Have you ever wondered what it would be like to live in London? Or to be a nanny? Or to work for a family of bohemian intellectuals? Or be in your 20s...moreHave you ever wondered what it would be like to live in London? Or to be a nanny? Or to work for a family of bohemian intellectuals? Or be in your 20s during the 1980s? Well, read this and you’ll learn what it would be like to be ALL of these things! That’s who Nina Stibbe was, and where she lived, and what she did during her (apparently not-very-misspent) early 20s, when she went to London to be a nanny. Lucky for us, her sister Vic saved the letters Nina wrote to her, and so we are treated to what it’s like to live and work with the London literati (her employer is Mary Kay Wilmers, co-founder of the The London Review of Books, and neighbor/playwright/family friend Alan Bennett is a frequent dropper-inner at dinner time). It’s a fun, funny, and fascinating read about a different time and culture (even I had my moments of not knowing what in the heck Ms. Stibbe was referencing), and it’s a likely read-alike for Bridget Jones Diary or Do Try to Speak as We Do.(less)
There were times, when I was reading Greg Iles’ latest novel, that I was confused—was I reading a legal thriller in the vein of John Grisham’s A Time...moreThere were times, when I was reading Greg Iles’ latest novel, that I was confused—was I reading a legal thriller in the vein of John Grisham’s A Time To Kill or Charles Dickens’ Bleak House? From time to time, it was a little hard to tell. Nonetheless, it’s an impressive comparison, and equally impressive is that this book is fourth in a series, and I didn’t need to read the previous three books to feel like I had a firm knowledge of what was going on.
Alas, there was a LOT going on. To start with, the Mayor of Natchez, Penn Cage, learns that his doctor father is accused of killing a woman named Viola Turner, a current patient and a former…something to Cage’s father. But then he’s contacted by a local reporter who thinks Cage’s dad is being framed by a group of local homicidal Klukkers, who had decades previously gang-raped Viola and killed her brother, all part of a plot to assassinate Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy. Meanwhile, Cage’s father is getting into further trouble, and Cage’s reporter fiancée gets involved—as do, it seems like, half of the good people of Natchez. The tension is high throughout the book, and the tension is higher, but there are a lot of loose ends and unanswered questions at the end—as is, I suppose, befitting of a series novel. Let’s hope Mr. Iles remains in good health and isn’t delayed in bringing us the next installment in the series about the seriously dysfunctional South. (less)
Torn-paper collages in rich, earthy colors depict a brown bear's life cycle, starting in the spring when she emerges from, hungry, from hibernation, t...moreTorn-paper collages in rich, earthy colors depict a brown bear's life cycle, starting in the spring when she emerges from, hungry, from hibernation, through the summer and fall, where she hunts and forages and fishes, with greater and lesser success, all the way to the approaching winter. A swell way to teach your kids about some of the rhythms of nature, as well as a brown bear's diet. (less)
When I was four, my family lived in Middle America—in a quiet suburb outside of Cincinnati, in a split level house with an above-ground pool and a swi...moreWhen I was four, my family lived in Middle America—in a quiet suburb outside of Cincinnati, in a split level house with an above-ground pool and a swingset and a sandbox. It was every child’s dream. But then, everything changed when I turned five—we all of us moved, lock stock and barrel, down to Florida, land of mosquitoes and sunshine and two seasons: Hot and Hurricane. I spent the next 20 years scorning this place, and yearning for the anonymity of a life in Middle America. Now, every time I take a road trip, I spend my time watching the landscapes slip past, kind of wondering what life is like in the small towns through which I travel, wanting to stop and observe and listen and talk to the locals and research the whole place. I wish I had more time to stop and do these things but usually, there’s an end destination and timeline to which I must adhere. So I press on, and forget about the individual towns, but their collective impression remains stamped in my brain. Bryson’s travelogue, therefore, was an appealing book for one of my nature.
What I wanted was a reflection on the nature of small-town America—an armchair travel experience recounting Bryson’s journeys through the heart of the country. What I got was Bryson at his most curmudgeonly, as he alternates between misanthropy at worst and condescension at best and describes his road trip through America and the disappointments he encounters at the various fleabag motels and unremarkable food joints. (It is somewhat of a shame, I think, that the Internet wasn’t around at the time that Bryson took his trip; perhaps he could have avoided many of his let-downs if he had done some research ahead of time. But then, maybe he would have encountered the same scenarios, given his parsimonious inclinations. Has no one ever told him the phrase “you get what you pay for?”)
A brief spoiler alert: the title indicates that this is a book about travels in small-town America, but there are some distinctly non-small places featured in this book—New York City and DC, for starters. It’s entirely possible that he didn’t have to fill his ENTIRE tale with his gripes about the little places and the loss of the good ole days.
I don’t need a paean to the white-picket-fence ideal of Middle America. I don’t need writers to lie and paint a falsely rosy picture—I know as well as anyone how the advent of strip-malls and chain stores and Big Box Stores and the demise of community have undermined our small towns. I’m well aware of the lack of economic opportunities, of the brain drain, of the problems with meth and rural poverty. But as a champion of small-town America, as a person who loves the Flyover States, I WANT to say to you, Mr. Bryson: thanks for nothin’.
That’s what I WANT to say. However, I won’t, because Mr. Bryson is alas, not always talking out of his bum. He’s got a gimlet eye, he’s observant—if somewhat easily bored—and he’s fair and honest with himself enough to sometimes come up with a gem in his writing like this:
“I was seized with a huge envy for these people and their unassuming lives. It must be wonderful to live in a safe and timeless place, where you know everyone and everyone knows you, and you can all count on each other. I envied them their sense of community, their football games, their bring-and-bake sales, their church socials. And I felt guilty for mocking them. They were good people.”
Well said, Mr. Bryson, well said. Now get out there and do another trip. Just be prepared for inflation. (less)