Bill Bryson – a ’90s look at the lost continent

Do you know anyone from Iowa?  An American politician running for President claims her Midwest roots from Iowa; the farm state is known for its corn and one of the best writing schools in the country.  Bill Bryson’s first line in The Lost Continent

“I come from Des Moines (Iowa). Somebody had to…”

sounds like the opening line of a novel, but The Lost Continent is the prolific writer’s first travel book, his wry view of America – published in 1990.

After ten years in England, Bryson returned to his roots in America, embarking on the cross-country road-trip that many young Americans have tried – some in a Volkswagen bus.  Bryson travels in two loops (Parts 1 and 2), stopping at name-dropping sites along the way.  He sweeps through Mark Twain’s Missouri, Faulkner’s Mississippi, Elvis’s Tupelo, Booker T. Washington’s Tuskegee, F.D.R.’s Warm Springs, and Vanderbilt’s Biltmore, and up through colonial Williamsburg, mostly disappointed by what he finds.  Washington’s Mount Vernon was “everything Williamsburg should have been and was not.”  But, Maryland Eastern shore’s Chestertown was…

“…the model community…The sidewalks were paved with brick and lined with trees, and there was a well-tended park in the business district. The library was busy. The movie theater was still in business and not showing a “Death Wish” movie.  Everything about the place was tranquil and appealing. This was as nice a town as I had seen.  This was almost Amalgam.”

Bryson sprinkles his sight-seeing with childhood memories and evaluations of waitresses at the places he stops along the way.  After looping back to Des Moines for some of his mother’s sandwiches, he heads out again – West, through Nebraska, Kansas, Utah, the Grand Canyon, the National Parks, and back.  By this time, you may be feeling like the child in the backseat asking – “Are we there yet?”

The cover has a coffee-cup stain as part of the illustration – the detritus of the seasoned traveler.  Bryson has gone on to leave his mark in his written ramblings – most recently in At Home: A Short History of Private Life (watch the book trailer on You Tube here).

When reading The Lost Continent: Travels in Small Town America, you might be tempted to skip around – go ahead; you will still get Bryson’s flavorful asides along with his views of how the American small town is being lost to progress. As I joined Bryson on his search for the perfect American town (Amalgam), I wondered what he would think of the changes in those places now – twenty years later.  A hotel room in New York’s Times Square for $100 might have been pricey in 1990, but sounds pretty cheap today.


Required Reading for Freshmen

Remember the summer reading lists when you were in grade school?  And the book you read the day before school started?

By the time you got to college, you’d figured out how to read enough to get by.  The freshman year experience usually orients new students to college with a course around a book.  The book that was to catapult me to new vistas of understanding and an easy transition to college life was Siddhartha.  I don’t remember the discussion, but I do remember the book.

In the New York Times Book Review section, Jennifer Schuessler lists some of the books ivy-covered and brick-and-mortar institutions of higher learning are requiring for entering freshmen – Inside the List.  Have you read any of them?

  • Eating Animals by Jonathan Foer
  • Outcasts United: An American Town, a Refugee Team, and One Woman’s Quest to Make a Difference by Warren St. John
  • Born to Run by Christopher McDougall
  • Between a Rock and a Hard Place by Aron Ralston
  • Hamlet’s Blackberry: A Practical Philosophy for Building a Good Life in the Digital Age by William Powers
  • The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brain by Nicholas Carr
  • Homer and Langley by E. L. Doctorow

Wondering what other freshmen are reading?

Mount Holyoke’s required summer reading was Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn’s Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide.  Tufts freshmen are discussing Brother, I’m Dying by Edwidge Danticat.  The National Association of Scholars has a recommended list of 37 books for discussion.   

One of my alma mater’s is requiring The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks – have you read it yet?

The Prince of Mist – first book from the author of The Shadow of the Wind

Before he created the haunting tale of The Shadow of the Wind – one of my favorite books; I’m still looking for the Cemetery of Lost Books – Carlos Ruiz Zafón wrote young adult literature. In his author’s note, Zafon reveals that The Prince of Mist was his first published book.

Using familiar themes: good vs evil, be careful what you wish for, be faithful to your friends, and whatever you do, don’t make a deal with the devil – Zafón compels the story into fantasy, with a convincing dose of realism. In The Prince of Mist, Max and his sister, Alicia, meet a new friend, Roland, when they move to a beach front house to escape the war that threatens the city. The house holds old secrets and hidden threats; together the friends face off against an evil character in a wild adventure with clocks running backwards and old sunken ships with skeletons. The underwater scenes will have you holding your breath.

A fellow Zafón  fan told me about the book – a quick easy read before she settled into another of Zafón’s longer new publications – The Angel’s Game.  Zafón is an author who always delivers magic with exciting adventure.

The Help – the movie

When the movie is better than the book, I wonder if I missed something when I read or if the cinema version was that much changed.  David Denby in his New Yorker analysis, Maids of Honor, offered a clear comparison of the “The Help” in print and on the screen – with an explanation for why I liked the movie much more than the book.

Octavia Spencer as Minny

Stockett struggled with the language in the book, and was criticized for the “voices of the black women,” but Denby points out that Tate Taylor’s adaptation for film and the quality of the lead actresses infused Stockett’s words with authenticity in a way the book could not do:

“Octavia Spencer and Viola Davis, both great actresses, have given Stockett’s words the shape, the rhythm, and the pitch of their own temperaments.  They sound right.”

The message is still the same, but the film goes further to reveal another truth.  The oppression and depression extended to the closed-minded white daughters of the South – Denby assures us that “they are victims too.”  Stockett offers Skeeter as the foil against her gossipy villains, but these women seem more pathetic than powerful when you see their lacquered hair, print dresses, and cold mindless expressions on the big screen.

On a continuum, I’d rate:

the book≈ good →→ the movie ≈ better →→→ Denby’s article ≈  best →→→↑

Have you read the book and/or seen the movie?  What do you think?

Read my review of book, “The Help” – here

The Snowman

 Although I live in a climate where no snowman could survive – unless he were made of shave ice – Jo Nesbø’s  tale of a serial killer in The Snowman is so real, I keep looking for one to pop up.

Harry Hole, the Norwegian police detective, has a mold problem in his apartment, and I’m wondering if this has anything to do with the cold-blooded murderer he is tracking. Of course, the killer has sent him a note too – a clue that will lead to the Snowman.

With his intrepid team, Harry pursues the killer, as more body parts – and snowmen – appear in the cold Norwegian landscape at each new snowfall; one shows up in a freezer; another on an ice rink. The deadly pursuit keeps going, and sometimes it’s hard to keep all the victims and suspects straight.  One of my favorite characters is Tresko- the poker-player with the terrible foot odor – fis (literally means toe fish, but Harry Hole calls it toe-fart), who spots the liar’s “tells” by observing the potential killer on TV.

“What separates the best from the rest is the ability to read others.”

Every time I think it’s over, it’s not, and the story has another exciting twist.  The killer is evil with a vendetta  – and the suspense is killing me.

Although this tale is from Norway, the gruesome details resemble Swedish writer Stieg Larsson’s The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo series, but  Harry Hole has been around in Jo Nesbø’s fiction since 1997.  This was my first encounter with the Oslo investigator, but five others preceded The Snowman – with the next in this exciting series already translated and ready for release – The Leopard.