The Road to Little Dribbling

road-to-little-dribblingThe Road to Little Dribbling, Bill Bryson

I believe I have mentioned once or twice that I will read anything Bill Bryson writes.  So when I saw Road to Little Dribbling on a “Buy 2 get the 3rd free table” only a few weeks before going on a family vacation, well, how could I resist?

One of Bryson’s earlier books is Notes from a Small Island, about his time as an American expat living in Britain.  Oddly enough, I have never read that particular book.  This is probably because once my to-be-read collection exceeded two shelves, the only new books I acquire are from the library book sale, gift-receiving and gift-giving* occasions, and the two for three table at a bookstore.  That’s a shame, as Little Dribbling is a successor to Notes and references it on several occasions.  It wasn’t at all difficult to follow the newer book, mind you.  I just wish that I could have caught all of the call backs.

Notes from a Small Island was written after Bryson, originally from Des Moines, IA, had been living in Britain for a few years.  He’s ended up marrying an English girl and living and working in Britain for over 20 years, with occasional breaks to live in the US.  In Little Dribbling he is preparing to officially become a British citizen, and so decides to travel from one end of the island to the other.  His rules in the beginning of the book were that he would go to new places rather than just recapping his travels in Notes, but he seemed to also spend an awful lot of time recapping his travels from Notes.

I always enjoy Bryson’s writings, and when he is good he is very, very good.  He has a dry wit, an eye for details that others would miss, obvious delight in the things he enjoys, and a liberal dosing of random information and trivia that I always find fascinating.  A reviewer once criticized one of my favorites, One Summer, America 1927, as a “unusually slight…highly amusing encyclopedia” and its hard to disagree, but that’s what I buy the books for.  In this book alone I learned about the odd British craze of holiday camps, the oldest hominid in Britain, how the green belt system works, the arrangement of municipalities in the country, and loads about railroad history.  Who doesn’t want that in their vacation reading?

For all that, though, this wasn’t my favorite of Bryson’s books.  For one thing, while I do enjoy reading about the parts of Britain that he loves-and a walking tour there does sound absolutely lovely, now I want to go on one-it did start to get a bit redundant.  I lost track of exactly how many places there are the loveliest scene he’s ever beheld.  I know how he feels, though.  Every bend in the drive around the California coast will take you to the most breathtakingly beautiful sight you’ve ever seen in your life.  A wonder to drive, but if I’m describing it at some point I would run out of adjectives for “gorgeous” and “spectacular” and start to bore you.

And sometimes the book swings too far in quite the opposite direction.  I regret to note that in his old age Bryson has turned into a bit of a curmudgeon.  He’s always been a bit of a curmudgeon, and sarcastic complaints about society turn up always.  They’ve moved away from creative and humorous and more towards “get off my lawn!” space.  There is actually a complaint about what kids today wear in this book, as well as the rather unoriginal observation that pop culture is vapid.  I feel that he could do better.

Lastly, it was a bit odd reading this book now, one month into the Trump administration, a year after Brexit, and realizing it was written in 2015 as these things are beginning to get started but we still thought they wouldn’t happen.  Bryson is never really political, other than in the commonsensical way people in the midwest used to be-a belief that things should work properly, that they require a bit of involvement and money in order to do so, that people should treat each other decently, and more or less mind their own business unless there’s a reason not to.  But these are all controversial statements now, and his irritation with shortsighted austerity programs, and extremely gentle defense of immigrants-after all, he is one-are impossible to read without thinking of where they in context of a society that will continue down that road.  At least for me.

For all that, though, this book was still an enjoyable distraction.  I read it while on vacation and watching three small children, and it was good for that.  Not so taxing that I couldn’t read it while my attention was divided, and not so light that I forgot to pick it back up.  Perhaps not Bryson’s best, but all in all worth the purchase price.

 

*I often buy my husband books that I’d like to read.  Usually I also think he’ll like them.

 

Proust Was a Neuroscientist

Proust Was a Neuroscientist, Jonah Lehrer

Jonah Lproust-was-a-neuroscientistehrer’s first book, Proust Was a Neuroscientist aims to make the argument that artists may understand the human condition even better than scientists.  In particular, neuroscience—probably an easy place to make the case, seeing as how relatively young neuroscience is compared to other disciplines and how little we still know about the brain.  It’s not a bad idea, and I generally agree that art can be another way of knowing and explaining the world in a different way from science that the Western World should have a great deal more respect for-that’s why I picked up the book.  But in this case, the execution was severely lacking.

The book starts with Lehrer—a Rhodes scholar who studied both neuroscience and humanities as an undergrad—taking a break to read some Proust, as so many of us do.  While reading A la recherche du temps perdu he was struck by Proust’s discussion of eating a madeleine being transported to a scene from his childhood.  Now, far be it from me to question the origin story for this book, but if there’s one thing any cultured intellectual type person knows about Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past it’s that it’s really, really long.  And if there’s a second it’s that the taste of a madeleine and tea returns him to the happiness he felt as a child.  However it happened, that passage made him think of how neuroscience has since proved how closely scent is tied to memory, but that Proust was onto it far earlier.

I found the discussion tying Proust’s discussion of how his memory worked to scientific research into memory intersting, but the book never made a strong argument for why we should care outside of an intellectual curiosity.  And the book struggled to defend its thesis-that art often predates science.  Most of the relationships seemed quite tenuous, some of them just seemed wrong.  According to Lehrer, because she said that to be alive is to grow, George Elliot’s books suggested that our personalities are in flux and we are constantly growing and changing.  I’m not entirely sure that she’s the only author who has suggested such a thing, but I am entirely sure that she wasn’t actually arguing that our neurons can repair themselves (a relatively recent discovery) or that our brain is constantly making new neural pathways.  I doubt that what she was saying was even particularly controversial at the time, and certainly not arguing against science.  It just seems a bit of a stretch to say she’s predating official neuroscience.

Elsewhere we have strong connections, but Lehrer never takes the step to show why art may better explain the world than science.  Gertrude Stein’s poetry is highlighted to show that she understood that there were innate building blocks to language long before Chomsky proved that there was a universal grammar.  (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Universal_grammar).  The problem here is that, as Lehrer himself points out, Stein studied psychology and studied writing and language in particular, so it seems odd to make the point that it’s where art and science are clashing.  (There’s also the small problem that the theory of universal grammar has found itself under criticism recently and may not be true.  But I suppose if you had to wait for the science to be settled you could never write about neuroscience.)  What seems undoubtedly true, though, is that Stein found writing and poetry to be a better medium for her to explore the realities of language that psychology.  Why would this be?  Was it purely the hostility of the male students and teachers?  Had science not caught up with what she had to say?  Did she find art to be a better and more useful medium?

Stein seems as if she should be a great jumping off point for a discussion of how art can be used to explore a concept that science may not have explained.  And in other cases perhaps art explores new areas of conscience, describes the human experience in a different way than science does.  Art and science can be complementary paths to helping us understand the world, and art can express truths that we all know but that science has not been able to prove, or has not yet found a way to explore.  This seems the reason that science should actual share more with the humanities.  Instead, Lehrer seems on the verge of actually constructing an argument for more respect for art, but stops short and gets too distracted coming up with crazy coincidences and chasing false comparisons.  Ultimately, we’re left with a few mildly interesting connections and nothing else.  There’s just no there there.

Lost in a Good Book

lost-in-a-good-bookLost in a Good Book, Jasper Fforde

Lost in a Good Book is one of those books that would be bad if it weren’t so good.  It runs the risk of being too clever by half, but it’s just clever enough, and the risk of being too convoluted, and too gimicky, but in the end it’s none of those.  Just an incredibly fun read and especially wonderful for literary nerds who can get all of the references.

The second book of the Thursday Next series, following The Eyre Affair, Lost in a Good Book takes place in 1985 Britain in a world that is very similar to ours, but is different in a few very big ways.  For instance, genetic engineering can occur through at-home cloning kits-our hero has a pet dodo.  And because of that Neanderthals were cloned but are not allowed to breed and are fighting for their rights.  Most long distance travel occurs through pneumatic tubes.  Vampires and werewolves are real, but are mostly just a nuisance.  Time travel is real, and the Crimean War has been going on for over 100 years.  And the most important difference: literature is important.  Really, really important.  Like, people get trampled at book sales and there’s an entire police agency dedicated to book forgeries and keeping books the same important.  Oh, and also some people-although not all-can jump back and forth between the fictional world and the real world and interact with the characters.  That’s kind of important, too.

In The Eyre Affair, Thursday Next is on the hunt for her former literature professor turned master criminal, Acheron Hades, who has kidnapped Jane from Jane Eyre for blackmailing purposes.  Next tracks him down and saves the novel-making a slight adjustment to the ending-but also traps someone from Goliath Corporation (if you can’t tell from the name, they’re bad guys) in the text of The Raven.

Lost in a Good Book picks up after the events of The Eyre Affair have settled down somewhat.  Thursday is married to her childhood sweetheart and expecting, she’s a minor celebrity for saving Jane Eyre and back at work.  Unfortunately, others have demands on her time as well.  Her time-traveling father, a former Chronoguard officer who now officially doesn’t exist, is warning her that the world is about to be destroyed under pink goo, and JurisFiction, a secret department made up primarily of fictional characters hopping between worlds, is both arresting her for meddling in Jane Eyre (which results in a great trial á la Kafka) and making her an agent, and the Goliath Corporation wants help bringing their employee back from The Raven.

It can all get a bit confusing.  Fforde’s books definitely keep you on their toes.  But they move along briskly, and they’re clever enough, witty enough, and fun enough to keep the reader involved.  For a ridiculously pretentious read, it doesn’t take itself too seriously.  And the messiness of the plot recalls other British authors as well.  It’s a bit of Douglas Adams via a tour through the classics section of the library.

Revenge of the Lawn

revenge-of-the-lawnRevenge of the Lawn, Richard Brautigan

I adore Richard Brautigan.  There’s something about his writing that I just want to sink into and reread again and again.  Somehow, his books can create a picture with just a few short words.  With stories that are surreal and playful and don’t always make sense in a logical way, they nonetheless feel real.  His descriptions are short and unique, I doubt anyone else would write the way he does.  Yet they are so evocative of time and place- late 60s/early 70s and the Pacific northwest-that I can smell pine trees and ocean spray and feel moss and loam under my feet when I read his books.

I suppose the proper description of Revenge of the Lawn is a collection of short stories, although that’s not quite right, primarily about his life in San Francisco.  It’s so odd that his work is divided up into his poetry and his novels and short story collections.  Because his prose is still poetry–his sentences are meaningless, all that is important is the rhythm and sound of the words and how they roll around on your tongue or in your mind.  And even if we are to classify the writing as prose, “stories” is a strong word.  Snippets is more like it. Most of the stories are no more than 2 pages.  Some are much shorter. Here is the entirety of one of them, “The Scarlatti Tilt”:

“It’s very hard to live in a studio apartment in San Jose with a man who’s learning to play the violin.”  That’s what she told the police when she handed them the empty revolver.

This portrait is perfect in its way.  After all, what more needs to be said?  Other snippets involve a woman who buys liver and lives with bees, drinking coffee, Ernest Hemingway’s typist, and the problem’s that occur when you replace all of your pipes with poetry.  Unsurprisingly, it poses a lot of problems.

I encourage everyone to read at least one Brautigan book in their life.  It’s important because you’re not going to read anyone else like Brautigan, there’s just him.  Words work differently for him.  The order that the words go together and the picture they paint don’t seem that they would make sense, and they wouldn’t if you or I wrote them, but for Brautigan they do.  I don’t know why a story of people forever trying to bury their lion (who accepts in stoically) is a good story to read, but it is.  His descriptions are brilliant, such as describing a woman “adorned in yellow and jewelry and a language I don’t understand,” and he pulls you into the countercultural life of California at the time while blending the real and unreal.

Brautigan is delightful and original and he taps into something true somehow in everything he writes.  And unlike some surreal writers, there’s no struggle to understand.  The words are just there for you to pick up or not, as you will.  And if you do pick them up, I promise, they’re quite a treat.

 

 

Selected Poetry and Prose

Selected Poetrypoetry and prose and Prose, William Blake

I haven’t written any reviews in a while because I’ve been putting of this one in particular.  I wrote it already, you see, long hand in a notebook intending to type it out into WordPress at a later time.  And then I lost the notebook! Argh!  At first I was just stubbornly insisting to myself that I would certainly find it, and so I put off the search, and then I was angry at losing it and just thought it was terribly unfair that I would have to write the review again.  But such is life, I suppose.  In the grand scheme of things, it is, I suppose, a minor injustice.

Well.  Onto the review.

When I was young-I’m not sure exactly how old, I think 4th or 5th grade-my mom gave me a book of William Blake poetry for Christmas.  The book was one of those Dover classics that I don’t see around much anymore, but made up a large portion of my childhood bookshelf.  They usually cost about $1 each.  And were as close to the original publication as possible.  The book of Blake poetry contained “The Tyger”, and the illustrations that had gone along with the original poems.  I’m not sure how much I understood, but I loved the way the poems sounded and felt and read the book several times.

Since then, I haven’t read much Blake poetry, but I’ve read about him several times.  I read a lot about Catholicism, modernism, and Christianity in general in Europe and the United States, and so Blake seems to be hovering around the edges of many other books I’ve read.  It seemed like a good idea to read some actual Blake poetry again, and so I picked this book up at-you guessed it-the library book sale, my own personal Disney Land.

This particular edition was not the best idea for me to grab.  It’s clearly meant for academic use.  This isn’t a problem in and of itself, except that this compendium is probably best if you’re familiar with Blake already and just want a good selection hand for reference.  Of if you need a wide variety for a literature class and you don’t much care if the students grow to love Blake.

The reason I say that is that this had many excerpts, not just full poems or prose. The way they were put together didn’t seem to flow to me from a literary point of view, and they were occasionally grouped by topic, not by time or which book they were placed in, despite the fact that Blake likely published poems together that were intended to be read together.  My biggest problem with the book, though, is that it had no pictures!

A lack of pictures may seem like an odd complaint for an adult book.  However, the illustrations are a key part of Blake’s poetry.  In the introduction to this compendium, it even discusses in great detail how Blake had thought that he had hit upon a new art-form of illustrated poetry.  He worked as an engraver for books, and dreamt of books where the illustrations and poems were both created together and intended to support one another.  After exploring in depth Blake’s dedication to this art, and in trying to persuade others of its import, it is extremely strange to read a collection of Blake’s work that includes poetry, prose, but no visual art.  And it seems a disservice to anyone really trying to understand and appreciate Blake’s work not to provide that key part of it.

So, in conclusion.  If you’re a Blake scholar and need a handy reference for when you’re writing papers and don’t know how to pull up things on the internet, this is probably a useful book.  If you’re looking for a good introduction, you probably want something else.

Americanah

AmericanahAmericanah, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

This critically acclaimed novel, the third by Nigerian born author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, covers the life of two Nigerians and their very different immigration stories.  The main protagonist, Ifemelu, is accepted to an American university and after school stays in the country for work.  Her boyfriend from secondary school, Obinze, who had also wanted to seek a new life outside of Nigeria, is denied a visa and illegally enters the United Kingdom.  He is eventually deported and becomes a successful and wealthy real estate developer in Nigeria, while Ifemelu finds success as a writer and speaker on racial issues before returning to Nigeria as well.  Throughout this story the book examines what black even means, what it means for a person to be black, the differences between being an African American and an African in America, and the story of immigrants seeking more choices and a chance for more out of life.

Despite this book’s amazing reception and numerous awards, I was underwhelmed.  I didn’t love this novel as a novel.  That’s not to say it’s all bad.  First, let me say what does work.  Adachie is a trenchant observer of cultures, and in my opinion the best parts of the book were the excerpts from the fictional blog, “Raceteenth or Various Observations About American Blacks (Those Formerly Known as Negroes) by a Non-American Black.”  The blog points out the strangeness of coming from a culture where everyone is different shades of black, and therefore “blackness” doesn’t exist, to the United States.  It talks about the politics of hair.  It examines the way African cultures look at immigrants to the United States.  I could have happily read just that part of the book.

I also found the book interesting in the way I always find it interesting to read about different cultures and prose from different perspectives.  Fiction can highlight lived experiences in a culture in a way that a thousand news reports and scholarly papers never can.  At the time I read this book I was part of a campaign working on expanding electricity access in African nations. I’d read so very, very many reports on energy access.  But it’s importance was brought home to me when Ifemelu returns to Nigeria and one of the measures of someone’s success and wealth is the size of their generator.  The early part of the novel also takes part during the tail end of Nigeria’s time as a dictatorship.  I’ve previously mentioned my interest in reading about how normal life goes on under extreme and adverse circumstances, so this part of the book was right up my alley.

Now for what didn’t work.  The story was fine, but I never quite connected with any of the characters, and many of the side characters felt flat.  In particular Ifemelu’s boyfriend at the beginning of the book, Blaine, seemed two dimensional.  There was never anything in the book to show why the two of them were together, or to even make it seem that Ifemelu liked him at all.  Even Obinze, the main love interest in the book, didn’t seem to have any real reason to be a love interest.  It’s odd to say that characters in a book lacked chemistry, but they lacked chemistry.  I believed that they were together, but there was nothing in the story to demonstrate that they really loved each other or why.  We’re also told that Blaine’s sister is an imposing figure who is hostile to Ifemelu and vice versa, but again, if we weren’t told this was the case I don’t think I would surmise it from the text.

All in all, there’s a lot to this book, and a lot I should have loved.  But instead it started to be a drag to read towards the end since no one had pulled me in.  I’d be interested in reading a short story by Adachie, since those often don’t depend as much on characters, or nonfiction, but I was underwhelmed by the novel parts of this novel.

What If

what ifWhat If?, Randall Munroe

If you’re on the internet at all, I assume you’re familiar with national treasure Randall Munroe, the creator of xkcd.  It is one of the most consistently excellent sites on all of the global internets.  Before creating a job for himself being professionally funny online, Munroe worked as a robotocist for NASA, so he’s also pretty smart and seems to know some things about science and math.  That’s where this book comes in.

This is one of the most useful reference books a person can own.  There are numerous books, encyclopedias, websites and people that can give you the facts you might need about the Revolutionary War, conversion from ounces to litres, information about Newton’s Laws, or any other number of things.  But I’m fairly certain this is the only book that will tell you how quickly you could drain all of the earth’s oceans if there was a drain placed at the deepest spot, and also what Mars would look like if the glass_peopledrain was a portal that placed all of the water over the Curiosity rover.  Or what would happen if a glass of water became literally half empty.  Or, my favorite, what would happen if you built a wall out of the periodic table of the elements.

(Short answer:

  • You could stack the first two rows without much trouble.
  • The third row would burn you with fire.
  • The fourth row would kill you with toxic smoke.
  • The fifth row would do all that stuff PLUS give you a mild dose of radiation.
  • The sixth row would explode violently, destroying the building in a cloud of radioactive, poisonous fire and dust.
  • Do not build the seventh row.)

This book is also probably the best argument for why it is important to learn advanced math.  No one believes their teachers when they say they’ll use this in the future, but calculus, trigonometry, and differential equations do have real world applications.  And if you don’t learn them you have to write in to an internet cartoonist to find out if it’s possible to build a jetpack using machine guns, instead of being able to run the numbers yourself.

So, if you don’t have the knowledge yourself to find out whether you could drop a steak from high enough that would be cooked enough from heat during re-entry to eat, or the time to figure it out, I suggest you get this book.  I don’t know where else you can find that absolutely necessary information.