The Library Basement
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Tag Bill Bryson

Readings for October 2012

Another month, another slate of good reads.

Rabbit, Run by John Updike

I once remarked that Updike is the most readable of the American "literary" authors. I think he proves that fairly well in his best-known work. What I like about this story is its plausibility combined with its avoidance of cliche. Rabbit Angstrom is a relatable if not likable character, and you want to know how his story unfolds thanks to Updike's storytelling. Recommended.

Shakespeare: The World as Stage by Bill Bryson

I won a medieval-England-themed basket at our church auction, and it included this as well as the next book (as well as one more not read this month). Bryson is of course a delightful author. The basic summary of the book is that we don't know much about Shakespeare's life, or even how he spelled his name. Thankfully Bryson reflects the paucity of evidence with brevity - it is a slim volume and a quick read. It is as good a Shakespeare biography as I've ever read (and the only), so it is recommended.

A Play of Heresy by Margaret Frazer

The next book in the basket was a major departure for me: a historical mystery, party of a long series. I liked Joliffe the player well enough as a character, but I don't think the series was for me.


  • Journal of Biblical Literature vol 131. no. 1: I finally got around to finishing my first issue of JBL delivered to my home. I was struck by how incredibly broad the field of biblical studies is, and how nice it is to have a survey like JBL to keep tabs on it.

Readings for June 2012

If May was the month of periodicals, June is the month of novels.

Catching Fire and Mockingjay by Suzanne collins

After being thrilled with The Hunger Games, I was excited to finally complete the trilogy. Kimberly had gotten both books on reserve from the library, so I read them after her. I was not disappointed. Catching Fire and Mockingjay continue what is great about The Hunger Games - a compelling and readable story combined with a thought-provoking message.

I feel that these books have already become an important part of the canon of youth literature, and that is a good thing. It seems incredible that young people are getting exposed to books which question "the myth of redemptive violence," and moreover that such stories are being made into blockbuster films. I am not sure what young people are thinking about these stories - whether or not they realize the profound critique they offer of our society - but I know that in a powerful story that message can be internalized, and that is good for everyone. Highly recommended.

What is the What by Dave Eggers

What is the WhatWhat is the What is characterized as a novel, but it is paradoxically also the autobiography of Valentino Achak Deng. As a result the book carries the rather inane Library of Congress designation "Autobiography - Fiction." (Apparently between relying on Valentino's distant memories and Eggers' treatment of the subject, the publishers felt compelled to call it a novel). But don't let the taxonomic confusion deter you, it is a good read.

Eggers is a fantastic writer. I have read both Zeitoun and A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius and loved them both. His telling of Valentino's story is quite compelling and readable. The book doubled as a good primer for me on the history and nature of the conflicts in Sudan over the past several decades. It was interesting to read about the possibility of a new nation - South Sudan, which has of course now come to pass.  Recommended.

At Home by Bill Bryson

This book is subtitled "a short history of private life." Bryson guides the reader on a tour of his English country parsonage to give an explanation of the rise of the various furniture, contrivances, garments, and the rooms themselves in the typical home. If you have read Bryson before, you'll appreciate his charming style and readable yet detailed research.

I enjoyed the book as a whole, but my primary critique is that Bryson's structure is a bit contrived. In a few places the connection between the room and the topic is tenuous at best. For example, the "Study" chapter is dedicated not to a space dedicated to intellectual pursuits, but to household pests. The tenuous connection is that Bryson says the study is where his mousetraps are most often sprung.

Much of our standards for homely comfort are derived from Victorian England, so much of the history in this work is centered there. An unintended consequence of this focus has been me coming to regard that society as terribly depraved. I feel quite lucky to have not lived through it. At Home is recommended, but first-time Bryson readers really ought to check out A Walk in the Woods as well.

Too Far To Go by John Updike

In next month's reviews I'll cover the current issue of Tin House, which has an article on the so-called "Merritt Parkway" novels. These are novels of marital strife in the midst of suburban discontent, the most prominent of which is Revolutionary Road by Richard Yates. I saw the film adaptation and positively hated it.

When I discovered that Too Far To Go (which I had acquired second hand) was a collection of short stories centered on the breakup of a marriage, I was worried that I would be terribly disappointed. But Updike did well with the topic. Rather than despising the main characters as I did in Revolutionary Road, I find myself empathizing with them somewhat. Yet I was still on the whole baffled by their behavior and outlook (and I am proud of that). I recommend anyone read Updike (Terrorist is a good start), but this collection is probably not his best work.


The July 2012 issue of Harper's includes "Reason for living" by Christopher Beha, which is a rather striking review of three books an atheistic ethics. I was particularly pleased by the skewering of Sam Harris' attempt at objective morality.