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Spring cleaning the book collection

It’s officially Spring in some parts of the world and yesterday certainly felt like it here in Wales. The sun was out, sky was blue and the daffodils were sitting up and paying attention. Spring was traditionally the time when housewives (never the men!) ‘did’ the house from top to bottom, clearing out the cobwebs accumulated in the darker months. Doesn’t sound like much fun to me.

I thought I’d do my own version of spring cleaning by trying to bring some semblance of order to my books. They certainly need it.

organised shelf

How I wish my shelves looked

I often see pictures of other bloggers’ book shelves and can’t help admire how organised they all are compared to my ramshackle approach. Some have them sorted alphabetically (oh boy) others group them by author or genre. I did adopt a method a few years ago where I allocated the TBR books to separate shelves for classics, Booker prize winners and world literature. That worked until I went through a buying splurge and ran out of space.

The reality

The reality

Now everything is muddled together again which makes it hard to see what I actually have. I was absolutely certain I had Pat Barker’s Booker prize winning book The Ghost Road. But can I put my hands on it? No way. I know what will happen – I’ll go and buy a copy and then the very next day I’ll find the original. Just yesterday, day one of the clean up, I found duplicate copies of Mary Barton by Elizabeth Gaskell (both never opened). Ditto with One Hundred Years of Solitude. Its such a waste of money.

It’s time I’ve realised not just to clean up the clutter, but to start keeping a record of what’s in the piles and on the shelves. I’m now the owner of an excel database recording all the books I have yet to read and for each one, when and how I acquired them, if I finished them or whether I gave them away unread. As a result I know I have 133 books still to read, rather more than I had expected and I have a feeling I’ll find a few strays dotted around the house in coming months.  Now all I have to do is keep the list updated and the shelves in reasonably good order.

How do you keep your books under control? Any tips and techniques to pass on??

 

Playing Catch Up

sundaysalonIt’s hard to think creatively amid the din of hailstones smashing into the windows and the roof of the conservatory. At least I am at home this morning — there was a point last night where it didn’t look that hopeful.

Not so idyllic when the waves lap at the door

Not so idyllic when the waves lap at the door

We’d gone out for a meal and a drink at a pub that borders on the Severn Estuary. Spray was rising high above the defence wall between the water and the pub car park but that was ok because we could just park in the spaces well away from the waterfront. But within less than an hour it was clear there was a problem. Instead of spray coming up over the wall, we saw the waves themselves. The car park turned into a beach with water that just got deeper and deeper. Without an all-terrain vehicle the chances of getting out without the sea water being sucked into the engine, looked rather dicey.

There are worse places to be in such situations of course — the pub floor might not have been very inviting as a bed but it was at least dry (providing the sandbags at the doors kept the water back) and there was plenty of food and drink. Fortunately after 90 minutes or so the tide turned and the level subsided enough to be able to drive away. Fortunate too that I had changed my mind at the last moment and wore leather boots instead of suede ones which would not have been ideal for wading through water to get to the car.

An adventurous end to the week. We were certainly lucky compared to the hundreds of people who got flooded out last night with more storms expected today.

A good day then to stay tucked up indoors. Maybe I can even catch up on some blog and reading related tasks which I have neglected of late. I had grand plans that over the Christmas holidays, I would get up to date with all my reviews of 2013 books. I managed a few but I still have 5 more to go. If I leave it much longer I’ll have forgotten what I thought about them.

And then of course there are the books I read in January. They were a mixed bunch:

I Killed Scheherazade – Joumana Haddad: admirable just for the fact it was published but not a great read.

Still Life by Louise Penny: the first in her Inspector Gamache series. A wonderful book set in the small Three Pines village in Canada. I can imagine myself living there especially if I can own the bistro.

Whatever Happened to Harold Absalon by Simon Okotie: a quirky novel about a private investigator’s search for a missing government transport advisor. This investigator is no Phillip Marlowe however, he’s about as incompetent as Inspector Jacques Clouseau (Pink Panther series).

The Alone to the Alone by Gwyn Thomas: this is a book club read (my choice). It’s a black humour story of a coal mining village in South Wales. Quality of the writing is excellent but there’s something about it that just doesn’t excite me.

2013 Booker Talk awards

We’ve had the Booker and the Nobel, the Carnegie and the Pulitzer; not to mention the Costa’s and the Bailey’s. Now comes — what some might consider the most prestigious prize of all — the BookerTalk award. Step forward the 2013 winners.

Most disappointing read

This award goes to Kate Atkinson’s Life after Life. I’ve loved every previous book by her but not this time Kate, sorry. Had to give you up after about 100 pages or so. A good idea but it quickly ran out of steam for me and become repetitive. I haven’t abandoned Ms Atkinson entirely but am hoping the next one will be rather less ‘clever’ and rather more interesting.

Most unusual narrative style

One novel soared into first place in this category  —  Alain Mabanckou’s Broken Glass. It was the first book I read for my World Literature Challenge. It’s written in a stream of consciousness  style but don’t let that fool you into thinking this is a serious Virginia Woolf kind of book.  Humour abounds in the portrayals of the characters who frequent the rather shabby Credit Gone West bar.  This is a novel in which words tumble together with barely a full stop or comma to halt the breathless pace. When you tire of the humour, you can enjoy spotting the multiple literary allusions (said to number 100 plus).

Most Challenging Novel

The runaway winner in this category is  Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o’s Petals of Blood. wa Thiong’o went to  prison as a result of this book in which he criticised the regime in power following Kenya’s independence.  It’s a challenging read at times because there are some facets of the country’s history that are not easily understood by those of us from other parts of the world. But put that aside and you have a richly-textured novel about disillusionment and betrayal that lingers long in the memory.

Bottom of the Bottom 

This prize is shared jointly by Will the Real William Shakespeare Please Step Forward and An Accidental Life. They have little in common in terms of subject, genre or style. But they do both illustrate the importance of having editors and publishers who are not afraid to tell a budding author that they really need to work harder on their writing skills. The lesson for me was to be more judicious when requesting review copies from publishers.

The one that got away

Clearly, the Man Booker prize judges need someone to give them a good talking to. How could they have overlooked Jim Crace’s Harvest for the prize when he had written such an exquisite book?  It’s a thoughtful that looks at the consequences of the pursuit of profit and progress on the long standing traditions of the countryside and the people who make their living from the land. A book to treasure.

Does reading change your brain?

If ever you wanted an argument to justify why you spend many hours of your life reading,  some recent research by Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia, might fit the bill.

Apparently the university’s Centre for Neuropolicy ran an experiment with undergraduate students to determine if levels of activity in the brain were affected by reading a page-turning novel. Over the course of nine days, the students were given assignments in which they read sections of Robert Harris’ novel Pompeii . Their brain patterns before and after reading were then compared.

What the experiment showed was that the reading activity affected the brain in two different ways — improving the parts of the brain associated with language receptivity and with sensation. The effects lasted for several hours after the students finished their assigned reading.

Neuroscientist Gregory Berns, the academic who lead the study, isn’t ready to declare that the experiment shows reading will result in long lasting changes in  neural patterns but he does state: “your favorite novels could certainly have a bigger and longer-lasting effect on the biology of your brain. ”

So next time you get accused of ‘wasting time’ on reading, maybe you can simply refer your critics to Mr Berns.

For the full article on Does Reading Change Your Brain, click here http://ow.ly/s71q6

My secret Christmas wish

If there is any justice in this world, in a few days from now many of us will be unwrapping shiny new additions to our book collection. Like every other avid reader I’ve put in my request to Santa of titles I would quite him to bring down the chimney on Christmas Eve. I went for a mixture of  some titles from my classics reading list and some from the world literature challenge.

What I really wanted as a present is what I know I can’t have. See what I want, what I really really want would take rather more ingenuity (and pennies) than I think my beloved family members would consider possible.

Morgan Library

Morgan Library, New York City

My heart’s desire would be a personal library of the kind you see in films located in British stately homes. You know the ones —  shelves that stretch almost to the ceiling filled with hardback books (strictly no paperbacks) whose titles are embossed in gilt. I haven’t yet decided whether the way to reach the upper shelves would be via a gallery walk way or by using a type of ladder that moves along the wall on wheels. It would of course need to be a cosy room (no draughty corners thank you) since I plan to spend many hours in here. I don’t want too much in the way of furniture and certainly not of the chintz variety. I do however require a heavy damask-draped bay window with seat looking out over the lawn or some far away mountain tops; a few wing-backed chairs placed close to the fireplace and of course a few choice ornaments dotted on occasional tables.

Cosy libraryAnd what about the books you say? Ah yes, deciding which titles to include  would require some considerable thought and effort. It would be, if not quite “the work of a lifetime” like Mr Darcy’s library at Pemberley,  certainly an endeavour that would take be several years to complete.  The classics of literature would feature of course but I have a hankering for books that will help fill the many gaps in my knowledge; books containing old maps and stories of travel to places I can never quite place on the globe; guides to fossils and types of architecture; Roman and Greek myths and quite possibly something on science though that would need to be a beginner’s guide since I have little aptitude in that direction. I imagine myself a little like young Jane Eyre, stealing a few moments to peruse illustrated books on British birds or far away lands.

Of course the likelihood this is going to happen is very slim but I’m enjoying the pretence. And if it doesn’t exactly come to fruition, I have a back up plan.

Number 2 on my wish list is  a device that would put all other readers into suspended animation for a while (humanely treated of course) while I catch up on all the books they tell me are wonderful but I just haven’t got around to yet.  Anyone found one of these yet or will I have to invent it?

Books for the strong reader

bodyAre you a Rambo or a Mr Bean when it comes to reading? Looking at a list of 50 novels described as ‘tough’ because they are ultra long or intense or use a style that requires deep concentration, I realise I am very much in the Mr Bean camp.

The list has been developed by Flavourwire (who seem to specialise in creating lists) to suggest some of the ‘heftiest’ books around, books suitable only for readers with strong constitutions. Of the 50 they name, I’ve read precisely 4 so clearly I am a wimp.

Now some of these I have never even heard of (like the Tunnel by William Gass or Out by Natsuo Kirino) and one or two I started but gave up on (William Faulkner’s Sound and the Fury for example). Then there are others whose reputation for being ‘complex’ precedes them so much I have persuaded myself that I really don’t need to read them (Finnegan’s Wake, Moby Dick and The Faerie Queen are prime examples here). And some that I think I should read but need to build up my strength before tackling (like Robinson Crusoe).

Here’s what I’ve read:

  • To the Lighthouse – Virgina Woolf
  • Heart of Darkness – Joseph Conrad
  • War and Peace – Tolstoy
  • Sophie’s Choice – William Styron

The Tolstoy one was far and away the hardest because a) it’s incredibly long and b) I am not good at keeping track of characters at the best of times and this one had a very very long cast list. Not only that – but because in Russia, each individual has three variations of their names, I got hopelessly lost with who was who. And that was even with the aid of a list of people at the front of the book.

Sophie’s Choice was only ‘difficult’ in terms of its subject matter but I could say the same of many other books so I question why this one in particular was included. Heart of Darkness is so multilayered that it does sometimes make for puzzlement but the language is so wonderful. the opening passage where the narrator begins his story to the shipmates as they wait for the tide to take them down the Thames, is like an Impressionist painting. As for To the Lighthouse, hm, I did enjoy it, though I can’t actually say that I understood what it was about.

So are you all wimps like myself or are you more in the Rambo camp? Are there any titles you think missing from the list?

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