Sunday, April 29, 2012

DNF: Notes from a Small Island

Notes from a Small Island, by Bill Bryson


After nearly two decades spent on British soil, Bill Bryson-- bestselling author of The Mother Tongue and Made in America-decided to return to the United States. ("I had recently read," Bryson writes, "that 3.7 million Americans believed that they had been abducted by aliens at one time or another,so it was clear that my people needed me.") But before departing, he set out on a grand farewell tour of the green and kindly island that had so long been his home.

Veering from the ludicrous to the endearing and back again, Notes from a Small Island is a delightfully irreverent jaunt around the unparalleled floating nation that has produced zebra crossings, Shakespeare, Twiggie Winkie's Farm, and places with names like Farleigh Wallop and Titsey. The result is an uproarious social commentary that conveys the true glory of Britain, from the satiric pen of an unapologetic Anglophile.

I'd like to start by saying that this "Did Not Finish" is not nearly so harsh a critique as it may seem.  The book wasn't at all bad, and there may be lots of wonderful material just a few pages past where we stopped, but we found ourselves growing bored with the book and decided that time's too precious to waste on something you're not really enjoying.  (Also, Donald thought it might be fun to read our next "together book"-- The Hobbit-- before the movie comes out later this year.  Since neither of us were particularly enjoying Notes, why wait?) 

A few further comments:

-- It felt very obvious that this book was written for a British audience; he even uses British terminology and turns of phrase.  (But maybe that was my imagination...)  We had expected (and would have preferred) to see Britain from an outsider's point of view.  Instead, by the time Bryson wrote the book, he'd apparently lived in England so long (nearly 20 years?) that in some ways he had ceased to be an outsider at all!  The portions of the book told from his newcomer's perspective (from way back in the 1970s) were better (in our opinions) but were also, sadly, few and far between (at least, in the part of the book we read).

-- Some of Bryson's jokes probably went right over our heads, because they did seem aimed at English readers.

--  Reading about how various English locales had changed from the time Bryson first new them (in the 70s and early 80s) might be more interesting to people who actually know the places firsthand.  There's a certain degree of relevance to anyone, since similar changes happen almost no matter where you happen to live... but the particulars grew tedious for us. 

--  I may try to finish the rest of the book at a later date.  It may be one of those books best read alone-- which is a shame, because when Bryson's anecdotes are funny, they're great for reading aloud. 

--  I'm surprised (now that I'm looking at some reviews on Amazon) at how many people seem to feel that Bryson is being mean-spirited in his treatment of the British and that the book is the result of an out-pouring of pent-up resentment and annoyance.  Really?  I didn't get that impression at all (again, from what I managed to read).  If anything, I felt that he possibly preferred England to the United States... *shrug*

--  I think my next Bryson read will be In a Sunburned Country (about Australia), because it and A Walk in the Woods (which Donald and I read together years ago), seem to be his most generally favored books.

Saturday, April 28, 2012

Mrs Ames

Mrs Ames, by E. F. Benson

I haven't found a good blurb for this novel, and I'm too lazy to write one of my own.  If you've read Besnon's Lucia books, you will be familiar with the style of his humor.  (Apparently he also wrote other sorts of things, including ghost stories, which I plan to try sometime.)

Mrs Ames bears many similarities to the Lucia novels-- especially early in the book-- but by the end, Benson has taken the story in a much different direction.  While still never weighty, it deals with weightier subjects-- such as coming to terms with the approach of middle age, the dissatisfaction of an unfulfilling lifestyle, the Suffragette political movement, marital problems, and even infidelity. These subjects are at times dealt with humorously, but there are also fairly frequent more serious or even slightly sentimental treatments of characters... and it's not quite what you expect from Benson if you only know him from Lucia

All in all, it's an interesting read-- amusing, but also somewhat sad.  I prefer the Lucia books, personally, and know I'll return to them for re-reading, eventually.  As far as Mrs Ames is concerned... I'm still not sure.  Maybe there's more depth here, but Lucia is cozier.

(A Few) More Specific Notes, Observations, Etc.:

--There's a reference to one of the characters owning a "light alpaca jacket which he always wore when the weather was really hot".  That seems odd to me.  Maybe a thin jacket of alpaca really is cool and comfortable, but it sounds awfully hot and stuffy.  Even for a day that is hot merely by English standards!

--It is clear that when (and where) this book is set, doctors are considered only scarcely fit to join one's social circle.  It's always funny when that attitude crops up in a book, given how the exact opposite is true now (or in the recent past), when everyone supposedly oohs and ahhs over the prospect of having a doctor in the family.

--The "skin food" just grosses me out.  I know it's just lotion, but the name-- skin food.  *shudder*  It's oddly horrifying to think of skin eating something... like the Blob.

--Mrs. Ames is more sympathetic than Lucia-- possibly because she is described as being less attractive... and less ambitious.

--On the other hand, I find myself very low on patience with Major Ames or Mrs. Evans.  I don't like either of them at all, actually.

--I always feel that "temerity" should mean the exact opposite of what it actually does mean, probably because is reminds me of "timidity".

--Someone in the book says that "there were a quantity of bathing-machines", whereupon I wondered what a bathing-machine was, exactly.   It seems that it's basically a small wooden changing room that could be wheeled right out into the water so that a person could go into the ocean without being seen (by quite as many people, at least) in his/her bathing suit.  (g)

--"Major Ames said that which is written 'Pshaw.'"  And then I laughed appreciatively.  Yes, "pshaw" is such a weird, weird word.  I think the first time I saw it was in a Little House book...

--One thing I noticed in this book (and that I think I recall from the Lucia books as well) is how late these characters are gadding about, considering that this is a sleepy English village (in the early 1900s)-- not London.  One character is described as staying at his local men's club until half-past eleven at night.  I wonder if those late hours are accurate.

--I had to look up "Roman pearls" to see what they were, though it was obvious they were some sort of fake pearls.

--I had read through the entire multi-Cleopatra scenario before remembered that I, too, once dressed up as Cleopatra-- in eighth grade, for Halloween.  (We were allowed to come to school in costumes that year.  That was the same day I checked out Anne of Green Gables-- to read for the first time-- from the school library, incidentally...)

--Benson's treatment of Harry Ames and his poetry club is funny, but maybe more pointed than his approach toward his older characters.  It feels like he's more sympathetic toward middle age than youth... and in some ways, I can't blame him.

--"Peptonized"-- Even Kindle's built-in dictionary was stumped by that one.

--"Ideas are dangerous things, and should be kept behind a fireguard, for fear that the children, of whom this world largely consists, should burn their fingers, thinking that these bright, sparkling toys are to be played with."

--Ugh.  Major Ames and that whole "en garçon" business.  Ugh.  (Major Ames, I think I hate you, and I don't remember actively hating any character in the Lucia books.)

--...It's like what might happen if you took the Lucia books and gradually tried to make them completely realistic, with an odd seriousness replacing the quirky, humorous minutiae.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012


Cranford, by Elizabeth Gaskell

Cranford is a very "gentle" story full of quiet humor.  What else would you expect, with the focus on a circle of (mostly) aging spinsters living in a staid English village (in the mid-1800s)?  It won't be everyone's cup of tea, and there's not much in the way of action or even plot, but the slow pace and mild comedy-- the unashamed delving into the minutiae of life-- is nice, it its way.

I listened to an audio book version of this short novel, and took a long time in doing so.  When I was actually listening, it was interesting enough, but I didn't find it so compelling that I couldn't wait to hear more-- thus the extended time frame.

Still, a pleasant book.  Ideal for listening to while doing something suitably calm and sedate-- like knitting the garter stitch section of Multnomah.

I did find some of it rather on the sad side-- Miss Matty and her memories of long-dead family members, her former beauty, the failure of her love story to end in marriage-- but there's nothing too dramatic here.  In the end, it's a faithful representation of life as most of us know it.  There is sadness and regret, but you tend not to dwell on it for too long-- and the business of living continually offers new interests (however small), if only we are open to them.

Saturday, April 21, 2012

Mr. Monk Goes to the Firehouse

Mr. Monk Goes to the Firehouse, by Lee Goldberg

Monk's house is being fumigated, and he has nowhere to go. Fortunately, his assistant Natalie and her daughter are kind enough to welcome him into their home. Unfortunately, their home is not quite up to Monk's standards of cleanliness and order.

But while Monk attempts to arrange his surroundings just so, something else needs to be put straight. The death of a dog at the local firehouse-on the same night as a fatal house fire-has led Monk into a puzzling mystery. And much to his horror, he's going to have to dig through a lot of dirt to find the answer.
Donald and I chose to read this on a whim-- mainly because we fairly recently (within the last six months or so?) finished watching the Monk series and both enjoyed it.  I would happily watch another season of the show, if it existed.  As for the rest of the Monk books-- I believe the whole series consists of twelve novels-- I'm somewhat ambivalent.

If you absolutely love the show and would do anything to spend a little more time with its characters, this is for you.  I don't say that you're guaranteed to love it without any reservations, but it's worth a read.  However, if you've never seen the show or don't feel a special fondness for it, I'd be more cautious in my recommendation...

While I certainly wouldn't say it was bad, neither was it a stand-out, unfortunately, and if I hadn't already been very familiar with Monk and the other characters, I'm afraid I would have found them to be a little bit dry and uninteresting.  Well, to be fair, I guess we do get insight into Natalie's mind and character-- more so than in the TV series, maybe-- but honestly, the parts that focused too much on Natalie (her dates, for instance) were my least favorite parts of the book.  I liked the dialogues with Monk best, but even those were a pale shadow next to seeing "Monk" (aka Tony Shalhoub) perform them. (On the other hand, I've seen at least two reviews on Amazon claiming that the books are better than the TV show or do a better job of characterization.  Maybe it depends on which you're exposed to first.)

So, this isn't exactly a glowing review-- but again, I don't think it's a bad book.  I'd say it's pretty much standard fare, not much different than what you can find in dozens (okay, thousands) of niche mysteries. 

One interesting tidbit--
If you've seen the whole series of the TV program, you may find this story familiar.  Even I, with my ability to re-read things and find them almost new again, found myself thinking that there might have been an episode based on the novel (which was written while the show was still being filmed).  Sure enough, now that we're done, a little googling reveals that there was an episode based on the book.  (Not surprising, since apparently the author wrote for the TV show!)  I wonder how many of the other books were turned into episodes...