The Lost Continent: Travels in Small-Town America, by Bill Bryson. I really need to stop reading Bill Bryson’s travel books. I loved In A Sunburned Country which details his travels around Australia, but it seems the rest (this one, Neither Here Nor There) are just how much he loathes Americans, tourists, and anyone who is not himself. In this book, Bryson spends 8-10 weeks of 1988 driving across the United States hoping to find somewhere that approximates his imagined version of the perfect town, which is something off of Leave it to Beaver circa 1962. Shockingly, even in the most out-of-the-way places, this town doesn’t actually exist. (I really don’t know why this is shocking to Bryson, or why it is ever shocking to him that most of the world pushes forward with technology and strip malls and urban sprawl, trampling all over his nostalgic memories.) In 14,000 miles of traveling, Bryson finds exactly three things about America that are impressive: Savannah, Georgia, The Grand Canyon, and watching a geyser in Yellowstone do it’s thing–this particular geyser shoots off every 4-7 years and he happened to time his visit perfectly. Now, I have been to a lot of different places in the United States, including many that Bryson visited, and there is a hell of a lot more to be impressed by than that very short list. Bryson is wearing on me and I should probably admit that I don’t like his travel-writing style. I didn’t feel the desire to travel, or learn about another part of the country, or even do an image search for anything he describes. I feel someone needs to start a new Tumblr “Bill Bryson is not impressed.” (After doing a little online research, I have found that many people view Bryson’s earlier writing in this same way. In A Sunburned Country was written almost 15 years later, and his style of traveling and of presenting his experiences has improved drastically…we’ll see if I pick up another, more-current Bryson book to corroborate this sentiment.)
Eating the Dinosaur, by Chuck Klosterman. Klosterman is a talented writer, he weaves pop culture from the 80′s, 90′s and current with economic and social issues of the time. I giggled and laughed out loud several times. However, a week after the fact I don’t really remember much about the content except for the sentence above, and I feel there was a lot of extra mentions of Kurt Cobain. Hence, three stars. That being said, some of Klosterman’s other books (Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs in particular) I remember much better and I believe have ranked higher. He’s a great writer, I just don’t really care about Kurt Cobain or pop culture, regardless of the decade.
Gathering Blue, by Lois Lowry. This is part of the trilogy that includes The Giver. Now, it wasn’t until a few months ago that I knew Lowry wrote other dystopian novels in the same vein as The Giver. Gathering Blue is not an extension of the story line or characters in The Giver, it is simply another novel set in a similar time and place, with an unlikely heroine doing her part to combat the controlling, deadly society in which she lives.
The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, by J.R.R. Tolkein. I have read The Hobbit two or three times prior to this, but wanted to re-read it before seeing the first installment of the movie. I loved The Lord of the Rings books for the fantasy and the legend and the names (oh goodness, the names!) and the completeness of the way Tolkein created Middle Earth. I forgot how much of a children’s story is The Hobbit. Tolkein skips over most of the scariest bits because Bilbo is hidden away, or knocked unconscious, or whatever. We don’t often see Mr. Baggins in true peril, and certainly not by himself. I suppose when he first meets Gollum and finds the ring he could be in real danger, but it’s a game of riddles, not a game of “he who bleeds least wins.” Bilbo has adventures alone, for sure, but he is not dangled in front of The Eye or Sauron alone, he’s just dealing with Trolls or Dragons or pesky Wood Elves while in the company of a dozen congenial dwarves. Do I think the movies have changed the tone of this story? Absolutely. Do I think the book should be rewritten to include more history, more danger, and more villains? No. It’s a children’s story and should remain a children’s story. Also, it was published in 1937 which blows my mind, in a good way.
Messenger, by Lois Lowry. This short read takes place immediately after Gathering Blue, which I didn’t realize until about 40 pages in as it is in a different place with characters who have different names, or new names, or whatever. At any rate, there is still a lot of dystopian-ness, a lot of unknowns, and a lot of things left mostly unexplained and a tidy-but-open-ended wrap up on the last page. I enjoyed the book, I cared what happened to the characters, but, in my opinion, this is not Lowry’s best work. Rumor has it she has written a new book, Son, that is 400 pages. I think it is a lot easier to explain this kind of a story and character arc and issues in a book that is 400 pages instead of 120.
Lipstick Jihad, by Azadeh Moaveni. This memoir details the double coming-of-age of Azadeh, an Iranian-American who grew up in California in a diaspora of displaced Iranian immigrants who fled Tehran after the revolution in 1979. Her parents are not particularly Muslim (as many weren’t in the 70′s, prior to the strict enforcement of Islam by the new government) but their language, customs, traditions, foods and smells are different enough to alienate her from her native Californian classmates. After college, Azadeh decides to return to her extended family in Tehran, she hopes the Iran of her imagination will help her feel she belongs somewhere. She quickly realizes that she knows very little of the real Iran, her Farsi is poor, her knowledge of politics and customs is hardly passable for the rough streets of Tehran and the strict rules enforced by the Islamic Republic. Still, she continues to work as a journalist for Time magazine, covering the politics and current events of her home country. I loved this. I loved how Azadeh explains the difficulty in being from two different places but not feeling like she belongs in either one. She’s an Iranian in California, or a dirty American while in Iran. Also, she explains a lot about the 1979 revolution and it’s aftermath, the changing role of women due to the revolution and the political turmoil of the late 90′s, as well as events leading up to the Summer 2001 elections and the aftermath of the September 11 attacks. Recommended.
Better: A Surgeon’s Notes on Performance, by Atul Gawande. Brilliant. I read this in one (long-ish) sitting and talked about it for days afterwards. Gawande discusses in detail a number of fascinating medical issues–eradicating smallpox and the current drive to eradicate polio on a world-wide scale, measuring quality of life, the risks involved with surgery or other medical procedures and how to explain them to sick, scared patients and their families, how to effectively treat cystic fibrosis, the impossible circumstances facing the soldier-medics on the ground in Iraq and Afghanistan and the huge leaps forward those teams have innovated and put into place to help save the lives of more and more hurt soldiers, malpractice cases and the insurance required to fight them, flaws in the healthcare system. He talks about his responsibilities as a surgeon and a citizen. I devoured this book and have moved another of his up in my “To Read” pile. This will help you understand the issues many doctors are up against, and help you understand the health care industry a lot better. One thing Gawande says is that you should always count something, he talks about how there is no way to improve your performance unless you have a base line and something to measure. So, count something. I find this fascinating and have been writing a list of what I can count that will help improve my own performance in X, Y, or Z.
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