Friday, July 22, 2011

Review: At Home

I would follow Bill Bryson anywhere. I have followed him on the Appalachian Trail, into the universe, across America, through England and all the way Down Under. He does not fail to delight readers — even when he stays home.

In At Home, the furthest he goes is to the roof.

Bryson literally strolls through his home in a quiet English hamlet, pondering who has come before (and literally how many there are still there, in body if not in spirit) and how they created the space around them.

Many students of history know the kitchen was often separate from the rest of the house, but how it evolved from a sure-fire death trap to today's modern amenities is worth the trip alone. In the kitchen, Bryson considers food and ponders why we eat what we eat — and who in their right mind would think [fill in the blank here] was a good idea for the plate? From wheat to corn, from meat to dairy, from spices to grain, Bryson ponders what we eat, and how it came to be on our plate, rather than in a bog, blowing in the breeze, or hoofing it in a wild pasture.

Another fascinating room is the, ahem, boudoir. It's not nearly as tantilizing as one would expect. It's more so. Honestly, from women's rights to privacy, from where people to slept to how they did (or didn't) sleep, and with whom — if you didn't think about it before, you can't help but ponder it now.

Nothing is too small: from salt to bedbugs, from lighting (inside and out) to laundry, from wheat to bread. In Bryson's hands, nothing can be small: why are salt and pepper the most popular condiments? Where and how did modern archaeology begin? Where did servants sleep? How could people navigate roads, or even the inside of their house, with a single tallow candle?

In contrast, nothing is too big: take the Crystal Palace Exposition, where glass is king and the toilets were nearly as popular as the rest of the expo. Even the entire English vicar situation is easily understood, and we walk away grateful for the Church of England, landowners and country parishes.

Bryson's deft touch makes every single chapter of this non-fiction tome delightful, educational, thoughtful, shocking, mournful, interesting, respectful, bawdy and just plain fun. Please, please read it — and let me know what you think.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

What I Didn't Read

Lately, I've been picking up books, just to put them back down. I blame part of that on The Discovery of Witches, which I enjoyed greatly (and will review in the near future).

The rest I blame on bad books.

To be fair, not all of them have been "bad" in the traditional "wish to rip out your eyeballs to save your soul" kind of way, but perhaps unsuitable for the time being:
  • I knew Game of Thrones was too heavy for my brain right now, and I will pick it up after the library is settled.
  • I already read Geek Love at a different time in my life, when I could handle the story of a family of people purposely bred to be born with bizarre, extreme birth defects.
  • I couldn't wait to read about the Unseen University in Unseen Academicals, but I put it away after a few pages. I blame that on a sinus headache.

Others, however, were. I must be the last person to read The Hunger Games — well, almost read it. After about 20 pages, I had to stop. The lead character was totally non-dynamic and simple. Plus, the "dystopian" story wasn't totally unique: when civilization ends, so does civility. This novel just throws young adults into the gory part of the story because it's young adult fiction — and apparently, that's the only way this author thinks youth will read her story. (As a former Nickelodeon staff writer, she might know of such things, so perhaps I am talking out of my hat.)

The Hunger Games might get better, but I didn't want to invest the time. There are too many good stories out there to waste time on something that doesn't intrigue me.

What should I pick up next? Let me know!

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Review: Stranger Things Happen

I am all about weird. I seek out the weird. However, I think I hit my weird quota with the short story collection Stranger Things Happen.

Kelly Link's collection of short stories goes to New York and beyond. What she does well is spin the yarn: I wasn't sure where the story was going, but I was game to follow Link's lead.

At first.

Then things got weird.

When a story concluded, I honestly had no idea what it meant. I was lost. It had to mean more than just the words on the page, or it would have been a colossal waste of time.

I was transfixed by the first story, "Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose," where a man with major memory issues is writing a letter to his wife. As the story unfolded, I was transfixed. Many other storytellers tried to imagine this lost-feeling destination with limited success — but Link had a handle on it. Well, until the end approached, and while I saw where it was going, I didn't like it.

She retold a couple of fairy tales in "Travels With the Snow Queen" and "Shoe and Marriage," and she threw in some folklore with "Flying Lessons." All interesting tales, all successful beginnings, all faltered near the end for me.

The two most successful stories — "The Specialist's Hat" and "Survivor's Ball, or The Donner Party" — were more direct, more specific, told the tale to the end instead of letting go and making the reader try to follow the balloon into the atmosphere.

Why did I finish it? Well, it's not a good reason, but it is an explanation: I read it to the end because NPR recommended it. However, they also publish Nancy Pearl's recommendations, and I have yet to find a gem for me among her suggestions.

In the end, I cannot recommend the book as a whole. One or two stories may strike you, but don't feel obligated to read them all. Let me know what you think, and which stories you liked.