Diminutive Books I Have Loved

August 19, 2019 at 4:20 am (Reviews) (, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , )

Once upon a time…

I was on a book hunting excursion at the Recycled Bookstore in Denton, Texas. That night I purchased and read a book by Paul Collins called Sixpence House: Lost in a Town of Books. I loved every minute of it and proceeded to hunt down everything the man had ever written. When pressed, I will tell people this is my *favorite* book. As a book lover, it hurts me to choose just one, so I must admit I don’t even know if this is an accurate proclamation. But it is the one I claim.

Later, I would get a job at Half Price Books and not only re-read this gem, but purchase any copies that came into the store. I’ve given several copies away, I think I own a few still, the one I will always keep is the polypropylene covered first edition I bought in Denton. Of all the parts of the book, one quote regarding dust jackets and marketing is the one that has always stuck with me, it’s something I have even told other booksellers when training them:

“Woe and alas to any who transgresses these laws. A number of reviewers railed against ‘The Bridges of Madison County’ because it used the diminutive hardcover size and muted color scheme of, say, an Annie Dillard book–thus cruelly tricking readers of Serious Literature into *buying crap*. Not to be outdone, the Harvard University Press issued Walter Benjamin’s opus ‘The Arcades Project’ with gigantic raised metallic lettering. One can only imagine the disgust of blowhard fiftysomethings in bomber jackets as they slowly realised that the project they were reading about was a cultural analysis of 19th century Parisian bourgeoisie–and not, say, a tale involving renegade Russian scientists and a mad general aboard a nuclear submarine.” 

I am a sucker for diminutively sized hardback books with matte finished covers, especially if they are about books or nature. Case and Point: the hardback edition of Sixpence House is 5.7 x 1.2 x 8.6 inches in size. It isn’t small per se, but it is definitely smaller than your typical contemporary New York Times bestselling fiction, like Big Little Lies by Liane Moriarty, for instance, which is 6.4 x 1.5 x 9.3 inches. Or, if your flavor is more sci-fi/fantasy, Brandon Sanderson’s Way of Kings hardcover stands at 6.4 x 2 x 9.6 inches. 8.6 inches to 9.6 inches is a meaningful jump in the publishing world. It tells you something about what is lurking inside those beautiful, beautiful pages.

Imagine how much more significant a leap from 9.6 inches down to 7.3 inches, which is the height of the hardcover edition of The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating. I plucked this book up sometime before I separated from my ex-husband. I read it just a month before I finally said enough was enough. I remember reading it and craving the calm of being bedridden and having nothing to do except think and watch a snail creep around the house. I was aware that it was probably ridiculously unhealthy – to crave someone else’s pain, but I was very much exhausted of my own. Much relief comes from evicting an abusive drunk from your home, but before you’re free it’s nice to find comfort in books like this one. I’d like to re-read it again, and soon, so I can appreciate it more fully for what it is rather than using it to hide from what it isn’t.

I’m in a good place now, much healing has occurred over the last few years, but I still occasionally crave tiny and textured books. Keeping an eye out for calming and similar reading experiences, and knowing what I know about book covers, imagine my glee when I discovered Grayson by Lynne Cox.

One of the most lovely qualities of such books is that they can be read in one sitting by nearly any audience, but they rarely talk down to the reader and are often articulate and well-researched. These are the books written by amateur observers – remember the Latin root for amateur is amo, “I love.” An amateur is not someone who is less competent, as the connotation has evolved, but someone who has learned something for the sheer passion of it. They didn’t study for a grade, they aren’t necessarily doing it for their job, instead it is their passionate hobby. It is what they pursue at the end of the day when their bones are tired and their eyelids weak.

Lynne Cox loved to swim in the ocean. She swam every day for miles. I read about her swimming habits and am in awe. Several times I looked at my fiancé and said, “I would have drowned.” I definitely would have probably choked on the grunion when it slithered into my mouth, and then drowned. But Lynne Cox didn’t drown the day a baby whale found her during her morning swim. In fact, she swam and tread water for hours so she could help him find his mama. She didn’t go back to shore when her lungs were burning and her body freezing, because he would have beached himself and died. Lynne Cox loves the open water and the beach and you can experience how deep this love goes when you read about just one morning of her whole life. So much quality is packed into 150 pages: quality time (my love language), quality writing, rich and genuine details about sea creatures off the coast of California. I loved every second of this darling book and I’m grateful Cox chose to share it with the world.

This experience, to me, defines the genre of diminutive books. They aren’t separated out in any particular way in any bookstore I’ve ever patronized (again, I’m using the less commonly used definition here: “frequently shop”), but they definitely reside in the same file folder in my brain… and yes, my brain is actually a series of files and folders (and boxes and “gently raining post-it notes”) I spend hours sorting through. The books, and an assortment of others, all belong in the same place in my mind – not just belong in the same place, but belong to each other, I think.

Each one is a small nod of knowing to another, whether they are aware of it or not, guiding people ever so tenderly down a cobblestone path lit by fireflies and dreams…

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Gilgamesh

July 26, 2019 at 4:47 am (Education, Reviews) (, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , )

If you’re studying ancient history in chronological order, sometime after you’ve read the Book of Genesis, it’s really fun to dive into Gilgamesh. Gilgamesh is an epic poem most kids have to read in high school or early college for literature classes, originally written in Akkadian. It’s a mythological adventure about a real Sumerian king documented in history, who, like many kings of old, became a legend passed down through the ages, the truth of his life distorted and lost to deification.

Ludmilla Zeman has a fantastic children’s picture book trilogy that I find to be the best starting point for learning about Gilgamesh. It is consistent with most translations and full of beautiful illustrations. When kiddo was small and we were studying ancient history the first time around, we checked these out from the library over and over again. She loved them. This time I bought them, brand new. They’re worth every penny.

I picked up used copies of the epic for myself. I was disappointed to discover that every translation available was a translation of a translation. I know its ignorant to expect to read direct translations of the Old Babylonian tablets when you pick up a Penguin trade paperback, but I did. I went back to the store after reading through David Ferry’s pretty version and N.K. Sandar’s better translation, looking for something closer to Andrew George’s 2003 version – or better yet, George Smith’s 1870’s version! To no avail. Everyone wants new and better more modern ways to tell the tale, while I bemoan my inability to read archaic clay tablets I’d never get my hands on anyway.

I was hoping to find a cool cartoon on the tale for us to watch together, desiring a repeat of the experience we had when we studied Beowulf in 2016 (YouTube had an amazing cartoon rendition of Beowulf featuring the voice of Joseph Fiennes at the time…). All I found were some not so kid friendly “cliff notes” style videos of people walking students through what it was all about so they wouldn’t have to read the book themselves.

Attention all animators: Please provide a kid appropriate Gilgamesh cartoon, featuring an oddly famous actor of the 90’s of my choice. Thanks.

Gilgamesh is neat. I love the beautiful picture books we own. I will be the parent that makes sure she reads poem and doesn’t watch internet video summaries when she’s older. But I’m not in love with it the way I am with The Iliad and Beowulf. I think it may be the insincerity of it all. It feels obvious that it was a legend born of puffing up the ego of a king and his people. It takes Noah’s ark and twists it, I love reading confirmation that many regions of the world had a major flood, I’m saddened when the details are distorted and inconsistent, making heroes of those who weren’t and forgetting the one man who did obey.

Maybe I’ll love it when I finally get my hands on one of the George translations…

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Beowulf

September 13, 2016 at 1:33 am (Education, Reviews) (, , , , , , , , , , )

I have a confession: I never read Beowulf in high school.  Or college.  I read Canterbury Tales more times than I can count (yet only remember a handful of the stories).  I read Sir Gawain and the Green Knight ad nauseum – and I like that story.  But no Beowulf.  How did I miss it?

I’ll tell you how, we tried to cram so much into such a short amount of time.  We spent hours and hours in school, but spent very little time actually studying.  Somewhere along the way, Beowulf was lost to me.  I’m not sure if I was ever really exposed to it or not.  It might have been something I breezed through in a Norton Anthology and regurgitated the next day for a pop quiz, only to be quickly forgotten.  I couldn’t tell you.  I only know that I had a vague idea that it was an epic poem involving something named Grendel when I began working at a bookstore as an adult.  Even then, I couldn’t tell you if Grendel was the monster or the man.

unknownAs we began our Middle Ages/ Early Ren. (450 AD to 1600 AD) year while classically homeschooling, it dawned on me that this was the year for Beowulf. I had already read the picture book by Eric A. Kimmel to kiddo when she was a wee one, but I’m sure she was so tiny she had fallen asleep; now was the time to embrace the story.

And we did.  I read her the picture book shortly before my trip to Atlanta. It fit right in with all the Celtic and Norse mythology we’ve been reading to bridge the gap between the ancient times and our exciting year ahead.  “What a guy! He tore off the monster’s arm! I can’t even do that,” she exclaimed. She was very pleased that this particular picture book could give the story in “one-sitting, all today” as opposed to the stories of Odysseus and Troy which all took weeks of chapter by chapter to finish. I foresee reading this again and again over the coming months, she loved the story so much; I have to admit, I did too.

4cf814193a0I liked it even more when I discovered there was a cartoon made in 1998 starring Joseph Fiennes as the voice of Beowulf – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QKjcoFZmKuA.  We got to watch that and call it school.  It was a lot of fun.  (There’s one for Don Quixote we’ll be watching next year when we make it into the 1700s.)

Naturally, I was curious as to the accuracy of these versions.  I won’t ever truly know, because everything is a translation, but I thought I’d give an adult version a go.  There’s so many versions out there, I think I’ll just try a different one every Middle Ages cycle.  So I took the Constance B. Hieatt version with me to Atlanta and enjoyed it immensely, especially the little extras at the end.

beowulf-cover-hiea-900

The kiddo, of course, keeps asking me why we are using “fake stories as lesson books, they aren’t real stories mother!” I keep telling her, very ineloquently, that these stories help us understand the people who told them.  Read them to her as bedtime stories and naturally she’s thrilled at the excitement of them.

We’ll collect more versions over the years and by the time she is grown she will know the story well – and remember it.  Next go around we’ll even tackle it in poem form, and eventually we’ll read Gardner’s Grendel.

Do you have any favorite versions of Beowulf?  Or, more importantly, do you know any great stories of the time period that should not be missed?

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The Havana Treatment

October 27, 2015 at 4:15 am (Uncategorized) (, , , , , , , , , )

31RZD3GdDVL._AA160_Title: The Havana Treatment

Author: Peter Devine

My first Peter Devine book was True to the Code, a series of short stories that were as much historically educational as philosophically motivating.  As much as I enjoyed my first taste of Devine’s prose, Havana Treatment was infinitely more riveting.

Peter Devine has an uncanny ability to put you in the middle of a character’s big moment only to take you right back out again.  Each short story in Havana Treatment introduces you to a whole person in a just a few moments or hours, leaving you with a solid understanding of who they are, but wanting more of the story.  Described as an exploration of the shelf life of a romance, Havana Treatment doesn’t disappoint, and each story is as compelling and oxymoronically uniquely typical as the next.

The human race is completely infatuated with the idea of love, and after spending time with Devine’s characters, it is easy to see why.  A moment with someone can become a lifetime of dedication.  A person’s soul can be boiled down to one momentous story that could have seemed so unimportant at the time, but because the encounter was so genuine it shapes someone forever.

Devine has such a strong grasp on these realities. His experience and all the people he has met in his life shape the wisdom in his tales; but in all his travels and worldliness, Devine still captures Americana and our ideas of romance like no other.

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Haunting Jasmine

July 11, 2015 at 12:58 am (Reviews) (, , , , , , , , , , , , )

I have a cousin I’ve never met.  She married my actual cousin that I grew up playing with on a good chunk of our weekends when we were kids – and special holidays – so she’s not really MY cousin, but I have a habit of adopting people that way.  My family is weird, he’s the great grandson of my Grandfather’s sister, but I spent more time with their family than a lot of people spend with first cousins.  Unfortunately, he flitted away out of state and I haven’t had a chance to spend time with his lovely bride.

She’s been a published author for quite awhile now, longer than I’ve been running this blog, but I had conveniently lodged that information into some lost corner of my brain – until recently, as he and I played Scrabble over Facebook.

Anjali Banerjee is the lovely woman my awesome cousin chose to spend the rest of his life with and I’m so pleased to finally read one of her books.  While reading Haunting Jasmine, I felt like perhaps we were kindred spirits, as we have both written about bookstores, and clearly have a mutual passion for the written word.

She’s just way better at using those words than I am!

Title: Haunting Jasmineabanerjee-2l-haunting

Author: Anjali Banerjee

Genre: Women’s Fiction

If you’re in the mood for a haunted bookshop, a fabulous Indian aunt, a god hanging out with Dr. Seuss, Jane Austen, Beatrix Potter, and a number of other ghosts – then you might need to find yourself a copy of Haunting Jasmine.  Set in the north west, there’s a nice bit of ocean, some chilly weather, rain, hot tea, and a divorcee you might want to spend a day with in Seattle.

The writing is easy to get into, and she made lucky choice to use the word wafted – we all know how much I love that word, I think.

There’s a bit of a romance, but nothing too over the top to actually place it in the romance genre – it’s more about Jasmine and her journey to understanding herself and the nature of her aunt’s shop.

It’s definitely worth a bubble bath or day off, and I’m not just saying that because I’m biased. 🙂

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The Haunted Bookshop

January 22, 2015 at 9:52 pm (Reviews) (, , , , , , , , , , , , , )

“It’s one of the uncanniest things I know to watch a real book on its career – it follows you and follows you and drives you into a corner and makes you read it. […] Words can’t describe the cunning of some books.  You’ll think you’ve shaken them off your trail, and then one day some innocent-looking customer will pop in and begin to talk, and you’ll now he’s an unconscious agent of book-destiny.” – pg. 121, The Haunted Bookshop by Christopher Morley

The Haunted BookshopTitle: The Haunted Bookshop

Author: Christopher Morley

Length: 265 pages

I am constantly haunted by books.  As a reviewer your TBR pile grows and grows, but there are books that you want to read that no one is asking you to that sit and lurk until finally they demand that you pick them up.

I purchased The Haunted Bookshop years ago; it was the same time I bought Parnassus on Wheels.  Nearly two years after finally reading my first encounter with Morley, I’ve finally been hunted down and captured by his wonderful sequel.

“There’s only one way to lay the ghost of a book, and that is to read it.”

haunted shopNow that I’ve revisited Roger and Helen Mifflin, however, I just want more.  I want to know what happens after this glorious book fetish mystery.  After Parnassus on Wheels, it was exciting to see Mr. and Mrs. Mifflin after they settled down.  But now I want to know: how does all the inadvertent advertising change the face of Mr. Mifflin’s business.  I want to hang out with these fine people until we experience their inevitable deaths.  Favorite characters deserve that much, for their fans to sob at their memorials.

Mostly, I adore Mr. Mifflin’s constant book recommendations.  As long as people love books there will be books about bookstores, I am convinced, because the truly bookish seek out recommendations from their favorite characters, always.  That was the romance, for me, in writing The Bookshop Hotel.  I hope in time that fans will see more similarities in my work to Christopher Morley than to Debbie Macomber (of whom my writing has been compared) and the like.   Ultimately, however, I’m happy with however I am categorized as long as people are enjoying them.

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My Life in Literature Meme 2014

December 8, 2014 at 1:14 am (In So Many Words) (, , , , , )

This is fast becoming a yearly ritual.

Using only books you have read this year (2014), answer these questions. Try not to repeat a book title.

Describe yourself: A Reliable Wife

How do you feel: Not Even Wrong

Describe where you currently live: Follies Past

If you could go anywhere, where would you go: The Lacuna

Your favorite form of transportation: Resolute

Your best friend is: The Book of Secrets

You and your friends are: Committed

What is the best advice you have to give: Life is Hard But God is Good

What’s the weather like: Shades of Earl Grey

You fear: The Beginner’s Goodbye

Thought for the day: Get Me Out of Here

How I would like to die: in A Circle of Quiet

My soul’s present condition: Alone

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And When I Think, I Fall Asleep

November 25, 2014 at 4:37 am (Reviews) (, , , , , , , , , )

one-hundred-years-of-solitudeTitle: One Hundred Years of Solitude

Author: Gabriel Garcia Marquez

Genre: Fiction/ Literature

Length: 458 pages

When I was a kid I had a poster of a chimpanzee on my wall.  Underneath in a font that was surely intended to motivate a young mind it said: “When I Work, I Work Hard. When I Play, I Play Hard.  But When I Think, I Fall Asleep.”  The monkey had his chin resting in his human-like hand, eyes drooped down.

Although I’ve read more books that my norm this year, I’ve just *mostly* finished my 93rd title, it’s been a lot of fluff.  It’s been a lot of things that digest easily and go down like lemonade on a hot summer day, or cooled hot cocoa in winter.  The heavier stuff that I tend to enjoy has bored me.  I’m too tired for all this thinking.  My energies are spent writing.  I want to just download books into my head, Matrix style, when I sit down to read.

One Hundred Years of Solitude has been sitting on my shelf radiating all this promise for years.  I’ve put it off because it was going to blow my mind.  It was going to be too wonderful for words.  Then, when the words came, it was supposed to be the most intelligent thing that had ever come from my mouth – or been typed by my fingers.  Because it’s Gabriel Garcia Marquez.  Because Garcia is wonderful.  Because this is his magnum opus.

I was bored.

There’s a lot to take in.  There’s a lot to quote.  I could never write anything so wonderful in all my life.

But around page 300 out of the 458 pages, I caught myself skimming.  The drama was annoying me.  The people were unfriendly.  I couldn’t relate to anyone, nor did I want to.  This probably says more about my mood than anything else, but I started flicking through the pages speed reading to a level that even I know I’m not really reading anymore.

“Not finishing a book that doesn’t move you is a sign of reading maturity,” I just told a co-worker at the bookstore tonight.  “It’s knowing that there are so many wonderful things out there that you shouldn’t waste your time with things that aren’t wonderful.”  I waste my time with things that aren’t wonderful all the time.  Even more so, I waste my time with things that are wonderful even if I’m not feeling wonder at them at all, I’m just reading it because I’m supposed to feel awed.

Around page 370 or so, I took a deep breath, skipped to the last chapter and read it.  Yes, I skipped pages.  Lots of them.  And just read the end.  I still started nodding off.  I’m not even that tired (ok, I am that tired, but good books are supposed to keep you awake!), just that unmoved by this family and their crap.  Sadly, I didn’t feel like I missed anything at all.  I was just relieved that it was over, that I was going to mark this one off my list.  Then, I felt the annoyance of the knowledge that I was not going to write my one solid literary essay of the year, at least not on this book.  (Once a year or so, I write an essay.  A proper one, as though I’m still in school.  It’s lame.  And nerdy.  But I feel like I have to do this to stay in practice.  You know, in case I ever go back.  They get worse every year.  I’ve stopped sharing them.  Now, it looks like I’ve even stopped writing them.)

I’m further annoyed that this is a favorite book of my best friend.  I hate that I can’t share that with her.

Maybe I’ll read those pages I skipped one day.  Maybe.  For now, I’ll admit defeat and enjoy my sleep.

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Unexpected Odes to Literature

June 10, 2014 at 11:19 pm (Reviews) (, , , , , , , , , , , , , , )

City of Lost Souls 2Title: City of Lost Souls

Author: Cassandra Clare

Genre: Young Adult/ Fantasy

Length: 534 pages

For me, what makes the writings of Cassandra Clare so captivating isn’t the fairy tale romance, the paranormal elements, or the bad ass fight sequences… at the heart of it all, it’s the way Clare manages to make a young adult fantasy saga an sequence of unexpected odes to her favorite pieces of literature.

“No man chooses evil because it is evil.  He only mistakes it for happiness, the good he seeks.” – Mary Wollstonecraft

“Love is familiar.  Love is a devil.  There is no evil angel but Love.” – William Shakespeare, Love’s Labour’s Lost

“I love you as one loves certain dark things.” – Pablo Neruda, “Sonnet XVII”

“All changed, changed utterly: A terrible beauty is born.” – William Butler Yeats, “Easter, 1916”

Whether the story was constructed around these quotes, or the quotes City of Lost Souls 1were slipped into the story, the two halves were beautifully married together.  Just as Clare always manages to do.

If you recall my review of The Book of Secrets you should be well aware of how much I cherish this particular aspect of storytelling.  I love peeping into the mind of the author and what they’ve read before – what work we may have both cherished.  I love to see how others acknowledge how literature builds a soul.  Even if that soul is an imagined character in another book.

A reviewer on Goodreads mentioned they thought it was silly that all these Shadowhunter kids were completely oblivious of what went on in the mundane world half the time – Jace completely misses references to Madonna or Dungeons & Dragons games – but are well versed in William Shakespeare and Dante.

As a classical book geek it makes perfect sense to me.  I was raised on Charles Dickens and the Brontes, not the latest boy band or pop culture trends.  Poetry is timeless.  New Kids on the Block obviously not so much.

One doesn’t expect these odes and references in a paranormal teen romance.  I suppose that’s what makes them so stunningly lovely.

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Love Letter to Literature

June 6, 2014 at 3:56 pm (Reviews) (, , , , , , , )

Book of SecretsTitle:The Book of Secrets

Author:Elizabeth Joy Arnold

Publisher: Bantam Books

Genre: Fiction/ Literature/ Books About Books

Length: 450 pages

I checked this book out from the library, but this is not a library book.  This is a book you need three copies of – a hardback first edition signed by the author, a copy for reading and scribbling notes in the margins, and a copy to loan to your friends.  I’m devastated that I’ll be shoving it through a book drop later this afternoon, it will leave my hands and slide down a shoot to be re-cataloged and re-shelved.  When all I really want to do is sleep with it under my pillow.

I was up all night reading.  Not all night, but well passed my thirty year old motherhood appropriate bedtime.

Part One was titled Chronicles of Narnia, Part Two: Where the Wild Things Are, and so on – each section of the book titled and designed to reflect story that tied ever so gracefully into a famous book title.  The whole book is not just a riveting story, it is a love letter to literature.

If you are a Kate Morton fan, the architecture of this book will be right up your alley.  It’s beautifully done, marvelously written, and simultaneously raw and eloquent.  It may even be better than anything Kate Morton wrote, and saying that feels like blasphemy because I adore her and own all her books.

There were so many gorgeous quotes I wanted to underline, and now I don’t know where they were in the book, because it was a library copy so I couldn’t.  I should have jotted them down, but I was too eager to read what would come next.  The whole reading experience was captivating and surreal.

 “I thought it was a dream,” Thomas said. We were sitting in the library…

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