Monday, April 28, 2008

Of Making Many Books there is No End: Home Library Organization, Part 1

Per Betsy's request, I am posting a series on "How to Organize your Personal Library" by a literarian-librarian-bibliophile. This is based on a presentation that I gave to a homeschool group in Iowa when I was a professional librarian about four years ago, though I have updated my thoughts based on what I have learned since then. I will be referring to several helpful books and websites in the process, and welcome all fresh insights!
I will begin with Why You Should Organize: The Theory, The Fact We Prefer to Deny, and The Gathered Assembly.

The Theory:
(from Patricia Jean Wagner, The Bloomsbury Review booklover's guide: a collection of tips, techniques, anecdotes, controversies & suggestions for the home library. Denver: Bloomsbury Review, 1996.)
“Booklovers read, and, therefore, think they know everything. They think they can milk cows, fly planes, grow orchids, and build sturdy, beautiful, inexpensive bookcases, relying only on the information they find in a book. If this were true, booklovers would be the richest, most physically attractive, longest-lived, and most influential group of people on the planet.” (Wagner 111)

The Fact We Prefer to Deny: (also from Wagner, p. 120)
“If your collection is growing, and you don’t weed at the same rate at which you acquire books, and you don’t build more shelves, you will run out of space.” (Wagner 120)

So how do we organize what we want to keep?

The Gathered Assembly:
Although many objects may be gathered to form a collection, books are unique because their identity and content may go a long ways in defining the multi-faceted character of their keeper. One’s past, formative reading is mingled with his present interests and future intentions, building thought upon thought and inviting conversation with any who observe the nature of the collection, or between oneself and the author. How else could you have tea with someone you have never met in person, whether dead or alive? Would you expect to form an intimate acquaintance with C. S. Lewis or Christina Rossetti and summon them to into your presence at will? Even kings are limited in such jurisdiction.

Collecting is a curious appetite. Is it the hunting or the having which brings pleasure? The hunt provides excuse to inquire at every bookshop whether there are any titles by Mrs. E. Prentiss available, any unusual illustrators of Alice in Wonderland, the potential for discovering the unanticipated, the developing of new acquaintances. But to have is to hold, with a story to tell when the volume is admired, the spreading of one’s reign, the satisfaction of possessing a pearl of great price.

(To be continued...)

Home Library Organization, Part 2
Home Library Organization, Part 3
Home Library Organization, Part 4
Home Library Organization, Part 5 
Home Library Organization Conclusion

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Oprah's Book Club

This is an addendum to the post below; I've done a bit of looking into the current Oprah's Book Club selection, and I was wrong to glibly categorize it as self-help. It appears to be Buddhist philosophy revamped for today's undiscerning reader. I hope Oprah isn't going that direction with her book club in general, but it does underscore the point that we must always be discerning readers--read what the national public reads (I frequently like to in part to have conversation topics with my neighbors), but be aware of who and what you're reading!!

I'm a member of a women's book club with other women from my church; we read the classics. For the months of April and May, we're tackling Anna Karenina. I overheard one of the women sheepishly confessing (or, rather, lamenting) to another that she could only find the recommended translation in an "Oprah's Book Club" copy.

I, for one, am very thankful for Oprah's Book Club and have no problem with publishers rushing new editions to major book stores with her book club emblem on the front cover. Why am I in favor of her club? While not every book on her list is one I might recommend (Midwives comes to mind), she has picked some outstanding books, both classics and modern fiction, over the last ten years. Cry, the Beloved Country, The Poisonwood Bible, Anna Karenina, and The Good Earth are each good examples of books which have been superbly written, are extremely thought-provoking, and were a pleasure to read. Others, like Night, aren't so "pleasurable" to read, but well worth reading for what they have to say. Oprah is bringing back to the public's attention some great books and people are reading again. Who can complain about that? Why feel guilty that we're helping support such a lofty endeavor? Anyone who will encourage the mass public to at least consider reading Anna Karenina should be applauded. She even has a link on her book club web page with ideas for starting your own book club.

When you see the Oprah's Book Club emblem or other nation-wide popular "book club" choices, don't immediately write them off. As I mentioned before, I do not recommend all of Oprah's choices (her current one is in the self-help category and I likely won't even pick it up; I'm also not a fan of Toni Morrison who appears on her list several times), but I do encourage you to consider some of her choices, perhaps even picking a few up to read. It's a good insight into what the nation is reading and might introduce you to a classic you thought would be boring (The Good Earth is a book I read simply because her emblem was on it--it was a great book!).

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

The Best Scones Ever

(post also published simultaneously at full tummies)

I realize that's a pretty boastful recipe title, but these scones are the best I've ever tasted or made (and I've made a lot of scones over the past 10 years or so and eaten my fair share actually in England/Scotland). In fact, a British lady I knew used to pay me to make these for her because she liked them better than any she could find in the local coffee shops here in the Southeast (U.S.).

The original recipe is from Country Baking, but I've made a few wee changes. I'll include my variations first in each case.

2 1/2 cups flour (white, white whole wheat, or combination--I've done all)
2 t. grated orange peel (~the zest of one medium-sized orange)
1 t. baking powder
1/2 t. baking soda
1/2 t. salt
1/2 c. butter
1/2 c. craisins, raisins, or currants
1/2 c. plain yogurt or sour cream
1/3 c. honey
1 egg, slightly beaten

1. Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Grease baking sheet*; set aside.
2. Combine flour, orange peel, baking powder, baking soda, and salt in large bowl. Cut in butter with pastry blender or 2 knives until mixture resembles coarse crumbs. Stir in craisins/raisins/currants. Combine yogurt/sour cream, honey, and egg in medium bowl until well blended. Stir into flour mixture until soft dough forms. Turn out dough onto lightly floured surface. Knead dough 10 times. Shape dough into 8-inch square. Cut into 4 squares; cut each square diagonally in half, making 8 triangles. Place triangles 1-inch apart on baking sheet.
3. Bake 15 to 20 minutes or until golden brown and wooden pick inserted in center comes out clean (scones will have risen slightly and will begin to split every so slightly along the sides when done). Remove from baking sheet. Cool on wire rack 10 minutes. Serve warm or cool completely. These also freeze well once cooled. To thaw, simply remove from freezer the night before. You can also underbake them slightly and then freeze (once they've cooled). Once thawed, pop them back in the oven for a minute or two to finish browning and to warm up.
4. Serve with butter, lemon curd, strawberry jam, be really authentic...clotted cream. Mmmm.... These are perfect for breakfast or tea time.

*I highly recommend a stoneware baking sheet (which does not need to be greased); it has made a big difference for me with these scones. They rise higher and seem to cook better all the way around on a stone sheet.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Sue Monk Kidd: The Secret Life of Bees

Currently drinking Twinings' Earl Gray--good if you get a fresh box.

Sue Monk Kidd is a relatively new Southern writer. The Secret Life of Bees (Bees) (2002) is her first work of fiction, a work that has been a tremendous success by all secular accounts. On the New York Times Bestseller list for more than 2 years, it has been chosen by countless book clubs.

Kidd herself sums up the novel with the word "Homecoming," although many other reviews usually describe this novel as a coming of age story. In fact, Kidd's web page describes it as such: "powerful story of coming-of- age, race-relations, the ability of love to transform our lives and the often unacknowledged longing for the universal feminine divine, the novel tells the story of a fourteen year old Lily, who runs away with her black housekeeper in 1964 in South Carolina and the sanctuary they both find in the home of three eccentric beekeeping sisters."

There is no doubt that Kidd has genuine talent; my favorite feature, if you will, of the novel is Kidd's amazing characterization of Lily, Rosaleen (her black housekeeper and surrogate mother), Zach (a young black boy), and the three bee-keeping sisters (August, May, and June). I found myself continuing to read long after the plot ceased being appealing simply because I was enjoying the time with these quirky characters. As is typical of much Southern fiction, SLB centers on the relationships the protagonist has with these characters and her father, T. Ray; there is racial tension and reconciliation, intergenerational angst, and spiritual connection between characters.

The plot of Bees felt a bit contrived for me, like Kidd was trying too hard. If Kidd wasn't such a talented author on the characterization and setting front, then the book would fall flat. On the surface, it's rather typical of most coming-of-age stories: girl's mother dies when she's little, father is mean, she runs away and "finds herself" in a new group of people/vocation. The end.

What Kidd does, though, that makes this plot jump off the predictability diving board and land, with a large splash, into the pool of "out there" is her emphasis on the divine feminine. The motif of the Black Madonna is present almost from the beginning of the novel; a picture of her is one of Lily's only mementos of her late mother. The quest to find this Black Madonna, hoping it will be a clue to her mother's life, is partly what drives Lily throughout the book. The bee keepers are the source of the picture as they put this picture on all the labels of the honey they make. But it's more than that: they have a black figurehead from a ship that they worship (no other word for it, really), they have a group called the Daughters of Mary, and they talk about Mary all the time. The idea of the divine feminine is so pervasive in this book, it's inescapable. It's a little too much for me to really enjoy the book. What I found so especially disturbing was the conclusion at the end of the book.

(Spoiler Alert)
I'm glad Kidd refused the temptation to make things end perfectly for Lily; her mother was indeed a sinner like the rest of us. Lily herself has committed a large atrocity/crime. Yet, for August to tell Lily that the answer lies within herself (within Lily) was the nail in the coffin for this book for me. The answer does not lie in ourselves. We, in and of ourselves, are not strong enough to meet all of life's demands. Kidd goes one step further from this typical sentiment and claims that Mary is in each of us, helping us to live better.

Kidd has written other books, most notably in its connection to the philosophy and theology behind Bees, is her earlier nonfiction work, The Dance of the Dissident Daughter. I'll end with the summary of this book as written on her website: "With the exceptional storytelling skills that have helped make her name, the acclaimed author ... tells her very personal story of the fear, anger, healing, and freedom she experienced on the path toward the wholeness that women have lost within patriarchal faith traditions. From a jarring encounter with sexism in a suburban drugstore, to monastery retreats and to rituals in the caves of Crete, she reveals a new level of feminine spiritual consciousness for all women— one that retains a meaningful connection with the “deep song of Christianity,” embraces the sacredness of ordinary women’s experience, and has the power to transform in the most positive ways every fundamental relationship in a woman’s life— her marriage, her career, and her religion."

Friday, April 4, 2008

Year of Wonders by Geraldine Brooks

Currently drinking Ugandan tea which my parents brought back for me from a recent trip. mmmm

Year of Wonders
by Geraldine Brooks is a troubling book for me to review. Perhaps because I read it so close on the heels of Stepping Heavenward, the portrayal of the protagonist's struggle with her faith during a year of unimaginable struggle, trial, and loss left something to be desired.

YOW is a riveting, historical fictive account of a small English village during 1665-1666 that chooses to isolate itself in order to prevent spreading the Plague to neighboring cities and towns. (There really was such a town: Eyam.) The rector and his wife, along with Anna Frith, the protagonist, are the backbone of support, care, and faith for the other villagers as they quickly lose two thirds of their number. Brooks does an excellent job of keeping the suspense going throughout the book while giving the reader a feel for the slow pace of life a 17th century village might have.

During their struggle with the Plague, the villagers struggle profoundly with faith, superstition, ignorance, and loyalty to one another. Terrible things happen. Redemption is brought about. People live and die. But, here is where Brooks fails me as an author.... (the ending will be revealed in the next paragraph, so stop reading if you plan to read the book!)

Brooks is a secular author who has spent quite a bit of time as a foreign correspondent in the Middle East as well as much time researching this book in England. Therefore, it should have been no surprise to me that a book which has a strong feminist undercurrent should, in the end, place the protagonist in a setting that shows a female triumphing over her circumstances; I have no problems with that necessarily. That the rector is proven to be a complete hypocrite, and Anna ends up finding comfort and meaning in an Islamic community on the Mediterranean seemed to me to undermine so much of the struggle these people when through during a real time in history. I truly can't imagine watching my husband and two children die, my friends die, my neighbors turn against each other, and finally have to run for my life. Yet, I'd like to think I would face these trials more as Katy (Stepping Heavenward) did, turning to Christ in all of them, than as Anna did--left only holding out a vague hope of something better at the end. Up until the last couple of chapters, this book was a terrific read, very educational as well as enjoyable. Brooks gave in to modern society's preference for faiths other than the true one and its interest in strong female characters that can raise children without a loving husband.

Tuesday, April 1, 2008

Another "Revolution" sample

(What I'm reading: The Dark Hills Divide by Patrick Carman)

I’m catching up on describing some of the interesting teas I have tried lately. My next Revolution tea sample is Dragon Eye Oolong, a very unusual and distinctively flavored tea. It tasted green, flowery, fruity, smoky and dignified, just what I can imagine Smaug drinking while he hoarded his treasure. I don’t have much experience with Oolong yet so I’m not sure how this compares to others (I’ll let you know). It’s a bold, wild tea, not quite calming for evening or meditative for Scripture reading and prayer, but worth experiencing if you’re ready for something really different.

I'll post book reviews soon, I promise!

Republic of Tea, bottled and iced

I know this is not Betsy's favorite brand of tea, but it still works for me.

Malls create a natural environment for indulgence, and after several hours visiting one overgrown shopping center, I needed cold, unsweetened refreshment. I happened to stop by one store that carried bottles of Republic of Tea Passionfruit Green Tea, which just hit the spot that day. Although I’m not usually a green tea fan (though I might learn to adjust, given the right inducements and varieties), this did not have a strong “green” flavor. It tasted more like light, unsweetened fruit juice, with the right amount of tea-ness I desired. I am also fond of several Celestial Seasonings herbal iced teas, and this was a similar experience. It is expensive (over $3.00 for 12 oz. at this venue), but perfectly suited to my need. Definitely one I’ll try again (or maybe another flavor next time…).