Clearing the Shelves, Part I

I introduced this blog with a post on last year’s books, and–until I find a topic of interest that forces me to explain the title of my blog–I suppose I might as well keep the monthly reading going.  If you see something on the list and either like it or decide to read it, let me know!

  • This Is Awkward: How Life’s Uncomfortable Moments Open the Door to Intimacy and Connection, Sammy Rhodes
  • Searching for Bobby Fischer, Fred Waitzkin
  • In a Sunburned Country, Bill Bryson
  • Jinx, Sage Blackwood (re-read)
  • Jinx’s Magic, Sage Blackwood (re-read)
  • Jinx’s Fire, Sage Blackwood (re-read)
  • Chance Fortune Out of Time, Shane Berryhill (re-read)
  • The Unicorn Hunt, Dorothy Dunnett
  • National Velvet, Enid Bagnold
  • Civilization and Its Discontents, Sigmund Freud

If you know me, you might know I have an occasional compulsive, collector’s streak.  One of my problems (not the most serious, but the most visible when perusing my shelves) is that I have difficulty resisting the lure of cheap books, regardless of their nature.  A Farsi course, complete with audio CD’s?  Of course!  Anthology of Oscar Wilde?  I’ve always meant to get around to more Wilde.  A lay reader’s introduction to the human genome?  Sounds fascinating!  A paperback copy of Ella Enchanted minus the front cover?  I could make it a beautiful new cover!

I could list dozens more examples (with even more exclamation points!), but you should understand that the enthusiasm is sincere: I really like books, and I really will read pretty much anything.  Unfortunately, my good intentions don’t always last long after my return from the library book sale, and I end up with shelves full of books I haven’t read yet, and will likely never need to read.  Major categories of unread books I own include books about foreign languages, books in foreign languages (Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone in five languages, for example), classic literature I’ve been a little lazy about, and general nonfiction.

One of my missions upon returning home from college was to start clearing out some of these books–at least the ones that I didn’t really need.  As titles such as Pandemonium and Parade: Japanese Monsters and the Culture of Yōkai and Crime Science: Methods of Forensic Detection migrated from the shelf to the discard pile and back to the shelf, I was forced to think about why it is hard for me to get rid of books I haven’t read.  Why do I collect so many books in the first place?

One of the reasons homeschooling was such a pleasure for me is that I deeply love both knowledge and stories.  There’s no such thing as useless information! was my creed for a few years.  Someday I might find myself writing a murder mystery, and need to know more about crime science.  I might visit Japan and want to know more about Japanese folklore.  Giving away Introductory Analysis: The Theory of Calculus feels like giving up on my dreams of learning more about math.  I find it hard to give up knowledge, and owning a book is a marvelous vehicle for gaining more knowledge.  I also still nourish the dream of expanding and revising ideas for stories, to which end nearly all stories are useful.  I can hardly become a better writer without reading, right?

I should be able to accept that I can just check these books out from the public library when they’re more relevant to my life.  That worked, for a few books.  I don’t know Spanish and I’m working on German and Greek right now: El mago de Oz can go.  With books like The Fall of Yugoslavia, though, I know I’ll never seek it out (unless of course I am moving to a former Yugoslav republic–unlikely to occur).  My best chance at reading most of these books is now, and some part of me will be disappointed if I don’t read them.

The compromise I reached was therefore that I would get rid of these books I didn’t love, but I would read them first.  I haven’t read that many of the books earmarked for the Mr. K’s pile, however, because it can be hard to make myself read something I don’t care much about instead of something I do.  That being said, I started cracking down on these semi-wanted books last month, and I have knocked out four.  Only a few dozen to go. . . .

Now that the introduction’s out of the way, on to the books!

I picked up In a Sunburned Country a few years ago because I didn’t know anything much about Australia.  I know a little more, thanks to Bill Bryson’s tour.  Bryson’s gift as an author is anecdotes.  Little stories about the people he met at Uluru, about the punishing adventures of explorers in the Outback, about the nice Australian lady he corresponded with for decades, about stopping by various big things along the roadside because there’s nothing but rabbits for two hundred miles.  (It would be fascinating to see the Big Prawn…also hard to imagine one wouldn’t be a bit disappointed.)  I was more interested in, say, Bryson’s visit to a radio school than his account of getting drunk in a middle-of-nowhere pub and setting up a timeshare in Thailand.  His accounts of the flora and fauna are delightful: did you know that Australia is home to twenty-foot worms?  Or that kangaroos are sort of pests?  The history of European settlement was interesting, but often not as much fun.  I knew going into the book that white Australia’s treatment of its Aboriginal people was shameful, but it was still horrifying to read stories of native people occasionally being hunted more or less for sport a few centuries ago.  I suppose most countries have ugliness in their past, however nice and sensible the people generally are.  Recommended if, like me, you’ll probably never see Australia but wish you could.  Still passing the book on to a new home.

Searching for Bobby Fischer was a lot of fun as a former chess club member, even though I couldn’t tell you the King’s Indian Gambit if my life depended on it.  Since Fred Waitzkin was a journalist, I expected the writing to be clear and effective, and it was.  What I didn’t realize is that being a journalist afforded him certain interesting experiences when he took his young son, Josh, to watch a tournament in Russia.  The movie of the same name focuses on Josh, naturally, and streamlines Waitzkin’s account of national championships, victory and defeat, tangents on famous chess players.  There’s a lot more about Fischer himself in the book, as well as other chess greats.  I knew some of them (Susan Polgar is only more famous now than she was in the late eighties), but there were lots of wonderful stories about other prodigies on the rise, the characters in Washington Square Park, and the casualties of Russian politics in the chess world.  Recommended for anyone curious about the strange world of chess.  Still not keeping it.

I nearly gave up on National Velvet.  Horse books aren’t really my thing, and I have no special nostalgia for the Elizabeth Taylor film.  What kept me going was a) the book’s shortness; b) the insight into working-class England of the 1930’s; and c) the strange interactions of the Brown family.  The main plot is a sort of wish fulfillment for both readers and characters (look what happens when you pray, “Oh God, give me horses!”), but the family interactions are surprisingly unromanticized.  Both Velvet and her mother are singled out as unattractive, and not in a YA, “I feel like I’m so ordinary but this hunk can’t take his eyes off me” way.  Just ordinary plainness, with extraordinary passion underneath.  Donald, the baby brother, is another fascinating minor character: is he a psychopath, or just a weird kid?  It doesn’t really matter, but the story is a little richer (and weirder) because of his beautiful face and fascination with death.  The pacing is a little weird, and the writing style is not one I would ever desire to emulate, but I don’t regret finishing the story, which has its moments of fun.  Not really recommended except for horse lovers and people with nothing much to do.  Not keeping it.

I was going to give away Civilization and Its Discontents without opening it–I know I read at least parts of it for a Comparative Literature course–but I couldn’t remember what it was about.  Also a short read.  Freud lays out across eight chapters the what and why of modern man’s general, chronic unhappiness.  He theorizes (at least, I think he does) that it comes down to our guilt (largely sublimated) at experiencing desires perfectly able to be satisfied in an amoral primitive world but incongruous with civilization’s continued existence.  I don’t fully buy into all of his theory; also, if he set forth a remedy for this guilt, I missed it.  So are we supposed to just tell ourselves not to feel guilty for wanting to have four different women as wives?  Not exactly a life-changing book to have read, but interesting for the way it lays out problems.  It is true that we accept compromises to our desires, knowingly or not, in choosing to follow laws and show up for work on time and live like other people do.  I’ve been thinking through my particular discontent with civilization more often in the past couple of months, as I was until recently planning a thru-hike of the Appalachian Trail.  I think, though, that I’ll look elsewhere than Freud for my solutions.  Recommended only if you like philosophy and have about two hours to kill on a Wednesday night.  Not keeping it; sorry, UNC.

This Is Awkward does not belong to me in the first place, and I therefore do not have to decide whether to keep it.  I think I would, if I had that choice.  It’s a highly relevant take on awkwardness and other life problems, written by an RUF pastor whom I was privileged to hear speak at Fall Conference during college.  Be warned: Rhodes is truly honest about the awkward aspects of his life, from insecurity about writing a book to struggles with depression, from his parents’ divorce to his own problems with physical intimacy.  His honesty and his humor are what make This Is Awkward a worthwhile read.  It’s encouraging, to read it and realize that God’s grace extends even to bad Christians, even to those of us who keep screwing up in the same ways again and again.  It’s also a great call for authenticity: stories like his, which require some true humility in the telling, are the ones that make an impact, and allow other people to be real, too.  Something for us all to try.  Recommended.

As I mentioned last post, I’m a chronic re-reader, and no, that hasn’t changed in the last few weeks.  I picked up my Kindle while sort-of cleaning my bedroom, and went through a few of the books I own only in a virtual form.  No need to worry about shelf space with these–huzzah!  Sage Blackwood’s Jinx trilogy, which I think I owe to an Amazon sale and an aunt’s recommendation, is quirky: there are some serious fantasy stereotypes (orphan with mysterious powers, trio of adventurous children, various quests through a magical forest), but there’s also some original charm.  Blackwood succeeds in not only in building some quirks into her Brothers Grimm-type forest, the Urwald, but also in connecting it with a distant university and a totally different type of magic.   Interesting thematic questions arise, especially in the second and third books: how do you persuade individuals to band together?  What should you do when there’s serious disagreement over natural resources?  When should access to knowledge be limited?  The depth of characterization varies, but I appreciated that the title character has some unusual limitations.  Sure, he has great power, like every other middle-grade fantasy protagonist, but he comes to realize that he’s actually not a born leader.  Not on his own, anyway–he has to rely on other people’s gifts as well as his own.  Isn’t that true to life?  Recommended for other secret lovers of middle-grade fantasy.

When I first read Chance Fortune Out of Time, I was a little disappointed.  It’s an interesting setup: Chance Fortune, together with various friends and enemies, is cast through time and space trying to fix something that went badly awry while the Outlaws were busy in the Shadow Zone (see Chance Fortune #2).  Certain characters are forced to get along, or at least work together, and this should create some great tension.  Somehow, though, the tension doesn’t run very deep for either of the two groups wandering through the space-time continuum.  Chance and his companion work through their history real quick, it seems, and all we really get out of it are some not-so-subtle allusions to other superheroes.  I guess Berryhill must be a DC fan, and a fan of Doctor Who, judging by some more references, and he clearly enjoys tales of the Old West, which is all great–I just wish he would go back to telling his own stories.  The first two Chance Fortune and the Outlaws books are just as packed with allusions to the world of comics and pulp fiction (well, really any fiction in the case of Chance Fortune and the Shadow Zone) but they work because the characters and story have real heart.  This book doesn’t match the emotional depth of its predecessors.  On the other hand, there are two great twists, which I will not spoil (more out of principle than because I expect readers of this blog to flock to the CF series).  Well played, Berryhill: the Boogeyman’s backstory was awesome.  The real reason to read (or re-read) this book is the ending: totally out of left field for me, but in a way that resonates with what these books are about.  “God makes us strong so that we may protect the weak.”  Recommended for those who have enjoyed the previous Chance Fortune books.

And that just leaves Dorothy Dunnett, whose books I felt compelled to return to after being accepted to a master’s program the University of St Andrews in Scotland.  I would feel utterly unprepared to spend a year in Scotland without a decent understanding of the court of James III, so back to the machinations of Nicholas van der Poele I go.


Last Year’s Books

For the first time in my life, I’ve kept a reasonably complete list of the books I’ve read.  This has been a goal for years–it’s quite common to open an old, partly-filled notebook and find a page or two listing some of the books I read over the course of a day, or a week, or a month.  (See, for example, my primary high school notebook: Tarzan of the Apes, finished 2/10/10; The Return of Tarzan, finished 2/10/10; and An Education for Our Time, finished 7/19/10.)  From May 2017 to March 2018, however, I managed to keep this list going in the back of my planner.*  I can’t imagine a better introduction to this blog than a long list of books.

  • The Pigeon Tunnel: Stories from My Life, John Le Carre
  • Odd and the Frost Giants, Neil Gaiman
  • Crispin: The Cross of Lead, Avi
  • On the Trail: the History of American Hiking, Silas Chamberlain
  • Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell
  • Sense and Sensibility, Jane Austen (re-read)
  • Queens’ Play, Dorothy Dunnett (re-read)
  • The Disorderly Knights, Dorothy Dunnett
  • Crispin: At the Edge of the World, Avi
  • Pawn in Frankincense, Dorothy Dunnett
  • The Ringed Castle, Dorothy Dunnett
  • Checkmate, Dorothy Dunnett
  • Crispin: The End of Time, Avi
  • Excellent Women, Barbara Pym
  • The Old Man and the Sea, Ernest Hemingway
  • My Side of the Mountain, Jean Craighead George (re-read)
  • Music Education in the Christian Home, Mary Ann Froehlich
  • The Chronicles of Downton Abbey, Jessica Fellows & Matthew Sturgis
  • The Power of Babel, John McWhorter
  • Till We Have Faces, C. S. Lewis (re-read)
  • The Screwtape Letters, C. S. Lewis (re-read)
  • The Great Divorce, C. S. Lewis (re-read)
  • Out of the Silent Planet, C. S. Lewis (re-read)
  • The First Days of School, Harry K. & Rosemary T. Wong
  • Margin: Restoring Emotional, Physical, Financial, and Time Reserves to Overloaded Lives, Richard A. Swenson
  • Perelandra, C. S. Lewis (re-read)
  • That Hideous Strength, C. S. Lewis (re-read)
  • Hidden Figures, Margot Lee Shetterly
  • One Thousand Gifts, Ann Voskamp
  • Extravagant Grace, Barbara Duguid
  • The Tolkien Reader, J. R. R. Tolkien
  • The Thief, Megan Whalen Turner (re-read)
  • The Queen of Attolia, Megan Whalen Turner (re-read)
  • The King of Attolia, Megan Whalen Turner (re-read)
  • A Conspiracy of Kings, Megan Whalen Turner (re-read)
  • Thick as Thieves, Megan Whalen Turner
  • Niccolo Rising, Dorothy Dunnett
  • Spring of the Ram, Dorothy Dunnett
  • Race of Scorpions, Dorothy Dunnett
  • Scales of Gold, Dorothy Dunnett
  • Lies Women Believe: And the Truth That Sets Them Free, Nancy Leigh DeMoss
  • A Wrinkle in Time, Madeleine L’Engle (re-read)
  • A Wind in the Door, Madeleine L’Engle (re-read)
  • Iron Man: The Gauntlet, Eoin Colfer
  • Many Waters, Madeleine L’Engle
  • Holes, Louis Sacchar (re-read)
  • The View from Saturday, E. L. Konigsberg (re-read)
  • A Swiftly Tilting Planet, E.L. Konigsberg

A few notes on the list:

First, who is Dorothy Dunnett, the most featured author on the list?  Dunnett was a Scottish painter and author, mostly of historical fiction set during the Renaissance and Reformation (though the Reformation doesn’t play much of a role in the books).  Her books are probably the most dense fiction I’ve read: dense with imagery, detail, names, untranslated period poetry, chess metaphors, and plot.  So much plotting in those books.  The first series, the Lymond Chronicles, provided marvelous distraction during a period of time when I was desperate for an escape; I highly recommend the first book, The Game of Kings, to anyone who enjoys historical fiction.  The main character of the second series, House of Niccolo, is harder for me to like…and likability matters in a series much longer and denser than A Song of Ice and Fire.

Second, even a casual peruser can see that I am a chronic re-reader.  Sometimes age brings out new aspects of a book.  Sense and Sensibility is different from when I left it at nineteen: I have more sympathy for Edward Ferrars this time, and Elinor’s trials are even more painful.  Same story with Lewis’s Space Trilogy and Till We Have Faces.  As a teenager I didn’t understand everything happening with Jane and Mark or with Orual, and I knew it.  I’d planned on coming back to these stories for a long time, and the journey back was beautiful.  The Tree, the river, and the mask speak to me more clearly than they did in seventh grade, and I’m glad to have returned to Lewis’s greatest work.

Sometimes I re-read to remember.  Upon finding out that the fifth book in Megan Whalen Turner’s Queen’s Thief series had been released under my radar, I began pulling her books off the shelves right away and dropping heavy hints about Christmas gift ideas to my mother.  I read the series freshman year of college, during my inaugural Book Binge week (an unhelpful coping mechanism for the stress of the last week before exams), and a refresher seemed in order.  The Thief remains an excellent book for children, well-written enough for an adult to enjoy, and superbly put together in its surprise ending.  As the characters mature in the later books, Turner maintains the depth of her world and its characters.  (Highly recommended series for teenagers…and anyone else, really.)

If I’m honest, though, the main reason I read and re-read is for comfort, just as I did before my freshman year exams.  Life is stressful and discouraging, and a good story reminds us of what is good and what is true and what is beautiful.  Whether that tale is the familiar, well-crafted story of Holes during the long third quarter or the fresh joy of “Farmer Giles of Ham” during an exhausting night at Heathrow, a good story is a source of hope in the dark.


*I have some consistency issues (as should already be clear from this first post) and therefore have resorted to using an undated planner wherein I fill in the months I’m using it and feel no guilt about missing say, February, October, and November.  My planning year is therefore somewhat offset from the norm.  Also, I’m pretty sure I didn’t finish any books in the entire month of April this year.  Mono is hard.