Book Review: The Road to Little Dribbling by Bill Bryson

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Published: 2015

As you might already know, I am an avid fan of Bill Bryson. I reviewed his book One Summer and since then have read three of his other books (during my hiatus period) which were all equally as good. I love how he’s able to make even the most science and technical books (such as The History of Nearly Everything) fun and engaging. I couldn’t stop laughing throughout and he makes things that I never thought I would be interested in, very fun to read about.

You could therefore appreciate my excitement when I decided to treat myself to this book. I loved the premise of it; Bill Bryson traveling around the UK stopping at different locations throughout the country and reviewing those places, along with a few rambles about the current affairs, some random unknown infamous people and just his general thoughts. I already appreciated his humour and I was curious to know where he would stop on his journey and get his musings on life in the UK. Likewise, I was hoping to use this as inspiration for any future road trips throughout the UK, thinking he might stumble upon and highlight some little gems that aren’t as obvious.

The book started off in Bryson’s usual happy-go-lucky attitude and humour. We first covered the south of England, and it included a few interesting points about London. The one thing I absolutely loved was the foreign perspective he had on the UK – felt right at home to me. He’s actually born and raised in Iowa, of all places, but has lived and worked in the UK for over twenty years. I loved how he pointed out the oddities that he encountered in the UK about it’s culture, because these mirrored me feelings and thoughts about the UK too. Take this quote for example:

“The most dismaying loss, I think, is of front gardens. People seem strangely intent on getting their cars as close to their living rooms as possible, and to that end have been ripping out their little front gardens and replacing them with service areas so that there is always a place for their cars and wheels bins. I don’t quite understand why they are permitted to do this since nothing more obviously ruins a street.” (88)

I totally agree with him, and since reading this bit have brought this up with my friends and have just noticed it more in real life which is really neat for a book to resonate with you like that.

Likewise, throughout the book, he highlighted some shocking and poignant aspects about British culture as well as the changing attitudes. For example, he highlights the importance of keeping green belts instead of building semi-faster trains between late cities:

“The first and most dangerous charge routinely laid against the green belt is that it isn’t actually all that special, that much of the land is scrubby and degraded. Well, you decide. According to a study by the Campaign to Protect Rural England, green belts in England contain 30,000 kilometres of footpaths and other rights of way, 220,000 hectares of woodland, 250,000 hectares of top quality farmland, and 89,000 hectares of Sites of Special Scientific Interest. That sounds to me like things worth keeping.” (164)

This rant is great because he not only highlights his opinion but also provides supplementary facts to back up his thoughts. I always appreciate when authors do this as it makes it much more poignant, instead of an author just going on about what they think. So this explains why this book has earned the 2 stars that I had given it.

Unfortunately, things take a turn for the worse for Bryson as the book goes on.

His rants stop being well thought out, and rather turn a bit pessimistic and confusing. He visits some towns and complains how devoid of people and tourist they are and how sad that is, but then also complains about the “thriving” towns for being overpopulated and too crowded. He doesn’t really express what the happy medium is for him which makes him just sound grumpy and irritable.

There is also a lot of repetition and I feel like he just rushed the second half of the book. He provided little interesting facts about the town and kept just repeating himself. He also described the types of shops that the town had open, i.e. cafes, restaurants, pubs, grocery stores etc, in great length, which was fine as the high street is reflective of how “well” a town is doing, but he could have been more creative about talking about other elements as well. This way they all blended into one for me and he failed to provide any interesting insight.

He also completely dismisses some towns and cities as being not worth his time without giving them a chance which I found a bit annoying. For example, when he arrives into Manchester all he can manage to do is grumble about having to pay 30p to use the loo (interestingly he doesn’t highlight that the same principle applies throughout many central stations such as London Euston). He literally dedicated an entire paragraph about that. From that paragraph he just launches into a another rant, this time about the food tax which he happen to experience when at Manchester Piccadilly. That lasts about 5 paragraphs. The only other thing he mentions about Manchester:

“I had decided already not to stay in Manchester. It was a Sunday and I couldn’t face spending a Sunday evening wandering around a dead city centre town.” (390)

I found this to be very dismissive and parochial view on England’s second biggest city.

Lastly, based on his extensive rants and “thoughts”, he doesn’t sound like the person I envisioned him being. He comes across pompous at times, and is often irritated. He has a handful of outbursts when things don’t seem to go his way, or he privately thinks some pretty awful things about people. The first few times it’s funny, but because of how often he does it, it comes across as pompous to me, for example:

“I had a sandwich and a cup of tea in the cafe and was feeling so benignly pleased with the whole experience that I didn’t bitch even privately to myself that the sandwich was a little dry and cost roughly double what, in a reasonable world, it should have. Well, maybe I did bitch inwardly just a little, but I didn’t say anything grumbly to anyone and that is surely a mark of progress.” (273)

I don’t really see the point of highlighting that repeatedly throughout the book. It made him sound like an awful person, whether someone deserved it or not. This alongside his other behaviour actually made him sound quite pretentious and it did ruin the book for me.

It’s a bit of a shame because I was really looking forward to reading this book. I’m not sure if his first Notes from a Small Island book is any better, but I felt this one didn’t live up to my expectations so I am in no hurry to find out. I also feel like I know the author better, but not sure it does him any favours for me. By the end of the book, he sounded like an old grumpy man that wanted a platform to rant about how terrible the country is and how it’s going to the dogs. Not really the type of read I particularly choose to read! The only other positive thing I could say about this book, is that I got in on offer so only wasted about £2.95 and half a day of my life reading it. I think that’s a loss I am willing to take.

 

Q: Have you ever been disappointed by one of your favourite authors? If so, who were they and what disappointed you?

 

 

Book Review: East of Eden by John Steinbeck

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Published: 1952

This book came into my life quite randomly. I was back in Canada for Christmas and I saw my brother reading it, and just asked him what he thought of it. He said it was a good book, and one day when I had a couple of hours spare I thought I’d just read the first chapter to get a sense of the book. About 5 chapters later I was completely hooked on this book and couldn’t put it down. I knew I had to have this in my life!

The story is set in Salinas Valley, California, but throughout the novel we do bounce around to different areas in the states as well as time periods, at one point we de get taken back to the American Civil War. The story follows several generations of two families and their lives, the Trasks and the Hamiltons as the author explores themes such as identity, love, evil, and paternal rejection, just to name a few.

It’s a decent sized book, and I felt like it was some sort of a psychological experiment, to see how people’s identity is shaped by nature (genetics/family genealogy) and nurture (events and people). I re-read that last sentence and it makes it sound a bit boring, but with the author’s incredibly captivating writing style it’s anything but boring.  We follow a number of different characters with different traits so it’s easy to relate to at least one of them. The characters themselves are anything but stock, and  they feel very relatable as they make mistakes and bad decisions as we all know we call can make in life.

As the book is based in America, the author also explores America’s identity. I found this especially poignant given the release and popularity of Childish Gambino’s song “This is America” where he explored the nature of America and it’s downfalls, through the perspective of African-Americans. There is one quote in particular that really drove home the tumultuous character of America home for me:

” ‘We all have heritage, no matter what old land our fathers left. All colors and blends of Americans have somewhat the same tendencies. It’s a breed – selected out by accident. And so we’ve over-brave and over-fearful – we’ve kind and cruel as children. We’re over-friendly and at the same time frightened of strangers. We boast and are impressed. We’re over sentimental and realistic. We are mundane and materialistic – and do you know of any other nation that acts for ideals? We eat too much. We have no taste, no no sense of proportion. We throw our energy about like waste. In the old lands they say of us that we go from barbarism to decadence without an intervening culture.’ ” (689)

We can’t talk about America without talking about freedom of course, as they go hand in hand. That’s why the author’s exploration of the power of free will. Early on, the author preaches this idea that we all have the right to choose between good and evil, even if our lives up until then were dictated by one or another. This is particularly poignant as all the characters will battle with this issue of choosing between good and evil:

” ‘And this I believe: that the free, exploring mind of the individual human is the most valuable thing in the world. And this I would fight for: the freedom of the mind to take any direction it wishes, undirected.’ ” (161)

After reading up on the author you can’t help but feel like this is semi-autobiographical, as reading about John Steinbeck’s life draws many similarities to the book. He was born and grew up in Salinas, California, and has a mixed heritage upbringing.

Steinbeck was also highly conscious of religion in his work, and you feel it permeating throughout the novel – although he himself would become agnostic, which is interesting in itself. The story of Cain and Abel is the most prevalent one, with Adam and Charles being parallels to this story and then later Adam’s twins would be opposites. The large Task fortune becomes a symbol of “original sin” which is a Christian belief that sin has been passed down from through every human generation since the fall of the biblical Adam and Even, which would be another Christian motif.

In conclusion, I absolutely loved this book. The complex characters made it a joy to read and also made this a book one that you can read over and over again and always find something new it in to appreciate and admire.

Q: Have you read a book by John Steinbeck? Which one and what did you think?

 

 

Book Review: The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern

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Published: 2011

 

This was a bit of a tricky read to write a review on, to be perfectly honest, as it’s such a strange amalgamation of themes, feelings, and characters. I had to look online for some inspiration as to how best describe this book. I came across it being referenced as a phantasmagorical fairy tale. Confused? So was I. So I had to Google what “phantasmagorical” even meant (*super embarrassing, please tell me I’m not the only one*), and as soon as I read the definition I smiled because it was bang on what how I would describe the book.

For those of you who likewise have no idea what “phantasmagorical” has a few meanings:

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1. having a fantastic or deceptive appearance, as something in a dream or created by the imagination.
2. having the appearance of an optical illusion, especially one produced by a magic lantern.
3. changing or shifting, as a scene made up of many elements.

All three of these are EXACTLY what the book feels like as you read it (minus the lantern bit…)! It’s got elements of reality, which allows you to be able to picture it and relate to the characters, but then as you keep reading the novel tricks you and most of the time I felt a bit dazed and confused as to why things where happening the way they were. To top of it of course it was NOT in chronological order which aided the illusion as you never quite knew what lay around the bend or if things were really how they appeared.

It was a relatively easy read, you did have to pay attention to characters and timelines because it wasn’t in proper order, so you had to keep reminding yourself of what the characters were or weren’t aware of at the beginning of each chapter which was a tad annoying, but not impossible to follow through.

Set primarily in ahistorical London, we follow a magical circus called Le Cirque des Rêves that is only open dawn until dusk, and has no set schedule (it just appears randomly around the world). It’s atypical to a regular circus as it has tents such a blooming garden made of ice and vertical cloud maze. The two main acts are that of the illusionist that transform her jacket into a raven and a fortune teller that actually reads the uncertain future. This enchanting circus has a more sinister element, as two powerful magicians place a bet on who can train a “better” or more powerful protege, with the circus being their main ring where both their proteges display their talents.

I found the characters to be slightly “safe” and none of them really took me by surprise or resonated with me. Having said that, there was a nice variety of stock characters and they are quite easy to imagine, which I think goes down to author’s good descriptions and overall writing style.

I do think that the real gem of this book, and the main reason why I gave it the stars I did was because the book did what it set out to do. You feel like you are in a dream or part of some strange illusion, trick of the eye and brain. It feels quite light and

Overall, I think that the story is a pleasant quick read, but I can’t say it’s anything revolutionary. Reading the whole book through, there weren’t any pages that I marked because there weren’t any particular quotes or lines that really stood out for me. The author’s writing style is definitely the main driver of the book for me, as you felt the mystery, the magic and the illusion throughout the whole book.

 

Q: Have you ever loved an element of a novel, but was not struck by the plot or overall book?

 

 

Book Review: Elon Musk by Ashlee Vance

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Published: 2015

 

I must confess, I was not really expecting this book, Elon Musk: How the Billionaire CEO of SpaceX and Tesla is Shaping Our Future by Ashlee Vance, to be so engaging and fascinating when I first got my hands on it. I had seen that it got rated high on Amazon, from where I purchased it, but to be honest I only take those ratings with a pinch of salt as most things average out to be 4 stars anyway. I also don’t have the best experience with biographies, as I often find they are written in a bit of tedious manner – reporting facts as opposed to making it engaging. That’s sort of what I thought about the biography I read on Queen Elizabeth the II, by Andrew Marr, for which I never bothered to even write a review.

I didn’t know very much about Elon Musk before reading this book about his life and visions. All I knew is that he founded Tesla and SpaceX and was somehow revolutionising how we view space exploration/travel, with him selling seats to the first human shuttle into space. What I found out after reading this book is that he is a genius and a revolutionary. Everything he does isn’t really about the money (he’s invested a lot of his own money in all his companies and is happy to sell them off to work on his visions of the future), but rather about exploring and pushing our human boundaries. For him, there are no boundaries. He’s a powerful force of will power and vision, that our planet needs.

“In July 2002, Musk was gripped by excitement of this daring enterprise, and eBay made it’s aggressive move to buy PayPal for $1.5 billion. This deal gave Musk some liquidity and supplied him with more than $100 million to throw at SpaceX.” (116)

I was completely taken aback by the entire biography. His life is so fascinating, and he’s such an interesting human being. His quirky personality is highlighted throughout his upbringing so you get a better understanding of who he is a person, a visionary and explorer. He’s also got an incredible work ethic. That’s the reason why he’s got as far as he had, no lucky streaks, wealthy parents or being at the right place at the right time. It’s the his own discipline and drive, that he continues to have despite all his successes, that has allowed him to get where he is. That’s why I find him so inspirational.

“He saw a man who arrived in the United States with nothing, who had lost a child, who was being pilloried in the press by reporters and his ex-wife and who verged on having his life’s work destroyed. ‘He has the ability to work harder and endure more stress that anyone I’ve ever met,’ Gracias said.” (211)

This is not to say that he’s a perfect human being. What I love about this biography, is that it doesn’t try to sugar coat things about the man featured on it’s front cover. Although it highlights how Elon Musk is doing some extraordinary, and inspiring things, it also highlights his downfalls (we all have them, even the greatest people!). Instead of making up excuses for him, the author isn’t afraid to point out that it is just how he is. I realised that although Elon is a amazing visionary, he’s a terrible people-person. He fires people left, right and centre, often for quite trivial reasons. You can see in the videos or interviews with him, that he’s quite socially awkward. But then again, he’s not trying to become a socialite. He’s got other priorities.

The author sections the book according to Elon Musk’s milestones in his life and big ventures, rather than being written in a purely chronological way. It’s hard to tell whether it’s the author’s engaging way of storytelling, by skipping around the timeline a little bit, or if it’s just fascinating to read about Elon Musk’s life. Either way it works, and I kid you not, I could not book this book down once I started reading it. Knowing that this is about a real person, there were many sections of the book that left me speechless. I would often run upstairs to tell my boyfriend about what I just read, or what Elon has accomplished. I cleared my entire day and finished the book in 24 hours.

 

Q: Have you recently read a very good biography? Please do share in the comment section below!

 

 

Book review: Catch-22 by Joseph Heller

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Published: 1961

So I know already I am going to get a lot of hate for this rating, and I have thought long and hard about it and just accepted it!

I’ll start focusing on the positives before I delve into the areas that I really struggled to appreciate. Firstly, it’s obvious a sensitive subject, the Second World War, and the author tries to discuss this subject with more humorous undertones than many other novels would, and for that I appreciate it.

The basic synopsis is, the book following a group of airmen stationed on an island off the coast of Italy during the latter half of the Second World War. We primarily follow the main protagonist, Captain Joseph Yossarian, and his disillusionment with the war and military in general. Throughout we dip into the other soldier’s lives at the base and we get to understand where they have come from and their hopes from the war. There are definitely moments when the author is trying to nail the theme and idea home, and it’s at these points where I get interested and want to listen, like this scene for example:

” Nately was instantly up in arms again. ‘ There is nothing so absurd about risking your life for your own country!’ he declared.

‘Isn’t there?’ asked the old man. ‘What is a country? A country is a piece of land surrounded on all sides by boundaries, usually unnatural. Englishmen are dying for England, Americans are dying for America, Germans are dying for Germany, Russians are dying for Russia. There are now fifty or sixty countries fighting in this war. Surely so many countries can’t all be worth fighting for.’ ” (283)

This is a soldier questioning the whole purpose of war, and questioning his own participation in it.

As you keep reading, the book reveals how corrupt, selfish and ineffective the military officials are and how the war is completely insane. I think that the theme of “catch-22” and how soldiers are made vulnerable by the war (like a prison sentence for them really!) are very poignant however, and there is a big however, I couldn’t get into the author’s writing style and humour at all, so although I understood what he was getting at, I did NOT enjoy the journey of getting there.

I also really struggled to relate or to feel any appreciation toward any of the characters, even the main protagonist I only really started to appreciate him when we got to the latter half of the book and by then it was too late to save it for me. Near the end the author was trying to tie in all his themes of the novel and a number did stand out for me. For example, the scene where Yossarian tries to escape to Rome because he realises how twisted the war and and world is, even in the glorious country he’s fighting for:

“What a lousy earth! He wondered how many people were destitute that same night even in his own prosperous country, how many homes were shanties, how many husbands were drunk and wives were socked, and how many children were bullied, abused and abandoned. “(472)

The rest of the characters are too similar, there are only a couple that stand out for me (Milo, Major Major, Chaplain and Nately). The rest have very similar characteristics and blend into one for me. The author does invest into the characters stories (or at least tries to) and this forms the bulk of the book. Nonetheless, when the characters described are so similar and quite frankly detestable in nature it’s challenging to find interest in the book. After a period of time, I did realise that the whole point WAS to make the reader not like most of the characters, but that doesn’t mean I enjoyed this knowledge.

Lastly, and this permeated through his writing, it’s all very chaotic. I understand this is what it’s meant to be to show how confused and dumbfounded the war makes people, however it was quite challenging and frustrating to keep track. The chaos permeated the chronology of the book, the character’s thought processing as well as the character’s conversations so it felt like much ado about nothing in the end.

It was definitely hard because I had such high hopes for this novel, but in the end it wasn’t an enjoyable read and at times it quite annoyed me. Maybe it will be better the second time around, but I think I will have to wait a bit longer to find that out.

Wednesday Wonderings: Amazing Books, Where to Find Them?

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Wednesday Wonderings: A chance for me to muse about anything and everything literature.

 It seems when you are younger, books just present themselves to you. You read what your mom takes out from the library, what your best friend around the block is reading, you read what everyone in your class is reading, and you pick up books with appealing covers and promise of adventure.

If you carry on with literature in university you read what your professors assign and deem “good” books. Rarely, do you have time outside of the required reading list to stray into some popular fiction or bother re-reading some of your favourite ol’ books. You digest and pull apart every aspect of the book, whether you enjoy it or not, and really live and breath the selected works. You read the classics, Shakespeare, American, dystopian, Victorian and old english.

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Then you graduate. The world opens up to you. You no longer spend hundreds of dollars/pounds on required, yet carefully chosen books from your university library. You can read whatever you like. Well, if you find the time.

The choice rests in your hands.

What do you do now? This seems to be my most recent dilemma. As I am flying through my current Reading List I can’t help but figure out where do I go next? Do I use Goodreads? Other blooger’s recommendations? Do I peruse my old syllabuses for extra novels that I never bothered to read? Do I ask my friends what they are reading? Do I research a list of 100 books you have to read before you die? Do I find another random list?

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It seems that there is no easy way to determine what books to include or exclude from the infamous reading list. You don’t want to be disappointed or waste your time ploughing through a 1 star book. Your time is precious, and I don’t want to make a mistake of picking up a book that I may not like.

How do you determine what books make it on your list? What books do you absolutely love and recommend I should read?

Wednesday Wonderings: Stars, or no stars?

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Wednesday Wonderings: A chance for me to muse about anything and everything literature.

After much deliberation and hard work I have decided to start my very own tradition called Wednesday Wonderings. As the subheading describes, this will give me the opportunity to discuss literature and practices more broadly. If you would like to join me feel free to copy and paste the image above and pass along this tradition! Without further ado….

Over my three month period of blogging about books (say that 5 times fast!) I have come across some wonderful bloggers, who I now follow quite religiously. They all have unique personalities, which come across in their posts, and each one brings something new to my literary world.

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YES, you are the BEST!

However, in each review there seems to be some common denominators. A photo of the novel is quite standard. Most include a short synapsis at some point in the post, and they end with either a recommendation or maybe a caution if they didn’t particularly like the book, explaining why it wasn’t their favourite. A rating system, either numeric or using another marking grid is either a yay or a nay in most.

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Where are you going with this??

There are so many ways to structure a review. I am sure if you have been to Goodreads you would know! There are some that are snappy, to the point, and others that are more detailed, explaining every aspect of the novel. The decision to either include or exclude a rating system has always been of interest to me.

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Personally I have always preferred to have a rating system, just because it clearly summed up the opinion of the reader. Yay, nay or meh. After glancing at that, I read the post to see their justifications for the rating. On WordPress, more people seem to be just detailing their opinion of the novel without putting giving the book a rating.

This way, people actually read the review instead of just scanning quickly over the rating assigned to the book. This way, it maintains a more professional look and feel, maybe? I know that certain books are difficult to class, or compare with other novels. Every once in a while I sit there thinking what number would I give this book, it’s got some good bits and some not so good bits. Where to draw the line between a three or a four? Are there defining lines?

I am not sure how I feel about ratings now. How to even start classing books? Anyway that’s my Wednesday Wonderings.

 

Why did you decide for/against ratings? How do you decide how to structure your reviews?