Prime Procrastination Tools

The Wolf Of Wall StreetIt’s a truth universally acknowledged that the less time to read, the more good books you find.

You know how it goes. Work is incredibly busy or uni exams are swiftly approaching and you are suddenly—or slightly more than usual—overcome with the overwhelming urge to retreat, curl up, and get lost within the pages of a good book. Then you see, buy, or someone loans you the book they’ve just finished, the book (or often series) you’ve been wanting to read forever. And. You. Can’t. Focus. On. Anything. Else.

Winter is, of course, the worst for this, with rugged-up reading in the corner with a cup of hot chocolate the modern Homo sapiens’ equivalent of hibernation. (Mind you, I can also convince myself that reading is the only option during the heat of summer, which is too oppressing for one to do anything but sit in front of the fan.)

The InfernoBut what is it about impending, immovable deadlines that convinces you that the most important, responsible, and productive thing you could possibly do is read?

And does the illicitness of the reading such a book heighten or hamper the enjoyment of it?

I’m currently furtively reading The Wolf of Wall Street, a book that’s not really even my style. It’s a rollicking read by Jordan Belfort, former Wall Street banker who made millions of dollars each day and whose actions are both galling and incredibly intriguing. Would I normally enjoy such a book that so openly and gallingly celebrates appalling behaviour? Perhaps not. Can I put it down? Goodness no.

The 19th WifeOnce I’ve finished with that, I have a mini mountain of books I must read before I die (or miss my deadlines—whichever comes first) teetering invitingly on my bedside table. Even worse (ok, let’s be honest—better), I just got confirmation from this very online bookstore that the books I ordered during the week, in the brief moment I peeled myself away from reading, have been shipped and are currently on their way.

I am not so quietly cursing the fact that the weekend is getting between me and further book arrivals, as Australia Post rudely doesn’t deliver on Saturdays or Sundays, but it does give me some time to polish off The Wolf of Wall Street and try to work out which new arrival to read first.

Stripping Bare The BodyFrom (I hope) Monday, I’ll have the choice of Mark Danner’s Stripping Bare the Body, a book that skewers the politics and brutalities of war, and David Ebershoff’s The 19th Wife, a book about Ann Eliza Young, the first woman to leave the Mormon fold and who exposed the practice of polygamy to the rest the world.

Light reading, I know.

They’ll join the likes of Luz Arce’s The Inferno, a tale that explores the terror of existing in Augusto Pinochet’s Chile, and, somewhat ironically, John Naish’s Enough, a book that examines our constant need to consume and how what we really need to be aiming for is ‘enoughness’.

EnoughSo which book should I read first as I continue my deadline-avoiding procrastination?

And which books are your prime procrastination tools?

The Book Burglars’ Pin-Up Boy

The Law Of NationsSometimes truth is stranger than fiction, and never more so than this week’s news that former American president and all-round good guy George Washington was also—yes, indeedy—a book burglar. I’m referring, of course, to the fact that a library book he borrowed in 1789 was returned this week, a tardy 221 years after he’d signed it out.

Famous for being America’s first president and widely regarded as a fine, upstanding, and popular citizen (he remains the only president to have received 100% of the votes), Washington is the last guy you’d expect to be slack with his book returns. Which is why it’s all the most schadenfreude-ly gleeful for me, a regularly and unfairly accused book burglar who now has you-couldn’t-have-scripted-it-better ammunition that even the best of us are book thieves.

Sure, you could argue that not returning a book is different from actual, premeditated theft. And you could wonder, as I did, whether the reason that he didn’t return it was excusable because of some awful incident—say, for example, he died. But I can attest to the fact that not only did death not prevent Washington from returning the book, but that he lived some 10 years beyond its due date.

Even better, interest and inflation mean that the overdue fines due for the book are in the vicinity of a cool $US300,000, calculations of which undoubtedly made the executors of his estate break into a cold sweat. But Washington and his estate have apparently been absolved of all financial responsibility and the book in question was presented to the library in what was arguably a burglars-always-prosper little ceremony.

So what was this book that Washington so badly seemed to want to keep? Emer de Vattel’s The Law of Nations, which was an, er, undoubtedly scintillating read. Clearly it’s not a book I, you, or anyone we know would ever want to ‘borrow’, but the man lived in the 1700s and airport fiction hadn’t yet been invented.

No matter. As far as I’m concerned Washington is not only the best thing that’s ever happened to book burglars, he’s our pin-up boy.

I mean, if it’s ok for the ‘father’ of America, I’m pretty sure it’s ok for me.

Marching Powder

Marching PowderI’m seven years and a bunch of print runs behind the times (seriously, this consistently popular book has been reprinted two and three times each year since its 2003 release), but I finally got to read Rusty Young’s cult non-fiction book Marching Powder.

And it didn’t disappoint.

Based on interviews Young conducted with its protagonist, Englishman Thomas McFadden, Marching Powder is the story of both McFadden and of Bolivia’s most famous and difficult-to-comprehend jail.

Apprehended, incarcerated, and eventually convicted of attempting to traffic cocaine out of Bolivia, McFadden was thrown into South America’s chaotic and corrupt prison, a place where inmates are expected to purchase their own cells, where poverty forces ‘free’ family members to live inside the prison with their loved ones, where prisoners run businesses to support themselves, and where Bolivia’s highest quality cocaine is produced right under the noses—and with the consent—of the prison guards.

It’s an almost impossible-to-comprehend story and my main concerns in reading the book were that a) it had been overhyped, b) that it would glorify drug-taking and –trafficking, and that c) it would seem too far-fetched to truly absorb.

But my fears were unfounded with the book written in conversational, compelling first person, as if in the charismatic McFadden’s own voice. While drugs are ever present, the book is a cautionary tale, and Marching Powder makes you feel as though you’re there—warts and all.

Which Young was, as he met McFadden through one of the prison’s craziest schemes: admitting Western travellers to the prison for tours. With sections given star ratings and a complex real estate system based on supply and demand and negotiation skills not unlike the real estate system we’re familiar with on the outside, McFadden conducted tours in order to be able to afford his food and four-star cell. The two hit it off and Young agreed to help McFadden write his book.

While it’s easy to concentrate on the bizarre prison which acts as its setting, what makes Marching Powder so interesting is that it explores some darker issues. These include the poverty that wracks Bolivia, the corruption that undermines every aspect of the country and its systems, the destructive nature of drugs, and the West’s role in perpetuating drug demand, which Bolivia meets with its supply.

There’s also a scene in the prison that demonstrates the mob mentality and the grey area of determining what’s an acceptable crime and punishment that still haunts me—even though I tried to skim the remaining paragraphs once I realised what was happening—but I won’t ruin it for you if you haven’t already read the book.

What I will say, though, is that Marching Powder is a cult hit for a reason and is well worth reading—even if you’re seven years late like me.

Good Girls Don’t Make Pocket Gems Of History

Obscure Events that Shaped the WorldSometimes books sneak onto the scene that you:

a)      wonder how you didn’t know about sooner;

b)     didn’t know you needed until you saw them and now absolutely must have;

c)     marvel at the simplicity and effectiveness of the idea behind;

d)     wish with every fibre of your being that you had come up with yourself.

I’m currently experiencing those thoughts and emotions about Pier 9’s Pocket History series, six—as the title suggests—pocket-sized, cloth-covered books chock full of quirky and compelling historical goodness:

Turning the Tide of BattlePart Penguin classic budget title, part Penguin classic cloth-covered redesign icon, these nifty titles, which endeavour to ‘highlight the influence on history of “the law of unintended consequences”, are the kind you’d be proud to cart around or display on your bookshelf. And at just under $15 each, they’re the kind of books you end up buying all six of (which I did) and can either read from cover to cover or dip in and out of.

Some of the events they cover are well known, but plenty of them are less so but should be. And even the better-known events have been interpreted in a new manner.

The War of Words includes history’s great military speeches, songs, war cries, and final words across the span of time, from such speeches as William the Conqueror’s ‘Be the Avengers of Noble Blood’ to Adolf Hitler’s ‘We Are Merely Interested in Safeguarding Peace’ and George ‘Dubya’ Bush’s ‘Axis of Evil’.

The Clash of History's TitansWith such gold as ‘The Cadaver Synod: The most controversial trial in history’ and ‘Guano Happens: How the world was changed by bird droppings’, Obscure Events that Shaped the World is sure to be an instant, much-quoted hit.

And Good Girls don’t make History contains stories of some exceptional femme fatales and renegades. There’s ‘Shi Xianggu: The greatest pirate who ever lived’, ‘Mary Ann Cotton: The “Black Widow” with a predilection for infanticide’, ‘Leila Khaled: The pin-up terrorist’, and, closer to home, ‘Amy Bock: New Zealand’s cross-dressing con woman’.

I’m off to read them, buff up on some history trivia that I can trot out during witty dinner party repartee (who am I kidding), and continue cursing myself for not coming up with an idea so simple yet so outstanding.

The War On Bewilderment

The Good SoldiersI have to fess up that I find the war in Iraq—replete with obfuscating, PR-oriented euphemisms such as ‘the war on terror’ that make the incursions sound much more palatable, heroic, and successful than they are—completely and utterly bewildering.

In some ways I find the issues underpinning the war so complex that I worry that no one—least of all the troops sent to Iraq to apparently set things straight and whose skills are more aligned with brute force than negotiation—can truly understand them. In other ways I find them so multi-faceted and overwhelming that they’re inevitably assigned to the thank-goodness-it’s-over-there-not-over-here too-hard basket.

Two American journalists—one from Rolling Stone magazine and one from The Washington Post—went in to experience and deconstruct the war for the rest of us. The results are pretty incredible and, after reading both books, I’m slightly less bewildered. Or I at least it’s bewilderment I better understand.

Evan Wright’s Generation Kill documents the true story of First Recon marines, the special forces soldiers who are the first guys on the ground in the most dangerous areas. Nicknamed the ‘First Suicide Battalion’, they’re the guys that they army keeps angry so they’ll be spoiling for a fight, and Wright’s no-holds-barred insight into the motley crew is compelling.

There’s plenty of profanity contained within the pages—in fact, it’s used as a term of endearment—but beyond that is a group of marines struggling to do the best they can with minimal information and resources at their disposal in a war they little understand. Most frightening is the fact that their superiors are incompetent and are making decisions that put them directly in the line of fire.

Which sounds pretty bleak, but isn’t. Or it’s more insightful than depressing. The marines are actually incredibly funny, and Wright contrasts this with the horrors and guilt they face, including when they know they’ve been responsible for some innocent civilians’ injuries.

Generaton KillGeneration Kill was turned into a major television series by the same name by the creators of The Wire and many of the actors in the series are recognisable from other American shows (Alexander Skarsgård who plays vampire Eric Northman in the True Blood series plays my favourite Generation Kill character, The Iceman, so named because he remains cool under pressure).

About the same time Wright was embedded, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist David Finkel spent eight months with infantry soliders of the 2-16, a battalion nicknamed the Rangers. And his platoon-level account, The Good Soldiers, is extraordinary. Finkel begins the book with its end, outlining upfront just how badly the Iraq operation would end up.

The opening sentence speaks of eternal optimist Colonel Kauzlarich, whose catchphrase was ‘It’s all good’—‘His soldiers weren’t yet calling him ‘the Lost Kauz’ behind his back, not when this began’—and proceeds to powerfully outline the battalion’s morale demise: ‘The soldiers of his who would be injured were still perfectly healthy, and the soldiers of his who would die were still perfectly alive. A soldier who was a favourite of his, and who was often described as a younger version of him, hadn’t yet written of the war in a letter to a friend, “I’ve had enough of this bulls&*t.” Another soldier, one of his best, hadn’t yet written in the journal he kept hidden, “I’ve lost all hope. I feel the end is near for me, very, very near.”’

In a book-length, even-handed feature article-style format, Finkel commences each chapter with a date-coinciding quote from President George Dubya Bush—the quotes a stark contrast to what was happening in Iraq and what was being reported courtesy of the American PR. Then he proceeds to focus on not only the big-picture complexities of the war, but to illustrate them through exploring its minutiae.

There’s the soldier so badly affected by the death of another that he obsessively rearranges the furniture in his room. There’s the soldier who spends hours sandbagging his room until there’s only a small opening at the door. There’s the thoughts the soldiers have about where the next IED or EFP—the enemy’s exploding, roadside weapons of choice—will hit and how they should sit or stand to minimise the loss of limbs.

There’s the devastation that the soldiers experience as they try to make sense of the senseless deaths and destruction, and there’s the Iraq nationals who work as translators but find themselves and their families aligned neither with the Americans nor with their own people. Then there’s the state-of-the-art rehabilitation clinic that badly injured soldiers end up in and the slow demise of morale and optimism in all of the troops, including Colonel Kauzlarich.

While both Generation Kill and The Good Soldiers raise further questions for me about the issues underpinning and coming out of the so-called ‘war on terror’, they’re raising valid questions and ones that are—weeks after I finished reading both books—turning over in my mind. I might still be bewildered by the war, but I’m now bewildered with some solid insight. Most importantly, I am determined to find out more.

Ten Hail Marys

Ten Hail MarysWhat surprises me most about harrowing memoirs is the matter-of-fact aplomb with which they’re so often conveyed. Kay Howarth’s Ten Hail Marys is no exception, with the Australian first-time author pragmatically detailing her experiences growing up both as an Indigenous Australian and as a pregnant teenager in St Margaret’s home for unwed mothers where she was ‘pressured’ (somehow that word doesn’t do justice to what she went through) to give up her child.

As the illegitimate daughter of a wayward mother and with her father unknown or whose identity was never quite made clear, raised by her fickle grandmother, deposited at or dumped on various relatives and neighbours, or simply kicked out of home, what’s surprising is that Howarth survived her childhood relatively unscathed.

Despite her grandmother’s put down that she would end up ‘hawking her fork’ on the street just like her mother, Howarth was actually an incredibly bright and very good kid. But against a backdrop of threatened or actual physical, sexual, and emotional violence, and without anyone to turn to for information or help, the sexually naïve Howarth found herself pregnant at age 15.

Which is where the inspiration for the story sets in.

A recent parliamentary inquiry into adoption practices between 1950 and 1998 home implied that unwed mothers-to-be were treated well and had the option to keep their children. This was anything but the truth, with the some 98,578 unwed women who gave birth to babies during this time given few options and put under extreme duress to give up their children to couples who would, it was implied, be able to take better care of them.

Until this book, Howarth hadn’t openly discussed her experiences at St Margaret’s—she figured that no one would believe her. She certainly hadn’t been aware of her options at the time of her pregnancy and was put under extraordinary pressure by the nuns to relinquish her rights to her child. Where her story differs is that she was one of the few women who managed to keep her baby, albeit through having to survive traumatic circumstances.

It’s been said that the invention and ready availability of the contraceptive pill is one of the greatest advances of recent times and, after reading Howarth’s tale, it’s something I’m inclined to agree with. The stigma surrounding, and lack of options offered to, women who found themselves pregnant out of wedlock are disturbing. Indeed, part insight into the treatment of Indigenous Australians, part insight into the treatment of unmarried mothers, what makes Ten Hail Marys all the more shocking is that it happened not hundreds of years ago, but in recent, living memory.

But I don’t wish to give the wrong impression. For the apparently dark themes it addresses, the book is surprisingly light and easy to read and Howarth’s intelligence, strength of character, sense of humour, and love for her child are what are most striking. There’s no pity in this memoir. Instead it sets the record straight on, and offers an inspiring insight into, a significant and little-known aspect of Australian history.

Does Size Matter?

Wolf HallUntil recently, book size wasn’t something that I noticed. If I wanted to read it, I wanted to read it. And very often the larger the book the better. After all, there’s nothing worse than finishing a good book too quickly and then finding yourself in the post-good book void.

But it’s in finding myself with fewer and fewer hours in the day to devote to reading (yep, growing up sucks) and my pile of books to read ever growing (partly due to my good fortune to be able to review books, but mostly due to my penchant for purchasing books before I’ve had time to read the ones already in the pile), that I’m starting to wonder if size does matter.

My always-spritely, avid-reader grandmother is now 93 and is starting to become frail. This year my mother’s instructions for her Christmas book present purchase was not which book she’d like but that I should select something that wasn’t—a consideration I’d never before encountered and which saddened me greatly—too heavy for her to hold up.

When I worked as a bookseller, parents desperate to get their children reading would screw up their noses at books even slightly more than wafter thin that might seem, like a mountain, insurmountable to their reluctant reader. Once one woman wanted a refund on a stack of mass market books she had bought to take on holiday because they would be ‘too heavy’ and take up ‘too much room’ in her suitcase. Why this hadn’t occurred to her when she selected, purchased, and then carried the books home, I don’t know. As someone who’d sacrifice clothes, toiletries, and underpants before I’d take out books, I was, well, a little incredulous.

But as I find myself having to choose my next book carefully, I’m starting to size up my books as much for their page length as their compelling content. I’m selecting books that I can get through quickly, in part to make myself feel as though I’m accomplishing something. Mostly, though, it’s because I’m so physically and mentally sapped that I’m flat out staying awake for more than a few pages and am unlikely to remember what happened at the beginning of the book by the time I’ve gotten to the end.

I keep telling myself that I’m saving the longer books for the holidays—say, for example, Hilary Mantel’s Booker prize-winning tome Wolf Hall—but as a freelancer my holidays are few and far between and Wolf Hall and its counterparts are likely to sit gathering dust for some time. Which makes me wonder if every other time-poor ‘adult’ (and I use that term loosely because I’m not yet convinced that I am one) is in the same boat? Do we live by the mantra that size—specifically, the smaller the better—does matter?

Revinenting The Wheel

Mention the future of the book and people will immediately begin discussing digital versus physical. The Kindle versus the iPad. They will either be pro-digital and speculating on which format will win (I say the iPad without question over the Kindle, but beyond that who knows?) or will tutt tutt about the inevitable demise of the bound paper book that smells familiar and organic and has pages that bend and yellow with time.

But rarely will they discuss new ways that physical books might stay in our lives. Which is why it’s pretty exciting to find out that the David Garcia Studio has combined old school with new school and has, quite literally, reinvented the wheel.

The Archive II is a circular, mouse wheel-like bookcase that’s propelled by walking and its practical applications could be fantastic. They include not having to pack your books into boxes that you then lug to a new home, by instead offering an all-in-one storage and moving device. They also include not having to locate and battle an Allan key to dissemble your bookcase and then try to remember how to assemble it sans instructions (that you of course never kept) at the other end.

What appears simple and beautiful in design might not be so effective in practice—c’mon, tell me you aren’t wondering how they stop the books from falling out or how one might steer such a device while trying to read and walk—but it does make us think outside the square a little. That is, that portability doesn’t necessarily equal electronic. That it doesn’t mean forgoing something of beauty.

The Archive II also reminds us that while we can get caught up in the debate about the form and delivery of books, books are for us much more than words on a page. Who needs artworks on the walls when you can combine beauty and function in a talking-point bookcase? I, for one, would love such a bookcase just to recline inside and think and read.

The Archive II might not be coming to an Ikea near us anytime soon, but it does inspire us to think of our other connections to, uses for, and ways to celebrate the physical book. And surely if the David Garcia Studio has been clever enough to design something so beautiful and practical, they’ve also designed it to be assembled without some too-difficult instructions and a useless Allen key?

War—What Is It Good For?

Emergency Sex and Other Desperate MeasuresWhile I’m rarely able to pick a ‘favourite’ book, nor even do more than draw a blank when I’m asked to recommend something, one of my hands-down favourites and one that I regularly buy as a gift for friends or thrust upon them as a loaner is Emergency Sex (and Other Desperate Measures). Written by three United Nations (UN) workers—lawyer Kenneth Cain, social worker Heidi Postlewait, and almost-Aussie New Zealand-born doctor Andrew Thomson—it gives a warts-and-all insight not only into war but the international organisation tasked with managing its fallout.

The three were stationed in the likes of Bosnia, Haiti, Rwanda, and Somalia, the latter of which included them being there during the awfulness of Black Hawk Down. The revelations aren’t pretty and offer some fairly despairing examples of why the UN is referred to as a ‘toothless tiger’, but the book’s strangely inspiring too. In fact, despite cataloguing its flaws, the authors still work at the UN and still work to improve the world we live in. I’ve never more wanted to join the UN than I did after reading the book and apparently am not alone in my thinking.

I’m not going to dish details of the origins of the ‘emergency sex’ of the title—I recommend you read it to find out for yourself—but I will say that while it might be the gimmick that attracts you, there’s much more to the book than that. UN officials as high up as Kofi Annan tried to prevent the book from being published, but it was such in-text statements as the fact that if blue-helmeted UN officials turn up in your village purporting to be there to help you, you should run that were much more thought-provoking.

An Imperfect OfferingKeen to know more and to fill the post-good-book reading void after finishing Emergency Sex, I stumbled across Medecins Sans Frontieres president James Orbinski’s An Imperfect Offering: Dispatches from the Medical Frontline. Orbinski has spent years working in some pretty harrowing hotspots, but for me the most compelling aspect of the book was his account of his time spent in Rwanda. As one of the few foreigners who stayed in the country and who witnessed first-hand the atrocities of the genocide, which the world (including the UN) effectively watched unfold without intervening, his stories are harrowing and haunting.

By demonstrating the human cost of war, both books resoundingly show that war is much messier and less effective than the obfuscating ‘shock and awe’ and ‘smart bomb’ jargon would have us believe. They also demonstrate the triumph of the human spirit against the odds and give some very human insight into (for those of us who’ve grown up in safe environments) a very foreign experience. And while I’ve re-read and will continue to return to both books, the question I’m now faced with is, now that I’m again facing the good-book reading void, which insight-into-war book(s) should I read next?

The Goldilocks Guide To Good Reading

ZeitounRecommending books is often more miss than hit, so I feel a little nervous when I’m asked to suggest ‘a good book’ to read. After all, one person’s ‘good’ is another person’s ‘awful’. Add into the ‘good’ book request mix an immediate under-pressure terror to recommend something suitable for people who otherwise might not be avid readers and I, well, draw a blank. How are you supposed to narrow down the books you read to pick a ‘favourite’? How are you supposed to then select one that might become someone else’s favourite too?

I understand why people look for recommendations—in fact, more often than not I look for them too. We’re time poor and books require a not insignificant time and financial investment, so we want to get it right the first time, every time. But if you’ve ever been a member of a bookclub, you’ll know that reaching consensus on whether a book is good is nigh on impossible. I’ve never been so outraged and so willing to shake someone as I was the night my bookclub did Dave EggersZeitoun, an exceptional, simple, hauntingly-good non-fiction book about a New Orleans businessman who stayed behind to help during Hurricane Katrina.

One guy who shall remain nameless went against the consensus grain that Eggers had crafted a masterpiece and that the American legal system (and, arguably, psyche) is deeply flawed. Without ruining the story for those of you who haven’t yet read it (you should—it’s excellent; and yes, I’m aware of the irony that I’m recommending a book when I’ve just said it’s incredibly difficult to do so), he argued that Zeitoun well and truly deserved what he got. How that guy got out of there alive that night I’ll never know. And anyone who says bookclubs are for the meek and mild should spend a night at ours.

These days I tend to think of reading experiences not as one-size-fits-all book selection, but as being more akin to that of the Goldilocks fairytale—the protagonist tries out things that are too big, too small, too hot, and too cold until they find things that are, for them and them alone, ‘just right’. Which I why I’ll no longer recommend a single book. Instead I apply a kind of Goldilocks Guide to Good Reading and recommend something big, something small, something hot, and something cold to given them a broad and varied selection. My hope is that they find something in the mix that they consider ‘good’ or even ‘great’.

It’s Time To Go … Dust Covers And Hard Covers.

Clothbound Penguin Classics SpinesInnovate or die is the philosophy underpinning all manner of technology. Buy a new computer or TV and it’s just about obsolete before you take it out of its box. Strangely, though, such innovation rules haven’t applied to books and reading. Sure, audio books and e-books are on the horizon, but they’re the first major change in book formats for aeons—and even now the old styles seem to be hanging on. I’m talking dust covers and hard covers—two aspects of book formats that should have been allowed to die an undignified death long ago.

As a former bookseller, it took all my effort not to roll my eyes when some pretentious parent affecting a too-proper accent would sneer at paperbacks and request books for their child only in matching, hard cover-replete-with-dust-cover box set formats. Whether the child wouldn’t bother reading such books because they’d be forced to wear white gloves and sit quietly in the corner in the antithesis of book reading enjoyment, or whether—worse—they’d be precocious twats who most likely weren’t liked by their classmates and probably put others off reading, varied. Either way, hard covers and dust covers did—and do—reading a disservice.

Books are meant to be read, enjoyed, taken with you, slotted into hand- or man-bags, pulled out on the bus or train or at the beach, and read at every available opportunity. In fact, books go hand in hand with verbs: read, devour, discuss, debate, analyse, critique. Hard covers and dust covers? They get in the way of the action, literally and figuratively. Their very names connote a lack of action and instead imply books sitting stationary on shelves, unread and gathering dust.

Then there’s their cumbersomeness and fragility. As far as I’m concerned, anything that detracts or distracts from the reading process—by falling off, flapping around, getting in the way physically, or through forcing you to worry about whether it might, through normal use, be too heavy to carry or too fragile to survive the journey—has to go. Indeed, I think dust covers are like wrapping paper—they’re meant to be torn off in eager anticipation of discovering and enjoying the present underneath.

Dust covers first appeared in the 19th century when some clever dick came up with the idea of using them for advertising. Innovative at the time, but it’s no longer, with the advent of much better ways to advertise your product, the case. So why haven’t hard covers and dust covers gone the way of the idea dodo? They’re expensive to produce and purchase, fragile to ship, display, and handle while reading and, if advertising really was the underlying premise, no longer effective, as the first thing many of us do is remove the dust cover and ignore it. Who even still has the dust cover wrapped, intact, around the book by the time they’ve finished it? Who just about gets bedsores or aching arm drop off trying to read too-heavy hard covers in bed?

Clothbound Penguin Classics Spines

The only hard covers that might win me over these days have done away with the dust cover (hooray!) and applied some design innovation. You know the ones. The oh-so-cute, at-once-timeless, clothbound Penguin Classics, which include pink flamingo-adorned Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass, peacock feather-like decorated The Picture of Dorian Gray, and the delicate flowers of Sense and Sensibility. Contrary to run-of-the-mill hard covers and dust covers, which put you off an otherwise good book, these covers make you want to read, buy, and physically touch (yep, verbs again) these classics.

We probably shouldn’t be surprised that these new takes on old books have come from the same company that brings us good reads at budget prices courtesy of such orange-covered modern classic titles as In Cold Blood, The Secret History, and Breakfast at Tiffany’s. And we probably shouldn’t be surprised that the reason both these new clothbound classics and the old budget reads are so popular: Penguin understands that reading is the key and, instead of turning off readers through cumbersome design and prohibitive pricing, they’re turning on readers with good design and affordable prices. In short, they’re making the wrapping paper appealing, but know that it’s the present under that paper that’s the key.

Wild About Tea Cosies

Really Wild Tea Cosies‘Wild’ and ‘tea cosies’ aren’t exactly terms one would instinctively pair together, but not only does this irreverent pairing work, the book pairing them has been a runaway success. So successful, in fact, that Loani (pronounced Low-arni) Prior has just released her second book about knitted tea cosies. Its title? Really Wild Tea Cosies, of course.

I had the good fortune to hear Prior speak about her journey from quiet, unassuming home knitter to published author and ‘grand purl baa’ of tea cosy knitting (she puts it down to luck and sass to put her idea out there and to find an editor willing to take the chance), and I have to say that I was taken with just how self-deprecating and downright funny she is. I perhaps shouldn’t have been surprised given that her books include such designs as Carmen Miranda (yep, as is in a tea cosy covered with knitted fruitiness), green-eyed monsters, and court jester-style cosies, which come complete with tuckable, extendable, er, jester bits.

But what I was surprised by—and which would surprise most of us—is just how fondly tea cosies are regarded. Prior spoke of tea cosies that had been passed down through generations and which, while after all that time and use weren’t exactly the best looking, were far more than some wool around a pot—the tea cosies were imbued with love and treasured memories of family members and good times. Sure, she points to the fact that while women tend to use tea cosies for their intended purpose, men appear to have an inherent instinct to put tea cosies on their head. But it’s clear that the tea cosies bring joy to both sexes.

As a knitter with my training wheels on (I’ve recently joined my local Stitch ‘n Bitch group after being uber impressed by them when I visited for a story I was working on), the design skills and the knitting dexterity are something I can only at this stage aspire to. But the knitting instructions are concise and straightforward to follow and the images are both spectacular and inspiring for anyone who has mastered the not-actually-that-tricky-I’m-just-a-slow-learner knitting and purling. Part inspiration dip, part instruction manual, and part coffee table book, Really Wild Tea Cosies (and, indeed, its predecessor), is something special. Give me a week and I’ll be in the market for copies to beg, borrow, or—let’s face it—steal.

We Can Eat Too Much Sugar

The Girl With The Dragon TattooCall it airport fiction, call it mass market fiction, or call it trash, the reading equivalent of quick-fix, craving-inducing simple carbohydrates are something we all secretly or not-so-secretly love. You know the ones. The Dan Brown bestsellers and the books that need not be named by the Mormon mom turned author that have tweens and adults alike aflutter.

But before you pooh pooh such ‘lowbrow’ reading matter that’s the literary likeness of riding the sugar high, please consider that, as with simple carbohydrates, which have been blamed for all manner of societal and waist-measurement evils, such reading matter not only has its place in our reading diet, it can do us some good.

We can eat too much sugar, but we can never consume too many books. Any reading is good reading, be it reading the sides of cereal boxes, determining epic fails on signs (those are a whole other blog in themselves), conquering such tomes as Ulysses, or devouring page-turners such as Twilight and The Da Vinci Code.

Because we all know what happens with simple carbohydrates. We eat them. We eat them fast. They make us high and happy. Then they’re burnt up by our bodies (ok, or stored, but let’s not go there) and leave us hungering for more.

It’s the hungering for more is where the door opens for us to consume some more substantial books and to continue to expand our reading tastes. Seriously. Why do we always make each other feel as though our reading habits must be something like a cross between eating only wholemeal and raw health foods (which are fine, but never as tasty) and taking medicine?

Hands up who did further research into the Illuminati and Leonardo da Vinci’s The Last Supper off the back of Dan Brown’s breakout bestseller? Hands up who ventured into unfamiliar reading territory to explore vampires and werewolves courtesy of Twilight? And hands up who is, like me, now firmly entrenched in Team Edward, although almost willing to have a foot in both camps based purely on the extraordinariness of Taylor Lautner’s abdominal muscles that were flexed at every available opportunity in the film adaptation of New Moon?

We’ve all been on crazy, carbohydrate-free diets and we know that they make us unhappy. We also know they end in a massive carbohydrate binge. The question is why we can’t use carbohydrates as part of—or a door to opening ourselves up to—a balanced literary diet? Because here’s the thing. I finally read the first book in the mass market series that has arguably stepped up to fill the post-Brown, post-Meyer void: Stieg Larsson’s The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo.

I found it less than ordinary. And that’s actually a good thing.

The book (and indeed the Millennium trilogy) has been a runaway bestseller, with relative non-readers around the world picking it up, enjoying it, and recommending it to others. The funny thing is, the book is slow. Interminably slow. I’m a voracious reader and I struggled with the first 300-odd pages of The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo. I mean, sheesh, for a journalist who would have spent his life abiding by the inverted pyramid—or the rule that all the important information must be up front to draw readers in—Larsson completely inverted the inverted pyramid.

I think I could have skipped the first half of the book and been no worse off for it. I skimmed half the details about the Vanger family, which Larsson made far too large, with the various members blurring into similarity meh-ness. And the Lisbeth Salander character, the girl who sports the title’s tattoo, was unnecessarily (and boringly) difficult (I actually groaned when she stormed off for being complimented on having a photographic memory, then returned to the house when she was invited back in a pointless, irrelevant scene designed to demonstrate her different-ness). She’s a pale, caricatured character when you compare her with a strong, troubled, but interesting female such as Lucy Farinelli from Patricia Cornwell’s Kay Scarpetta series.

Yet in spite of these flaws, people—and, in my experience, most surprisingly non-readers—are enjoying The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo and recommending it to others. Which is an excellent. If they are prepared to read through the 300-odd pages that should have been cut and put up with characters that either don’t enhance the narrative or that simply don’t quite work, they’re prepared to take a step up from simple carbohydrates to some more complex ones.

Indeed, rather than pooh poohing people’s enjoyment of white bread-like reads, we should be celebrating and encouraging their starting-somewhere simple carbohydrate-book diet.

The Book Burglar Meets The Book Thief

Considering the similarity of themes, titles, and habits (that is, a girl who steals books), it’s somewhat surprising that I hadn’t, until recently, read The Book Thief.

I know, I know. Given that it’s sold bucket loads in Australia, I must have been one of the only Australians not to have read it. But judging a book by its cover, I found the cover pretty bland. I’m naturally suspicious of any book that’s on the Top 100 Books list of the tried-to-pull-a-swifty-on-the-publishing-industry Angus & Robertson retail chain. And a book about a little German girl who steals books during WWII sounded slightly too Anne Frank-derivative and a lot heavier than I could enthuse myself to read.

But I finally succumbed over the Christmas period (mostly to enable me to comment intelligently on it when people pointed out the similarity between its protagonist’s and my own penchant for snatching books) and am pretty pleased I did.

The whole death-as-omniscient-narrator thing grated in the too-slow beginning, but thousands-of-people-can’t-be-wrong logic and Markus Zusak’s unusual turn of phrase kept me reading—as much to try to determine just how he came up with such clever constructions with such a lightness of touch.

Which is where he won me over.

I mightn’t think it’s the best book ever (to be fair to it, my expectations were sky high given the preceding hype) and I might have thought the narrative mechanisms and structures were at times a little twee, but I was impressed by Zusak’s ability to imbue life into (and help me see myself in) a small girl inexplicably driven to acquire books—even when she lacked the literacy skills to read them.

Above and beyond that, I owe Zusak a debt of gratitude for helping explain and justify my almost-physical need to commandeer books. I might not be a young orphan in Nazi Germany who needs books to help make sense of and develop a sense of security in the world, but the book-loving, book-hoarding compulsion transcends countries, languages, and borders. I now understand how a writer in Sydney could craft a story about Nazi Germany based on tales he heard growing up and why the story, which is as much about a love of books as it is about humanity, is selling well.

He might be a grown man writing about a young girl, but methinks that in creating that character, Zusak was channelling (and maybe publicly confessing and embracing) his inner book thief.

Beg, Borrow, Or Steal (But Mostly Only From Family)

Fahrenheit 451It’s dangerous to allow family members to spend any length of time in my room, because any visit invariably leads to the same thing: a casual perusal of my bookshelf followed by an indignant ‘Hey! That’s my book!’

Indeed, I’ve earned something of a reputation among my family for only buying them books I want to read, reading the books before I hand them over, and then feigning innocence when they notice their books on my bookshelf later on. They christened me ‘The Book Burglar’ long before Markus Zusak’s novel of a similar name was penned, but I refuse to apologise for my voracious book appetite and my love of looking after books.

It should be noted that the only people I steal from are my immediate family and that it’s technically not stealing if I paid for the book in the first place. Besides, I’m pretty sure that book thieving runs in the family. Case in point: Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451. I’ve heard that the book’s a classic, a must-read up there with Orwell’s Animal Farm and Huxley’s Brave New World, but I wouldn’t know. My brand, spanking new copy disappeared from my bookshelf before I’d even cracked the spine.

Two years since it disappeared, it’s become something of a bone of contention with my brother (AKA Prime Suspect #1), with the issue raising its ugly head around gift-giving birthdays and Christmas. Ever the peacemaker, my mother maintains that the book’s just slipped down behind something and will turn up. My sister considers it book thief karma. My brother staunchly maintains his innocence (some would say too staunchly). And my insomniac father tries to stay out of it—I’ve awoken at least twice in the wee hours of the morning in recent times to see him sifting through my bookshelf for reading material to consume the hours he can’t sleep. He knows that he’s Prime Suspect #2.

Whether or not I ever get to read Fahrenheit 451 remains to be seen (I refuse to purchase the same book twice and there’s currently no one in my family game to buy it lest they be accused of the crime), but I maintain that book thieving is genetic and if I’m guilty of book theft, so too are my guilty-until-proven-otherwise Fahrenheit 451-thieving family.

But surely I’m not alone in this passion for books? Surely there are others so passionate about books and reading they’re prepared to beg, borrow, or steal (from family members only) to satiate their reading appetite? C’mon. Which books have you commandeered for your bookshelf? Which books have been commandeered from yours? And do you know the whereabouts of my Fahrenheit 451?