Sunday, May 12, 2013

Reading Journal: Mr. Fox, by Helen Oyeyemi (2011)

A beatiful magic-realist tale of a love triangle between a writer, his wife and his protagonist, and one that keeps you off-balance by changing points of view and flipping from the primary action to stories that the writer and the protagonist are writing back and forth to each other - the very game that so incenses the writer's wife. Oyeyemi takes the bold move, too, of having the affair blossom through a series of exchanged letters, a bit of an opening hump to get over but certainly a pleasurable one. I don't pretend that I knew exactly what was real and what was imagined, or what was going on in every scene, but I loved the simple style that made the work into an almost-fairytale, not to mention the 1930s setting. Most importantly, I knew the moment I finished it that I wanted to read it again. A brilliant novel.

Friday, May 3, 2013

The books in your home, and how to get rid of them

You might have gathered from my blog that I do a lot of reading. (So does my partner.) And on a particularly lonely or aimless day, not much feels as good as a trip to the bookstore, from which I can't ever seem to emerge empty handed. I love the library, and when I read a reference to a book that sounds interesting, I write it down and eventually put it on hold. When it comes in, it joins the pile of library books I already have checked out, from which I'm always already frantically reading, trying to get in under the wire on a nine-week loan limit, (three weeks at a time, renewable twice).

Christmas and my birthday usually mean an influx of about 10 books, and now I get the odd contributor copy of some books, and knowing as many fellow writers as I do now, I go to a lot of launches, at which not buying the book is what I consider a Real Dick Move.

As a result, none of the books waiting on my shelves ever seem to get read.

Sidonie and I share a store-top apartment with a square footage of about 685, a small floor that I worry will one day collapse under said shelves. The "book problem" has long been lingering, but it's only since early 2013 that I committed to tackling it. Here's the thing, though: I don't intend to just throw the books out on the street; any old idiot could do that. My plan also involves reading the books - which is slow even for a fast reader, which I think I am, at about five books a month.

What follows is the step-by-step approach to book-culling that I'm taking, and I'm already recommending it, because it's already working.

The non-fiction, drama and poetry shelf...
onto which a novel has crept regardless.
Step 1: Stop bringing books in. I know, I know: no more trips to the used bookstore on a wide-open Friday night. No more accepting that co-worker loan of the latest book you absolutely have to read. And worst, for me: a library moratorium. Keep making that list of books to read... but let them wait! You've got more than enough unread books in your home already.

Step 2: Loans. Got that 500-page brick that came highly recommended a year ago, from a friend? Your friend probably does intend to get it back... and what's more, the book was only supposed to be in your possession temporarily. The loans might not have been called in, but you can call them in yourself. These ones are easy to unload. Pile them, read them if you haven't yet, and return them. And if you haven't seen the person in a few years, and aren't likely to, don't hang on to these; the loan's already been written off, you can't redeem yourself now. Unless it's amazing, dump it.    
A shelf that's all unread books, including
(shamefully) some my friends have written. 

Step 3: Duplicates. In my own library, I don't have this problem, but I've heard of it happening to friends. Repeat after me: There is no good reason to own two copies of the same book yourself. And if your duplicate comes by way of your partner, unless s/he is royally territorial, be the bigger person and get rid of yours. Ask to borrow to reference or reread, should it come up. (It likely won't.)

Step 4: School assignments. When it comes to the "But really, will I read this again?" question, it's easiest to answer with a book you were forced to read. Textbooks, too; remember having to make sure you had the most up-to-date edition for your courses every year? How long's it been since you were in school now? That's what I thought.

Step 5: Trophies. We've all read some big, difficult books. But if you're not referring back to it regularly, you don't need to own it to be proud of having gotten to its end. Sorry, Midnight's Children, Booker-of-Bookers winner: take it outside. You take up as much space as Raymond Carver's whole career.

John Irving's one of my favourite writers...
but even if this is the best book I ever read,
it's going in the blue bin when I finish.
Step 6: Mass-market paperbacks. Books sold in train stations and airports aren't meant to last longer than the trip you're taking - just look at the poor quality of the paper and glue. Even if it's your only copy of, say, The Shining, let it go. If you really love the book, once you've succeeded in clearing all the space this program will clear, you can reward yourself with a more durable trade paperback, or better, a hardcover or a vintage edition.

Step 7: Books in poor condition. You thought you could recover it after dropping it in the bathtub. You can't. No shame in putting this lame horse out to pasture. Books get pulped all the time. That's why it's another name for most of the ones you unloaded in Step 6.

Step 8: Books you didn't love... or even like all that much. You won't reread them. No. You won't. And if you want to - once the project's over and the moratorium's lifted - you can go get them from the library. Why hang on to them if they might just suck again?

Step 9: No, really - will I ever read this again? This is where it gets hard. It might be the surprise ending, or it might be a depressing overall tone, but a lot of very good books just won't be fun to read a second time. I'm a big Steinbeck fan, but pretty much everyone else on Earth could throw out The Grapes of Wrath after reading it once: there's little subtlety to discover the second time through - I speak from experience - and the ending is so crushing and unforgettable that you can't really root for the Joads more than once. It's a great book, but it's probably just taking up space. You'll have more of these than you think. Don't feel bad. Your friends won't notice that you "haven't read" Jane Eyre, Moby Dick or War and Peace, because, hey: they haven't either!

The heart of darkness.
Step 10: The unread. This is of course the darkest and scariest section of anyone's personal library, and what has spawned the infamously growing Read-Once-And-Get-Rid-Of Pile. But here's the thing: every book you own but haven't read is in this pile. If you were really excited to read a given book, you'd have done it by now. You can keep the odd one from this group if you love it, but given how long you've put off reading it, you probably won't; at least, not compared to a book that survived Steps 1-9. I especially recommend taking two or three of these on vacation with you and leaving them... well... anywhere. Hostel book exchanges, or trains or airplanes (as a courtesy to the next passenger!), or maybe even with a friend you've visited on said vacation - as recently happened to me, in Hungary, where English books aren't the easiest to get a hold of, I managed to part with two before I'd even read them. I just gave them away.

See? Any old idiot can do it.

How do you deal with ever-increasing book piles? Leave any suggestions, tricks or even only-vaguely-related anecdotes in the comments below. Together, we'll defeat this wonderful affliction.

Thursday, May 2, 2013

Reading Journal: A Good Man Is Hard to Find, by Flannery O'Connor (1955)

Opening with the outright spooky title story, which you've probably already read (it's about an ill-fated family car trip while a murderer's on the lam), O'Connor's debut collection remains a classic because, (among other reasons), she draws hypocrites the way no one else does, and often punishes them at the end of the story, giving many of her works a fable-like quality. My favourite story may have been the last one, "The Displaced Person," about a farm with a steady stream of unreliable, thieving, transient workers who come face-to-face with a Polish concentration camp survivor who works harder and better than any of them, which is refreshing until he begins asking to bring over more Poles, especially one cousin he wishes to marry off to one of the black workers, creating additional tension of the racist kind. Race is front-and-centre in most of the stories, in fact; another timeless piece, "The Artificial Nigger," tells of an old man and a 15-year-old boy who take a trip into Atlanta and try to prepare themselves for the black people they will see there. The stories are full of symbols and realist depiction of their time and environment alike, and they require your full attention, as O'Connor doesn't put the details up front, but drops them as she goes, sneaking up on you a few pages into a story you weren't sure about, when you find yourself suddenly desperate to know the ending. I didn't love every story, but they will bear - and, clearly, have borne - re-reading quite well over the years.