory of Northern Exposure and later episodes of Twin Peaks, but it avoids this fate.
If I have any complaint about Mink River, it's that the narrative is often lost amid the constantly changing literary devices. Ideally the devices would be in service of the narrative, but with Mink River the horse often rides the cart, so to speak. 
The novel works best if you just take it as it is. Let it carry you along, like drifting down-river in a canoe. But I confess that I am often not in a mood for such things.
I read this book in Kindle format, but I think it would be an excellent candidate for audiobook. It hasn't been recorded yet, but if it becomes available I would recommend it. The lyricism of the language would really shine in spoken word format. 

A fun cozy mystery for horse lovers

Outfoxed by Rita Mae Brown

As a horse owner and a fan of well-written books about horses (whether fiction or nonfiction), I was intrigued by Rita Mae Brown's Outfoxed, a cozy mystery that takes place in a small Virginia foxhunting community. 

I enjoy mysteries, but my primary reason for picking up the book was because I really enjoy horse books written by people who really know and love horses.  Sometimes I'll pick up a book about horses, only to be completely disgusted because it's so obvious the author knows nothing about them, but I was thrilled to find that was definitely not the case with Outfoxed.

Speaking as a horse owner myself, I love it when an author who is a horse person includes certain details -- such as describing the smell of a tack room.  This book was full of such details that I could relate to, from describing the messy process of oiling tack, to explaining how a rider happened to part company with the horse over a jump.  (I can definitely relate to anything involving falling!)  Even though I have never hunted -- though there are foxhunting clubs in Colorado, believe it or not -- these things are universal no matter which discipline you ride in.

There were plenty of descriptions of the foxhunting world for horse lovers and horse owners to immerse themselves in, but the mystery itself was also very well written.  I really liked that the main character is a 70-year-old woman who is still riding and foxhunting, despite her age -- not your usual heroine by any means.  I also thought the story was sound, and although the "whodunnit" part of the mystery took a little while to get going, it was well planned and kept me guessing the entire time.

If you want a mystery that is also rich in setting and description, this is a fantastic choice.  It's only the first in a series, and I plan on reading the rest of them, too!

Revisiting a favorite author from my past

Shooting Stars by V.C. Andrews

Recently I noticed an omnibus edition of some V.C. Andrews books -- the Shooting Stars series, about four teenaged girls in a special school for the dramatic arts -- was priced reasonably.  I loved V.C. Andrews books when I was in high school, so I decided to read the omnibus (the four prequel novels, essentially, about how the four girls ended up in the school).

As some background, when I was in high school in the mid-90s, I fell in love with the V.C. Andrews books.  I think my favorites were the books in the original series, Flowers in the Attic and the ones that followed, but I devoured all of the series that were out at the time, as well as those that were still coming out.  As my reading tastes matured, I moved on to other books, but I have fond memories of the V.C. Andrews books I read back then.

So when I saw the Shooting Stars omnibus, I decided to check it out and see how I liked it.  It's about four girls who are in their senior year (in the next book, about all four of them, they are in their first year at the dramatic arts school, as far as I can tell).  Although I know a lot of teenagers love to read V.C. Andrews, this feels like an attempt to formally market her books as YA.

As a result, I felt like these books -- which were very short, by the way, making this the shortest omnibus edition I've ever seen, only 430 pages on the Nook -- were watered-down versions of V.C. Andrews books, stories with formulaic plots and hints at similar themes as the ones I used to read as a teen.  V.C. Andrews books often deal with issues of poverty versus wealth, rape, and family secrets -- these have some of those elements, but in much milder versions.

In a way it's a little disappointing, but I am also finding myself pretty interested in the conclusion of the series, Falling Stars, about the girls once they enter the school.  It looks like that book is a normal-length novel, too, which I'm glad about -- though it's too bad they couldn't have made the girls' back stories a little longer and a little less formulaic!

Banned Books Week starts September 30

The 30th anniversary of Banned Books Week is next week!

Every year I do something to celebrate Banned Books Week in late September.  Usually this means some combination of blogging about it and reading a book (or books) on the list of challenged books.  They always release a list of the top 10 challenged books during the previous year, and sometimes I choose one of the books off of that list to read.  If none of them interest me, or if I have already read all the ones that do (which does sometimes happen), I will alternatively choose a book off of the list of frequently challenged classics.

This year, Banned Books Week is a little extra special: It's the week's 30th anniversary!  To celebrate the anniversary there is to be a 50 State Salute to Banned Books Week, which apparently consists of each state creating short videos demonstrating how they encourage people to exercise their freedom to read.

Looking over the list of the top challenged books from 2011, I am more than a little surprised to see To Kill a Mockingbird on it yet again.  Why are we still contesting this book?!  And Brave New World, also -- why do a couple of classics make it on here every year?

Interestingly, Twilight is not on the list this year -- because it's old hat, I suppose.  The same thing happened with Harry Potter -- the first few years of the series, it was challenged quite a bit, and then I suppose people stopped bothering.

One of the books on the list for 2011 (and 2010 too, actually) is The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie.  I read this book several years ago, and was very surprised when it started popping up on the top challenged books list.  It always boggles my mind when books like this one (and To Kill a Mockingbird too) are banned for "racism."  Well, the books really aren't promoting racism, since they are about overcoming racism, so how do you figure that's worthy of challenging?  Or perhaps you don't want your kids to grow up thinking racism is something they can (or should) challenge?

Things like this are why I always do something to celebrate Banned Books Week: Spread the word, read one (or more) of the books that have been contested, or some combination thereof.  Books are an important part of our culture, and it often seems like the ones that get challenged are the more important works.  I firmly believe in the rights of people -- kids included -- to read what they want.  Hopefully, the fact that we as a society still celebrate that freedom with Banned Books Week will ensure that this freedom is never taken away from us!

The Hitman's Guide to Housecleaning

A mixed review
One thing I am tired of is the trope of "the assassin who grew a conscience." You have seen this story over and over again: the cold-blooded assassin finally has his heart broken, and learns to love again, but also has to do one more kill, which is meaningful because this time he really feels bad about it. This trope lets the reader have their cake and eat it too. The basic structure has been successful since St. Augustine's time, and it continues to be trotted out today in movie after movie, book after book.
Except this one.
For that reason alone, I respected The Hitman's Guide to Housecleaning. The main character, a Croatian hitman nicknamed Toxic, is pretty much unrepentant. He admits to having been affected by some of the deaths, but for the most part, it's just a job to him. Toxic never really undergoes the moral revitalization we have come to expect from this sort of story, which may leave some readers feeling unfulfilled.
I liked the overall concept of the novel, although I felt that in some areas the execution (ha) was lacking. The novel revolves around an incident which essentially leads to Toxic being banished to Iceland for the time being. The author is Icelandic, and I had hoped for a bit of armchair tourism, essentially. But I was left with only the barest impression of Iceland. The set dressing is thin. This isn't a fault - in many ways it can be seen as a benefit. But it left me somewhat disappointed.
More serious, from my position, was the excessive amount of time Toxic spends wondering what he should do. Too often when this happens in a novel, it is simply a manifestation of the author's own uncertainty. Either we should be clear that the book knows what the character should do even if he doesn't, or the character's uncertainty should be edited out in future revisions. 
Basically, I have a very limited tolerance for a character who wanders aimlessly wondering what to do next. Either the novelist or the character needs to be decisive; they can't both just keep rambling in circles without a clue.
In many ways, for better and for worse, this novel reminded me of the works of Chuck Palahniuk. If you have enjoyed Chuck's novels, then it's definitely worth the time to snack on this slim, dark-humored book about an assassin who finds himself homeless, gun-less, and job-less in Iceland.

Mommy Porn: "Fifty Shades of Grey"

How realistic is it?

A disclaimer: I may be the only woman in the entire state that I live in who hasn’t yet read the bestseller “Fifty Shades of Grey” by E. L. James. The book is on every grocery store rack right next to the Snapple coolers and on the tongues of housewives everywhere.

I got into a discussion about “Fifty Shades of Grey” at a family gathering. My cousin, who probably would have read the book in Junior High, informed me that “Fifty Shades of Gray” was about a virgin college student who ends up falling in love with a wealthier man into light S & M. She also informed me that “Fifty Shades of Grey” was known in certain circles as “Mommy Porn,” a genre that previously meant Harelequin romances.

We then started discussing how realistic the book was. Are there any college graduates any more from state schools who are virgins? Would a virgin really be open to light S & M, sadism, and the like? Aren’t bikini waxes painful enough?

That’s as far as I’m willing to disclose about our family discussion about the book, but I did do a little sleuthing about “Fifty Shades of Grey” to see what other women had to say about the latest set of books to sweep the mom demographic since “Twilight.”

Most of the talk seemed to focus on why women are reading “Fifty Shades of Grey.” Across the board, everyone agreed that the popularity of  “Fifty Shades of Grey” was because of the sex.

Actress Liz Olsen told a Hollywood gossip rag that she thinks the book is empowering because “more women are getting into bondage” and that the book’s incredible amount of popularity is because “women need to watch more porn.”

Liz Olsen isn’t the only one who is thinking along those lines. I think the idea is that the book is giving women some sexual material to read that is permissible because it’s in the mainstream media. 

That said, I’m a little scared by this clip from the “Today Show” where one of the hosts says that some women are “sick of sex,” which is why they are liking this book. I’m guessing that the women who already don’t enjoy sex aren’t going to enjoy sex in which they have even less opportunity to move or where they have less control and that reading a book about bondage won’t be quite enough to save a struggling marriage.


Fall in love with fiction you create

Write a novel in a month this summer!

A lot of readers are also writers, or at least want to be writers.  If that describes you, you might be interested in NaNoWriMo, an irreverent online challenge to write a 50,000-word novel -- or at least 50,000 words of a novel -- in one month.

Every year since 2006, I've done NaNoWriMo, which runs in November.  This year, however, I discovered that there is also a summer version: Camp NaNoWriMo.

Camp NaNoWriMo runs both this month, June and in August (at least that's how it is this year).  The camp version is a little less structured than the original November challenge, which involves a lively forum, write-ins, and other events such as kick-off and TGIO (thank god it's over) parties.  Instead, Camp NaNoWriMo puts you into a "cabin" with as many as five other participants, and you have a message board that allows you to communicate, cheer one another on, and so on.  The goal -- 50,000 words -- is the same as the November version, however.

If you love fiction and have always wanted to write, or if you just need a kick in the pants to keep you writing, NaNoWriMo is perfect for you.  Having a daily goal will help you make some substantial progress in your novel this summer, even if you don't actually finish.  I love using NaNoWriMo as motivation to get me going on my writing, so I was especially excited to see it now runs during the summer -- and two separate months, too!

We are already more than halfway through June, of course, so unless you think you can write really fast, you may not want to try it this month -- but August is still an option, and you even have a month and a half to prepare!

Hard Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World

A surrealist masterpiece by Haruki Murakami

My favorite books always end up being the ones that, despite their well-told stories, are made magnificent by virtue of being wrapped tightly around a single idea. One idea can shatter the way a person thinks about the world—and an idea delivered by a beautiful story can change you forever. Haruki Murakami's Hard Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World is one such book that blew through my head with an idea so powerful that shards of it will forever be embedded in my grey matter.

It took me a while to get into Murakami's work. I started with the wrong book—his most famous, but perhaps least accessible work The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle. It had no such singular kernel to break my brain in half, but was more of a suspended dream with perplexing intricacies and beautiful imagery. Given all the hype surrounding both the author and the work, generated both by close friends and the literary world at large, I was ultimately let down by Wind-Up Bird. I mean, my best friend has a tattoo of the cover on his arm and the only reaction I could churn up upon reading it was a vague sense of warmth derived from certain standout scenes--the kind of feeling you get when you wake up from a dream you're pretty sure was a good one, but a few isolated images are all you can remember.

So it was with some trepidation that I delved into Hard Boiled Wonderland. I had to wonder if I was just setting myself up for a second disappointment. But my bird-tattooed friend had gifted me the book for my birthday, so in I went.

I would probably be a different person now if I hadn't. It's difficult to gush publicly about Hard Boiled Wonderland to those who haven't read it because it's really something that needs to be experienced firsthand. But I will say that its dreamy pondering on the human psyche and the very nature of consciousness itself will leave most readers reeling. Unlike some authors who tackle such sprawling topics, Murakami never imparts a sense of self-importance or arrogance. His writing is incredibly unpretentious, subtle and warm and welcoming, like an old friend talking philosophy over beers in your living room. He doesn't want to blow you away with his intellect. He just wants to implant new seeds of knowing in your head by constructing new fables from the basest elements. His work, vaguely magic realist with a touch of science fiction, blurs barriers to create a universe of its own. 

Having gone in skeptical, I'm now considering getting my own Murakami-inspired tattoo sometime in the future. Hard Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World will change you. This isn't a book you forget.