Norway — Books as far as the eye can see.

I read a lot of books. Aside from a brief fanfic stint in my early teens, I’ve largely left writing one to the experts. I don’t have the time, the original ideas, or the patience to put thoughts to paper and then see it through to an actual published book. Hats off to the people who do, though, we wouldn’t all be here listening to me blather on about books if you didn’t.

All that said, though, I know at least at a basic level what it takes to go from a Word document of jumbled plot points, character sheets, place descriptions, and hand drawn maps to succeeding (or, more probably, failing) at getting something published. It takes up-front money, a lot of patience, and a lot of luck. Publishers don’t like to take chances on things that seem too out-of-the-ordinary, and so a lot of truly valuable books die on the vine. Sometimes a book gets published and then, for any number of reasons, goes overlooked by the general public and the author is politely shown the door by the agency, even if what they’ve published is valuable. Let’s not get into the gamble that is publishing a book (or, several books as it usually takes) and then actually making money from doing so. Or, heaven forbid, making enough money to live off of. Perish the thought.

I ran into a little factoid on Reddit a few weeks/months/I don’t remember how long ago about Norway that I didn’t know before. Perhaps people who are more worldly than I am already knew this, but I am only mortal and can’t get to all the places I would like to visit in my lifetime on a part-time library aide paycheck. Norway is actually extremely friendly, extremely positive, and extremely supportive of authors, books, and reading. The single factoid I ran across that led me on this journey of discovery was that Norway’s Arts Council actually purchases 1,000 copies of every Norwegian book published and donates them to libraries across their country. The idea behind this is to encourage Norwegian authors to publish books, to safeguard Norwegian cultural items, and to provide authors something of a reliable wage for their efforts. Being a library worker myself and seeing how poorly libraries in America are treated in terms of funding and demands, the idea that the nation is so supportive of libraries and authors is phenomenal.

Some additional pro-book factoids about Norway I uncovered include that it boasts a 100% adult literacy level, 93% of adults in Norway report reading at least one book last year, and 40% of those having read more than 10. When compared with the literacy rate in the United States (79% as of last year) or the number of adults who read just a single book in a year (72% in 2018, I was unable to locate statistics for 2019) I found those statistics fascinating, inspiring, and encouraging. At my small library, movies and video games are checked out far more than a book, any book at all. As someone who really loves reading and who tries to encourage everyone to read, it’s somewhat disheartening to see. I just want people to enjoy my hobby, man.

Another super interesting literacy-forward factoid about Norway is that there are so many books, bookshops, and book-minded people there that there are many small towns that boast more books than people. Mundal, in western Norway, has a population of 280 people (you really have to love your neighbors there), but contains more than 150,000 books. Free libraries, book shelves, and book shops line its streets. Most books sold in this town are used, as the residents believe strongly in preserving old books in an increasingly digital age. As someone who almost exclusively buys used books, this is an effort I support.

So, I suppose in closing, if you want to visit someplace as bookish as you are, consider Norway. If Norway wants to sponsor me doing a travelogue from your beautiful country, call me! 🙂

Source links, for additional reading:

Why Norway is the best place in the world to be a writer

The scintillating Norwegian publishing scene

Book towns are made for book lovers

This picturesque Norwegian town has so many more books than residents that roadside libraries and bookshelves line the streets

Three books from my to-read list.

There was a time not so long ago when I thought the only books I liked were sci-fi books and fantasy books. I was convinced — utterly convinced! — that there was nothing for me in any other genre out there. Why would I want to read about real life, or even fictitious real life, when I could read about, I dunno, dragons or space ships? This was a fact of the universe that could not be changed, until I had a supervisor several years ago recommend a fiction book to me (The One-in-a-Million Boy actually). I read it in like two days, and boy did it ever broaden my literary horizons.

Today I have a to-read list on Goodreads that’s 253 items long and growing almost daily. It’s become more of a shortlist I pick from when I need something to read more than a list I have a feasible chance of working through in my lifetime. I’ve got a little bit of everything featured on this shortlist, fiction and nonfiction alike. Topics are all over the board, as I quickly discovered that even mundane sounding topics can be super interesting with the right writer.

I thought maybe I’d do a feature once a month (or twice a month?) where I take three random books off my to-read list and talk about what got them there. Maybe I’ll even sell you on some of these books too.

The Aquariums of Pyongyang by Kang Chol-Hwan & Pierre Rigoulot

I discovered last year that I have a particular fascination with North Korean memoirs, nonfiction accounts, and other stories from this reclusive country. It’s tragic what the government has done to its people and its country in its blind isolationism. I’ve read five other memoirs from escapees and other perspectives into North Korea, and I’m always struck by how mistreated its citizens are, through abject poverty, terrible living conditions, starvation, work camps, the list goes on. It’s really sad. When I read those other five books last year, I read them one after the other and needed to take a break from the topic when I was done. This one will be my return to it, eventually.

The Diary of Lady Murasaki by Murasaki Shikibu

This one is an interesting inclusion on my list. Way back in the way back of 2017 I read an adaptation of Journey to the West (where the Monkey King character you see in many other books, movies, anime, and video games these days originates). I liked it well enough, but one of the suggestions Goodreads offered up when I was done with it was this interesting person. Murasaki Shikibu was the author of The Tale of Genji, commonly thought to be the world’s first novel, and written sometime before 1021 AD. Murasaki is not her real name as her real name is unknown. This diary was written by her before she completed The Tale of Genji and covers the period of time she spent at the imperial court. She sounds like a fascinating person, as she was fluent at reading and writing, unheard of for women in that time period.

Mutiny on the Bounty by Charles Nordhoff & James Norman Hall

Nautical adventure! I’m not sure there’s much more that needs to be said. I’m a big fan of the water, of boats, and of adventures, so it seems only natural to include this on my list of things to read. We had a discussion about nautical books in the Book Lover’s Club Discord server I’m in last month, and this was one of the (many) that I added that night. Other books added that night include Master and Commander by Patrick O’Brian, and Richiard Bolitho – Midshipman by Alexander Kent and Douglas Reeman. Some of these are heavier on the lingo and the details than others, but I don’t mind. Adventure books are cool.

So there you go, three books off my to-read list! I’m sure I have stories for all 200+ on the list, so I’m sure I’ll revisit this topic again!

I know why the wind-up bird sings.

I admit it, I’m a big Murakami nerd. I know, I can hear your eyes rolling from here, but I promise I’m not the pretentious type that only reads it in public with the cover prominently displayed. I don’t dramatically adjust my glasses (much) and start talking about the symbolism of wells and water and how everything in the book has meaning even if it doesn’t seem to make sense. I’ll be the first to admit that a lot of Murakami’s more obscure reference and allusions go over my rural public school head.

But I still love Murakami.

I had been putting off reading The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle for a year or so, for reasons I don’t really recall anymore. I added it to my Definitely Read These in 2020 shelf on Goodreads, and decided to read it over the quarantine period, mostly because everyone in my book club Discord server told me how good it was. I’m very glad I listened.

At its core, the book’s message is about avoiding stagnation in your life. The main character (whose name is mentioned repeatedly but is still forgettable, by design I think) leads a mundane, aimless life. He’s jobless, without goals or ambitions, and doesn’t seem very keen on changing that. He’s not lazy exactly, maybe adrift is a better word? He’s married too, but his marriage seems passionless and emotionless. A phonecall (one of several, Murakami uses the telephone as a literary device) sets him on a new course, and most of the book is devoted to him being put into increasingly uncomfortable and bizarre circumstances as he tries to hold on desperately to his stagnant life. The book’s climax comes when he realizes that he *has* to move forward, and to do that he has to confront all the things that had been threatening him up to that point. It’s only then that his life, stagnant and unmoving up until then, finally starts moving on.

Of course, Murakami does what Murakami does and frosts that core message with beautiful imagery, themes, allusions, and a whole host of characters that really double as something (or someone) else in his life. There’s a lot to unpack in his books, and he is one of the only writers that I would willingly re-read (I never re-read books, truth). His writing style is super unique, and I find it super compelling as well. Either you really click with it, or you really don’t.

This ended up on my list of favorites for this year. 5 stars, would definitely read again.

Not exactly wuxia, not exactly unwelcome.

What up book nerds! I realize I’ve been quiet for a week or more now, but we had a hot water heater breathe its last breath (gurgle its last….gurgle?) and I’ve been helping my husband with the fallout projects. I’m getting a new laundry area out of the deal, so it felt appropriate to pitch in.

Unfortunately because I’ve been doing that, I haven’t had as much time to read as I normally do, and I’ve been reading some truly monster-sized books, so my forward progress on my book goals for the year is basically nil. I did, however, have an ARC opportunity fall in my lap for Zen Cho’s The Order of the Pure Moon Reflected in Water thanks to NetGalley and MacMillan Tor/Forge publishing, and I couldn’t pass up a cover like that. It’s gorgeous. Fortunately it was also a short novella (I think it came in at 160 pages or something like that), so I was able to knock it out in a few days.

The book blurb claimed it was for wuxia fans, but I found very little wuxia in the actual book. For people who are unaware of what the wuxia genre is, it’s a Chinese word literally translated as “martial heroes” and encompasses martial arts adventures. Think Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, or any other movie/book you’ve read where the weapons and moves are all named, the action is exaggerated and fantastical, and sometimes there’s some humor involved. This novella had very little of any of that, but despite not getting what I was expecting, I greatly enjoyed my time with this book. Where I expected fantastical fight scenes, I got a quiet and thoughtful story about motives, relationships, theology, and what makes a family. The author also includes some LGBT themes which I think were handled well. I’m taking great care to not leave spoilers here, but I will say that I found the ending touching and a satisfying conclusion to this short novella.

In terms of shortcomings, I will say that this book was light on descriptions and details. Places, actions, and characters are all very minimally introduced and described, which sometimes made it difficult for me to “see” how things were playing out. Things also (by novella necessity, I guess) play out rather quickly, and some character developments and motives take place more rapidly than maybe is believable. I found it easy to overlook a lot of these flaws, though, because I was enjoying the novella so much.

I rated this 4 stars on Goodreads for how much I enjoyed it despite not finding the wuxia elements I expected based on the blurb. I took a star off for those missing elements, and also the minor shortcomings I pointed out above. If anything I’ve said here sounds interesting to you (even if it’s the cover art alone), I recommend giving this novella a try. Let me know what you think!

What I’ve been reading this week.

I haven’t forgotten about this already, I swear. I was feeling under the weather this weekend, and didn’t have the energy to post. We’re back to our regularly unscheduled program now, or should be anyway.

Just to touch on briefly what I’ve been reading, here’s a weekly(ish) roundup! I’ll try and do this weekly, but we’ll see how things go. I have post ideas lined up, I just have to actually, y’know, do the thing about writing them.

The Count of Monte Cristo – Alexandre Dumas (pg. 343/1276)

I’m making good time through this book, despite it being so long and taking some time off the last few days to rest. It’s a surprisingly easy read for it being both a classic book and so long, but I suppose if it were boring and dense I wouldn’t be bothering with it. The plot lagged a little in the beginning while the author set the stage, but now that Dantes is well on his path of benevolence and revenge it’s moving fairly quickly. I’m super interested to see how he deals with the people who wronged him, as up until now he’s just been visiting kindness on his friends and benefactors. I also am very unfamiliar with the plot past this point, so I’m excited to fill in this huge book-shaped hole in my classics knowledge.

The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle – Haruki Murakami (pg. 146/607)

On the other side of the coin, I’m slowly making my way through this book. It’s a good book, but deep, and requires my two brain cells to do more than they’re accustomed to in order to really get meaning out of what I’m reading. Because I was sick I put this one on the back burner a little bit, but I’m eager to put some serious time into it. I’ll be up front and say that it isn’t grabbing me as much as other Murakami books have, but someone on my Instagram post (@eric.in.words) pointed out that it’s a book that you don’t realize you like it so much until you’re done with it. I pondered that for a minute and realized that that’s my feelings for a lot of his works. They aren’t in-the-moment grabbers, but books you think a lot about when you’re done. It was encouraging to hear, and I’m planning on enjoying the ride and assessing my feelings about it when I’m done.

And that’s really all I made progress on this week. I also have an audiobook on hold, but because I haven’t really gone anywhere (thanks COVID-19!) I haven’t really had an opportunity to finish it off.

Thanks to my cat Cleo for being such a patient book prop.

Why I’m interested in The Pavement Bookworm, and you should be too.

In my quest for more blog material, I stumbled on an Instagram photo posted by @thediaryofaclassteacher with a guy sitting on a curb in South Africa, a stack of books at his side, and the caption claiming that he reviews books for anyone passing by who’s interested. I, a born-and-bred internet skeptic, thought to myself, “nahhhh this photo’s either staged or misrepresented or something“. You should always be wary of something you read on the internet, but maybe not in this case.

Meet Philani Dladla, resident of Johannesburg, South Africa. Formerly homeless, formerly addicted to drugs, and survivor of an extremely difficult life on the streets, he decided he needed to save himself and make something of himself — and he did that through books. Refusing to beg and with a book collection he had been carefully creating and reading since the age of 12, Philani created a mobile library. Not only lending books, he started reading and reviewing his books, using those reviews to entice motorists along Empire Road in Johannesburg.

Philani’s story made it out of Johnnesburg thanks to a documentary filmmaker Tebogo Malope, who interviewed Philani and posted the interview video online. Viral videos being what they are, his story about surviving a life of homelessness and drug addiction through his love of books spread quickly.

He published an autobiography in 2015 called “The Pavement Bookworm”, and many people call it extremely inspiring. I’ve added it to my To Read list and hope to get to it soon. He also has a charity page up where he lists some of his book reviews, and raises money and book donations to help pay it forward to other struggling adults and children in South Africa.

Noteworthy links:

SA People News: The unlikely story of The Pavement Bookworm

Pavement Bookworm: Official Site

Philani Dladla TED Talk, 2014 Johannesburg

Happy birthday, Patience and Fortitude!

I have never made the pilgrimage to the New York Public Library, but I’ve seen enough movies and looked at enough images to recognize the two iconic lion statues out front. In fact, Fortitude in particular played a large part of my childhood for his opening shot in Ghostbusters. At the time, though, I had no idea they had names, and it wasn’t until just a few years ago that I learned that these two iconic statues had names. Meet Patience (on the south side of the entrance) and Fortitude (on the north side of the entrance).

This majestic pair happens to be 109 years old today, and were carved by the Piccirilli Brothers in 1911. The Piccirilli Brothers were paid $5,000 for their contribution to the New York Public Library’s front door, and they carved them out of pink Tennessee Marble. They’ve been cleaned and restored periodically throughout their lives, most recently in 2019.

What I hadn’t known until researching this pair was that Patience and Fortitude are not their original names. Instead, they were named Leo Astor and Leo Lenox, after the founders of the New York Public Library (John Jacob Astor and James Lenox). Their names were changed in the 1930s by the mayor of New York to Patience and Fortitude, because he felt these were two qualities the residents needed to get through the Great Depression.

So give a thought to this majestic pair of library mascots on this day, the day of their christening, as you open your book to read. They’ve seen over a century(!) of New York history and become an iconic representation of one of the best-known libraries in the United States. It’s pretty incredible when you think about it!

For some further reading:

New York Public Library: The Library Lions

New York Public Library: The New York Public Library’s Iconic Lions Are Restored, Repaired, and Ready to Roar

Classic New York History: New York Public Library Lions: Patience and Fortitude

Top Cats: The Life and Times of the New York Public Library Lions

I’m here to ruin the magic of book covers.

The phrase “never judge a book by its cover” doesn’t really mean a whole lot in the literary world. Books live and die by how eye-catching and unique their covers are, how well they stick out to consumers browsing bookshelves. Imagine the last time you were in a bookstore, library, or otherwise browsing books. Was it a particular color, a particular style, a particular layout that made you pull that copy off the shelf? I’d like to say that I’m immune to all the gimmicks publishers use to get someone to buy their books, but I’m just as guilty as the next person of being suckered into pulling a book off a shelf solely based on the cover.

I never really stopped to consider what goes into the making of a book cover, and maybe assumed (naively?) that it was like any other art form — each was its own unique snowflake in a blizzard called a bookstore. But then my friends started reading Neil deGrasse Tyson’s Astrophysics for People in a Hurry (which I also read back in 2017) and one of them pointed out that the cover looked familiar to another book they knew of. Suddenly, the magic of book covers was ruined for me. And now I’m here to ruin it for anyone else who was like me, with literary blinders on.

What I learned from probing a bit deeper into this strange new factoid I had stumbled on is that, much like anything else in the modern world, book covers rely heavily on templates and stock photography. The same small cohort of photographers crop up time and time again in the credits of book cover images, and their photographs are added to stock image packages that many designers pull from. These stock images are then applied again and again, because if it isn’t broke, why fix it?

Like most things in life now, the essence of a book cover has been distilled and watered down by marketing professionals everywhere to include only the basic items necessary to appeal to the most adults possible (curiously, children’s and YA books seem immune to this formulaic approach). Book covers go through trends, where some years the fad is handscript titles with simple handmade illustrations (think John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars), other years the single-object-on-white-background is appealing (Malcom Gladwell says hi). When marketers and book designers tap into these trends, they tend to run with them, and run them into the ground. What we’re left with in today’s world of same-ism are a lot of covers that start to become indistinguishable from each other.

My dad had a wall of books when I was growing up, mostly pulp sci-fi from the 60s, 70s, and 80s. I remember looking through a lot of those book covers and wondering at how different they all were from each other. I don’t know why I hadn’t noticed this trend of book cover cloning before, but now that it’s been pointed out to me, I can’t unsee it. Certainly there’s exceptions to the rule, but the bestsellers all have similar covers. Probably for a reason.

Interesting related links:

Entertainment Weekly: Books with strangely similar covers

Eye on Design: Why do so many book covers look the same? Blame Getty Images

The Atlantic: Book cover clones: Why do so many recent novels look alike?

The New Yorker: The decline and fall of the book cover

What I’ve been reading this week.

I’m still in the process of cementing a schedule for this blog, but one of the things I do want to consistently include is a weekly recap of what I’ve been reading. I think this will let me better cement my thoughts about my books, and you guys are a captive audience anyway and are subject to my whims and fancy. I’m thinking Saturday is a good day for this, mostly because today is Saturday and it seemed like a good idea today. This is how most of my ideas work, actually. I’ll try and keep it spoiler free as best I can.

The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle – Haruki Murakami (pg. 56/607)

Not the easiest author to read, but still consistently one of my favorites. Haruki Murakami’s style is very surreal, and can be a lot to unpack sometimes. Even though The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle is one of his better known works (and highly rated), it’s taken me several years to finally sit down and read it. I’m not very far in, but I’ve enjoyed what I’ve read so far. I’ve never been good at deep diving into what an author really means and tracking down each obscure reference, so a lot of my experience with Murakami is at face value. Nevertheless, his descriptions and writing style of even the most mundane actions never fail to pull me in and let me live life alongside the main character. It’s not the most action-oriented book ever (so far?), but I’m still enjoying it.

The Count of Monte Cristo – Alexandre Dumas (pg. 52/1276(!!!))

The longest book I’ve ever sat down to read, by quite a few hundred pages (I think the longest up ’til now was Brent Weeks’ The Burning White at 992). It’s always been one of those books I felt like I should read but never had the time to. Luckily for me, my friends at the Book Lover’s Club Discord server started a buddy read of this doorstop of a book this month, with the intent of us all finishing it by the end of June. I remain cautiously optimistic that I’ll be able to meet this deadline.

So far not a lot has been going on in the book, but I’m only 52 pages in (that’s 4% for anyone keeping track at home). I’ve just been introduced to a lot of the main players, the plot has been set up by the antagonists, and partially executed. I look forward to seeing where “The Count” comes in, what/where “Monte Cristo” is (other than a sandwich), and how our protagonist handles things. I know very little specifics about the plot, so I’m going in mostly blind.

Refuse to Choose! – Barbara Sher (83%)

I made a blog post about this book specifically earlier this week so I’ll keep this brief-ish. I’ve read a lot since even the post I made, and have come away with a lot of different noteworthy realizations and practices that will maybe help going forward. I don’t really know what the end goal of this is, since I have a career goal I’m excited about and a tolerant husband who lets me indulge most of my whims, but having some additional organizational tools in my arsenal might help going forward.

In addition to the realization that I’m a “scanner”, the book also drilled down and explored the different types of “scanners” and how they tick. I’m a bit of a Sybil (major clutter problem, pulled in a million different project directions at once and act on none of them, afraid I’ll never complete anything), a Jack-of-all-Trades (good at a lot of things I try but never master any, wish I had a passion in just one thing), and a Wanderer (interested in unrelated activities/knowledge for no reason, intrigued by things other people find boring, lack direction). From these chapters, I also started creating a OneNote board outlining all the different projects I’d like to work on, and some information about each of them. I also split apart “work” projects from “play” projects because I felt like the distinction was necessary. One of the quotes the author related from someone she interviewed really hit home especially hard:

“I sat in the middle of all the things I’d started and dropped, and they seemed like a worthless waste of time.”

Barbara Sher, “Refuse to Choose!” pg. 37

This is a deep fear of mine. I’ve never really wanted fame, fortune, or a ton of recognition for anything I do, but I do desperately want to matter. I want to leave behind something that someone else finds value in, even if it’s just a small project at work (or a vanity blog on the internet, apparently). I have started so many projects that I’ve just dropped for no reason other than losing interest, forgetting about it, or getting discouraged. This book really outlined a lot of my fears in a clear way, and it’s giving me tools to address some of them. I can’t really ask for anything more than that from a book.

So, that’s what I’ve been up to this week! Have you been reading anything? Let me know in the comments!

Cool bookstore, hot backstory.

In my quest to find interesting content for this blog of mine, I stumbled across this image of an arched doorway made of books, posted on Instagram by @enchantedlibraries. My mind went in two directions — first, are those books secured? And second, where is this bookstore located?

While I was not able to answer the first question based on careful examination of so many different Google images of the same arch (I’m willing to start a GoFundMe so I can answer this question in person), I learned a lot about the actual location in pursuit of the second question, and uncovered a neat story to boot.

To get the immediate questions out of the way first, this is a bookshop called Le Bal des Ardents located in Lyons, France, along the Rue Neuve (temporarily closed currently due to COVID-19). People call the bookshop small, quaint, but very distinctive in terms of its entryway and picturesque interior. It evidently champions the small, unknown authors and independent publishers, which I greatly respect.

The cool (ha!) story comes in when I started looking into the actual name and what it meant (because I don’t speak a word of French beyond food names). The name translates in English to “the dance of the burning ones”, and strangely enough has nothing to do with books. Le Bal des Ardents (otherwise known as Dance of the Savages) evidently was a masquerade ball held in 1393. People partied hard back then apparently, as all of the partygoers were dressed impersonating savages. The costumes they wore were extremely flammable (I imagine due to the materials used at the time), and several partygoers were carrying torches to complete the ensemble. I imagine you can see where this is going, but just in case, it was the King’s (Charles VI) brother who carried the fateful torch that really, ah, turned up the heat at the party. After the conclusion of the, ah, “dance of the burning ones”, only the King and one other dancer survived.

So there you have it! A really neat looking bookshop with a kind of morbid-but-fascinating name! I don’t see myself in Lyons anytime soon, but just in case, this place would be something I’d check out.

References and cool places to check out related to the bookshop:

Le Bal des Ardents Official Page

Le Bal des Ardents: Is This the Prettiest Bookshop in Lyon?

Bibliophile’s Corner: Le Bal des Ardents Bookstore

On the Grid: Le Bal des Ardents