My relationship with books is a matter of public record; I've written about how many I have and why I'm trying to have fewer. But oddly enough, at the present time I am also buying a few for the permanent collection (well, to the extent that the collection may be called "permanent" since I am chronically re-curating it).
When I was doing my paper purge last month I dug up a photocopy I made roughly 2.5 decades ago from a science-fiction collection in my high school library. It was the story "In Hiding" by Wilmar Shiras. I decided to go look on Amazon to see if the story was available for my Kindle.
EVEN BETTER. It was, I discovered, the first chapter in a BOOK, titled "Children of the Atom," which was available in a nice hardcover edition. This book is now sitting on my shelf. I haven't read it yet, but I am gloating.
This week I got in a 1951 hardcover first edition - in excellent condition - of "The Devil in Velvet," by John Dickson Carr. It's a historical mystery that I read in paperback years ago, and kept the paperback even though the typeface was small enough to make my eyeballs bleed. I only have one other Carr piece (a copy of "Most Secret" from the library of Dorothy B. Hughes, author of "In a Lonely Place") and I haven't read that yet either. These are in the nature of hoarded treats. I may not keep them forever, but for now they are certainly "keepers."
What else makes a book a "keeper"?
There are a lot of different kinds of readers. I'm the kind that gets hooked on an author and collects everything they've written. In the case of some authors, I've bought multiple copies over the years as I upgraded my collection - as with Dick Francis. I started with paperbacks, began filling in with any hardcover I could find, gradually improved to first U.S. editions. I have all of his now in first U.S., except for "Dead Cert." I do intend to replace that item eventually. I need a better copy of "Nerve," too.
So, back to "keepers." Basically, in the past, I've kept everything in a series that I was collecting until the series ended or until I decided not to keep the series anymore. I've changed that outlook recently in the interest of not outgrowing my shelf space. I am currently re-reading some series to determine which items in the series I actually do want to re-read in the future. Not all entries in every series are equivalently fun or durable, in terms of standing up to multiple readings.
The books I am divesting this time around are very good copies. First edition hardcovers, most of them, in the best condition I could afford, and signed by the author if possible.
But I decided I don't want to be a "completist" with everybody. (Dick Francis, yes. Ngaio Marsh, yes. I have loved every one of their books, every time I've read 'em. )
And I decided I don't really need to hang onto items that are not special in some way. If the book is now available for e-reader, is relatively recent, and doesn't have any other characteristic to make it collectible, I may well divest it even if I like it a lot. If I don't like it a whole lot - if it's just "eh, that was okay" at this point - I'll divest it.
So this time around, what constitutes a "keeper" is:
I've never had my collection appraised and may never bother. One doesn't really buy books as an investment; they are too perishable, unless you lock them in a waterproof, fireproof vault and never read them. And what's the point of that?
Much, much better! Some proper reading got done.
38. Hello Goodbye Hello,* by Craig Brown. A collection of 101 true-life brief encounters, a la La Ronde.
39. Seafaring Women,* by David Cordingly. This guy really can spin a yarn. This is an exhaustively researched yet easy-reading survey of 18th to 19th century women in relation to the British & American sea trades.
40. Promises in Death, by J.D. Robb. Bound to end up on the Kindle at some point.
41. Origin in Death, by J.D. Robb. By far the most science-fictiony of the series so far, with a great setup that's well carried-through.
42. Survivor in Death, by J.D. Robb. PTSD galore.
43. 1001 Things Everyone Should Know About Science,* by James Trefil. I started working on this two decades ago. Oy! Finally I have finished reading it. Well worth the read.
44. Remember When, by J.D. Robb. The two-parter about diamonds.
45. The Reluctant Widow, by Georgette Heyer. A Regency frolic.
46. The Grand Sophy, by Georgette Heyer. Unusually in GH, the hero in this one is bad-tempered well past the point of likeability.
47. The Masqueraders, by Georgette Heyer. A very involved Georgian story with several romances.
48. The Bookman's Wake, by John Dunning. Another excellent "Bookman" mystery, this one set mostly in Seattle.
49. Skull Duggery, by Aaron Elkins. In Mexico for the worst-case-scenario of identity theft.
50. Uneasy Relations, by Aaron Elkins. In Gibraltar for an academic fraud with deadly consequences.
51. Little Tiny Teeth, by Aaron Elkins. In the Amazon for the "vacation" from hell.
52. Good Blood, by Aaron Elkins. In Italy for a switched-at-birth scenario.
53. Where There's a Will, by Aaron Elkins. In Hawaii for a switched-at-death scenario. The previous Gideon Oliver stories are leaving, but this one is a lot of fun, and stays.
54. The Bookman's Promise, by John Dunning. In which Janeway hunts for a lost Burton library, but the books are just a red herring in this one and there is significant, even excessive, general brutality.
55. The Sign of the Book, by John Dunning. This one revolves around a "did she or didn't she" domestic shooting, an autistic child, forged signatures, and a lot of small-town bullshit. These two are leaving the permanent collection.
I am planning a Great Trade; I have a paper carton full of books so far and am working on a second. I have identified two mystery and science-fiction bookstores in Greater L.A., and it's been a good long time since I went and had a good browse.
This is so, so pitiful. :-)
31. The Six Messiahs, by Mark Frost. See below.
32. Booked to Die, by John Dunning. THE mystery about books. And still a keeper.
33. Stirring the Embers, by Mary Jo Putney. f.k.a. "The Burning Point," a contemporary romance that is not quite as good as I remembered. A little too much telling and not enough showing, and for the first time I was aware of excessive adjectival flourishes.
34. Phoenix Falling, by Mary Jo Putney. f.k.a. "The Spiral Path." You know you are tired when you want something to read but instead of something new, you download a book you've already read five or six times. This one is really quite good, by the way.
35. Calculated in Death, by J.D. Robb. (New) In which a corrupt businessman sets off a string of murders.
36. A Bride by Moonlight, by Liz Carlyle. (New) In which a shady lady and a police commissioner solve a mystery and fall in love in 1849. Very sexy, and a great pair of protagonists.
37. The Lost Recipe for Happiness, by Barbara O'Neal. In which a damaged chef and a lonely movie director fall in love. The romance is good - realistic, too - but it's the Aspen, restaurant, haunted milieu that makes the book. Also a great dog and a very nice teenage character.
So, that happened.
Re: Six Messiahs (and its predecessor The List of Seven): Both of these books spend most of their 350+ pages lovingly developing a complex scenario that is then wrapped up with indecent haste.
The big action sequence at the end of "Messiahs" is great, but the resolution of the central conflict is much too quickly and easily accomplished. It's the central conflict of BOTH books, and the path taken is both expedient and inconsistent to the characters.
"Messiahs" also just ... stops. No wrapping-up of the, not six, but eight or nine interesting characters we've been following. Bits of this story are really compelling, but this denouement (can't call it a conclusion) really annoyed me!
It makes me think the author had a contract that said "you can't go over X pages."
In which I continue digging into some corners of the bookshelves that have been long-neglected.
22. Tartuffe and Other Plays, by Moliere; translation & introductions by Donald M. Frame. Extremely readable, and accessible, translations of these plays ranging in date from 1659-1673. Entertaining and humane. My personal favorite: "The Versailles Impromptu," a short piece that is both a play-within-a-play and a behind-the-scenes look at Moliere's company, struggling with a Royal request for a satire that none of the company can remember their parts in.
23. China Style, by Sharon Leece with photos by Michael Freeman. Another lovely coffee-table book. Note to the book designer: please do not print text in black on a dark blue background. Srsly. One page of that was vastly more than enough.
24. Chinese Metalwares and Decorative Arts. Vol. II of the inaugural exhibition of the Museum of East Asian Art in Bath, England, surely a place I have to see one day. I always look for something to buy at museum shops; this was in the "sale" section at the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco. The book presents a collection chronologically - I love that - with the oldest object being dated around 1600 B.C.
25. The School for Scandal, by Richard Sheridan. A 1958 Barron's edition with excellent introductions and a fully-imagined set of actor and stage directions, not part of the original text. A comedy that is still funny, although I prefer Moliere.
26. Architects' Dream Houses, by Jean-Claude Delorme. Essays and photographs of ten great residences, most of which I certainly would not want to live in.
27. The Thief Taker, by "T. F. Banks." Memoirs of a Bow Street Runner is the conceit, and it gets off to a bit of a slow start; but the last third is quite thrilling.
28. The Emperor's Assassin, by "T. F. Banks." Second and apparently last in the short-lived series. An author is at a distinct disadvantage in writing of law enforcement in the English Regency period; it was, frankly, a mess. The history in these is sound and the characters good, but the choice of milieu limited what the author could do.
29. Kiki Strike: The Darkness Dwellers, by Kirsten Miller. In which the Irregulars take on another investigative challenge or three, two go to Paris, and an etiquette maven turns out to be a long-lost grandmother. Great fun.
30. The List of Seven, by Mark Frost. David Lynch's "Twin Peaks" collaborator wrote this novel of Arthur Conan Doyle, with a bit part for Bram Stoker. There's a little too much going on in this, but it's entertaining.
Quote of the month: setting the scene with wit, from "The List of Seven:"
"Four steps led to a doorway with a pronounced starboard lean. The building could not yet be fairly considered a hovel, but that day was not far off. It appeared to possess no inherently sinister qualities. It appeared to possess no quality whatsoever."
Last year I read so much that these roundups got really long. It probably makes more sense to do this monthly. Especially since I don't really see my reading pace falling off substantially (I am clearing collections, and re-reading always goes faster than reading for the first time).
1. Miss Whittier Makes a List, by Carla Kelly. One of the collections I'm clearing, since these fine Regencies are (nearly all) available for Kindle now.
2. Mrs. Drew Plays Her Hand, by Carla Kelly.
3. Reforming Lord Ragsdale, by Carla Kelly.
4. Miss Milton Speaks Her Mind, by Carla Kelly.
5. The Lady's Companion, by Carla Kelly. A particularly good one.
6. With This Ring, by Carla Kelly.
7. Libriomancer, by Jim Hines. A new (to me) author, discovery of the month (thanks to John Scalzi's "Big Idea" feature). Very entertaining, and even emotionally compelling, story of magic and mayhem. Featuring a book-loving hero with a pet fire spider.
8. Trust Me On This, by Jennifer Crusie.
9. The Power of Six, by "Pittacus Lore." Second in the YA SF series.
10. The Rise of Nine, by "Pittacus Lore." Third, and even more action-packed.
11. One Good Turn, by Carla Kelly. In which the heroine has survived the seige of Badajoz; a story of recovery.
12. The Wedding Journey, by Carla Kelly. Set entirely in Spain at war.
13. Beau Crusoe, by Carla Kelly. A castaway becomes an unwilling celebrity. Lots of psychology here, and perhaps not quite enough romance.
14. Marrying the Captain, by Carla Kelly. Moving from heroes of the Peninsular War to heroes of the Royal Navy.
15. The Surgeon's Lady, by Carla Kelly.
16. Marrying the Royal Marine, by Carla Kelly. These last three all feature related heroines and are high quality despite the unimaginative titles (that's Harlequin for you).
17. Star Struck Dead, by Sheila York. A cracking good 1940's P.I. story featuring a female Hollywood screenwriter. Such a pity the series didn't get picked up. This is now available for Kindle and the sequel "A Good Knife's Work" is also well worth a look.
18. India Style, by Monisha Bharadwaj. A lavishly illustrated design book, part of the art collection now making way for new stuff.
19. The Elements of Classical Architecture, by George Gromort, ed. Henry Hope Reed. A new translation & expansion (1st American edition actually) of a French work first published in 1900 and apparently still an Ur text. For the casual reader, a little tough to get through, mostly due to the design - discussion is completely separate from the plates. I am sufficiently inexpert as to architraves, capitals, tympani, pediments etc that having the discussion and illustration more contiguous would have been very helpful.
20. The Way of the World, by William Congreve. A 1700 play that has not aged well.
21. The Castle of Otranto, by Horace Walpole. Written in the early 1760s, this proto-Gothic reads (to me) like the source document for Monty Python's "Holy Grail." It's quite hilarious if you can get past the florid Georgian style and read it as satire of the time's sentimental romances (as I did).
Quote of the month: from "Classical Architecture," specifically Gromort's preface to "The Application of the Orders:"
"To succeed in an art one has to love it passionately, and that is not possible without admiring those masters who most successfully and most surely contributed to its evolution."
Of note principally for its overall ridiculousness: "Live and Let Die," one of the Roger Moore Bond films; badly written, badly directed, chock full of ethnic stereotyping and distinguished only by a fifteen-second practical stunt involving running across a pond full of crocodiles. We will view the special features on this and then release it into the world.
Of note for its very topical treatment: Ralph Fiennes' "Coriolanus." That's a Shakespeare play that I've never read, but the semi-modern-day treatment (it was filmed in the Balkans, and the storyline is all too apt for the recent wars there) and the casting made it riveting. Brian Cox is like Morgan Freeman: he elevates everything he's in. My one dissatisfaction was with Gerard Butler's character. It was well played, I hasten to emphasize; but it seemed like a lot of the part was missing. Eventually I will get around to reading the play to confirm that. I could have done with more of him, frankly. Ralph was brilliant and charismatic while being essentially unlikable (as written).
Favorite movie so far this year: 2010's "How to Train Your Dragon." I remember noticing this when it came out because the central dragon character looks just like my cat. But we didn't see it until Christmas Day, when FX was playing it on repeat and we caught most of it in the hotel room before heading to a family thing. I liked it so much that I ordered the DVD, and it was fun to see everything that I'd missed. It's a really well-made, beautifully-designed movie, with a meaningful story. And I totally love the dragon character.
This week, we caught "Gattaca" on BBC, and I don't know whether it reflects well on the movie or ill on us, but we watched it all the way through even though we have the DVD in the jukebox. Basically didn't want to turn it off to change devices. A great movie.
Also noteworthy: we watch so much TV that talking about it all would be a waste of everyone's time, but we are currently viewing PBS' "Shakespeare Uncovered." Two episodes down and they are GREAT.
I really mainlined books last year. Here are the last two months' entries from the reading journal.
I read all those young-readers titles because I was packing them into a bag for the Toys for Tots collection at the December chapter dance. Don't worry, they appear unread. I kept "The Velvet Room."
I wasn't kidding about this time of year. We've barely watched any movies intentionally all year, just what we've stumbled across on the program guide, but all of a sudden I'm in the mood.
So, making it two movies in the theatre in a single week, we went to see "Argo." And it is very good indeed. Even knowing that everybody gets out alive (thanks, history!), the suspense level was maintained. I would love, when the DVD comes out, if they could do little pop-ups to tell us which bits were fictionalized for greater dramatic effect - but I suppose that will be on the commentary. I have my notions, but those may be completely off track.
And then there were a couple of movies at home, one that's been on my wish list for a long time and one I threw in there recently after seeing an article that reminded me I enjoyed the thing back when it first came out.
First, the new version of "Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy" with Gary Oldman, et al. What a great cast, with a tricky, intricate, subtle script. Very well-made movie, takes a good bit of paying attention to. There are no big explosions or manipulative musical cues to tell you when you should look up. I didn't even try to read during this one because just the first five minutes were enough to hook me.
Mr. Oldman is superb. There is a scene near the end, where he is alone in a room with the revealed villain, who says something that (while true) is incredibly offensive. Being English, an intelligence officer, and middle-aged, Mr. Oldman's Smiley doesn't react. Or at least, not as we crass and impulsive modern Americans would react.
He and the other man are both standing still almost throughout the scene, but Smiley is holding his gloves, and after the offensive remark, he twists them as if they are a surrogate for the villain's throat. He really barely moves, it's not histrionic, but it sure was effective.
This little bit of business reminded me of something Alan Rickman does at the end of "Close My Eyes," about which generally the less said the better, involving a light caress of his adulterous wife's injured leg. It looks like a caress. It also looks like he could easily rip the flesh off her bones. Ah, good actors.
Finally, the most lightweight of the three, "Sneakers" starring Robert Redford, Sidney Poitier, and several other very talented men as well as Mary McDonnell. Released in 1992, this is about computer hacking and codebreaking, back when these things were not daily news. It still holds up really well, and there is a particular scene involving a unique security problem that demonstrates one does not need a lot of fancy stuff to generate suspense.
That's the lesson (for writers) of all three of these movies, really. The suspense is almost entirely in "will they figure this out in time" and not necessarily in elaborate plots - certainly not in convoluted action-adventurey chases or escapes.
These movies are also fairly non-violent, though each has a couple of scenes that are grisly and/or frightening and/or really shocking (in TTSS). The latter not due to its graphic nature, but its suddenness and its context.