Winnowing Books the Slow Way, by Reading Them

28 May

I talked about letting go of several hundred books in “my recent post, Winnowing the Books, Part I.”  I also kept a lot of books—favorites, reference books, art books, signed book—as well as books I hadn’t yet read but at least wanted to check out. My goal is to read what I have and only purchase new books if they are written by friends or add value to me as I actively pursue current interests.

I have a shelf dedicated to these unread books, and I am working my way through them before deciding their individual fates. It’s the slowest form of downsizing but allowable as long as space permits.

Here are five I’ve recently completed with the reasons I kept them (personal history), a short review, and next steps for each book (verdict).  They are an eclectic lot. Each was written at a different time, and none by an American. Two are fiction, and three are memoir, a genre I don’t often read. I’ve presented them in chronological order by date written.

1. Bolivian Spy? by Roy Sheffield, aka the “Essex Cricketer.” London: Marchand Press, 1935 (first edition). Hardback, no book jacket.   Memoir.

Personal history. Inscribed to my mother. “Good luck, Joey.” In art school, my mother was known as “Joey,” after Jo in Little Women. It wasn’t her actual name, but later she changed her first name to Josephine to reflect the full version of that nickname. I remember her mentioning to me that she once had a boyfriend who was a cricketer. I’m guessing that Roy was he. Hence, the book seemed worth at least a peruse to connect with my mother’s past.

Review. This book is a memoir of Mr. Sheffield’s adventures over a period of some months in the jungles of South America, where he went with a plan to canoe a river in Uruguay. Although this particular goal prooved to be unworkable for a variety of reasons, he nevertheless had a memorable journey, meeting both native people and crusty transplants from elswhere. The book is well-written and engaging. I marveled at Roy’s willingness to tackle difficult and at times dangerous pursuits. I am not surprised my mother found this man intriguing. According to coments on Goodreads, Roy still has somewhat of a following.  

Verdict: I’m glad I read it as a piece of family history, but I wish I’d read it while my mother was still alive, so I could have asked her more about Roy. I will give this book to my niece, who has expressed an interest in it.

2. My American Adventure by Erna Barschak. New York: Ives Washburn, 1945. Hardback, no dust jacket, spine broken.

Personal history. This book was given to my English mother by her sister and husband, who had been living in Dallas, Texas for some years. I am guessing that the prospect of our family coming to the US to live was already In the works. It is from my parents’ book shelf.

Review. Written in 1945 in a breezy style, this firs person narrative describes the acculturation of a German native, who came as a refugee to the USA early during WWII. We first meet the middle-aged Erna, a psychologiest by training, as she arrives in the US, attempts to find a job, and eventually ends up at a college in a small town in Ohio. Each chapter offers observations of American life and culture as she encounters it, sometimes with funny results, in various settings and contrasts it with the ways of the “Old World.” Erna gamely tries to fit in although it is not always easy for her. What I found most fascinating is what has changed and what has stayed the same since the 1940s especially in how young adults behave.

Verdict. If I were going to write something set in this time period, I might keep this book as a reference. But since that event is unlikely, it will go in the donation pile.

3. A Severed Head by Iris Murdoch. New York: Viking Press, 1961. Hardback. Fiction.

Personal history. From my parent’s book shelf.

Review. A classic from this well-known British author, A Severed Head features a cast of unlikeable, well-to-do characters, whose whose farcical odd pairings and re-pairings become more outrageous as the story progresses. Taken at face value, some readers might find the general premise too outlandish to maintain interest, but viewed as a satire of the mores of its time, it is both amusing and clever. It kept me engaged, and the writing is superb.

Verdict. I liked it. I didn’t love it. No need to keep this now I’ve read it. Donation pile.

4. Owls Do Cry by Janet Frame. Great Britain: The Women’s Press, 1985. Paperback. Fiction.

Personal hstory. A gift from my niece, but not sure how long ago. Although I always try to read books give to me as gifts, apparentely I had overlooked this one because it was not familiar to me as I read it.

Review. Owls Do Cry was New Zealander Janet Frame’s first novel and presents the story of four children—Francie, Toby, Daphne, and Chicks-- growing up in a poor, but educated family in New Zealand. The novel is told in the children’s different voices over time, as they grow up and separate but still remain entwined with each other in various ways. Frame’s writing is descriptive and poetic. It took me awhile to get into the book because of the initial density of language, but these distinct and memorable characters kept me drawn in.

Verdict. It’s a thin volume, and because of its use of language, I may keep it for awhile for inspiration.

5. How to Be a Woman by Caitlin Moran. Ebury Press, 2011. Paperback.  Memoir.

Personal history. I am ashamed to say that I am not quite sure of how this one came into my possession. It was either a gift from my niece, or she left it behind for me to read after one of her visits from Scotland.

Review. Caitlin Morin grew up home-schooled, the oldest of eight children living in public housing in England, and became a columnist for The London Times. Her memoir is organized chronologically, beginning with her childhood, with each chapter focused on a predominant personal theme for her at that time.  Chapters titles include: I Start Bleeding (about having her first period), I Am a Feminist, I Am Fat, and I Get Married. The last 100 pages are more of a diatribe on her favorite subjects relating to womanhood, such as why we should or shouldn’t have children and abortion. Her writing is hilarious, sharp, no holds barred, and laden with British references and expressions.

Verdict.  This woman is fierce and funny! I’m glad I read it, but I think this one will also be headed to the donation pile.

Next up on the to-be-read shelf: The Spanglers (a novel about Lancaster, PA, where I grew up, and the Civil War, given to my parents in 1951, the year after they moved to Lancaster from England); The Berlin Stories by Christopher Isherwood (a discard from my husband’s book shelf); and Dreams from My Father by Barack Obama (bought by me not long after he was elected President.)

We’ll see how this continuing experiment goes and whether I get tired of focusing on the past rather than what’s current.

What's on your shelf?

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