The Secret Lives of Books

I love used books.  Bonus points if they have writing in them or other markings.  I bought a used copy of Good Morning: 365 Positive Ways to Start Your Day by Brook Noel, and inside the book is a handwritten note to Laurie, wishing her a happy birthday, and a good day everyday.


The note made me a little sad.  I wonder who Laurie is, and why she gave up the book.  I imagine she was a teenager, and that she didn’t want a book in the first place.  Or maybe a girlfriend gave Laurie the book, and when they broke up, she disposed of anything that reminded her of that relationship.  Perhaps the book just got mixed in with a stack of things headed for Goodwill, and even now, Laurie wonders what happened to it.

I’ll probably never know.

A friend recently recommended People of the Book, by Geraldine Brooks.  I didn’t know what to expect when I read the back cover, and I didn’t expect to like it much.  I read it anyway, since I know that it’s happened to me (more than once) that a book I didn’t expect to like ended up on my list of favorites.


This book was fantastic.

It’s about a Haggadah, which is a Jewish book telling how to perform Passover Sedar.  This particular book is about the Sarajevo Haggadah, which is a real book and one of the earliest Jewish books to be illustrated.  This story mixes fact with fiction.

In this story, Hanna is a conservationist who is commissioned to stabilize and preserve this ancient book.  In it, she finds a butterfly’s wing, a hair, a wine stain, and salt.  As she tries to piece together the book’s history from these items, the author takes us back to each even in the book’s existence, telling us what may have happened in its history.

I hate history.  Hate it.  In school, any time I had to read my history textbook, I would literally fall asleep.  To me, it’s all a bunch of dry facts that don’t matter.

The history in this book, however, is alive with humanity.  The peoples’ stories didn’t happen, but they could have.

I love the idea that this book bears silent witness to history.  That’s the reason I love used books and antiques.  Though they can’t tell me their stories, those stories are etched in their energies somehow.  And I’m connected to those stories.  I don’t have to know and understand to feel that connection.

“Of course, a book is more than the sum of its materials.  It is an artifact of the human mind and hand.”

-Geraldine Brooks, from People of the Book

T is for These Happy Golden Years

Unknown-7These Happy Golden Years, by Laura Ingalls Wilder, is the 6th of the 8 books in the Little House on the Prairie series.  I read them all as a child, and then again a few years ago, but These Happy Golden Years is the one that stuck with me.  I re-read it every year or two, and my copy is so well-loved that I have book tape keeping it together.

I went through a time in my later teenage years/ young adult years where I couldn’t get enough romance novels.  Most romance novels these days rely on explicit sex scenes to keep the tension high.  Part of that is that there’s more sex in dating than there was in the 1870s.  Part of it, I think, is that people have forgotten that romance should be… romantic.

This book isn’t a romance novel.  It’s about 15-17 year old Laura, who starts teaching school.  She’s growing up, and part of that is that the older Almanzo Wilder is wooing her. He starts driving her home from the school where she lives on weekends, driving hours through blizzards without asking more than her company.

This contrast with other books I was reading really struck me.  It didn’t rely on words to show affection; it relied on action.  At one point, Laura tells him straight out that she’s not interested in him, and he still continues to be nice to her.

I thought that there had to be sex in romance novels, and maybe that’s what romance readers expect.  But this book helped me realize that I can write a book with romance without getting into all the mechanics of it.  I don’t object to sex scenes, but I think that paying attention to other, more subtle kinds of romance, can have a much larger payoff.

The books are written in a straightforward manner, with simple language and phrases.  It doesn’t rely on flowery words or imagery.  The books just tell the story, and allow the reader to enjoy it.  I love relaxing with these books like I’m relaxing with an old friend.

It took me years to realize that I was also learning some history along with the books.

If I had to read historical fiction in high school instead of that dry history, I would have retained more.

Just sayin’.

Anyway, it’s my favorite book in the series.

Did you read these books?  Do you have a favorite?


Not Realistic Enough?

Desert Botanical Gardens, Phoenix AZ Photo credit: Doree Weller

Desert Botanical Gardens, Phoenix AZ
Photo credit: Doree Weller

I recently reread one of my all time favorite books from when I was a kid, Baby Island by Carol Ryrie Brink.  Out of curiosity, I went on Amazon and read the reviews of the book, and was a little surprised that people commented that the book was unrealistic.  A ten year old and twelve year old get launched on the lifeboat and stranded with 4 babies… of course it’s not realistic… and who cares?

I don’t read books for realism.  If I want realism, I go to work, where it’s real every day.  If I wanted realism, I’d read or watch the news.  (Though it’s debatable how realistic the news is, since they play one story over and over and over and don’t report everything).

Books are an escape to a better time and place.  I recently read The Glimmer Palace, by Beatrice Colin.  While it was a good book, with well-drawn characters, and ultimately was a compelling read, I felt gypped.  The back promised an “orphan girl’s journey from poverty to film stardom, set against the grand backdrop of World War I Berlin, the cabaret era, the run-up to World War II.”  What I got was a novel that felt like largely historical fiction.  It was gritty and dirty.  I learned much about the wars and the poverty, but not very much about cabaret or silent films.  The book promised a payoff that (I felt) it never delivered.  But the book felt realistic.

Bah!  Who needs it?

Some people like realistic fiction, and while I’m all about things making sense in the context of the universe created, I personally want happily ever after.  Of course, if I’m reading horror, I want to be scared.  I guess I just want to know what to expect; there’s a difference between living up to my expectations and being predictable.  I prefer an interesting journey that might make me doubt the destination, but ultimately pays off my expectations.

I don’t like it when reading a book is like expecting to go on vacation to a tropical paradise and ending up on an iceberg.  Neither are bad, but if I’m expecting to end up on the beach, I want to end up on the beach.  I’d go on vacation to an iceberg, but I’d know what I was going into before I started the journey.

Realism is overrated.  Expectation is not.

How do you feel about realism in what you read?