Book Review: “The Road to Little Dribbling” by Bill Bryson

All the preparations for Little Baby’s arrival have been putting me on edge, so I’m thankful for books that help me unwind and make me laugh. Bill Bryson’s The Road to Little Dribbling: Adventures of an American in Britain was one of those books.

Bryson was born and raised in Iowa. He married an English woman, and has been living in England for years now, where they raised all their children. His love for England and understanding and appreciation of what it means to be an American, made this book all the more enjoyable for me, especially when he discussed differences in our cultures.

I didn’t know this was a sequel to his book, Notes from a Small Island until I had already started reading. I kept going, figuring that, since it was a travel book, it wouldn’t make a difference. Now that I’m done, I wish I had stopped and read the first one first. Some of the areas he visited were revisits from the first book. It would have been interesting to have a deeper understanding of how the places had changed between the publishing dates of 1995 and 2015. He give plenty of context whenever he discussed changes, so there was no confusion, but I still felt I was missing out on something by reading the second one first.

That aside, everything else about this book was lovely. Bryson has a witty and snarky sense of humor that turns almost all of his interactions with people into laugh-out-loud anecdotes. I listened to this as an audio book, and a few times in the beginning I zoned out, until suddenly I was snapped back into reality when Bryson said something rude or absurd to a shop attendant. Just as I thought, I can’t believe he had the guts to say that he would suddenly admit that he only thought the thing, which meant that the majority of the interaction was all made up. This happened multiple times throughout the book, and seriously, sometimes it was so funny that I had to cover my mouth to keep myself from exploding with laughter in a public place. I mean, haven’t we all been there? That torn feeling of I-really-want-to-tell-you-off-but-it-would-be-rude. I sympathized while I smiled.

By the end of the book I was just in love with his writing style, a combination of history and humor, all built around lovely descriptions of places I’ve never been. Half way through the book, I was adding most of his other books to my Goodreads “to-read” list and checking my library to see which ones they had copies of. Definitely one of my new favorite authors.

Book Review: “Cane” by Jean Toomer

I’m torn about this book.

There’s no doubt in my mind that it’s beautiful. I can give it full marks for that, but for some reason enough of it did not resonate inside me to leave me wanting more of it.

IMG_8458

The book is a collection of short stories and poetry, based around black experience both in the rural south and up North during the 1900’s to 1920’s. Every piece had a wandering, lost, sort of feeling to it, reminiscent of the author himself, who spent most of his life suspended between the worlds of white and black, due the to racism of his day. My version of the book had a fairly extensive biographical portrait of the author at the end, which helped to pinpoint the inspiration for a lot of the pieces within the collection. And though it is a collection, I have seen it called a novel. This is probably because as you’re reading you see little connections here and there, linking everything together in a sort of chain.

The longest and final piece in the collection is written in a very interesting style, a sort of mixture between prose and play. The dialogue attributions are not done with the usual, “he said” and “she said,” but like a play have the speaker’s name with a colon. All of the poetry was beautiful, and this same beautiful use of language spilled into the short stories, making them a kind of prose poetry.

As lovely as this book was, only a few of the short stories really grabbed me, and the very last and longest story was not one of them. Perhaps it was this that left me feeling a bit torn about the whole collection. It was almost like reading a really good book with a disappointing ending. I have seen many reviews online about how wonderful the final story is, and the author himself admitted in a letter that the main character in it reflects his personal experience, but I wasn’t moved by it the way I was when I read “Passing” or “Their Eyes Were Watching God.”

If you’ve read it or plan to read it, I’d love to hear your thoughts. Leave them in the comment section, along with any recommendations for me to add to my ever lengthening “to read” list.

Book Review: “The Tiger Rising” by Kate DiCamillo

There have been a lot of healthy learning curves in my time spent living with my in-laws.   One that still continues to baffle me is the reading habits of my eleven-year-old sister-in-law. Partly because I am her ride to the library and partly because I read in virtually every genre and age group, she sometimes asks me for book recommendations. Some days I’ll try to help, others I’ll just shrug and say, “I have no idea.” I can never tell what’s appropriate for her or what will make her upset for one reason or another.

What I believe I’ve learned is that you can’t truly know what is appropriate for someone else’s kid. I live in the same house as her, but I can’t gage from one book to the next how much she’s matured or what content she can handle. Therefore, I ask that you please take this into consideration with my recommendation on the book below.

Personally, I love it when MG authors aren’t afraid to deal with hard topics. I especially love it when they do it in a way that is both wise and tender, so that younger readers can metabolize the depth of the themes they’re dealing with. From what I’ve read of her work, this is one of Kate DiCamillo’s talents, and her book The Tiger Rising is a perfect example of this. It is a short read, only 128 pages, which I actually think is one aspect of it that makes it easier to digest.

The story centers around a young boy and girl who discover a caged tiger. This becomes a metaphor for the struggles in both their lives, that of repressed anger and sadness. This book is about dealing with immense loss. Along with that, it also contains realistic portrayals of bullying and a heartbreakingly beautiful portrait of a family living in a motel, barely making their way. It is not a light bubbly read. It’s not intended to be. Yet I think it excellently done.

I have seen some reviewers condemning it because it’s too sad or heavy. To me, what makes this a worthy read even for a younger audience is the tactful yet truthful way the hard issues are addressed. There should be space in children’s reading experience for books that show them how other people have to live. It helps them develop empathy for those around them. For example, say that a bully is made to read this book by a parent or a teacher, seeing the pain that the tormenters cause to the main characters might prick their conscience about their own behavior. Reading, if the writing is good, forces you into the headspace of another person as a necessary part of the experience. There are even studies that show reading good literature improves a persons ability to empathize.

Also, let’s not forget that not all children lead charmed existences. Life’s ugliness does not pass over you because of age. If the child is experiencing a similar tragedy to the characters, it gives the child hope to read the story, not pain. They can say, “if someone I don’t know could write about a kid just like me, than I’m not alone.” That’s why truth in writing is so important.  And, solong as it’s done on a level that they understand and can cope with, is it ever too early to preach truth to a child?

Only you know when and if your child is ready for certain content. Personally, I loved this book and was not at all uncomfortable with its target audience, as I have been with other YA/MG books I’ve read. Kate DiCamillo did justice to a lot of heavy themes with how she gently unfolded the tale. It read like crawling into the lap of a protective loved one. Her words brushed the hair from my forehead, and when I closed the book my heart felt foremost this message, “life can be ugly, but remember child, you’re not alone.”

SaveSave

Book Review: The Night of Two Graphic Novels

Last year was the year of graphic novels. Partly because I bit off more than I could chew with my Goodreads reading challenge and had to get back on track somehow. Partly because one of my favorite authors is Neil Gaiman and he has written several graphic novels that were on my To Read list. In the slew of GN that I consumed last year, I found many that I loved and now make it a habit of pulling one or two out of the library every month.

I had two in my bag that night, so I reached in and grabbed one to read. It was Beautiful Darkness by Fabien Vehlmann, illustrated by Kerascoët.

91o2dW4NC0L

Fans of Graphic Novel’s and/or Golding’s Lord of the Flies would probably adore this book. Personally, I hated itIt was haunting and violent depiction of humanity in crisis. I compare it to Lord of the Flies because it had the same allegorical feel about society and human nature only told with fairies instead of young boys. The illustrations were both beautiful and chilling. Some of the images were so disturbingly violent that still I cannot shake them from my mind.

Being a person of a somewhat sensitive nature, I obviously wasn’t going to be able to sleep with that on my mental palate. I reached back into my library bag and pulled out the next one. It was The Nameless City by Faith Erin Hicks. It was also utterly different from its predicessor in virtually every way.

61a8R4DSuQL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_

It was Middle Grade for one, and based on the violence of Beautiful Darkness I’d call that one at least Young Adult.

The story revolved around Kaidu, a young boy just entering the army, and Rat, a street girl he befriends. It was an innocent and engaging story about friendship and honor, based around the political issues of the city, a city called “the Nameless City” by its citizens because they are constantly being overthrown by nearby nations.

The artwork was bright and clean, and though the story had several violent altercations, the most disturbing thing inside it was a few bloody noses. Everything else was implied, but not directly shown. The characters were kind and fun, and the whole plot was devoid of excess drama. It was a refreshing read, a kind of smile to carry with me when I shut out the light.

I handed it off to my 11 year old sister-in-law in the morning. She read it in an hour and loved it even more than I did. She even asked me to see if the library had a copy of the sequel The Stone Heart.

It doesn’t. I’d already checked before I shut out my bedside light.

Book Review: Ina May Gaskin vs. Milli Hill

With Little Baby constantly reminding me of her imminent arrival by hearty kicks and punches, it makes sense that I’d devote a portion of my summer reading list to books on parenting and childbirth.

img_8746
Us having a drink at 32 weeks



The first book I tried was one I’d been encouraged to read by several sources. I was even handed a free copy of it on my first visit to the midwives, but ended up giving it back because I already had a copy sitting on my bedside table at home. It was Ina May’s Guide to Childbirth by Ina May Gaskin.

IMG_8567

I actually purchased my copy of this book before I even got pregnant. As someone who was terrified of the process of pregnancy and labor, I’d seen and read many places that it was important to fill my mind with positive birth stories to combat my negative notions. This book was recommended so consistently that I bought myself a copy and eagerly began to read, hoping it would allay my fears when I finally got my positive pregnancy test.

The first half of the book is all personal birth stories from women that gave birth on “the Farm” which is the birthing center that Gaskin set up. They are meant to encourage and inspire women towards the beauty and bliss of natural home births with a midwife. But for me, these “positive birth stories” were completely ineffectual. It seemed like many of these women had some kind of complication, some nearly emergent complication, going on during their labor. They all ended up giving birth to happy healthy babies without medical intervention. That, I believe, was the point of them telling their stories. Look what I did without a doctor. I mean, it was touch and go for a while, but it was all fine! Yes. Right. Lovely! But instead of reassuring me, these stories just set me on edge and gave me a longer list of “what ifs” for my still unknown labor and delivery story. *shakes head* I call that a fail at positive birth stories.

Gaskin’s book read to me like a three hundred page advertisement for why you must have a home birth with a midwife and avoid hospitals and doctors. I skipped over the chapters at the end that warned me about the probably hidden mortality statistics for pregnant women giving birth in hospitals. I needed encouragement, not more reasons to fear. And while I highly respect Gaskin for the trail she blazed promoting better childbirth options in this country, I really could have done without reading her book. Especially when taken in conjunction with another book I read, The Positive Birth Book written by Milli Hill.

IMG_8566

This book, seriously, was an absolute sleep-saver for me! It opened up with the author explaining how desperately she wanted to be pregnant, but how utterly terrified she was once she saw the positive pregnancy test. Everything about her emotional state echoed mine. She compared it to sky diving. You’re in the airplane, looking down over the distant ground, and you know you have to jump eventually; it’s too late to turn back. You feel guilty for telling people you’re terrified now that you’re actually pregnant. You’re supposed to be happy. Meanwhile, everyone is laughing themselves silly for the look on your face after they’ve told you about all the horrors that await you through pregnancy into parenthood.

This inspired Hill to start The Positive Birth Movement out of which grew her book. It walks through all the stages of labor, the most common complications, the ins and outs of cesareans, and tips on adjusting to the early days postpartum. All of it was told with an upbeat candor that truly brought peace to my thudding heart. This could happen, but this is why it will still be okay. 

Another aspect of the book that I loved was how she shied away from the common idea of 3 stages in labor. She described it in 14 stages to make it all as clear as possible, a method I found a lot more beneficial than how Gaskin addressed it in the second half of her book. She also mathematically broke down the average percentage of time that most women are actually in terrible pain during natural childbirth. The average woman is in labor 8 hours and only 23% of that time is spent having contractions. Even if I don’t turn out to be average, just reading that lessened my fear of labor by leaps and bounds.

The whole of that book had that effect on me. I loved it, and if I could recommend any one birth book to a new mother, it would absofrigginlutely be this one.

Book Review: “The Mist” by Stephen King

This may sound obvious, but seriously, Stephen King is an amazing writer.

I talked about this a little bit when I read The Shiningbut I just really enjoy his style. It’s easy going, almost simplistic, but with this kind of flourish that makes me crave the sound of his voice. His characters are all so real, just like the kind of people you bump into every day at the gas station or target or work. And his figurative language is perfect. It just feels so original. Like, saying the old basement smelled yellow. I love that! It’s spot on and fresh, every time.

I saw the trailer for the new series they were making off of The Mist in my Facebook feed. I looked up the book and saw it was only a novella. Since I hadn’t read anything from Mr. King in a while, and since I was 12 books behind on my Goodreads Reading goal for the year, I decided to get it from the library.

url

It was a little too close to finals though, so the little green paperback sat on my bedside “To Read” stack for almost a month. I went online and saw that it was due back in 4 days. I shrugged, clicked the “renew book” button and saw the dreaded error message.

THIS TITLE CANNOT BE RENEWED: REQUESTED BY ANOTHER PATRON

I groaned a little, picked it up and checked the page count. 230. I smiled, and thought those two little words that every Booknerd has tattooed on their soul: No problem. I wasn’t feeling too hot anyway, so I just spent my day resting, reading, and letting Little Baby inch her way a little closer to nailing me in the ribs when she kicked.

I opened this post with a gush of praise about Mr. King’s writing. I meant it. The only catch is that he often writes in two genres that I am very hit or miss on as a reader: horror and science-fiction. I enjoy both, but no where near as much as I enjoy other genres. This makes me a little hit or miss with his plots.

For me, The Mist was a miss.

It opened the way I experienced the trailer, surreal and creepy. The narrator is named David, an artist who spends his summers at a family lake house in Maine. A horrible storm kicks up one night, knocking out the power and felling trees. In the morning, Dave, his son, and his next-door neighbor head into town to grab some provisions until the power comes back. While they’re there, a thick, otherworldly mist settles over the town, trapping them in the supermarket.

This was all fine and creepy, I was enjoying it, but as the story continued to unravel it became a sort of mixture between sci-fi and 1940’s B grade horror flick. It reminded me heavily of a black & white movie I used to love called The Crawling Eye. So much so that I ceased to be creeped and began to chuckle, the same reaction this B Grade movie used to give me as a kid. In his memoir On Writing, Mr. King mentioned his love for old horror movies (any/all horror movies really), and I kinda wondered if he’d seen it too.

In the end, I wasn’t thrilled with the plot, definitely shrug worthy for me on that score, but I so enjoy listening to him tell a story that I was still glad I read it.

…all in one day so that I could get it back to the library before it was due. 😉

Book Review: “The Atlantic Sound” by Caryl Phillips

This was another book I read for my Readings in Global Literature class last semester. This one isn’t a novel. It’s part travel, part history book, and covers several trips the author made in order to study the African diaspora and look for global community among blacks.

IMG_8350

Even if that topic is of no interest to you, the historical sections were fascinating. One of them went deep into the roots of Liverpool, England to discuss its key role in the slave trade, as well as more current issues of race within the community. The other was about Charleston, South Carolina and the life of District Judge J. Waties Waring. Both of these sections were completely new history to me, and Phillip’s way of telling them was both refreshing and honest.

Another part of the narrative that I found refreshing and honest, was the immigration story of Phillips’ guide in Ghana during Panafest. Phillips almost tells the story twice, and by this challenges the classic stereotypical narrative people often hear or imagine once you discover someone has been deported from a country or denied a visa.

Many of my classmates found Phillips’ tone overly negative. What I saw in him was a skepticism of the idea that the entirety of who we are is to be found in our ancestral roots. But this doesn’t mean he’s completely anti the idea of seeking out your historical origins. He describes things very cynically at times, but he also places against that cynicism the actions of some of the members of the diaspora that he encounters. If you’re paying attention you can see him tracing the community among them. Even if you don’t agree with his ultimate analysis of global community, his book is a fascinating study of the results of the transatlantic slave trade on the black diaspora.

Phillips’ writing is lovely, but I wouldn’t necessarily call this book an easy read. It was dense, though not heavy, and as much as I adored it, the reading itself was slow going. The most rewarding part was the last chapter and the epilogue. Something changed with his writing style and it became like poetry. It happened slowly and subtly. I looked back and couldn’t tell where it even started. By the time I got to the very last paragraph of the book I just didn’t want it to end, the writing was just so beautiful.

I will definitely be reading more of Phillips’ work in the future. He appealed to me with the way his writing was both beautiful and intellectually stimulating.