Sunday, March 20, 2011

So many books: To Keep, or Not to Keep?

Yesterday was the last day to use a coupon at Hastings to "trade in five, get an extra $5.00 in credit." The five items could be any combination of books, DVDs, music CDs, and games. I found nine or ten books I was willing to part with, knowing that they never take everything I bring. (If they have enough copies of it already, if it's not in their system, or if there's something about the condition that they don't like, they won't accept it.) I gave them everything but The Ghost Stories of Edith Wharton, which I held back in case I couldn't get five from the rest of the batch. I was surprised at a couple of things they didn't take, including The Crazed by Ha Jin, which I'd purchased at Hastings, and which still has their green Used sticker on it. Maybe they'll have another "extra $5.00" coupon next month and I'll try that one again. They also didn't take Manufacturing Consent, which annoyed me because I've been looking at it on the shelf, unread, for years -- or sometimes maybe it was looking at ME! -- and part of me always still wanted to read it and couldn't get rid of it, and when I finally decide I don't need to keep it anymore, Hastings won't take it.

So, they took five books, and I got my bonus store credit, which is great. (I also got to keep that Edith Wharton story collection, which is also great because she's one of my favorites.) But it was really interesting, yesterday, scanning my shelves to try to pull out books to trade in. I found a few that I wanted to get rid of, but saw some problem in them, something that would prevent Hastings from taking them. I saw a couple of mass market paperbacks I really should weed out, and donate to the library for their sale; Hastings only buys used hardcovers and trade paperbacks, not the smaller mass market size. Yesterday was the first time, in a really long time, when I felt seriously ready to weed books from my personal library.

Part of this is, I'd really like to get an e-reader of some kind, but I can't justify getting one when I own so many books, especially books that I haven't read. A quick calculation using my LibraryThing numbers -- which aren't totally correct but are close enough for a good estimate -- shows almost 49% of the books in the "My Library" collection are also in the "To Read" collection. Even if I took two weeks off from work and spent those eighty hours reading, I could barely make a dent. Having gotten rid of five books yesterday (including two or three from "To Read"), I'm thinking that doing some additional weeding in the near future would be good for my psyche.

There are arguments for and against weeding -- looking mostly at books I've owned for years but haven't read. One day last summer, wanting something different and funny, I picked The Partly Cloudy Patriot by Sarah Vowell off my shelf, and tore through it in only a few days. I loved it, and I found myself telling Jeff, "Let me read you this one part..." over and over again. And a couple of years ago, my book group read Middlemarch by George Eliot, which I'd purchased in 1994 and hadn't read; the receipt was still in the book! It was hard to read that edition -- a mass market paperback that I've since replaced with a trade size -- but once I switched over to an audio version, I fell totally in love with it. But then there are books that you buy, so sure you'll enjoy them, and when you actually read them, they just don't do it for you. I started reading The 351 Books of Irma Arcuri as soon as I got it in the mail last fall -- it arrived when I was in the hospital, and I had Jeff bring it to me ASAP. I read less than 100 pages and gave up, and was able to trade it in at Hastings.

That's the challenge for me: to look at the books I own, and decide which ones I love enough to keep on the shelves; and to look at the books I own but haven't yet read, and try to divine which ones are most likely to give me that "I-love-this-book-SOOOOO-MUUUUUUUCH!!!!!" feeling. One feature of some e-readers that I've been thinking about: the "read a sample chapter" option. If I'd read a sample of Irma Arcuri before I actually bought it (albeit used), I might have said, "Eh, I think I'll pass," saving me time and money, and a little space on my shelf. I also like the brands of readers that allow you to check out library books, another way to sample a title before "making a commitment."

How do other book lovers -- especially those who acquire more than they borrow, and acquire more books than they have time to read -- figure out what to keep, and what's best to trade or give away?

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Review: The Ringer by Jenny Shank

I received a bound galley of The Ringer, a debut novel by Jenny Shank, from the LibraryThing Early Reviewers program. Many thanks to The Permanent Press and to LT for the chance to read and review this book.

I decided to copy the summary from the publisher's website, because when I tried to write it myself, I felt like I was saying a lot but not getting too far. So:

Sidelined from coaching his sons' baseball team because he can't resist hollering at loafers, lollygaggers, and space cadets, Ed O'Fallon hopes focusing on his daughter's tee-ball team will calm his temper. But just as Ed prepares to guide the Purple Unicorns to their best season, his work as a Denver police officer changes his life forever.

O'Fallon bursts into a home on a no-knock warrant, expecting to find drugs, but instead encounters a man pointing a gun. Ed kills Salvador Santillano, a Mexican immigrant he had more in common with than he could imagine. Worse, Ed learns his commanding officer made a grave mistake on the warrant that will force everyone in Denver to take sides.

Separated from her husband Salvador after their worst fight ever, Patricia Maestas discovers the police have killed him. Certain her husband never sold drugs, Patricia pushes to find out the truth behind the fatal raid, even while trying to keep her volatile, grieving son Ray from following a shady friend into a north-side gang.

But Ray isn't just any disaffected adolescent —- he's a left-handed pitching phenomenon who throws a blistering fastball. Patricia hopes signing him up for a competitive league will keep him away from danger, but instead it puts them on a collision course with Ed, whose sons play in the same league on a rival team.

Patricia and Ed are unaware of the interconnections between their lives until events on the baseball field draw them together and challenge their preconceptions.

I found The Ringer to be engaging, with an interesting mix of characters and a plot that moved at a good pace. The book is written in the third-person, but presents the story from both Ed and Patricia's perspectives, in alternating chapters. Because of this narrative choice, the reader knows that Ed isn't an evil racist cop, but a decent guy who was doing his job. He feels bad after the incident, but when he learns a couple of days later that the warrant had the wrong address on it, he feels a deepening remorse. Ed begins to question himself and his occupation, and his marriage grows strained as well.

From the other side, we see Patricia digging for more information, wanting to clear her husband's name, and also being pulled by her mother and other people into a committee to "fight the city." The reader knows that Patricia wants to get to the truth, but she's reluctant to step into a spotlight. They'd been separated for several months, but we learn that Patricia had hoped to reconcile with Salvador. She partly blames herself that he wasn't living with her and their two children -- and her troubled son sometimes blames her, too.

As you can tell from the title and the plot summary above, the other big story in the book is baseball. I requested the book because the novel as a whole sounded intriguing, but what caught my attention was the description of Ed as one of those sports parents who's too involved, too loud, too critical, who seem to take all of it a little too seriously. My husband is not loud, but both of my sons (who play basketball and baseball) would agree that he's quite critical. As a sports parent, I knew there would be things I could relate to in this book. Although the boys in the novel are a couple of years older than my sons, with more skills, and in a more competitive league, that part of the book was familiar to me.

Shank packs a lot into the novel without making it feel too "stuffed." In addition to the life and work of police officers, the grief of those touched by violence and sudden death, and the world of young men's baseball, the story looks at present-day race relations, and the subtle shifts of power in local politics. There are a lot of little "everyday" moments in the book that illustrate the joys and stresses of family life. I loved that Patricia's daughter has an action figure of John Elway that everyone refers to as "El Johnway." I was right there with Ed and his family when their basement flooded. Patricia with her kids in the grocery store, Ed with his sons watching TV late one night -- Shank moved the story forward, but chose good scenes to pause for breath.

There are a few less positive things I have to mention. First, strangely, although I enjoyed reading the book, I didn't feel compelled to pick it up every day. That's partly a reflection of the moods I've been in lately, but also, it's not the kind of book where you're going, "I can't wait to find out what happens next!" Second, the writing is good, but I think the plot, the story, was stronger than the writing. I did mark a few passages that impressed me, and since this is a first novel, I think Shank's writing is sure to get even better. Third, there were a couple of questions that didn't seem to be answered, for example, the question of whether Salvador actually had a gun, whether Ed really did hear gunfire coming from someone's weapon, before he fired his own. Those nagged at me a little. Last, the book's description states that "events on the baseball field draw [the two families] together and challenge their preconceptions." But really, it seemed to take forever before the parents -- Ed and his wife Claire, and Patricia -- figure out their connection. My copy of the book has 349 pages, and Claire puts it together first, on page 242. The pacing of the book is good, but that part just took longer than I'd expected.

I also found one mistake that really confused me, that hopefully is corrected in the final publication. (As I said, I received a bound galley.) Patricia isn't sure if Salvador had an affair, because he took occasional trips to Mexico that sometimes lasted weeks, and she'd found a picture of him in his personal effects with a woman she'd never seen. On page 209, we learn the woman's name is Carmelita, and on 215, that she has a daughter named Gracielita (or Graciela). On 216, the letter is signed from Carmelita, but on that same page we have a quote, "'He says Graciela lives far away, and comes to town about once a month.'" So I'm thinking, Isn't Graciela the daughter? When the woman appears in the story later, by telephone, it's Graciela who's the mother, and Carmelita is the daughter. This is the kind of thing that you can't hang on the author, when it's the publishing/editorial staff that must have messed up, but damn, I was confused!

Overall, I enjoyed The Ringer a lot. I think it's a solid debut novel, and I hope it gets some positive attention. Jenny Shank could have a good career ahead of her! I'm interested to see what she writes next, and what other subjects she decides to tackle.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

An apology of sorts

On March 2, I started writing something that I expected would be a blog post. It's now March 13, and that piece still isn't done, and I've neglected to post anything else here in the interim. The conundrum is that I've really been wanting to do more writing, but no matter how many ideas I have, no matter if I've got something in progress (like that "maybe blog post"), and even if I have some extra time, as I do now when Jeff and Ryan are at baseball practice -- whatever the circumstances, it seems that I can't bring myself to get working, that I can't focus on it.

So, it's not officially a blogging hiatus, or at least it's not intended to be; it's just a bumpy stretch of road, where I might have the desire, or the time or opportunity, but never simultaneously. Right at this moment, what I want most is to take a nap! However, I have some coffee right here, so I'll keep drinking that, then get away from the computer for now and do something else to wake me up. Hopefully I can recover my energy enough to do some more reading before Jeff and Ryan come home. I'll be back when I can ...