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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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

Les fianc√©s de l’hiver – Christelle Dabos

NOTE: So, I’ve been thinking a lot about whether I should review foreign language books that have not been translated into English on this blog and I’ve decided to do it. This blog (as happy as I am that people are reading it and commenting on my posts) is first and foremost¬†a way for me to keep track of all of the books I read and to crystallise my thoughts on them.¬†Foreign language titles make up a significant proportion of the books I read, yet they have been very neglected on this¬†blog. Here goes my effort to change this!¬†I’ve decided to write this review in French because it is a French book that is unlikely to be translated into English and I just don’t really see the point in rambling about it in English. My apologies to those of you who don’t speak French!

Résumé du livre:

Sous son √©charpe √©lim√©e et ses lunettes de myope, Oph√©lie cache des dons singuliers : elle peut lire le pass√© des objets et traverser les miroirs. Elle vit paisiblement sur l’Arche d’Anima quand on la fiance √† Thorn, du puissant clan des Dragons. La jeune fille doit quitter sa famille et le suivre √† la Citacielle, capitale flottante du P√īle. √Ä quelle fin a-t-elle √©t√© choisie ? Pourquoi doit-elle dissimuler sa v√©ritable identit√© ? Sans le savoir, Oph√©lie devient le jouet d’un complot mortel.

Apr√®s avoir entendu d’excellents commentaires des¬†Fianc√©s de l’Hiver¬†– j’ai l’impression que tout le monde a eu un coup de coeur pour ce roman – j’en attendais beaucoup. Malheureusement, je suis ressortie de cette lecture extr√™mement mitig√©e et triste d’avoir trouv√© tant de probl√®mes √† ce roman, alors que la plupart¬†des autres lecteurs ne les ont pas per√ßus ainsi.

Ceci dit, si j’avais vraiment tout d√©test√©, j’aurais abandonn√© cette lecture et alors, je vais commencer tout de m√™me par le positif.¬†Tout d’abord, j’ai trouv√© que l’univers √©tait tr√®s int√©ressant et m’a enchant√© d√®s les premi√®res pages.¬†En particulier, j’ai beacoup aim√© l’atmosph√®re du P√īle.¬†De plus, le d√©but et la fin de l‚Äôhistoire √©taient int√©ressants et captivants. Cependant, mis √† part le d√©but et la fin, j’ai trouv√© que le roman √©tait extr√™mement lent, et je ne parvenais pas √† m’int√©resser √† ce qui se passait. Au milieu de ce livre, il y avait donc un grand passage √† vide (d’environ 400 pages) et je me suis forc√©e √† lire. Tout de m√™me, la fin √©tait bonne et m’a donn√© envie de lire le deuxi√®me tome (ok, pas vraiment, mais bon).

Et maintenant pour le négatif.

  1. J’ai trouv√© que les personnages √©taient tous caricaturaux. √Ä mon avis, Oph√©lie n’a que tr√®s peu de personnalit√©, et elle est caract√©ris√©e de mani√®re tr√®s enfantine tout au long du roman.¬†Je ne sais pas si cela vient de sa “personnalit√©” (encore f√Ľt-il qu’elle en ait une) ou du style de l’√©criture, mais je n’ai jamais eu l’impression de suivre les aventures d’une jeune fille. Son extr√™me na√Įvet√© et sa propension √† subir ce qui lui arrive m’a profond√©ment agac√©e, m√™me si elle “r√©siste” √† sa mani√®re. Alors d’accord, elle a l√©g√®rement √©volu√© en fin d’histoire, mais franchement, pas assez pour que cela n’ait un impact vraiment positif. De plus, toutes les femmes dans ce livre (mis √† part¬†Oph√©lie et sa tante) sont pr√©sent√©es comme des garces (je cite) ou des frivoles sans aucun int√©r√™t. Beurk.
  2. Je¬†d√©teste que Christelle Dabos¬†pr√©sente toutes les femmes sauf l’h√©ro√Įne et sa tante comme des adult√®res, en essayant de montrer √† quel point Oph√©lie est “pure”.¬†S’il y a quelque chose que je d√©teste, c’est quand on me force √† appr√©cier une h√©ro√Įne en essayant de me faire croire que sa “puret√©” √©quivaut √† ce qu’une femme se doit d’√™tre. Non, juste NON.
  3. Quant au personnage de Thorn, t√©n√©breux, indiff√©rent, j‚Äôaurai franchement pu faire sans… Je comprends tout √† fait qu‚Äôil a eu¬†une vie difficile, mais je ne vois pas comment je suis suppos√©e de l‚Äôappr√©cier. La partie la plus dr√īle reste le moment o√Ļ il dit √† Oph√©lie qu‚Äôil commence √† ¬ę¬†s‚Äôhabituer √† elle¬†¬Ľ et qu‚Äôelle interpr√®te ceci comme¬†une d√©claration de son amour pour elle. MAIS SUR QUELLE PLAN√ąTE VIT-ELLE?¬†Ce n‚Äôest pas de l‚Äôamour et tout √ßa me donne envie de vomir.

En bref,¬†Les Fianc√©s de l‚ÄôHiver¬†√©tait une grande¬†d√©ception pour moi.¬†Une h√©ro√Įne qui s‚Äôoublie facilement, un monde sexiste, un personnage masculin insupportable et une intrigue qui avance √† une vitesse d‚Äôescargot – tout cela m’a √©nnerv√© √©norm√©ment. Cependant, ce livre avait tant, tant de potentiel et c’est cela qui me rend vraiment triste.¬†Les animistes, le Pole, tout √©tait l√† pour nous envo√Ľter¬†dans une histoire fantastique,¬†mais le r√©sultat n’√©tait pas √† la hauteur de mes esp√©rances.¬†

Avez-vous lu ce roman ? Qu’en avez-vous pens√© ? A votre avis, devrais-je pers√©v√©rer et lire Les Disparus du Clairdelune ?¬†

~Anna

A Monster Calls – Patrick Ness

Summary from Goodreads:

The monster showed up after midnight. As they do.

But it isn’t the monster Conor’s been expecting. He’s been expecting the one from his nightmare, the one he’s had nearly every night since his mother started her treatments, the one with the darkness and the wind and the screaming…

This monster is something different, though. Something ancient, something wild. And it wants the most dangerous thing of all from Conor.

It wants the truth.

Ugh, this book made me cry like a little baby. What is up with me choosing really sad books at the moment? First Lincoln in the Bardo and now this! I think I definitely need something light and funny to read after the heartbreaking, ugly-cry-inducing, I-want-to-hug-my-mom kind of book that is A Monster Calls. 

It is a middle grade children’s book, yes. And if I had read it as a child, I probably would have loved it. It’s got monsters, nightmares,¬†loveable¬†characters, scary grandmothers, and thirteen-year-old bullies – you know, the whole shebang. Little me would have loved that. But it is not just a children’s book.¬†A Monster Calls¬†is a book that can be read and loved by all.

Well-written and compelling, this is a book about grief, loss, and love that will resonate with readers of all ages. While Conor does confront his demons more literally than most, there is nothing didactic or forced about this. The writing is intelligent and beautifully simple, the characters are well-developed, and the whole time I was reading this, I just wanted to hug little Conor. After the first chapter, I could already feel the tears coming and by the end of the book, well, they definitely spilled.

While this book is incredibly sad, more than anything else, I felt a great deal of love while reading this. Love for Conor and his family, love for my own family and friends, and love for everyone who has ever experienced a profound loss. This is such a beautiful book, and one that will stay with me for a long time. In just 215 pages, this book will break your heart and piece it back together again, so that you can go and be present in the world as a wiser, more loving human being.

Just a little note about the illustrations: 

While the words themselves are powerful, they are complemented perfectly by Jim Kay’s magnificent and wildly expressive illustrations. If you do decide to read this book (please do), I would highly recommend getting your hands on the illustrated edition. If you’d like to learn more about Jim Kay and his¬†work, you can find his website here.

And another little one about the story: 

The story behind this book makes it even more poignant. Siobhan Dowd, the award-winning author of numerous young adult novels, came up with the original idea and the characters, but died of breast cancer before she could put pen to paper. Patrick Ness was asked to write the book based on her idea, and he succeeded in achieving a work of fiction that both transcends its genre and painfully wrenches your heart.

Have you read¬†A Monster Calls?¬†What did you think of it? And most importantly, can you please recommend a book¬†that won’t make me bawl my eyes out?¬†

~Anna

Rebecca – Daphne Du Maurier

Summary from Goodreads:

Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again . . .

The novel begins in Monte Carlo, where our heroine is swept off her feet by the dashing widower Maxim de Winter and his sudden proposal of marriage. Orphaned and working as a lady’s maid, she can barely believe her luck. It is only when they arrive at his massive country estate that she realizes how large a shadow his late wife will cast over their lives–presenting her with a lingering evil that threatens to destroy their marriage from beyond the grave.

Oh my goodness, I haven’t had this much fun reading a book in so long!¬†It’s like a gothic soap opera, but in the best possible way. It’s dark, atmospheric,¬†melodramatic, and oh so decadent. Honestly, I don’t know why¬†I only discovered this now.

From the very first sentence, which is one of the most famous opening lines ever written, I was totally immersed in the story. I got lost in the descriptions of Manderley. I wanted to walk those paths through the woods to the beach. I wanted to wander the halls and peer into rooms, long abandoned after Rebecca’s death. I wanted to touch, taste, and smell everything our heroine was experiencing. I wanted to sit by the fire in the Manderley library, watching the rain stream down the windows, and¬†read this book until the end of time. Yes, it’s that good.

The characters in this book, especially the female characters, were utterly fascinating. Mrs Danvers sent chills down my spine and for most of the book, I found myself totally terrified of her, but then she also had these moments of incredible fragility and sadness. But just when I found myself sympathising with her, she would go back to being a manipulative hag. What a brilliant character. As for Rebecca, I could almost feel her presence in the room while I was reading. I could almost hear her malicious laughter and picture her at her desk writing her letters in her elegant, cursive script. In contrast to our timid, nameless, and ultimately forgettable narrator, Rebecca is someone who demands to be remembered, long after her death.

The book is often¬†compared to Jane Eyre, but the dead Rebecca is much more vividly alive in Manderley than the madwoman in Mr Rochester‚Äôs attic ever was. In fact, she seems more alive than our¬†little heroine, who seems to exist only to serve and appease others.¬†Rebecca¬†infuses every room with the strength of her personality, while our narrator flits through the house like a ghost, afraid to touch or disturb anything. Personally, I love that she remains nameless throughout the novel as it shows the extent to which her identity is subsumed by her husband’s and makes Rebecca seem all the more present.

Now I know there are a few Maxim de Winter fans out there, but I have to admit that I am not one of them. The whole time I was reading this book, I just wanted to slap him for being so condescending, brooding, and peevish. Yes, Mrs de Winter is portrayed as a sexless, child-like creature with very little personality, but that doesn’t mean that¬†she should be treated as the human equivalent of a doormat. I mean, she is his wife after all. He asked¬†her to marry him, not the other way around. This man who is more than twice his wife’s age never once calls her by her name, asks her how she is feeling, or gives her the freedom to form her own opinions.¬†What a jerk. Ugh. It’s no surprise really that Rebecca turned out the way she did.

Overall, I cannot express how much I loved this book. In my opinion, it is the perfect book to read on a rainy day, while covered in blankets and sipping a hot cup of tea.¬†If you haven’t already read it, I highly recommend adding it to your TBR. I just wish I had discovered it sooner.

Have you read¬†Rebecca? Did you love it as much as I did? I would love to hear your thoughts. ūüôā¬†

~Anna

A Walk in the Woods – Bill Bryson

Summary from Goodreads:

The Appalachian Trail stretches from Georgia to Maine and covers some of the most breathtaking terrain in America‚Äďmajestic mountains, silent forests, sparking lakes. If you‚Äôre going to take a hike, it‚Äôs probably the place to go. And Bill Bryson is surely the most entertaining guide you‚Äôll find. He introduces us to the history and ecology of the trail and to some of the other hardy (or just foolhardy) folks he meets along the way‚Äďand a couple of bears. Already a classic, A Walk in the Woods¬†will make you long for the great outdoors (or at least a comfortable chair to sit and read in).

Bill Bryson is the bomb.¬†I read this book when I was feeling a little down and stressed out, and it was¬†exactly what I needed. It’s hilarious, full of weird and wonderful¬†facts, and it did indeed make me long for the great outdoors (or at least, it made me want to read this book while sitting in a comfy chair overlooking some misty mountains with a cup of tea in hand).¬†In short, it’s a typical Bill Bryson book in the best of ways.

My favourite thing about Bill Bryson is his ability to see the humour in every situation.¬†I think he’s absolutely hilarious (although I am also the kind of person who laughs at dad jokes and thinks that Mr Bean is a comedic genius). I read a good portion of this book while sitting¬†outside in the Botanical Gardens, and I could not stop cackling madly to myself.¬†Needless to say, I got a few strange looks. His descriptions of the gratingly obnoxious¬†Mary Ellen in particular almost had me crying with laughter.

I also really love that Bill Bryson has such a sense of adventure. Yes, he is a curmudgeonly old man, but he also has some serious guts. I mean, hiking over half of the AT at middle age with no real hiking experience for months at a time with a junk-food-obsessed travelling companion prone to tossing irreplaceable supplies is no small feat.

I also really don’t know how it’s possible to know so much about everything. Seriously, I wouldn’t want to have to face Bill Bryson in a game of Trivial Pursuit. Throughout the book, he¬†painlessly inserts lessons of history, geology, entomology, and more. We learn about the changes acid rain has brought to the wild, and he recounts the stories of the southern pine beetle, the smoky madtom and wooly adelgids, and about Daniel Boone, Henry David Thoreau and Stonewall Jackson. Bryson delivers an extended geology lesson on the tectonic formation of the 470 million year-old Appalachian Mountains that palatably educates. As I said before, he is the king of fun facts.

Yes, I have some criticisms of this book, but I don’t really feel like dwelling on them. I read this book¬†precisely because I didn’t want to have to think too much,¬†and it did not disappoint. It made me laugh, it made me cry (with laughter), and it made me feel so much better about everything. Highly recommended.

Have you read¬†A Walk in the¬†Woods?¬†Or any of Bill Bryson’s other books? What do you think of him?¬†

~Anna

Men Explain Things To Me – Rebecca Solnit

When I first picked up Rebecca Solnit’s¬†Men Explain Things To Me,¬†I was expecting a collection of funny stories about things overbearing men have said to the author. Oh boy was I wrong.¬†This book is a dark and very serious¬†collection of essays about feminism, sexism,¬†misogyny, rape, sexual assault, domestic violence, poverty, class warfare, and the¬†silencing of women’s voices across the globe. In short, this is pretty heavy stuff.

Yes, the first essay is funny and has been cited as the piece that launched the term “mansplaining”¬†(you can read it here), but this is just Solnit’s¬†hook to get you reading. The other eight essays in this book are unbelievably depressing. Solnit uses a lot of anecdotes and statistics to make her points and show just how widespread violence against women really is (and not just physical violence).¬†Maybe it’s because I was expecting this book to continue in a similar vein to the first essay, but I really struggled to get through this one and it took me far longer than usual to read 130 pages.

While Solnit is undoubtedly a good writer (I really enjoyed Hope in the Dark, which I discussed¬†briefly here), I thought this collection of essays was very¬†scattered and lacked an overarching structure. The essay about Virginia Woolf and Susan Sontag, although interesting, felt totally out of place, almost as if it had been added as an afterthought. Another thing that bugged me a little about this collection (especially all that Woolf/Sontag musing) was that Solnit made a lot of really tenuous links for the sake of… sounding poetic, I guess.

All in all, I wanted to like this book more than I actually did and it¬†really did not go where I thought it would. It starts¬†out strong, she ends on a decent note, but it meanders in the middle in a way that makes me wish it hadn’t been a book at all. It’s good writing, and the points she makes are important, but overall it was just a little, I don’t know, unfocused? Lackluster? Still, I’m glad that the issues Solnit raises are being talked about and¬†I hope this book leads to more reading on the topic (and more social progress).

Have you read¬†Men Explain Things To Me?¬†Or any of Rebecca Solnit’s other books? What did you think? Would love to hear from you.¬†

~Anna