Book Review: Neither Here Nor There, by Bill Bryson

Bill Bryson phoned this book in.

Published in 1992, the book is quite dated and would not be helpful to a European traveler today. Worse, there is very little “foreignness” in the book; Bryson’s anecdotes about the countries he visits are less about the country and more about his being dissatisfied with the country. I tired of the endless complaints about his difficulty in booking a hotel room, the rudeness of waiters, and the stupidity of train staff.

The book is loosely organized around his recreating a backpacking trip he took in the 1970’s with one of his college friends, Stephen Katz. Some of the stories he tells of that time are quite funny and comprise the few entertaining spots in the book.

If you want a hilarious reading experience, instead read Bryson’s A Walk in the Woods, which features Katz again, and In a Sunburned Country.

Chronicle in Stone, by Ismail Kadare

5 Stars

 

Chronicle in Stone is a searing coming-of-age novel, set during World War II in an Albanian hill town that has the misfortune of lying between Italy and Greece. Gjirokaster, today a UNESCO World Heritage site, is built of stone from the Southern Balkans and counts amongst its citizens Muslims, Christians, Gypsies, nuns, and prostitutes. Its highest peak is capped by a formidable fortress that has repelled invaders as far back as The Crusades; it is here that every segment of Gjirokaster society seeks refuge during the worst of the Allied bombings, peasants mingling with nose-holding aristocrats.

The protagonist, a young Muslim boy who reads Macbeth and loves words, imagines the picturesque homes of Gjirokaster to be living creatures, each with its own story. Even the cistern in his home’s basement speaks to him, and the planes from a nearby airfield become big-bellied friends that he imagines couldn’t possibly hurt him.

The boy at first casts an amused eye on the town’s traditions, such as its fear of witchcraft and the ancient women who haven’t ventured outside in decades. He grows more observant as he notes the violence inflicted on those who flaunt its sexual mores. One man, likely a hermaphrodite, is killed the morning after his wedding for the audacity of falling in love. During a bombing, a young girl kisses her secret boyfriend and is hauled home by her hair, where she disappears in what her ever-searching boyfriend fears is an honor killing. A woman, who reveals herself as a lesbian, is dismissed with the euphemism of “having grown a beard” and banned by her own father from the safety of air raid shelters.

Chronicle in Stone proves the cruelty not only of wartime, but of unexamined traditions and of a culture that attacks its own iconoclasts. The boy’s great wisdom lies in the growing realization that not all the traumas of wartime are inflicted by invading armies.

Unraveling Oliver, by Liz Nugent

5 Stars

 

Unraveling Oliver, by Liz Nugent, is a deeply engrossing psychological tale of deceit set in Ireland and France.

Oliver Ryan is endowed with dark good looks, but he has suffered a harrowing childhood. He was born out of wedlock to a father who works for the Church and regards himself as an icon of moral purity, his only slip-up a seduction by a woman whom he dismisses as “a whore.”

His mother abandons the newborn, leaving him on his father’s doorstep, who acts as if he would rather the child died than raise him. When his father marries, Oliver is sent to a nearby boarding school, where he spends years spying on his old family home from an upper window. Through his binoculars, he discovers that his father has begat another son, a blond-haired golden child who is showered with paternal affection. The boy even attends the same school as Oliver, who is never allowed to reveal their shared parentage.

Oliver constructs a careful façade to hide the damage his childhood has wrought, becoming a best-selling author of children’s books. After a tragic, failed romance, he rebounds by eloping with his illustrator, a woman described by his primary mistress as “way beneath him.” For a boy who grew up wearing tattered clothing and lacking spending money, he now enjoys literary acclaim, fawning acolytes, and a home in which he can hide his secrets.

Years later, suffering from writer’s block, he punches his wife into a coma.

Told from the perspectives of those whom he has hurt, the book attempts to decode Oliver and explain his violence. This book ultimately asks—and answers—the question, “How well can one really know a person?” In the case of Oliver Ryan, it appears one can only know a sliver of the fractured, shattered man.

 

 

Faithful Place, by Tana French

 

3 Stars

 

Faithful Place is a police procedural set in Dublin, Ireland, about Frank Mackey, a divorced undercover cop determined to shield his 9-year-old daughter, Holly, from his crazy family, especially his violent, alcoholic father and his battered mother, who could teach master classes on inducing guilt in children.

Frank Mackey has been estranged from his parents and three of his four siblings for twenty-two years, ever since the night his teenage love, Rose Daly, disappeared from Faithful Place in Dublin’s Liberties section. He and Rose had plotted to escape the Liberties’ brawling jealousies and working class pecking order, intending to start new lives in London. Only Rose never showed up, creating a scar in Frank’s heart that ultimately would lead to the demise of his marriage to Holly’s mother. What living woman could compete with a ghost, one who forever retains the perfection of youth?

As the third book in the Dublin Murder Squad series, the book wields less of the staccato writing that is Tana French’s trademark style, although the dialogue is often cutting and insightful (one scatological comment about ZZ Top was jaw-droppingly funny).

To my disappointment, I indentified the murderer about halfway through the book. The perpetrator seemed so obvious that I kept hoping to be proven wrong, but the ending contained few surprises.

Faithful Place will appeal to Tana French’s fans–and I am one, but I would argue that In the Woods and The Likeness are more suspenseful.

 

#amreading #fiction #books #TanaFrench

 

 

Manhattan Beach, by Jennifer Egan

2 Stars

Manhattan Beach is a World War II historical novel about a pioneering young woman, Anna Kerrigan, who becomes the first female diver at the Brooklyn Navy Yard.

Unfortunately, Manhattan Beach was a deeply unsatisfying book.  My biggest complaint is that major characters routinely disappear:  Anna’s father, Nell, Dexter Styles, and Anna’s mother. Anna has no significant emotional reaction to these disappearances, instead making horrendous decisions that jeopardize everything for which she has toiled in very dangerous circumstances. Two scenes in particular—the first in a boathouse, the second at the bottom of New York harbor—left me questioning her devotion to her father, whom she supposedly adored.

I was disappointed that the characters were not very well developed.  The most interesting character in the book turns out to be Anna’s invalid sister, Lydia. Anna’s relationship with Lydia is sympathetic and endearing and the only one where she demonstrates emotional depth.

 


The Elementals, by Michael McDowell

5 Stars

 

The Elementals is a masterpiece of Southern Gothic fiction. It upends the notion that scary things only happen at night and turns the hot Alabama sun into a terrifying and enervating character of its own. By the time the reader finishes The Elementals, he or she will fear a sun that blazes too strongly, sugar that tastes like sand, and dunes that swallow both houses and people.

The book opens in Mobile, where Marian, the matriarch of the Savage family, is being buried in a gruesome funeral ritual that dates back hundreds of years. The grieving Savage and McCray families then retreat to an isolated spit of land called Beldame on Alabama’s Gulf Coast, where they have been vacationing—and dying—for decades.

Three houses sit on the shore at Beldame, but the third is falling apart, as it is slowly being consumed by a sand dune. No ghosts appear in the book, only mysterious, violent creatures who inhabit the third house, where their movements are visible as shadows flitting past the windows during the hottest hours of the day. Their presence can be heard in a bedroom door slamming shut of its own accord and in the sound of sand sifting through a broken window.

Each of the characters has his or her own reasons for fearing the third house, but it is India McCray, the granddaughter from New York, who brings about the final resolution. That resolution is equal to the finest in horror fiction, even as it leaves the reader wondering just who or what the creatures in the third house really are.

 

#books #amreading

The Loney by Andrew Michael Hurley

3 Stars

The Loney is a literary horror novel that failed to horrify me.  It describes a group of pilgrims travelling to St. Anne’s shrine in coastal England to cure Farther and Mummer Smith’s eldest son, Hanny, of mutism.

On the positive side, the sense of place and atmosphere was engrossing. I loved the setting of the book in what the pilgrims discover is an old Tuberculosis sanitarium. Also, the tension between the simplistic Catholic faith of the Smith family and the naturalistic superstitions of the locals was powerful. In the end, both traditions seemed cruel, more designed to torture Hanny than to cure him.

My big problem with The Loney is that, in the climactic scene, Hurley shies away from giving the reader a close view of the ritual that cured Hanny. Instead, Hanny’s brother, Tonto, steps out into the hallway, so that he cannot witness the violence of the final cure. This takes away from the real horror of the book.

Ultimately, I thought Hurley’s second book, Devil’s Day, was a better book.