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Shelfie: An Ongoing Exploration of Bookshelves

Only one of my bookshelves is actually within the four walls of my house. Our walls are mostly windows, and there’s little space for tall bookshelves, so they’ve been relegated to an outbuilding, my husband’s office. Inside the house, my books are on two long shelves running half the length of the living room as a barrier between the stairwell and the room (Essentially, the books protect us from falling into the stairwell.). These are the books to read in the future, read recently (in the last couple of years), or taken from the tall bookshelves because I wanted them for comfort or reference. I used to sort them alphabetically by author, but I lost that organizational urge once I had kids. Here’s a portion of the shelves within the house:

It’s a cliché, of course, that books transport the reader somewhere. The armchair traveler. But these are the books that have literally jump-started a voyage, books that have sent me on a journey, which I’ve thought of during a trip.

Let’s start at the beginning:

Merlin’s Keep by Madeleine Brent: I’m currently re-reading books I read as a teenager—and finding that they are not as I remembered. As a child and teenager, I read anything in the house, and Merlin’s Keep was one of those gothic romances in my mother’s pile of Victoria Holts and Mary Stewarts. Forgive me for the silliness of this story: Girl raised by an AWOL British soldier in Tibet is brought back to England by a handsome British soldier; when she grows up, she discovers her secret past and returns to Tibet to fulfill a dangerous mission. (With the handsome British soldier, of course, who is under a curse that has blinded him.) As a teen, I had no idea where Tibet was. It seemed incredibly exotic and romantic. I looked it up in the encyclopedia (This was before the Internet.), scoured National Geographic for photographs of the Pokhara Palace. Tibet became large in my imagination. I would dream of getting away from my hometown, from the high school where I had few friends, where I was bored. I credit this book for my wanderlust. When I re-read this book a couple of months ago, I was surprised that so little of the book takes place in Tibet. I still have never been there.

The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov, The Overcoat and Other Stories of Good and Evil by Nikolai Gogol, and Petersburg by Andrei Bely: I read this trio of books as a freshman in college, at a time when Russia was still the U.S.S.R. I knew little of the U.S.S.R., aside from Reagan calling them the evil empire. We had drop drills in school; we thought they would drop nuclear bombs on us, but they wanted to buy our Levi’s and listen to our music. These three books—with mystical and magical occurrences—all parallel the mysteries of travel. Years later, I stood on Nevsky Prospekt, a long straight street I walked from my hostel almost to the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg, staring at designer clothes boutiques, a counterfeit Subway, beautiful women swaying in tight skirts and stilettos, and weaving men drinking gin-n-tonic from plastic bottles. I thought of Gogol’s story, “Nevsky Prospekt,” where nothing on the street is as it appears. I waited for the statue of Peter the Great on his stallion to shake itself and gallop around the city, as it does in Petersburg. And I wandered around the walls of the Kremlin, wondering: on which bench does the Devil greet Margarita?

Balkan Ghosts by Robert D. Kaplan: In this book, Kaplan looks at the Balkans through the prism of history and ethnic conflict. His travels through Romania enthralled me. Especially the painted monasteries of Bucovina. After I quit a job, questioning my profession, I escaped to Eastern Europe. Balkan Ghosts sent me to two of these monasteries, one, Voroneț, painted an eponymous blue and surrounded by wasp-waisted haystacks; another, Humor, surrounded by a wood stockade. Their roofs furled like Japanese parasols over the eaves. The monasteries were painted inside and out, except where the elements had faded the paintings, with grisly scenes of the Last Judgment, the Devil, saints being crucified upside down, graves opening.

And for a bonus, here’s one book that makes me stay at home: Who Whispered Near Me by Killarney Clary. The prose poems in this book are about love and loss, infused with images of my hometown, Los Angeles—“a mountain shape compacting in the distance,” pelicans, earthquake weather, and “the wind crooked and fast between the office towers” downtown. This book reminds me that sometimes escape is closer than you think.

LORI SAMBOL BRODY lives in the mountains of Southern California with her husband and two daughters. Her short fiction has been published in or is forthcoming from Little Fiction, The Rumpus, Tin House Flash Fridays, New Orleans Review, WhiskeyPaper, and elsewhere. She can be found on Twitter at @LoriSambolBrody, and her website is lorisambolbrody.wordpress.com.

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Christopher James said...

Travel and Books - these are a couple of my favourite things. Nice article, Lori

Lori Brody said...

thanks for reading Chris. This doesn't even show all the books about Uzbekistan/Central Asia (of which I have many).

anneweisgerber.com said...

I love shelfies! Thanks for sharing, Lori. :o)