Give me books, fruit, french wine and fine weather and a little music out of doors. --John Keats

Wednesday, October 24, 2018

"Neither Here Nor There: Travels in Europe" by Bill Bryson

I enjoyed this one much more than I remember enjoying my previous (and only other) Bill Bryson read. Bryson harshed on a few cities pretty hard and (maybe I'm just too sensitive?) I imagined that the people in those cities might be a bit insulted by what he wrote, but since most of the disparaging comments seemed to be about the inanimate cities and not specifically about the people in them, maybe it would be easier to avoid taking it personally. Either way, this time none of the comments were about me or about any city I would consider mine, so I was better able to laugh with Bryson. In fact, I actually literally laughed out loud more than once (but after the first time--p41 with the dead beaver in Paris--when I tried sharing the humor with my husband and he just stared at me, unsmiling, while I snorted with laughter, I decided to keep the rest of it to myself).

Obviously I haven't been everywhere in Europe, and just as obviously this book doesn't cover everywhere in Europe, but my past travels had surprisingly little overlap with Bryson's catalogued "travels in Europe." However, I wrote a little list of places I haven't been to (yet) which this book made me really, really want to see:
  • Bruges, Belgium (p60)
  • Sorrento, Italy (p144)
  • Capri, Italy (p148)
  • Como, Italy (p174 . . . and are you starting to see a theme?)
  • Split, Yugoslavia (just kidding . . . Croatia, p218) 
There were also quite a few places the book made me NOT want to see but I didn't write them down and now the only one I remember is Brussels, Belgium. Sorry, Brussels! It's Bill Bryson's fault, not mine. 

Sunday, October 7, 2018

"Grief is the Thing with Feathers" by Max Porter

This is a unique little novella. (Despite the fact that the cover claims it is a novel, it just doesn't have enough pages or enough words or enough breadth to truly be
a novel.) And though I found it impressive and worthy (in a good way), it was not what I expected.

It's the story of a man who has just lost his wife and is left alone with their two young sons . . . until a giant crow moves into their flat with them. (To avoid confusing you with my next sentence, I must explain that the widower is writing a book about Ted Hughes, and Hughes wrote a collection of poems called Crow: From the Life and Songs of the Crow.) Now, I know very little about Ted Hughes and even less about his writing, and maybe my ignorance skewed my expectations, but I expected Crow to be a physical manifestation of grief. And maybe it was sometimes, or mostly? But not always, and not to its greatest potential.

In general, though the writing was striking and interesting and vivid, I found it easy to skate over without really feeling the grief of its characters. Maybe that's just evidence that I'm a replicant? But as I read, I couldn't help thinking, this is written by a man who has never lost his wife. (I didn't even know if that was true, and how should I know what it's like? I've never lost a wife--or had one, either--and I was prepared to feel very bad if I looked Porter up online and found that he had indeed experienced the death of his spouse.)

Maybe this is just too neat--too easy to blame the book instead of the reader--but I did find a little bit about the book's background, and I feel like I've hit upon the reason the man's grief did not seem raw and real to me. I found nothing about Porter having lost a wife . . . but at the age of 6 he did lose his father. I wonder how much more deeply this book might have touched me if he'd written it largely from the perspective of the boys, drawing more upon his own experience?

Friday, October 5, 2018

"The Hazel Wood" by Melissa Albert

I LOVED the first half of this book. It tells the story of Alice Crewe, a 17-year-old student at a posh private high school in Manhattan. Alice hadn't always lived in a penthouse apartment, though. Life surrounded by snooty rich people was a recent development, and one that Alice wasn't entirely comfortable with. Before Alice's mother Ella married her rich stepfather Harold, mother and daughter had spent Alice's entire life moving from place to place, mooching off any friends they could find, until they overstayed their welcome and had to move on. Or, as Alice put it, until their bad luck caught up with them.

Alice didn't fully understand the reasons behind their itinerant lifestyle, though she knew it had something to do with her grandmother, Althea Proserpine, whom she had never met. Althea was the author of a book of fairy tales called Tales from the Hinterland. Book and author alike were surrounded by an air of mystery. The book had somehow become both very famous as well as extremely hard to find, and Alice had never read it. Even if she could have gotten her hands on a copy, she knew her mother wouldn't approve.

But one day Alice comes home to find that her mother has disappeared, and she doesn't know who to turn to. All she can think to do is travel to her grandmother's estate, The Hazel Wood--maybe there she will find clues that will lead her to her mother. She's joined by Ellery Finch, the closest thing to a friend that she has. It isn't long before bizarre fairy-tale circumstances start creeping into real life.

And up to this point, this was the best book I had read in a long time. The story hummed with energy. It was taut and tense. But it was exactly on page 199 that the book began to go wrong. It's like the thread was cut and the tension was lost and the story made all the sense of a dream. The thread that had been strung so tightly up until that point became a jumbled, tangled mess. I wouldn't say I didn't enjoy the rest of the book, but it was disappointing that it didn't live up to the expectations set by the first half.