My Bookshelf

bookshelf

Books are complicated things.  They are like perfect lovers, hiding in plain view, keeping their secrets carefully between the covers.  When we speak of them, they hold our gaze with memories, but we never tell the whole story – do we?  We cautiously avoid those delicate evenings, getting to know each other; the stolen afternoons; the nights, together alone in the darkness, page after page until, exhausted, we sleep.  And those tiny lies and excuses we make to shut the world out when we simply can’t resist one more intimate embrace.  Our books are the sly smile we have when we think no one is looking, and they belong to us, just as we belong to them — sworn sacred to be faithful.

Last week my eBuddy CJ Hartwell went to her bookshelf and ….  She tells a better tale than I do, and you can read it here: Hartwell’s Books.  But she showed us her books and told us more than who they are.  It’s a fascinating idea to look through a few reflections to see ourselves because the truth is nothing reveals who we are quite as clearly as revealing the things we love.  So I went to my bookshelf and discovered — it was mostly ex-lovers — long kept and long remembered – from a time so young and strong I may never leave it.

Glory Road – Robert A Heinlein
I found this book in a used bookstore when the world and I still had a use for such things.  This is a love story, thinly disguised as science fiction.  I confess it took me a few years and few readings before I could appreciate that.

A World Lit Only By Fire – William Manchester
The history of medieval Europe without the hard-sleighing of scholarship.  I take this with me every time I go to Europe.  It’s not the Europe I see — but the one I imagine, cleverly peeking out of the stones and the streets.  Lost footsteps, echoing across the centuries.

A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich – Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn
I grew up a prisoner of the vast North American prairie.  Ivan and I know what it’s like to be lost and alone in the inescapable wilderness, and we also understand that sometimes there is no glorious, indomitable human spirit.  Sometimes there is only survival.

History of England for Public Schools
My father’s textbook, circa 1930.  I still use it to keep those pesky Stuarts kings in line.

Tai Pan – James Clavell
This was a best-seller when I was a kid, so I read it.  Then I read King Rat; then I read Shogun; then I read Noble House, etc., etc.  I keep Tai Pan because it’s a better adventure than King Rat and not so long and involved as Shogun or Noble House.  Plus, back when I had visions of being a scholar, I thought “The Duality of Character in the Novels of James Clavell” would be a marvelous dissertation.

Shibumi – Trevanian
Nicholai Hel is a skilled assassin who has spent half a lifetime isolating himself from the madness of the modern world, but … it intrudes – it always intrudes.  So, the question remains: can we ever truly separate ourselves from the faceless somebodies who think they have a better idea for the world?  Probably not, but we can become such a badass nobody messes with us.

The Hobbit – J.R.R. Tolkien
A wise person once said, “To believe in the heroic makes heroes.”  This is the third, fourth or even fifth copy of a book I won as a prize in grade school.  I keep it because I might be too old to believe in Tarzan, Treasure Island or Sanders of the River (Not!!!) but Bilbo Baggins is a good place to hide my hopeless belief in heroics.

Cabbage Town – Hugh Garner
This is a novel so out of print and out of fashion that you have to fight with Google to even find it.  It’s Canadian literature from before CanLit became a closed shop and people like me didn’t have to go to America and Great Britain to get published – but I’m not bitter.  It’s one of the reasons I’ve spent my life doing what I do.

And two extras:

Dutch-English/ English-Dutch Dictionary
I keep this handy for when Google Translate runs amok.

The Woman in the Window – WD Fyfe
Of course, I have my own book on my bookshelf.  D’uh!

 

Stuff I’ve Learned From Literature

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People don’t read much anymore.  The once glorious novel has been left to gather dust while we play videogames and watch Netflix.  I’m as guilty as the next person so I’m not pointing fingers, but I still think it’s a shame.  After all, most of what I know about the world comes from reading fiction.  Here is just some of the stuff I’ve learned from literature.

Never, under any circumstances, give pigs any power.
Animal Farm

Never volunteer for anything.
The Hunger Games

If you think your lover has committed suicide get a qualified second opinion before you proceed.
Romeo and Juliet

If you’re going to invade Russia make sure you bring back-up.
War and Peace

Don’t be fooled by contemporary propaganda, children are savages.
Lord of the Flies

Contrary to popular belief, family isn’t always all it’s cracked up to be.
Kidnapped

If you live in Wessex, England you’re pretty much screwed.
Anything by Thomas Hardy

It’s not a good idea to party with aristocrats from Transylvania – especially after dark.
Dracula

Be nice to the French.  They tend to hold a grudge.
The Count of Monte Cristo

Don’t drink and drive.
The Great Gatsby

Whatever you do, stay away from Southwest Texas.
No Country for Old Men

Female teachers with Scottish accents are dangerous.
The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie

Sometimes, finding Nemo is not necessarily a good thing.
20,000 Leagues under the Sea

Expect the unexpected.
The Collected Works of O. Henry

On closer examination the meat packing industry is not as glamorous as one would think.
The Jungle

Never hunt whales.  It will always end badly.
Moby Dick

If you find yourself in the woods with a talking rabbit … go home, you’re stoned.
Alice in Wonderland

And finally:

Make digital copies of your books just in case we all go crazy in the next couple of years.
Fahrenheit 451

My Sisters Were Wizards

When I was a kid, my sisters were wizards.  They had magic words that could turn a pillow-high, cozy warm brass bed into the March family living room.  They had incantations that produced beautiful horses, stinking French sewers and one sad little dog named Greyfriars Bobby.  They could conjure people and places at will, and on one occasion, they harnessed the wind from a stay-home-from-school bitter Saskatchewan storm to propel our ships out of danger.  They cast spells that bewitched me so completely that, long before I was allowed to cross the street by myself, I could travel through the puny barriers of time and space with ease.  And it was there that my sisters abracadabra-ed their friends for me — Black Beauty, Travis and his dog Yeller, Hans Brinker and the queen of long, lazy summer afternoons, Nancy Drew.

sisters1

The source of my sisters’ sorcery was the Mayfair Public Library.  It was a cavernous basement with high little citadel windows and dim, humming electric light.  It was a place of holy quiet, brown with wisdom and heavy with wooden shelves.  It was guarded by ferocious matrons in sensible shoes.  They kept their eyes on little boys who might be loud — or sticky — but, by then, I knew how powerful and precious books were, so I sat quietly and kept my eye on them.  I remember thinking, “I’m a little boy now, but someday… someday, I will decipher your runes and, like Lochinvar,* I’ll come and I’ll take what I want and know your magic for myself.”  I knew I would do this.  I knew it because my sisters were never jealous witches, concealing their art.  Tired of me pestering them to read to me, they were already showing me that the tiny symbols in the books made sounds and the sounds made words — and the words, taken together, made power.

Today I am a wizard.  I have spent a lifetime studying the alchemy of words — reading and writing them.  I still smile when they are used well in delightful new combinations and still cry when they are abused.  I will never tire of their wonder.  I do this because once upon a time, in a time that doesn’t exist anymore, five magical sisters loved their little brother so much they taught him how to read.

*My sisters knew Lochinvar personally and, two years in a row, two different sisters memorized his adventures — so I did, as well.   Even now, I still have a stanza or two.