Review: Sourdough Culture: A History of Bread Making from Ancient to Modern Bakers, Eric Pallant

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Review: Sourdough Culture: A History of Bread Making from Ancient to Modern Bakers, Eric PallantSourdough Culture: A History of Bread Making from Ancient to Modern Bakers by Eric Pallant
Published by Agate Surrey ISBN: 1572843012
on September 14, 2021
Genres: Cooking, History, Nonfiction
Pages: 280
Format: Hardcover
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four-stars

Sourdough bread fueled the labor that built the Egyptian pyramids. The Roman Empire distributed free sourdough loaves to its citizens to maintain political stability. More recently, amidst the Covid-19 pandemic, sourdough bread baking became a global phenomenon as people contended with being confined to their homes and sought distractions from their fear, uncertainty, and grief. In Sourdough Culture, environmental science professor Eric Pallant shows how throughout history, sourdough bread baking has always been about survival.

Sourdough Culture presents the history and rudimentary science of sourdough bread baking from its discovery more than six thousand years ago to its still-recent displacement by the innovation of dough-mixing machines and fast-acting yeast. Pallant traces the tradition of sourdough across continents, from its origins in the Middle East's Fertile Crescent to Europe and then around the world. Pallant also explains how sourdough fed some of history's most significant figures, such as Plato, Pliny the Elder, Louis Pasteur, Marie Antoinette, Martin Luther, and Antonie van Leeuwenhoek, and introduces the lesser-known—but equally important—individuals who relied on sourdough bread for sustenance: ancient Roman bakers, medieval housewives, Gold Rush miners, and the many, many others who have produced daily sourdough bread in anonymity.

Each chapter of Sourdough Culture is accompanied by a selection from Pallant's own favorite recipes, which span millennia and traverse continents, and highlight an array of approaches, traditions, and methods to sourdough bread baking. Sourdough Culture is a rich, informative, engaging read, especially for bakers—whether skilled or just beginners. More importantly, it tells the important and dynamic story of the bread that has fed the world.

I bought this book for myself as a birthday present. I learned some interesting things about how sourdough culture works as well as its use in historical bread baking. Pallant begins his history of sourdough with the conceit of tracing the origin of his own sourdough starter. He was told that its provenance was in the mining town of Cripple Creek, CO. in 1893; however, proving it turns out to be an impossible task. Pallant makes a case that sourdough’s survival is miraculous in the age of commercial yeast. He also addresses the boom in home-baked sourdough in response to the Covid-19 pandemic. (I personally know several people who never baked sourdough before the pandemic, and now they’re more expert than I am! Disclosure: I am not an expert.)

The historical aspects of the book are certainly interesting, though, at times, Pallant veers off-topic a bit. I found the scientific discussion of yeasts and bacteria really fascinating. Honestly, one of the first things I wanted to do was have my sourdough starter tested to see what sorts of yeasts and bacteria it contains. Can one do this? I feel like I found a website for a place where you could send your starter for testing, but now that I’m trying to find it again, I wonder if I dreamed it—sort of a 23 and Me for sourdough starter. I wouldn’t expect to find anything particularly odd about my starter, but it would be interesting to see what the dominant strains of yeast and bacteria are.

I found the chapter about the mass production of bread to be interesting, mainly because it helps explain why home-baked bread, even bread made with commercial yeast, tastes so much better than mass-produced bread. Honestly, his description of the Chorleywood Bread Process that is used to make commercial bread is kind of gross. It definitely did not make me want to go back to commercial bread, though, to be fair, I’m not sure if that process is used in the USA.

Pallant understands that making bread connects us to humanity’s history. I always feel connected to the past when I make a loaf of bread, and I feel even more connected when I make a loaf of sourdough. Sourdough demands time and patience, both of which are hard to come by in the 21st century.

Pallant also includes quite a few recipes, but frankly, there isn’t much that’s new. One recipe, for example, is Chad Robertson’s sourdough recipe. If you are looking for recipes, you’d do better to buy a bread recipe book. In fact, buy Chad Robertson’s Tartine Bread. Because Pallant spoke so highly of it, I bought Daniel Leader’s Living Bread: Tradition and Innovation in Artisan Bread Making (paid link), and I’m looking forward to reading that book and trying some of the recipes.

I would probably recommend this book only to true bread freaks. I’m not sure people who don’t bake would enjoy it. On the other hand, if you are interested in food history or microhistory (history focusing on a narrow subject), then you might still enjoy this book even if you don’t bake.

Sourdough Foccacia made with my starter. Recipe link.
four-stars

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Review: The Final Revival of Opal & Nev, Dawnie Walton

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Review: The Final Revival of Opal & Nev, Dawnie WaltonThe Final Revival of Opal & Nev by Dawnie Walton
Published by 37 Ink, Simon Schuster Audio ISBN: 198214016X
on March 30, 2021
Genres: Contemporary Fiction, Historical Fiction
Length: 13 hours 17 minutes
Format: Audio, Audiobook
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five-stars

An electrifying novel about the meteoric rise of an iconic interracial rock duo in the 1970s, their sensational breakup, and the dark secrets unearthed when they try to reunite decades later for one last tour.

Opal is a fiercely independent young woman pushing against the grain in her style and attitude, Afro-punk before that term existed. Coming of age in Detroit, she can’t imagine settling for a 9-to-5 job—despite her unusual looks, Opal believes she can be a star. So when the aspiring British singer/songwriter Neville Charles discovers her at a bar’s amateur night, she takes him up on his offer to make rock music together for the fledgling Rivington Records.

In early seventies New York City, just as she’s finding her niche as part of a flamboyant and funky creative scene, a rival band signed to her label brandishes a Confederate flag at a promotional concert. Opal’s bold protest and the violence that ensues set off a chain of events that will not only change the lives of those she loves, but also be a deadly reminder that repercussions are always harsher for women, especially black women, who dare to speak their truth.

Decades later, as Opal considers a 2016 reunion with Nev, music journalist S. Sunny Shelton seizes the chance to curate an oral history about her idols. Sunny thought she knew most of the stories leading up to the cult duo’s most politicized chapter. But as her interviews dig deeper, a nasty new allegation from an unexpected source threatens to blow up everything.

Provocative and chilling, The Final Revival of Opal & Nev features a backup chorus of unforgettable voices, a heroine the likes of which we’ve not seen in storytelling, and a daring structure, and introduces a bold new voice in contemporary fiction.

This book is AMAZING. I highly recommend listening to it on audio, as it’s read by a full cast including some pretty major players: Bahni Turpin, an award-winning audiobook narrator, voices Opal Jewel, and Tony-winning actor André De Shields (Hermes in Hadestown) voices Virgil LaFleur, Opal’s stylist and best friend. I wanted for those two characters, in particular, to be real people so that I could hang out with them and just listen to their stories. I loved everything about this book: the audiobook narration, the references to social media, the Rolling Stone-type magazine Sunny writes for, and the interview-style format.

I’m sure that fans of Daisy Jones & The Six would like it, but for me, it goes even deeper than that book to expose issues of sexism and racism in music. The story is both a fascinating look at rock’s history and its present. Dawnie Walton writes with authority on the subject, and as a lifelong music lover, it was so refreshing and fun to read about its history in a book like this. Walton couldn’t have bundled more of my personal interests into one book if she had tried—in fact, all she needed to do was make one of the characters a bread baker, and there’s literally nothing else to add. I highly recommend it to anyone who loves music.

five-stars

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Review: The Death of Vivek Oji, Akwaeke Emezi

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Review: The Death of Vivek Oji, Akwaeke EmeziThe Death of Vivek Oji by Akwaeke Emezi
Narrator: Yetide Badaki, Chukwudi Iwuji
Published by Penguin Audio ISBN: 0593211480
on August 4, 2020
Length: 7 hours 38 minutes
Format: Audio, Audiobook
Source: Library
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three-stars

Named one of the year’s most anticipated books by The New York Times, Harper’s Bazaar, BuzzFeed, and more. What does it mean for a family to lose a child they never really knew?

One afternoon, in a town in southeastern Nigeria, a mother opens her front door to discover her son’s body, wrapped in colorful fabric, at her feet. What follows is the tumultuous, heart-wrenching story of one family’s struggle to understand a child whose spirit is both gentle and mysterious. Raised by a distant father and an understanding but overprotective mother, Vivek suffers disorienting blackouts, moments of disconnection between self and surroundings. As adolescence gives way to adulthood, Vivek finds solace in friendships with the warm, boisterous daughters of the Nigerwives, foreign-born women married to Nigerian men. But Vivek’s closest bond is with Osita, the worldly, high-spirited cousin whose teasing confidence masks a guarded private life. As their relationship deepens—and Osita struggles to understand Vivek’s escalating crisis—the mystery gives way to a heart-stopping act of violence in a moment of exhilarating freedom.

Propulsively readable, teeming with unforgettable characters, The Death of Vivek Oji is a novel of family and friendship that challenges expectations—a dramatic story of loss and transcendence that will move every reader.

I read this book as part of the Book Voyage: Read Around the World Challenge for September: read a book set in Africa. I had been wanting to read The Death of Vivek Oji for some time, and friends had recommended it. I also read it in the wake of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s attack on the author, Akwaeke Emezi, which made the rounds on Twitter and revealed Adichie has anti-trans sentiments, so I thought reading this book might be one way to support the author.

I’m not really sure why the story didn’t grab me. I think because Vivek/Nnemdi was an ancillary character in her own death, even though Emezi gave her a voice to narrate some of the chapters from her grave. Instead, this was the story of everyone else’s reactions to her death—yes, I get that this was the point—and especially due to the fact that no one was using her proper pronouns until the end, I was finding it hard to really follow her as a character. How did she identify? I felt like it mattered that the reader understand this important fact of her life. I felt like there was a bit too much going on to make the story gel for me. Osita’s conflict over his sexuality and relationship with his cousin, Juju’s conflict over her sexuality, the infidelity of Juju’s father, Juju being a girl instead of a boy, and the Niger wives’ experiences as ex-pats married to Nigerian husbands. Any one of those topics would have been ample material for a novel, but put together made the novel feel like it didn’t quite cohere for me.

On the other hand, the writing is very good, and the perspective Emezi offers is fresh. I understand that voice is paramount in Emezi’s work. Kavita’s grief over the loss of her child was palpable and very hard to read. For me, she is the character who emerges as most memorable, and I would have loved a focus entirely on her story as she wrestled with her grief and found out the truth about her child’s gender identity after that child’s death. The audiobook narrators were brilliant as well, and I highly recommend listening to this on audio with the caveat that it is hard to follow as the story shifts in time. In fact, that might be the reason it didn’t quite grab me. However, even though this book wasn’t for me, I recognize what Emezi is doing and look forward to reading other works they write.

three-stars

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Review: A Brief History of Nearly Everything, Bill Bryson

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Review: A Brief History of Nearly Everything, Bill BrysonA Short History of Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson
Narrator: Richard Matthews
Published by Books on Tape on October 17, 2003
Genres: History, Nonfiction, Science
Length: 17 hours 47 minutes
Format: Audio, Audiobook
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four-half-stars

Bill Bryson has been an enormously popular author both for his travel books and for his books on the English language. Now, this beloved comic genius turns his attention to science. Although he doesn't know anything about the subject (at first), he is eager to learn and takes information that he gets from the world's leading experts and explains it to us in a way that makes it exciting and relevant. Even the most pointy-headed, obscure scientist succumbs to the affable Bryson's good nature and reveals how he or she figures things out. Showing us how scientists get from observations to ideas and theories is Bryson's aim, and he succeeds brilliantly. It is an adventure of the mind, as exciting as any of Bryson's terrestrial journeys.

I have read quite a few Bill Bryson books this year. I enjoy his comic voice, which is evident in this book, though not as strong as in the other books I read. Partly, it’s the subject matter. Still, he manages to explain some complex topics in an accessible way and be entertaining at the same time. I was reminded in particular of my courses in anthropology, astronomy, and weather and climate from college as I listened. I was surprised I remembered so much.

The book might be a little out of date. I think it was originally published in 2003, and I have a whole grown-up son living in my house who was published the same year. As such, given the scientific nature of the book’s topics, I believe some of the information to be out of date. For example, Bryson asserts in the books that Neanderthals and Homo sapiens did not breed and even argued that the results might be similar to a mule (!). Well, I’m not sure when scientists discovered that’s not true, but the current prevailing thought is that they did, and not only did they, but many people the world over carry Neanderthal DNA. That was one example that I caught. It’s tricky because what we understand and the science behind it changes all the time.

Still, this was an enjoyable read, and I highly recommend the audiobook. The narrator is not Bryson, but he’s great.

four-half-stars

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Peach-Bourbon Jam

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It’s finally peach season in New England. When I lived in Georgia, peach season started a little earlier in the summer, and I think it lasted longer, too. I went to the local pick-your-own and bought peaches, blackberries, and blueberries from their farm store. The peaches are juicy and delicious. I had two of them today!

I had been wanting to try the Peach-Bourbon Jam recipe from my America’s Test Kitchen book on canning and preserving. I don’t have permission to share the recipe publicly, but I took pictures of the process and results.

Peaches Cooking

Look at that boil! I took a quick video of it to share with my sister.

You need to check to see if the jam is set before putting it in jars, so one way to test that is to put a small plate in the freezer while you’re cooking the jam. Once the cooking is finished, take the plate out of the freezer, put a teaspoon of jam on it, and put it back in the freezer for two minutes. Take it out and run your finger through the jam. If it separates in a nice line, it’s set. If it runs back after you swipe your finger, it needs to cook a little bit more.

Peach Jam

This jam has a nice set.

I filled two jars. One thing I like about the ATK book is there are so many small-batch recipes. I only needed two peaches for this recipe.

There was enough jam in the pot coupled with the teaspoon tested on the plate to spread over a slice of bread, so I tried it. It’s delicious.

Peach Jam on Bread

Tomorrow I’m making biscuits. I can’t wait for my husband to try this jam.


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Review: Salt Houses, Hala Alyan

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Review: Salt Houses, Hala AlyanSalt Houses by Hala Alyan
Narrator: Leila Buck
Published by Mariner Books ISBN: 1328915859
on June 5, 2018
Genres: Historical Fiction
Length: 13 hours 35 minutes
Format: Audio, Audiobook
Source: Library
Buy on Amazon (paid link)
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five-stars

On the eve of her daughter Alia’s wedding, Salma reads the girl’s future in a cup of coffee dregs. She sees an unsettled life for Alia and her children; she also sees travel and luck. While she chooses to keep her predictions to herself that day, they will all soon come to pass when the family is uprooted in the wake of the Six-Day War of 1967.

Salma is forced to leave her home in Nablus; Alia’s brother gets pulled into a politically militarized world he can’t escape; and Alia and her gentle-spirited husband move to Kuwait City, where they reluctantly build a life with their three children. When Saddam Hussein invades Kuwait in 1990, Alia and her family once again lose their home, their land, and their story as they know it, scattering to Beirut, Paris, Boston, and beyond. Soon Alia’s children begin families of their own, once again navigating the burdens (and blessings) of assimilation in foreign cities.

Lyrical and heartbreaking, Salt Houses is a remarkable debut novel that challenges and humanizes an age-old conflict we might think we understand—one that asks us to confront that most devastating of all truths: you can’t go home again.

This was an excellent book. I highly recommend it to anyone who enjoys a good intergenerational family saga. The book brilliantly explores the cost of war and the trauma of losing a homeland, especially in the quietly heartbreaking ending. It also explores the endurance of people in the face of conflict. Home may be lost, but the family will continue. It’s a great addition to the genre of historical fiction exploring what happens to a diaspora. The strength of women and how they hang onto and pass on culture and stories was such an important part of this book as well.

I really enjoyed the characters, who were so well-drawn and fully fleshed that I felt like I knew them. My favorites were probably Riham and Atef, but I really appreciated all of the characters. Alia is the character around which the book turns, and by the end, the reader has met five generations of the family as they have struggled to make a permanent home. I particularly appreciated how strong the women characters were. I think many Westerners have stereotyped notions of what Muslim women in the Middle East are like, and honestly, one of the best ways to dispel stereotypes is to tell our stories.

I also liked the structure of the novel. It was interesting for me to move among different characters and see the family dynamics and history through different family members’ eyes. The story begins in Nablus in Palestine in the 1960s in the leadup to the Six Days War and traces the family to the near present in 2014 in Amman, Jordan, which is another element of the structure that I liked. At times, the characters reflect on events in the past, but I didn’t find it hard to keep track, even though I was listening to the book instead of reading it in print. The narrator was also excellent, but after listening to the author (see below), I wish she had been able to narrate it. One of Alyan’s strengths is her ability to draw a scene. I think my absolute favorite scene in the book was Riham in the water, but Atef’s reflections near the novel’s end, and Souad’s chapter and Lina’s chapter were also compelling. I think this is a book I’ll be recommending to others.

The author has a fascinating story herself. Check out this story from NPR:

In this TED video, Alyan shares some of her poetry:

If you want to see her visit to Politics and Prose, check out this video, which includes a reading:

I read this book for my August selection for the Book Voyage Challenge—a book set in the Middle East.

five-stars

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Review: Cleopatra: A Life by Stacy Schiff

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Review: Cleopatra: A Life by Stacy SchiffCleopatra: A Life by Stacy Schiff
Published by Back Bay Books ISBN: 0316001945
on September 6, 2011
Genres: Biography, History, Nonfiction
Pages: 432
Format: E-Book, eBook
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four-half-stars

The Pulitzer Prize-winning biographer brings to life the most intriguing woman in the history of the world: Cleopatra, the last queen of Egypt. Her palace shimmered with onyx, garnets, and gold, but was richer still in political and sexual intrigue. Above all else, Cleopatra was a shrewd strategist and an ingenious negotiator. Though her life spanned fewer than forty years, it reshaped the contours of the ancient world. She was married twice, each time to a brother. She waged a brutal civil war against the first when both were teenagers. She poisoned the second. Ultimately she dispensed with an ambitious sister as well; incest and assassination were family specialties. Cleopatra appears to have had sex with only two men. They happen, however, to have been Julius Caesar and Mark Antony, among the most prominent Romans of the day. Both were married to other women. Cleopatra had a child with Caesar and—after his murder—three more with his protégé. Already she was the wealthiest ruler in the Mediterranean; the relationship with Antony confirmed her status as the most influential woman of the age. The two would together attempt to forge a new empire, in an alliance that spelled their ends. Cleopatra has lodged herself in our imaginations ever since. Famous long before she was notorious, Cleopatra has gone down in history for all the wrong reasons. Shakespeare and Shaw put words in her mouth. Michelangelo, Tiepolo, and Elizabeth Taylor put a face to her name. Along the way, Cleopatra's supple personality and the drama of her circumstances have been lost. In a masterly return to the classical sources, Stacy Schiff here boldly separates fact from fiction to rescue the magnetic queen whose death ushered in a new world order. Rich in detail, epic in scope, Schiff 's is a luminous, deeply original reconstruction of a dazzling life.

I think Cleopatra can best be summed up in a line from the immortal Beyoncé’s song “Formation.”

Beyoncé Gif

In all seriousness, this is a great biography, and I learned a lot. Schiff argues that Cleopatra’s legacy can be summed up by the fact that “in two thousand years only one or two other women could be said to have wielded unrestricted authority over so vast a realm.” Unfortunately, her story was co-opted by her enemies, and so she is known to history as a wily seductress, an ambitious temptress, and a deviant whore. Schiff explains that she was none of those things. What she was, however, was a smart, capable, formidable woman—a total badass. Shiff says that “her story is constructed as much of male fear as fantasy” and asserts that “the turncoats wrote [her] history.”

It has always been preferable to attribute a woman’s success to her beauty rather than to her brains, to reduce her to the sum of her sex life. Against a powerful enchantress there is no contest. Against a woman who ensnares a man in the coils of her serpentine intelligence—in her ropes of pearls—there should, at least, be some kind of antidote. Cleopatra unsettles more as sage than as seductress; it is less threatening to believe her fatally attractive than fatally intelligent.

Yes, QUEEN! Preach! Shiff’s appropriate eulogy is that Cleopatra “convinced her people that a twilight was a dawn and—with all her might—struggled to make it so.”

Elizabeth Taylor as Cleopatra

This biography is well-written and engaging. Schiff’s research must have been difficult since history has been so unkind to Cleopatra. She must have had to do a great deal of reading between the lines to uncover a more balanced portrait. If Schiff’s account of Cleopatra’s life attempts to tip the scales in the great woman’s favor rather than to take the Roman historians at face value, I can’t fault her. The only reason for me that this book doesn’t earn 5 stars is that I didn’t have any trouble putting it down for stretches of time. I wanted to finish it, and I was definitely not bored, however, so I would not argue that it doesn’t captivate. The chapters are really long, and I would have liked more breaks. I think the prospect of opening the book on my Kindle app and seeing that the chapter would take over an hour to read may have been too daunting on a few occasions. I’m not a fan of stopping the middle of a chapter, but I had to sometimes when reading this book. On the other hand, Schiff’s writing style is eminently readable and at times waxes poetic. Schiff paints a fascinating portrait of a much-maligned, highly intelligent, and incredibly ingenious woman.

four-half-stars

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Review: Shakespeare: The World as Stage, Bill Bryson

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Review: Shakespeare: The World as Stage, Bill BrysonShakespeare by Bill Bryson
Narrator: Bill Bryson
Published by HarperAudio ISBN: 0061555347
on October 23, 2007
Genres: Biography, History, Nonfiction
Length: 5 hours 28 minutes
Format: Audio, Audiobook
Source: Library
Buy on Amazon (paid link)
Goodreads
five-stars

William Shakespeare, the most celebrated poet in the English language, left behind nearly a million words of text, but his biography has long been a thicket of wild supposition arranged around scant facts. With a steady hand and his trademark wit, Bill Bryson sorts through this colorful muddle to reveal the man himself.

Bryson documents the efforts of earlier scholars, from today's most respected academics to eccentrics like Delia Bacon, an American who developed a firm but unsubstantiated conviction that her namesake, Francis Bacon, was the true author of Shakespeare's plays. Emulating the style of his famous travelogues, Bryson records episodes in his research, including a visit to a bunkerlike room in Washington, D.C., where the world's largest collection of First Folios is housed.

Bryson celebrates Shakespeare as a writer of unimaginable talent and enormous inventiveness, a coiner of phrases ("vanish into thin air," "foregone conclusion," "one fell swoop") that even today have common currency. His Shakespeare is like no one else's the beneficiary of Bryson's genial nature, his engaging skepticism, and a gift for storytelling unrivaled in our time.

If you’ve seen my most recent reviews, you might have noticed I’m on a bit of a Bill Bryson kick right now. I had been wanting to read this book for a while, but for one reason or another, I hadn’t moved it from my TBR pile to my reading pile. The other day, I had to put a hold on an audiobook I wanted from the library, and I figured I’d see if I could listen to this one instead, especially as it is short. Yesterday, the book I had put on hold became available to check out, so I thought I should try to finish this book up.

Did I learn anything new here? Well, not really, but that’s only because I’ve read a lot about Shakespeare. I’m no expert, but I have been teaching his plays for over 20 years, and I have taken coursework in addition to the reading I’ve done. I think the average casual reader would learn quite a bit.

Bryson is by no means a Shakespeare scholar, but what he writes in this slim book corresponds with what I have learned from others. The book’s brevity and humor might make it more accessible for some people interested in learning more about what we can know definitively about William Shakespeare. The truth is, we know quite a lot, particularly for a man of the sixteenth/seventeenth centuries. He’s one of the most dissected people to have lived, and unlikely new discoveries are sometimes made. Bryson recounts a few of these in the book. He carefully veers away from speculating when we don’t really know—which is refreshing because people fill in the gaps of our knowledge of Shakespeare’s life in some really strange ways. I thoroughly enjoyed this book for what it was meant to be: a brief biography based entirely on what we know about William Shakespeare.

five-stars

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Review: A Walk in the Woods, Bill Bryson

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Review: A Walk in the Woods, Bill BrysonA Walk in the Woods: Rediscovering America on the Appalachian Trail by Bill Bryson
Narrator: Rob McQuay
Published by Broadway Books ISBN: 0767902521
on May 4, 1999
Genres: Memoir, Nonfiction, Travel
Length: 9 hours 47 minutes
Format: Audio, Audiobook
Source: Library
Buy on Amazon (paid link)
Goodreads
five-stars

Back in America after twenty years in Britain, Bill Bryson decided to reacquaint himself with his native country by walking the 2,100-mile Appalachian Trail, which stretches from Georgia to Maine. The AT offers an astonishing landscape of silent forests and sparkling lakes—and to a writer with the comic genius of Bill Bryson, it also provides endless opportunities to witness the majestic silliness of his fellow human beings. For a start, there's the gloriously out-of-shape Stephen Katz, a buddy from Iowa along for the walk. Despite Katz's overwhelming desire to find cozy restaurants, he and Bryson eventually settle into their stride, and while on the trail they meet a bizarre assortment of hilarious characters. But A Walk in the Woods is more than just a laugh-out-loud hike. Bryson's acute eye is a wise witness to this beautiful but fragile trail, and as he tells its fascinating history, he makes a moving plea for the conservation of America's last great wilderness. An adventure, a comedy, and a celebration, A Walk in the Woods has become a modern classic of travel literature.

After finishing and enjoying Bill Bryson’s book about traveling Australia, In a Sunburned Country, I wanted to read A Walk in the Woods. I have taken up walking myself, and while I harbor no desire to walk the Appalachian Trail, I understand the joy a good walk can bring. This book really brings together a few different elements. On one level, it’s the history and ecology of the AT. It’s also a travelogue, which I expected after reading In a Sunburned Country. However, what I didn’t expect (not having read reviews) was that this would be a buddy story. Bryson is accompanied on his journey—his old friend Stephen Katz joins Bryson’s hike and threatens to walk away with the whole narrative. I’d love to know Katz’s reasons for wanting to walk the AT with Bill Bryson, but I’m glad he went.

My largest problem with the book was the narrator wasn’t Bryson. He also mispronounced a few proper nouns, which always bothers me. There are more than a few Deliverance references meant to be jokes, as well. That old stereotype wears very thin after a while, but I felt Bryson was attempting to rationalize some of his anxiety; I’m not sure to what extent he really believes those stereotypes.

This book was particularly fun to listen to as I walked, and I especially enjoyed hearing about some of the places I was more familiar with—the segment on Mount Greylock was interesting to me, as I have visited it and remember seeing everything he described. I imagine it would be fun to read this book while hiking the AT. I learned a great deal about the AT, and I also learned more about ecological concerns facing conservationists today.

five-stars

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Review: In a Sunburned Country, Bill Bryson

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Review: In a Sunburned Country, Bill BrysonIn a Sunburned Country by Bill Bryson
Narrator: Bill Bryson
Published by Random House ISBN: 1415920737
on January 4, 2000
Genres: Nonfiction, Travel
Length: 11 hours 54 minutes
Format: Audio, Audiobook
Source: Library
Buy on Amazon (paid link)
Goodreads
four-half-stars

Every time Bill Bryson walks out the door, memorable travel literature threatens to break out. His previous excursion along the Appalachian Trail resulted in the sublime national bestseller A Walk in the Woods. In A Sunburned Country is his report on what he found in an entirely different place: Australia, the country that doubles as a continent, and a place with the friendliest inhabitants, the hottest, driest weather, and the most peculiar and lethal wildlife to be found on the planet. The result is a deliciously funny, fact-filled, and adventurous performance by a writer who combines humor, wonder, and unflagging curiosity.

Despite the fact that Australia harbors more things that can kill you in extremely nasty ways than anywhere else, including sharks, crocodiles, snakes, even riptides and deserts, Bill Bryson adores the place, and he takes his readers on a rollicking ride far beyond that beaten tourist path. Wherever he goes he finds Australians who are cheerful, extroverted, and unfailingly obliging, and these beaming products of land with clean, safe cities, cold beer, and constant sunshine fill the pages of this wonderful book. Australia is an immense and fortunate land, and it has found in Bill Bryson its perfect guide.

After an aborted attempt at reading The Narrow Road to the Deep North* by Richard Flanagan for the Book Voyage Challenge (a book set in Australia or New Zealand), I decided to check this title out from the library. I had previously read Bryson’s book The Mother Tongue with mixed results, but I had heard this book was pretty good, and it was. I learned a lot about Australian history and natural science, none of which I knew. Bryson makes the point that we forget about Australia, and I think it’s a valid point.

I found his chapters on the indigenous population to be most interesting. Is there a place in the world where an indigenous population has been treated with a modicum of respect? I’m sincerely asking. What happened to Australia’s Aboriginal population is very similar to what happened to the indigenous population in the United States.

I was also fascinated by Bryson’s description of Australia’s natural features and wildlife. I’m not sure if he has convinced me to visit Australia or steer clear! Of course, Bryson’s characteristic wit makes for a fun read. It made me want to read more of his books, especially those that deal a bit with travel (I checked A Walk in the Woods out from my library). Bryson makes an effort to see as much of Australia as he can—even places that it sounds like many Australians don’t necessarily see. He has a deep curiosity and a wonderful way of drawing the reader into that curiosity.

Bryson narrates this audiobook, and he is a good narrator—many writers are not necessarily good at reading their work. If you do read it, I recommend the audiobook with the caveat that you might find you want to look up some of the text. It was a much more enjoyable read than I was expecting. My only concern is that at times, Bryson seems a bit glib. It was hard to read his concern for the Aboriginal population summed up like this:

If I were contacted by the Commonwealth of Australia to advise on Aboriginal issues, all I could write would be “Do more. Try harder. Start now.”

So without an original or helpful thought in my head, I just sat for some minutes and watched these poor disconnected people shuffle past. Then I did what most white Australians do. I read my newspaper and drank my coffee and didn’t see them anymore.

No one is asking Bryson to solve a problem that is centuries in the making. Obviously, no one person can resolve systemic racism alone, especially as a visitor to another country, but deciding not to see it is remaining complicit. This book is now about 20 years old, and I wonder if Bryson would write that last sentence again if he wrote this book now (not that we can excuse him for writing it then). I am glad he spent some pages discussing Aboriginal issues and history, but this book is not the book to really learn about Australia’s indigenous population. Bryson’s curiosity only went so far.

Where he shines is in his self-deprecating description of his traveling fiascos (not being able to find a room, staying in bad hotels, getting an egregious sunburn, freaking out over the local fauna). As long as he keeps it light, this is a fun read. Bryson’s gift is making the reader feel like they’re traveling right along with him, and this was a pretty good trip.

*I was really hating this book. I disliked every single character, and the story was not grabbing me. I feel a little bad since the author was basing it on his father’s experiences in World War II, but there it is.

four-half-stars

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