Friday, February 27, 2009

A Somewhat Baffling BTT, a day late again

This week's question:

Collectibles February 26, 2009

Hardcover? Or paperback?
Illustrations? Or just text?
First editions? Or you don’t care?
Signed by the author? Or not?

My first response was, huh? For two out of the four questions, the buyer has limited control. Not every book has an illustrated edition available, and if the author never comes within 1000 miles of your town, you're probably not getting a signed copy unless you're prepared to spend hours on

As for the other two questions, for me, it depends on the book. I really prize my harcover, first-edition, purchased-at-2AM Harry Potter books, even though I got only the last half of the series that way, since I didn't get into them until the summer that book 4 was released. I bought my boyfriend a nice edition of Tolkien's The Children of Hurin, and I'm glad I did. I'm even glad I spent $30 on it when it's now remaindered at $5, because it was a more meaningful gift that way.

I have a couple of signed editions. One is John Elder Robison's Look Me In The Eye, which I got in the course of demonstrating my sincere interest in a job that since got cancelled due to lack of funding. Still, I'm glad I met him and glad I read the book, even though it's the "cleaned-up" edition that's suitable for classroom use.

The other is meaningful on a personal level: Dave Barry's Peter and the Starcatchers young adult novel. My family has enjoyed his column for many years. We were shocked to find out that he grew up in the same town as my father, and have since determined that he was a year older than one of my aunts and a year younger than the other one, but may have been in my grandfather's Cub Scout troop. Barry makes frequent references to where he grew up, teachers he had, and kids from his school. My father's always gotten a kick out of knowing those people too, and when the book was released, they finally had a chance to meet him. He was signing copies in Florida, and since I was the one who turned the family on to the columns, my parents bought me a signed copy as a gift.

Beyond those very few examples, though, I consistently go for quantity over quality. I'd rather have cheap editions of lots and lots of books than good editions of only a few. I don't have many hardcover books at all, and a lot of my hardcovers were second-hand. I love the remainder section at Barnes and Noble, because you can really maximize your money there and get decent editions of the books to boot. But generally, I'd rather just have lots and lots and LOTS of books.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Speak Up For Museums

Tomorrow and Tuesday are the American Association of Museums' annual Museum Advocacy Days. This year, the need is especially urgent as zoos and aquariums have been barred from competing for economic stimulus funding, history and art museums were nearly excluded, and museums nationwide have been feeling the effects of the recession.

Museum work is sort of an invisible field. When I told my friends and relatives that I was entering graduate school for it, they'd kind of cock their heads and say: "So what will you be doing, exactly?" One of my most intelligent friends, when I explained about the educational programs, collection management and exhibit development, said that she'd actually never considered that people did that stuff for a living. When I was doing my graduate internship, TIAA-CREF had a commercial that featured a collections manager, for just a second. I was so excited to see it on television, that I vowed to invest all of my money with them, if I should ever get any (maybe someday...)

Yet, the impact of museums is substantial. They are like cultural oxygen: most of the time, you may not notice their presence, but you'd definitely feel their absence. Museums employ more than half a million Americans and are an important engine for cultural tourism. In some towns (like Cooperstown, NY) they're the primary draw. In other towns (like Stockbridge, MA) they're key components of thriving cultural destinations.

Museums help communities in other ways. Several years ago, the staff at the Brooklyn Museum was faced with a strugging neighborhood, full of gang activity and poverty. They realized they could help, and developed a comprehensive after-school program that has become a national model. Children can spend every weekday late afternoon there. As they get older, they become more involved in running the program, helping out the younger kids. It builds self-esteem, it teaches them things, and it keeps them off the streets and away from gangs. The Tenement House Museum in Manhattan offers programs for new immigrants.

Museums are sources of pride for communities. They host interesting educational programs and enjoyable activities. They're often a destination for people with out-of-town houseguests. They're a favorite field trip destination for students and scouts, a popular activity with organized social groups, and an enjoyable place for caregivers to bring elderly or developmentally disabled consumers.

Museums add a lot of value to communities in many ways. But funding all of the things they do has always been a challenge. Very few museums are fortunate enough to be able to support themselves with admission charges and gift shop sales. Most museums look for support from private foundations and from all levels of government. With the economic crisis impacting both foundations' investments and government spending, museums are facing very tough times. A visit to the job listings of the AAM website will say it all. Most of the positions listed are either top-level management (that museums can't afford to do without) or unpaid/low-paid interns. The middle level has all but disappeared with the cutbacks in funding. Most museums will do just about anything to prevent funding issues from impacting their public programming, but it's only a matter of time.

AAM has several suggestions for advocacy that can be found at, along with links to fuller explanations of the issues museums face. If museums are important to you, email your representatives and let them know. They will be hearing from me, and I hope they'll be hearing from you, too.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Organization? We don't need no stinkin' organization!

This week's Booking Through Thursday:

I recently got new bookshelves for my room, and I’m just loving them. Spent the afternoon putting up my books and sharing it on my blog . One of my friends asked a question and I thought it would be a great BTT question. So from Tina & myself, we’d like to know “How do you arrange your books on your shelves? Is it by author, by genre, or you just put it where it falls on?”

I also got a beautiful new bookshelf for Chirstmas, so this vexing question has been on my mind as well. The problem with both of the obvious organizational systems mentioned above is that aesthetics matter. In the case of my bookshelves, size matters too. I have a hodgepdoge: in addition to the really nice, new one, I have two from Target (one of which also has DVDs) and one that my father built when he was in college. I've had it for so long that it used to double as a boarding school for my dollhouse dolls: the larger top shelf was the classroom and common room, and the smaller bottom two shelves were the girls' bedrooms, with half-pulled out books serving as the walls.

I can put only smaller (trade paperback-sized) books on the ex-dorm shelves. One of my Target bookcases has steel (well, steel-like) pillars as supports, rather than solid walls, so I need to have a large, coffee-table sized book on all four ends. Smaller books will fall through.

I was thrilled to have the new bookshelf, but the problem with it is that it makes everything else look crappy. Women who've ever broken their usual Target-and-JC Penneys mold and splurged on an expensive designer handbag or pair of shoes will recognize this syndrome: that new Kate Spade purse looks just awesome with last year's Sag Harbor sweater and those five-dollar-on-clearance St. John's Bay pants! And with books, I go for quantity over quality of edition. So, I have my ancient Lloyd Alexander books that I bought at the Scholastic book fair sitting on my nice new shelf. They look sort of dumb, but I ran out of nice books to put there. I also hate putting huge books next to little books. I think it looks bad.

I'm still shuffling stuff around, but I have no real system. I probably won't ever get one. When I want something, I just have to look for it. It's kind of a pain in the butt, but it's better than looking at a complete and total mess.

Friday, February 13, 2009

A Project Completed (and a reader humbled)

I finished the wonderful Helen of Troy by Margaret George a couple of days ago. Reading the afterword was pretty embarrassing, though. Did you know that there's no evidence that any of that really happened? That's right, all my concerns about the story not being historically accurate were misplaced. It's like worrying about the historical accuracy of a re-telling of the King Arthur legend. If the author's got the Roundtable Knights setting out by car and keeping in touch via cell phone, you know that it's not, other than that, all bets are off.

Like the King Arthur story, though, this is one hell of a powerful myth. And George did her homework in bringing it to life from the point of view of Helen herself. The novel is rich in detail about the everyday life of royalty and commoners during that time period. She's imbued the tale with mysticism, without going over the top. Apparently, Homer's telling of the tale has two parallel stories: the earthly events concerning Helen, Paris, Menelaus, Achilles and the like, and the drama occuring amongst the puppet-masters on Mount Olympus.

In her afterword, George talked about the fine line she walked in bringing that element into her tale. I think she did an excellent job: Helen is visited several times by various goddesses. She's initiated into The Mysteries at the shrine of Demeter, she meets Aphrodite several times, and she is given the gift of second sight by a sacred serpent. Several of the characters have gods or goddesses as parents, including Helen, who was said to be Zeus's only mortal daughter. The gods and goddesses make their appearances at carefully chosen times, and were an excellent device for allowing Helen to describe events on the battlefield that she would not have actually witnessed.

Since the story is more myth than fact, George could take some liberties in fleshing out the character of Helen. The novel makes me want to read the Iliad and Odyssey for comparison's sake, but George goes into great detail of Helen's early life, which I would imagine is largely absent from Homer's tale. Helen's early life is strictly circumscribed: she's not allowed to leave the grounds of the palace, she wears a veil at all times, she's not even allowed to look in the mirror. The choice of a husband was the first real choice she was ever allowed to make, and he continued to forbid her much freedom. In that sense, it's easy to see why she got so completely carried away when she met Paris: he offered her a chance to do whatever she wanted, the only chance she ever really got.

I thoroughly enjoyed this book, and definitely learned from it. I'd recommend it to anyone. Its size doesn't make it very portable, but like I said before, it's February, where are you going, anyway? It's got enough action to make it go fast, but is steeped in enough detail to give it real depth. Although the story of Helen and Paris has never been substantiated, I tagged this as "historical fiction" anyway, for its attention to the details in everyday life.

Saturday, February 7, 2009

More Cool Stuff

The flea market in the summer has its good weeks and bad weeks. Sometimes, it's table after table of crap they couldn't pay you to take. Other times, you have to make several trips back to the car because of all the great stuff you've gotten, and later on, you can't quite believe your luck. On the same day I got the advertising piece, I found a whole tray of printing press blocks. There were about ten of them. I took some pictures of my favorites for you.

Country Kitchen

Faces from the Past

The Country Kitchen one is very large, about 3 x 5 maybe, and definitely has a neat graphic appeal. But the faces are quite striking, too. They're different from the rest of the blocks in this tray, which seem to be carved out of wood and plated with metal. The images on these are engraved right into the copper. Also, unlike the rest, their use isn't terribly obvious. Also on my shelf are logos of an area union, an auto club, an organization for antique boat enthusiasts, etc. Why were the images of these two women so important to someone that they had these blocks made to be used over and over again? What did they do with the pictures?

I also wonder how the differences in construction of the blocks would translate into the reproduction of the image. Anyone who knows much about printing is welcome to comment! Even if you don't, I hope you enjoyed seeing them. I enjoy looking at them every day.

Thursday, February 5, 2009

TMI Alert!

No, not from me...but from an author? Here's this week's question, and it's a good one:

Too Much Information? February 5, 2009
Filed under: Wordpress — --Deb @ 1:36 am

Suggested by Simon Thomas:

Have you ever been put off an author’s books after reading a biography of them? Or the reverse - a biography has made you love an author more?

I don't generally read biographies of authors -- the Motley Crue and Danny Bonaduce biographies are more my bag -- but sometimes reading about them can tarnish things a bit for me. It's always a disappointment to learn that the characters you thought an author created out of his or her own imagination are just thinly veiled versions of themselves, over and over. Me at fourteen. Me if I'd continued with my biology degree. Just Me, with a different name, but so much like me you wonder why I bothered changing it.

I can't think of a case where I've enjoyed a book more after knowing about the author. I guess it doesn't influence me that much, one way or the other. Fascinating post, huh? I'd like to hear the thoughts of others, though.

Monday, February 2, 2009


During NaBloPoMo, I wrote a post titled Books in Season (remember?). I said that winter is an excellent time for a "project". If you've long been planning to take a crack at War and Peace, Les Miserables in its unabridged form, or any other lengthy tome, winter's a good time to do it. It's cold out, so your book doesn't need to be portable -- you're not going anywhere. In fact, sometimes the weather turns to the point where you can't go anywhere, in which case, it's good to have hours and hours of entertainment right on your bedside table.

I did well at the library last time, and I'm proud of myself for doing a good job in keeping track of my due dates. The last three books profiled were all due today and returned yesterday. Of the two I renewed, one is a real project.

Helen of Troy, by Margaret George, weighs in at 624 pages. I've read two of her other books: about Mary, Queen of Scots and about Henry VII. I enjoyed both of them a great deal. George researches meticulously the times and events surrounding her subjects, but attempts to present them from the subject's viewpoint. So, obviously, there's a great deal of license taken in some cases: quoted conversations that she'd have no way of knowing about, fleshed-out relationships that have little real-life documentation. (We know that Mary, Queen of Scots and Elizabeth I were sisters, that they never met, and that Mary was put to death by Elizabeth due to accusations of treason. We have no way of knowing how they felt about each other, though.) But the books are very engaging, and Helen, which I started last night, is no exception.

I feel like I should have started with a nonfiction book about Helen of Troy, in case there are blatant falsehoods or extrapolations and I wind up with wrong ideas. I have only a vague knowledge of the story, and most of it comes from expressions: "The face that launched a thousand ships;" "The Trojan horse" and the like. But so, far, I'm enjoying this book a lot.

Do any of my readers currently have a book project going? I'd love to hear about it in comments.

Sunday, February 1, 2009

Life In Turbulent Times

I was attracted to The Archivist's Story by Travis Holland because of the title. Museum and archive people are invisible to the average person. Most people who visit museums and archives aren't aware that the institution's entire collection is not on display, nor that there's a tracking and storage system managed by individuals. So, I like to read books and watch movies that feature curators, archivists, and the like.

Pavel Dubrov, the title character, is not an archivist in that sense, though. He works for the Communist party at the Lubyanka prison, maintaining case files. It is 1939, and Pavel's life wasn't always this way. He used to be a teacher, before he got caught up in a false denunciation scandal and was forced to resign. He used to be a husband, before his wife's train was sabotaged. Now, he lives alone and burns poems and novels written by people who, in many cases, did nothing wrong.

The shadow of imprisonment and death hangs over Pavel. Yet, life goes on, in a sense. He spends time with his best friend and father figure. He visits his aging mother, whose capacities seem to be diminishing. He continues to probe for answers in his wife's death (due to a clerical mix-up, her remains and possessions have not been returned to him).

A short story by Isaac Babel crosses Pavel's desk, and he makes the momentous decision to smuggle it out and rescue it, after meeting Babel. This only heightens the shadows around him, which include the shadows of impending war (the book is set in 1939).

In studying Nazi Germany and other totalitarian societies in school, the big unanswered question for me was always why people stood there and let all that happen. The Jews who were forced to register and wear yellow stars everywhere -- why did they do it? How come Gentiles didn't stop the SS thugs from beating them up and smashing their store windows, when they shopped at those stores and were friends with these people, too? This book helps answer that question. It was because any resistance was useless in the face of a large, well-organized machine. A gesture even as small as Pavel's -- hiding a document in one's basement -- was grounds for arrest on trumped-up charges, and either a slow, agonizing death in a prison, or a quick one by a firing squad.

Several such examples of the meaninglessness of resistance surround Pavel's story: the friend who was first fired from his teaching post, then arrested simply because of a personality conflict with someone in his department. The boss of his mother's landlord, whose crime was failing to meet an unrealistic deadline at his job. It makes you wonder how anyone survived at all. The small gestures become important, such as Pavel's decision, or his friend's decision to meet his fate rather than run from it. It serves as a rejoiner to anyone who sat in history class imagining themselves as a leader in the Underground Resistance to Hitler or Stalin, hiding Jewish people in their attics. History remembers the brave, but it's more likely we would have been just like Pavel: trying to survive, and keeping our self-respect through small acts, where we could.