September 2009 Archives

Whose Body?


Whose Body? by Dorothy L. Sayers

I just finished my first Dorothy L. Sayers book, the first of her many mysteries starring an eccentric crime-solving aristocrat and his manservant-by-day, expert-photog-by-night valet. Imagine if Wooster and Jeeves went around solving mysteries, except Wooster was only pretending to be an ass, and there you have Lord Peter Wimsey and his butler, Bunter.

Quite apart from the quirky dialogue, puzzling plot and endearingly open-hearted discussions between Lord Peter and his policeman friend, this book is worth reading because the main character is a book hound. All through the novel he's sending his butler off to auctions to pick up rare editions for him, and Sayers thoughtfully includes footnotes for the reader which give details about the books requested, and whether Lord Peter was able to acquire them or not. As a book lover myself, I cannot express how satisfying I found this.

Pick this up if you've finished all the Miss Marple books and you're still hankering for a head-scratcher to eat up an afternoon.

Sale report

I bought only 20 books today (last year I bought twice that on opening day). There are fewer options this year, and very few boxes of books stuffed under the tables. We only spotted a couple of book sharks, and people were only rude and tense in the sci-fi/fantasy section. (There tend to be a lot more blank, menacing stares and blatant poaching in that section on any day.)

Anyhow, I am happy with my smaller haul. My best find of the day: Whose Body? by Dorothy L. Sayers. Mystery lovers will know this as the first of her Lord Peter Wimsey books, but when I first saw it I thought it might be a hysterically inappropriate children's story.

I also found The Fairy Tales of Oscar Wilde, a literary analysis of the Narnia books, The More Than Complete Hitchhiker's Guide (for $1!), and an L.M. Montgomery book I've never seen before which doesn't even appear to be about a wistful orphan. Score!

A thousand foam-covered typewriters

Last night I dreamed I'd been bitten by a rabid monkey. At the end of the dream, I had to lock myself in a room full of the little bastards in order to be eaten alive, thus preventing myself from becoming a rabid danger to those around me (and neatly disposing of my body -- eco-conscious!). I had this dream over and over: each time it ended with me running into the monkey room, turning the lock (to prevent my friends from rescuing me), and slooowly turning around to face the roomful of desperate, foamy little monkey heads.

I relate this here because I have not had such a gruesome, interesting death in a dream for some time, and I woke up feeling rather proud of it.

Also because there is nothing quite like being utterly certain that you are about to be devoured alive by rabid monkeys, only to open your eyes and discover that you get to go to the book sale instead.

Less than 24 hours away...

"No dearness of price ought to hinder a man from buying books [...] how shall the bargain be shown to be dear when an infinite good is being bought?"
-Richard de Bury, 14th c. Bishop of Durham

I found this quotation in Happy Alchemy, a collection of essays about music and the theater by the great Robertson Davies. It was one of those occasional treasures: a book whose existence you never suspected, written by a favorite author, carelessly left on a $1 cart or a bargain table. It's those moments of great discovery that make the hours of browsing worthwhile, along with the lesser (but still keen) pleasures of discovering books you'd read as a child but lost track of, or books you've long wanted to read but had not yet found.

"There is a joy known only to collectors in possessing the physical form of a book, quite apart from its contents," wrote Davies. Also, "My collection is a mirror of my mind, or a large part of it, and sometimes I think what a sorry, frivolous mess it is."

Here's to collectors everywhere and our sorry, frivolous minds. See you tomorrow.

Library Sale this weekend

Just a little heads-up: the SF Library Book Sale starts on Thursday, 9/24, and runs through Sunday, 9/27.

As you will recall from my inability to shut up about it in previous years, the sale takes place in the Festival Pavilion at Fort Mason, a massive warehouse filled with over 300,000 books on sale for $5 or less -- usually, much less.

Last night, Michele and I found ourselves doing a little breakdown of the four days of SALE SALE SALE, and here it is for you:

The sale opens at 10:00 a.m. with a long line out the door. As soon as the doors open, this line files right inside, so don't worry about it. Early birds get parking spaces (that lot fills up) and shopping carts (there's a limited supply). The people who show up first thing are about who you would expect. There are the book sharks -- bookstore owners who've come to mine the sale for treasures they can mark up and sell in their own stores -- and a lot of nutjob book lovers like me, the kind of people the sale rules get written for.

(Sale rules:
"Hoarding books is unfair to everybody. In fairness to all Book Sale participants:
-No blankets, sheets or any other coverings are allowed.
-You cannot have more than one hundred books or five boxes of books under your control at any given time without purchasing them.
-Anyone caught stashing or hiding books will be expelled.")

A tense atmosphere pervades the pavilion on Thursday, and people rarely make eye contact.

Michele and I went on Friday night last year. Big change. You would expect it to be packed with people coming after work, but actually it was virtually empty, and there were no book sharks that I saw, just ordinary people come to browse. This is a very pleasant way to see the sale on your own terms, if you are sane enough not to go on Thursday morning. (I am not that sane.) I suspect Saturday-day will also be calm, but I don't know for sure.

Sunday is crowded with the Sunday drivers of the book world, the book manatees. All the books get marked down to $1 or less, so you find a lot of parents coming for kids' books, little old ladies stocking up on mysteries and romances, students kicking around the classics, etc. The book sharks have already picked out the prime tuna and are nowhere to be found, so this crowd is gregarious and calm. It's a pleasure to come on Sunday and feel like part of a community: hearing a nine year old wish she could find that last Harry Potter, remembering you saw it in a box, and pulling it out for her, to her lasting delight. It's also a pleasure to take home two or three books for every dollar you spend.

Kindle aflame

The Kindle is down to $299 now. It's only a matter of time before I cave.

I have to admit, though, part of me feels like the Kindle may be a Betamax. I suspect there's going to be a better device along shortly, and it's probably going to come from Apple.

Also, as I ponder purchasing an ebook device, I suddenly wonder how well that would work for me. Right now, most of my books cost under $3, because I get them at library sales and stuff. But how would that work with ebooks? Do you just wind up downloading them at torrent sites?

Basically, owning one of these devices would only be useful to me if I could convert most of my current library into ones and zeros. But that's almost a thousand books to find in electronic form -- is that possible? Would it cost a fortune (comparatively)? Do I maybe just want to go on turning up my nose at the Kindle and lugging a lot of books with me on vacation? How often do I go on vacation, anyway?

In short, do I, or do I not, want to be Neil Gaiman's library when I grow up?

I think I do. Go jump in a lake, Kindle.

The bacon sandwiches of Terry Pratchett

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I just reread Terry Pratchett's Reaper Man. So great. Pratchett doesn't get enough credit, never mind the knighthood.

Yes, ostensibly this book is about what happens when Death retires and goes to work on a farm, ostensibly it's about that. But then Pratchett, being Pratchett, sneaks in this whole other idea about what it means to be alive, which is actually one of the big questions humans are still trying to answer and well worth considering. For example, he posits the idea that cities have a life, of sorts.* And if cities are organisms -- big, slow-moving, slow-thinking organisms -- then are there smaller, quicker things that prey on them? Of course there are. Suburbs!

It's a great notion, you think, very creative, very funny. Then you start to think about how many people -- who are, after all, the life of cities -- leave for the suburbs once they start families or want more than $5 a month of disposable income, and you realize it's not actually so funny.

It's made me ponder some things. Like the way I tend to think of the Bay Area as one big city, so I might go to a San Francisco coffee shop in the morning, a Pleasant Hill park in the afternoon and an Oakland stadium at night and not feel I've really gone anywhere. But am I actually helping the suburban predators suck the life out of my city? Because, you know...that would be bad. It's something to consider.

And this is what Pratchett does, especially in his later novels. He takes a really interesting idea -- the essence of life; the definition of morality; what it means to be human -- and wraps it up in a bacon sandwich of absurdity and humor and fun. (The fun is the mayo on the bacon sandwich of absurdity.) And then people see the ridiculous covers and the multiple-exclamation-marks blurbs and they say "Oh, fantasy," and they wander off to find a true crime novel or something.

All of which is fine with me. I've collected 32 of these bacon sandwiches from used bookstores so far, and as long as people keep foolishly passing them up I will one day own them all.

*I am pretty sure that in all the debates about the nature of life, no one is seriously suggesting that cities are among the contenders, including Pratchett. But it's a neat metaphor, anyway.

Life goal


Just when I was starting to seriously consider significantly thinning my book herd, Gene finds this for me.


This is what I want to grow up to be. Not even a person who owns this library; I actually want to grow up to be this library.

Gene's life would surely be better without a thousand books cluttering up the place, yet he cheerfully feeds my habit like this. What a fella, eh? I was gonna marry him before, but now I'm gonna marry him twice as hard.

I mean, assuming Neil won't have me.


This is not my library. YET.