Monthly Archives: December 2011

Stephen Bloom wrote this:

So I wrote this:

And someone else for The Atlantic wrote this:

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There’s been some stuff recently about how people organise their bookshelves. (Alexander McCall Smith put out a call on Twitter for advice, and the discussion was picked up by the Guardian.) So I thought I’d put in my two cents as well.

Everyone who has more than a shelf or so of books has to deal with organisation. I’ve gone through several iterations of bookshelf sorting, ranging from your basic by-author to the more adventurous ISBN. (There was a while there where I knew which ISBN numbers were given to which publishers. I am a nerd. I freely admit this.) I’ve done Dewey Decimal numbers for my non-fiction books, as well as LOC categorisations.  (I think some of the French study books I had a teenager still have stickers with Dewey Decimal numbers on them.)

As an adult, I’ve been in charge of a couple of libraries. I tried, mostly, to separate fiction and non-fiction, but there was also the trick of keeping age and reading-level texts together, without limiting the students’ access.

I do think, contrary to some of the commenters in the article, that alphabetically-by-author is one of the best ways to organize books. Within categories, of course. As a grad student, I kept my for-fun reading and my course-based reading separate. For-fun reading was mixed between fiction and non-fiction, organised by author. Course-based reading was kept together by which module it was for, generally chronologically by placement in the module.

One of the things I’ve most enjoyed in our current dream house – although because of heating issues I haven’t done a ton with it yet – is setting up a new organisational system. I’ve got categories again: children’s books, fantasy/sci-fi, historical (non-fiction and fiction), general non-fiction, “classics”, Japanese language and manga, folklore and fairytales…..  This time, though, I’ve decided to mix up the traditional alphabetical system. For categories that don’t cross genre, I stick with alphabetical. But children’s books are approximately by reading age, with same authors or series grouped together. Classics are in approximate chronological order. And my favourite, historical, is by time period, with all the Robin Hood non-fiction together, followed by the Robin Hood fiction, then general medieval, then historical biography chronologically, then historical fiction chronologically.

This is only a temporary system, of course. No system is ever perfect or permanent. I’ll have a few days between Christmas and New Year’s where my boyfriend isn’t back from his parents yet, so I may play with it some more then.

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Links, some of which relate to books and reading!

…so they are totally relevant here. Really.

I so need to go on a complete Little House re-read.

Yes to all of this. I mean, I have massive faith issues, but one of the problems that I have is that the hyper-conservative fundamentalists seem to have co-opted the term “religious”. The next time someone asks me, “How can you be a Christian and believe” whatever it might be (gay marriage being the most prominent example, but not the only one), I will send them a copy of this article.

I actually don’t want most of these things – except the booklight/bookrest. It’s far too expensive, but how cool. Also I love the tagline: May not be suitable for “1Q84”. [If you don’t know, 1Q84 is the newest Haruki Murakami book, and comes in either two or three volumes depending on what country you buy it in.]

Obviously, I’ve read Henrietta Lacks, but the biographies of the Curies and Fibonacci also look cool.

Want. That is all.

I absolutely must get to this exhibition. I will hate myself if I don’t.

My alma mater as well! She graduated the same year as my cousin. I also didn’t realise that she was a music major. (This information doesn’t really surprise me.) I also am kind of surprised, still, that people are surprised that Iowa can be liberal. This is a state that allows gay marriage, after all. (I have a post coming on Stephen Bloom’s Atlantic article, soon.)

Jane Austen! I’m not sure how much more we’re going to learn about her from the foundations of  her house, but whatever.

Not sure I want to read this, but I’ll consider it.

I so want to read the journal article on this when it comes out. I don’t know what journal it’ll be in, but if someone with JSTOR or academic library access could find out and get me a copy, I would love it.

I know her! Her sister was a friend of mine in high school, and someone that I always want to spend more time with. Also, Sharing the Dream is an awesome organisation.

I love Tomato Nation. I also have much the same relationship with the space program as Sars does. I was fascinated to read this “oral history” of the moon landings/space program, and think everyone should read it. And watch this. And From the Earth to the Moon.

Oh, Calvin. (and while you’re on, skim through some of their read/reread/rewatch series of posts. Because they’re awesome too.)


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Operation Mincemeat, by Ben MacIntyre

Operation Mincemeat, by Ben Macintyre


Did you ever notice that once you become aware of something, you start seeing it everywhere? When I was dancing salsa, I noticed every ad for dance classes/studios/clubs in the city – new ones as well as ones that had clearly been around for years. And I’ve had that experience with Operation Mincemeat, as well.

I’ve had the book for a few weeks, and had seen it (and thought about reading it) for months.  It’s an absolutely brilliant book, delineating an amazingly detailed espionage plan critical to the invasion of Sicily. They took a dead body – an indigent Welshman who died in London – created a new, military identity for him, and set him adrift where he’d be found by Spanish Nazi sympathizers. The letters in his briefcase were intended to make Hitler think that Sicily, the obvious target for a foothold in southern Europe, was not the actual target. And it actually worked.

It almost didn’t work. Things that were supposed to go perfectly smoothly didn’t. The body was picked up in the right place, but given to the slightly wrong people. A few important people (like Goering) wondered privately if the information was actually a plant (which, of course, it was). But ultimately, the ruse worked, and the invasion of Sicily was a success.

Ben Macintyre’s book is almost completely absorbing. It’s full of details and references, but it never feels like an infodump and never really like name-dropping. The references are actually explained, and even followed up on. The story, and plan, itself is compelling without being sensationalised (not that it needs to be). The famous names are relevant (Ian Fleming was a member of staff who helped with the backstory; Eisenhower and other generals played an active role, either by approving the operation or by actually contributing details).

One of the awesome parts of Operation Mincemeat is that, while the operation itself was fairly unusual, the purpose of it – massive misdirection – was not. For the invasion of Sicily alone, Mincemeat was one of at least three misdirection operations, including sabotage in Greece and Sardinia, and an attempt to make the Germans think that the initial landing site was only a preliminary and the main attack was coming later, elsewhere. I was fascinated by the descriptions of the Allied spy network, especially all of the fictional agents and double agents that were running. The mental acuity of the (real-life) spies involved had to be immense to keep track of all the plots and deals and personalities that they created. And yet Macintyre is able to impress without glorifying the danger that everyone involved was in.

Which leads me to my “hey, I just learned about that!” moment from this book: Agent Garbo.  He was a critical part of Mincemeat (….every part of Mincemeat was critical….) so Macintyre spends a bit of time on him and his background. This guy was rabidly anti-Nazi, and offered himself as a spy to the Allies several times, being turned down each time. So he decided to cut out the middle man, and started his own disinformation feed to the Nazis in Spain. He hid in Portugal, but made his German handlers think he was in England. Before too long, the British codebreakers picked up on his communications and realised how valuable he could be.  He served the Allies officially for the rest of the war.

And now there’s a documentary about him. One of the people I follow on Twitter linked to the trailer on iTunes earlier today – it’s just been released in the US. Agent Garbo was the most interesting supplemental character for me in Operation Mincemeat, so the documentary is totally on my to-be-watched list now.

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Made in America, by Bill Bryson

I normally adore Bill Bryson’s writing. I love his travel books, and A Short History of Nearly Everything, and Mother Tongue (although it’s been a while since I’ve read that one). I kind of want to be Bill Bryson, with his balancing between US and UK language and culture and his wonderfully readable and unique voice.

I didn’t adore this. I thought I would – it’s a linguistic history book about American English after all – but I didn’t. I found it too reliant on lists and not enough on stories and personalities. When he manages to tell the stories of etymologies, it’s fairly good, but even then Bryson’s voice is missing. There are a few good phrases, just enough to hint that it’s actually Bryson writing and not a ghostwriter, but overall it’s not nearly as entertaining as anything else I’ve read by him.

One of the things I’m most disappointed about is that I couldn’t find the reference in the book to one of the things mentioned in the back-of-book blurb: “why Americans say “lootenant” and “Toosday”. I’ve never understood why it’s pronounced “leftenant” in the UK, even though “lieu” is still “loo” – maybe a handwriting difference? – and I was looking forward to reading Bryson’s take on it. But I couldn’t find it – if anyone else has read the book and knows where I was reading too fast, pleeeease let me know.

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Word of the Year! (not mine, though)

This is my new favourite blog post and this is why:

I read Far From the Madding Crowd on vacation, away from my computer and, crucially, internet access. At one point, Bathsheba was described as “tergiversating” [or some other form of the word] – and it was the first time I’d ever run across that word, in speech or in print. This kind of thing is exactly why I have a subscription to the OED Online ( (thanks, Mom!). (Well, rare words in books and late-night discussions about etymology are why I have a subscription…you might be surprised at how often the latter happens. Although, if you know me and/or my boyfriend, you might not be surprised….)

Anyway. With no internet access, we had to look up tergiversate a few days later, after we’d returned from our trip. (If you want to get technical, first we had to look it up in the book, to remember what exactly the word was and how it was spelled, and then we looked it up in the OED, and then we had a discussion about its appropriateness in the context.) We were fascinated by the word, and had vague notions of bringing it into our everyday conversation – something, sadly, that I have been unable to do, since most of the people I interact with on a daily basis don’t have the vocabulary basis to get it. Also, tergiversate doesn’t really turn up on a daily basis.

But we remembered the word, probably more than we would have if we’d looked it up while I was actively reading the book. So to see it listed as a word of the year amused and delighted me. Well done, Macmillan.

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