The Lost Continent: Travels in Small-Town America – Bill Bryson

Summary from Goodreads:

‘I come from Des Moines. Somebody had to’.

And, as soon as Bill Bryson was old enough, he left. Des Moines couldn’t hold him, but it did lure him back. After ten years in England, he returned to the land of his youth, and drove almost 14,000 miles in search of a mythical small town called Amalgam, the kind of trim and sunny place where the films of his youth were set. Instead, his search led him to Anywhere, USA; a lookalike strip of gas stations, motels and hamburger outlets populated by lookalike people with a penchant for synthetic fibres. Travelling around thirty-eight of the lower states – united only in their mind-numbingly dreary uniformity – he discovered a continent that was doubly lost; lost to itself because blighted by greed, pollution, mobile homes and television; lost to him because he had become a stranger in his own land. 

I think I have definitely gone on about how much I love Bill Bryson on this blog (see my review of A Walk in the Woods). I will always find him hilarious and this book definitely had me laughing out loud almost continuously. That said though, I couldn’t help but feel a little disappointed by it.

Why, you might be wondering? Because I think Bryson did a really crappy job at representing small-town America. He’s funny, yes. Accurate? Definitely not. He focuses on the ugliness of the suburbs, the stupidity of the people, and he goes on and on about how boring and over-priced the monuments are. But he doesn’t actually talk to anyone from any of these places. I mean, not in any way that isn’t arrogant and condescending. In my opinion, judging a town by the number of restaurants in it rather than by actually listening to and talking to the people who live in it is not fair. It’s C-grade travel writing at best.

I think Bryson seriously missed out on what could have been an awesome and insightful book about the incredibly varied, inspiring, fascinating cultures and landscapes that the US has to offer. Yes, making fun of how ignorant, untraveled, and ugly Americans can be will always be easier/possibly way funnier. But it’s a cop out.

Have you read The Lost Continent? What did you think of it? Have you read any of Bill Bryson’s other books? Please feel free to share your thoughts. I always love hearing from you. ūüôā 

~Anna

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Why the Dutch are Different: A Journey into the Hidden Heart of the Netherlands – Ben Coates

Summary from Goodreads:

The first book to offer an in depth look at hidden Holland and the fascinating people that live there, Why the Dutch are Different is an entertaining book about a country unlike any other. The Netherlands are a tiny nation that punch above their weight on the world stage, where prostitutes are entitled to sick pay and prisons are closing due to lack of demand. After a chance encounter, Ben Coates left behind life in London to move to the Netherlands, where he learned the language, worked for Dutch company and married a Dutch wife. He takes readers into the heart of his adopted country, going beyond the usual tourist attractions and cliches to explore what it is that makes the Dutch the Dutch, Holland not the Netherlands and the colour orange so important. A travelogue, a history and a personal account of a changing country – Ben Coates tells the tale of an Englishman who went Dutch and liked it.

Before I begin this review, I just wanted to say sorry for having been so inactive on here over the past two months. A lot of big changes have been happening in my life, and my blog has sadly been very neglected as of late. I’m trying to work through my ridiculous backlog at the moment, so expect lots of reviews over the next couple of weeks!

I read Ben Coates’¬†Why the Dutch are Different¬†about two months ago (I told you my backlog is really out of hand) and really enjoyed it.¬†I’m thinking about continuing my studies in the Netherlands and went through a period of obsessive reading about all things Dutch. If you, like me, are at all interested in learning about why the Dutch are so obsessed with the colour orange or how the Netherlands came to be so flat, I would definitely recommend reading this book.

While it is not particularly profound, it does provide a funny and informative introduction to Dutch history, politics, and geography. I particularly enjoyed the personal anecdotes that were thrown in and I learnt some really fascinating facts and details. In particular, the chapters on politics and immigration were really interesting and well-researched and I loved learning more about the formation of the Dutch landscape.

Fun fact: did you know that pretty much every clich√© about the Netherlands is in some way linked to the country’s relationship with water? From the windmills that were used to pump fields dry, to the flatness of the land that was left behind, to the bicycles that travelled easily across this smooth terrain, everything comes back to the country’s ongoing battle against the tides.¬†Bricks paved roads built on dangerously soft ground; tulips thrived in the silty reclaimed soil; cows grew fat on rich moist grass; glasses of milk and beer were safe to drink when clean water was in short supply; people grew tall from drinking all the milk; and thick wooden clogs kept farmers’ feet dry when trudging through boggy fields. Fascinating stuff.

All in all, this is an entertaining and relaxing read. It is unlikely to revolutionise your world, but you might learn a few fun facts about a really fascinating country that is rapidly changing. Recommended.

Have you read Why the Dutch are Different? What did you think of it? Have you ever been the Netherlands? And do you have any recommendations for good books about the Netherlands/set in the Netherlands/written by a Dutch writer? Would love to hear your thoughts. 

~Anna

Wishful Drinking – Carrie Fisher

Summary from Goodreads:

In Wishful Drinking, Carrie Fisher tells the true and intoxicating story of her life with inimitable wit. Born to celebrity parents, she was picked to play a princess in a little movie called Star Wars when only 19 years old. “But it isn’t all sweetness and light sabres.” Alas, aside from a demanding career and her role as a single mother (not to mention the hyperspace hairdo), Carrie also spends her free time battling addiction, weathering the wild ride of manic depression and lounging around various mental institutions. It’s an incredible tale – from having Elizabeth Taylor as a stepmother, to marrying (and divorcing) Paul Simon, from having the father of her daughter leave her for a man, to ultimately waking up one morning and finding a friend dead beside her in bed.

Carrie Fisher’s¬†Wishful Drinking¬†was my introduction to audiobooks and what an introduction it was! I recently discovered that I can borrow audiobooks from my library using an app on my phone, which has totally changed my life. For the better of course. I’ve started listening to them while I run (crawl) and while I’m in the car and it is just so enjoyable, although I do find that I can only listen to certain genres. Short, snappy biographies and travel memoirs are great, but anything too complex just hurts my brain.

Anyway, back to¬†Wishful Drinking. You can probably imagine my surprise when I hit play on my phone and heard Carrie Fisher’s unmistakeable voice in my ear. I guess it makes sense that she would have done the narration herself, but I was surprised nonetheless and there was something so eerily intimate about it. If you have the opportunity to listen to this book instead of reading it, I would highly recommend doing so because I think that it works so much better as an audiobook than a normal book.

Wishful Drinking is fluff, I guess, in the sense that it won’t change your life or even your lunchbreak. But it’s good, witty fluff. True, Fisher’s relentless wisecracking starts to sound needy and defensive after a while, but I think it’s to her credit that, despite her freakish Hollywood existence, she’s still human enough to laugh at herself. Come to think of it, what could be more freakish than that: a human being in Hollywood? She must have been incredibly lonely.

Recommended for: fans of¬†Star Wars,¬†hollywood intrigue, those weighing up the benefits of electroshock therapy, and pretty much anyone who is remotely interested in knowing more about Carrie Fisher’s life (i.e. everyone).

Have you read/listened to¬†Wishful Drinking?¬†Or any of Carrie Fisher’s other books? What did you think of them? Also, what are your opinions on audiobooks? I would love to hear your thoughts. ūüôā¬†

~Anna

O Pioneers! – Willa Cather

Summary from Goodreads:

O Pioneers! (1913) was Willa Cather’s first great novel, and to many it remains her unchallenged masterpiece. No other work of fiction so faithfully conveys both the sharp physical realities and the mythic sweep of the transformation of the American frontier‚ÄĒand the transformation of the people who settled it. Cather’s heroine is Alexandra Bergson, who arrives on the wind-blasted prairie of Hanover, Nebraska, as a girl and grows up to make it a prosperous farm. But this archetypal success story is darkened by loss, and Alexandra’s devotion to the land may come at the cost of love itself.

Where has Willa Cather been all my life? Until fairly recently, I had barely even heard of her, but now I want to read everything she has ever written. In preparation for my road trip across the USA I have been reading a lot of American literature and I picked up O Pioneers! after a dear friend and former colleague recommended it to me. In short, I thought it was beautifully written, both simple and epic, and so perfectly captured the harsh, windswept prairielands of Nebraska.

Reading this book, it was clear to me that Cather knew the land which she describes intimately, and felt a strong connection to it. Her descriptions of the prairielands are so vivid and rich, as are her portrayals of the various peoples (Bohemians, Swedes, Norwegians, French, etc.) who settled there. As enamoured as I was with the richness of these descriptions, I did still feel that the story was a little, I don’t know, undercooked? Some of the characters felt a bit one-dimensional and I didn’t really care for the melodramatic finale. Honestly, I would happily have read 600+ pages about farmers planting crops and fighting the elements, but tragic love triangles? Meh.

Don’t make the mistake of thinking that I disliked this book. The aspects of¬†O Pioneers!¬†that I loved, I¬†really¬†loved. This was my first Cather, and it certainly won’t be my last, as I felt a real connection to her writing that left me craving more. I have a good feeling that her other works, such as¬†My √Āntonia¬†and¬†Death Comes for the Archbishop, will be more fully formed and even more to my liking. At least I hope so.

Have you read¬†O Pioneers?¬†Or anything else by Willa Cather? What do you think of her writing? Would love to hear from you. Sorry it’s been so long since I last posted.¬†

~Anna

The Last Painting of Sara de Vos – Dominic Smith

Summary from Goodreads:

In 1631, Sara de Vos is admitted as a master painter to the Guild of St. Luke’s in Holland, the first woman to be so recognized. Three hundred years later, only one work attributed to de Vos is known to remain–a haunting winter scene, At the Edge of a Wood, which hangs over the bed of a wealthy descendant of the original owner. An Australian grad student, Ellie Shipley, struggling to stay afloat in New York, agrees to paint a forgery of the landscape, a decision that will haunt her. Because now, half a century later, she’s curating an exhibit of female Dutch painters, and both versions threaten to arrive. As the three threads intersect, The Last Painting of Sara de Vos mesmerizes while it grapples with the demands of the artistic life, showing how the deceits of the past can forge the present.

I read this book (over a month ago, ugh) when I was feeling really sick and it made me feel so much better about everything. While my art knowledge is practically non-existent, I still found it to be highly enjoyable and think that it is a great book to read if you’re feeling a little green around the gills. Or even if you’re not.

This book is basically a checklist of literary whoopee: it’s set in the art world, it features jazz clubs, a Mad Men-style Manhattan couple of the 1950s, a woman painter in the 1630s, some behind the scenes action at the New South Wales art gallery, and a long-kept secret from someone’s youth. Throw in the possibility of an affair, a young woman procrastinating at her dissertation on a Remington, and the tragedy of lost children, and you have all the key ingredients for high-level intrigue.

As for the writing itself, I found it to be elegant and eloquent. There is nothing groundbreakingly innovative about it, but I wasn’t really in the mood for groundbreakingly innovative writing when I read this book. I just wanted a good, well-written, immersive story. And that’s exactly what I got.

The characters are all very compelling and well-constructed. As is always the case with parallel storylines, I enjoyed some narratives more than others. I particularly enjoyed the parts about Ellie’s misadventures in New York as a struggling grad student, although I found the scenes written from Sara de Vos’ perspective to be a little boring at times. On a side note, I was impressed by how well Smith managed to write female characters. None of the women in this book were caricatural and I actually thought that Dominic Smith was a woman until I googled him. Oops.

Overall, I thought that this was a lovely book and I enjoyed it so much more than I thought I would. I found it to be a quietly compelling page-turner about art, regret, loss, and finding meaning within the constraints of one’s circumstances. Recommended.

Have you read The Last Painting of Sara de Vos? What did you think of it? Do you have any recommendations for good books set in the art world? Would love to hear from you. 

~Anna

Life Update

Hi lovely readers! I’m sorry for not having posted any reviews in the last few weeks – I have been insanely busy writing essays and studying for exams. I’m finally free now though, so I’ll try to get through my backlog over the next week or so. Also, some pretty big changes have happened/are happening in my life right now, and I just thought I’d share them with you.

  1. I had my last exam this morning, which means that I have officially finished my degree. Woohoo! I’m relieved to be done with assessments, but I’m a little sad that my university days are over (at least for now).
  2. At the end of the month I will be leaving my beloved Melbourne to go and play in a music festival in France. I’m unbelievably excited about this, but I’m a bit heartbroken about leaving this wonderful city and all the wonderful people in it for an indefinite amount of time.
  3. I have resigned from my amazing bookshop job and will be heading off on a year-long adventure across North America in October. I don’t really have much of a plan yet, which is both exhilirating and terrifying. If you have any recommendations for things to do/places to see/bookshops to fawn over in the USA or Canada, I would love to hear from you.

Anyway, that’s my life at the moment. It’s a bit of a mess, but it’s an exciting mess. I also read a few books over the last few weeks, which I will try to review as soon as possible. Here is the list:

  • The Last Painting of Sara De Vos – Dominic Smith
  • The Night Circus – Erin Morgenstern
  • The Lost Continent: Travels in Small-Town America – Bill Bryson
  • Adulthood is a Myth – Sarah Andersen
  • O Pioneers! – Willa Cather
  • Wishful Drinking – Carrie Fisher

Have you read any of these books? What did you think of them? Do you have any good post-graduation book recommendations? Or recommendations for books that will get me excited about road-tripping across America? Would love to hear your thoughts. ūüôā¬†

~Anna

The Lonely City – Olivia Laing

Summary from Goodreads:

What does it mean to be lonely? How do we live, if we’re not intimately engaged with another human being? How do we connect with other people? Does technology draw us closer together or trap us behind screens?¬†When Olivia Laing moved to New York City in her mid-thirties, she found herself inhabiting loneliness on a daily basis. Increasingly fascinated by this most shameful of experiences, she began to explore the lonely city by way of art. Moving fluidly between works and lives — from Edward Hopper’s Nighthawks¬†to Andy Warhol’s Time Capsules, from Henry Darger’s hoarding to the depredations of the AIDS crisis — Laing conducts an electric, dazzling investigation into what it means to be alone, illuminating not only the causes of loneliness but also how it might be resisted and redeemed.

It is impossible to walk for long through any large city without passing someone who looks sad and alone and somewhat shrunken. Some days, you might suspect that you are that person. If this thought has ever run through your head, then this book is for you.

In The Lonely City, Olivia Laing explores the relationship between loneliness and creativity. Like her previous works, To the River and The Trip to Echo Spring, The Lonely City eludes neat categorisation. A fusion of scholarship and memoir, Laing weaves together elements of travel writing, philosophy, biography and art criticism with great tenderness and insight. The result is an elegantly crafted and truly compelling meditation on urban isolation, art, and technology.

In this book, loneliness is both Laing’s subject and emotional state. After a new relationship abruptly dissolved, Laing¬†found herself lost and alone in New York City, “possessed by a desire to find correlates, physical evidence that other people had inhabited [her] state”. And so she turned to art as a way of grappling with her own loneliness. In¬†The Lonely City,¬†Laing dedicates her time to examining the lives and work of four very different American artists: Edward Hopper, Andy Warhol, David Wojnarowicz, and Henry Darger. A wide cast of secondary subjects (including Valerie Solanas, Klaus Nomi, Greta Garbo and Zoe Leonard, among others) also feature in this book and Laing paints an entralling portrait of each and every one of them. Her speculations are sensitive and empathetic, and it is clear that her relationship with the work of each artist is genuine and intimate. In the final chapters (my favourite part of the book), Laing¬†spends a considerable amount of time discussing the AIDS epidemic which swept through the city in the ’80s, as well as the contradictory role the internet plays in our lives, simultaneously¬†connecting and isolating us.

Humane, provocative, and deeply moving, The Lonely City is about the spaces between people and the things that draw them together, about sexuality, mortality, and the magical possibilities of art. It’s a celebration of a strange and lovely state, “adrift from the larger continent of human experience, but intrinsic to the very act of being alive”. This book is so beautiful, and I cannot recommend it highly enough.¬†You can find an extract from it here if you’re interested.

Have you read The Lonely City? What did you think of it? I would love to hear from you. 

~Anna