In a Sunburned Country, by Bill Bryson

In a Sunburned CountryBill Bryson is one of those authors whose work I really should already have read, but I’ve never managed to set aside the time to devour his backlist.  A few years ago I used a couple of plane flights to read his hefty A Short History of Nearly Everything, which is not short but is indeed about nearly everything, and I was like, yes, more please!  And then… nothing.  So when my husband and I finally took our honeymoon (renamed our honeymoonaversary as we took the trip for our 5-year wedding anniversary [omg we're old]) to Australia, I said to myself, hey, I’m pretty sure Bill Bryson’s got a book for that!

It’s almost fifteen years old at this point, and some of the trips he talks about happened even earlier than that, but it’s still a pretty good read for anyone making their way to the antipodes. I ended up reading it in pieces over several flights to, from, and within the country, so I had a chance both to see how my opinion and Bryson’s compared after visiting a city and to get a tantalizing sneak preview of a future stop.

In a Sunburned Country was definitely a more fun read than the seven million travel guides I had pored over in planning our trip, but I would probably not follow along in Bryson’s steps walking miles and miles to see not very much or driving to the middle of nowhere to see tiny, barely used museums or spending what is apparently a large amount of time getting drunk in pubs. Looooots of drinkin’ goin’ on. Although, if I had a job that paid me to travel to Australia on a regular basis, I might be convinced about those museums.

What I found really useful in the book was Bryson’s take on Australian history. I knew the very basics — prison colony, gold rush, rugby — and Bryson covers a lot of that, but he also takes care to point out the most peculiar aspects of the history and culture, and that’s always way more fun to know about. There was much giggling and making the husband pause his in-flight entertainment so that I could say, “Hey, did you know, there was a sailor who sailed straight between Australia and Indonesia and managed never to see Australia at all?” or “Hey, did you know, Australia could totally have been a Francophone country except the French got there a couple days too late?” or “Hey, did you know, there’s like a zillion spiders in Australia and they all want to EAT YOU ALIVE?”

Scott did not appreciate some of these facts.

Bryson also notes some less-exciting things, like the fact that the Aborigines have had rather a rough go of it since the Europeans came and ruined everything; in a depressing bit of serendipity I read about the fact that Aboriginal children were more or less kidnapped from their homes just days before Scott and I found ourselves wandering an exhibit about the places these kids were kidnapped to, including a video wall showing the apology made by the government in 2008, which is two years after the first time I visited Australia and also just six years ago.

But all that gloom and doom is tempered with stories like Bryson’s attempt at boogie boarding off the coast of Sydney with some friends and very nearly getting killed by a jellyfish, a story made so much better by the fact that one “friend” wrote an account of the event that, let’s say, somewhat differs from Bryson’s, and Bryson saw fit to include said account in this book.

A plus plus, fantastic, would read again, but will probably attempt to read a different Bryson sometime in the next four years. At this rate, I’ll have them all read probably before I’m dead?

Recommendation: For travelers to Oz and those who appreciate dry humor and tiny museums.

Rating: 8/10

Weekend Shorts: Grace’s Guide and Saga

Grace’s Guide, by Grace Helbig
Grace's GuideA little while back I read My Drunk Kitchen, by internet-famous Hannah Hart. This book is by the probably equally internet-famous Grace Helbig, whom I saw once on an episode of TableTop and so am not quite as familiar with. But Helbig’s book is in the same “millennial’s guide to life” vein as Hart’s, and that’s apparently a thing I’m into these days. I even ended up liking Grace’s Guide a bit more, largely because it’s not tied to a cookbook conceit but also because it offers some legitimately useful advice. She starts with a list of “Fifty Adult Survival Tips” which include things like “wear socks if your shoes require socks” and “you probably don’t want that tattoo” and “don’t hold a grudge”. Helbig then offers advice in the form of life stories about college, work, dating, cooking (real food), and generally surviving the transition from kid to grown-up. Mostly the book served to reinforce my personal beliefs, but it also reminded me of things I should probably be doing. Maybe I’ll be a better person someday!

Saga, Vol. 2, by Brian K. Vaughan and Fiona Staples
Saga, Vol. 2It’s been just a little while since I read the first volume of this series, relative to how long it’s taken me to catch up on other comics, but I was still a little worried going in that I would be totally lost. Luckily, it’s not that complex a story so far. In this second volume, we meet Marko’s parents, find out how he landed Alana (well, really the other way around), and learn a bit more about this whole Wreath vs. Landfall ages-long war and how completely awful it is. We spend a brief time with The Will as he and some woman (spoilers: Marko’s vengeful ex!) pull some awesome badassery to rescue a girl out of slavery. Look, dude, stop doing things that make me want to root for you!

Saga, Vol. 3, by Brian K. Vaughan and Fiona Staples
Saga, Vol. 3Things pick up the pace even more in this volume, in which we meet some tabloid reporters who are out to do a story on the still-just-a-rumor Wreath and Landfall couple with a baby. More people hunting our friends down? Sure, why not? Meanwhile, a dead person comes back to life (-ish) and starts causing problems for The Will, Marko and Alana hunt down the hack author that brought them together, and things start going very wrong for pretty much everyone. There’s some more backstory and world-building as well, and it’s just an all-around great time. I am eagerly awaiting the arrival of the next volume!

I Did Not Kill My Husband, by Liu Zhenyun

I Did Not Kill My HusbandGosh, what a strange little book. I picked this one out of the mountain of advance copies available to me due to its awesome title, the fact that it’s a book translated from the Chinese and I don’t read enough books written by non-Anglophone writers, and the fact that the description made it sound like it might be a little bit like Out.

It is not like Out. But it’s still pretty cool.

So the deal is, there’s a Chinese woman, Li Xuelian, who gets pregnant with a second child in a strict one-child area. But she’s got this great idea — she and her husband can get divorced, he’ll keep their kid, she’ll have the baby, and then they, two adults with just one kid each, can get married and have two kids! Genius! Except that after they go through the divorce, the husband gets remarried. Wah wah.

From the title, I was expecting that either Li would kill her husband and then deny it (as you do), or she would all but kill him and make his life terrible. The latter is what she tries to do, certainly, but what actually happens is that he goes on with his happy life and happy new wife, and Li becomes the tortured soul.

See, Li tries to undo that divorce of hers, but the judge and the court decide against her. She thinks this is ridiculous, so she goes to higher-ranking person after higher-ranking person in an attempt to get her way and leaves a trail of fired, demoted, and/or terrified government employees in her wake, but never gets the recourse she seeks. She eventually ends up sort of accidentally lodging a protest at a national event and ends up attempting to return every year for twenty years, though without any success.

The story is satirical in the style of Candide, where thing after thing keeps going wrong, though Li never thinks that any of it is for the best. As her fight progresses through the government, we meet some interesting political players and see Liu’s take on the ambitious go-getter, the no-nonsense planner, and the dude who just wants to get through the day, all of whom are shaking in their boots when Li comes around because they just can’t figure out what she wants. Of course, at some point all she probably wants is an apology, but by then it’s way too late for that.

There’s some other kind of joke in this book that I don’t quite get, which is that the characters often speak in idiom after idiom, repeating the same sentiments with different metaphors. I understand that that’s what they’re doing, but I’m not sure why or if it’s a joke on the characters or just fun wordplay or what. I will clearly have to study up on my Chinese satire.

Oh, and then the ending… this whole book is just trolling its reader, I think.

I’m really not sure what to make of this book, as I’ve never read anything quite like it before, but I’m pretty sure I enjoyed my time with it. It has definitely inspired me to seek out more Chinese literature, though maybe just some straightforward fiction next time? We shall see. Suggestions welcome!

Recommendation: For readers who don’t mind books that make almost no sense even in the end.

Rating: 7/10

As You Wish, by Cary Elwes

As You WishAt some point in the fairly recent past, I went to see The Princess Bride for the first time… in the theater, that is, as I have watched the movie approximately one zillion times and it is one of my favorite movies of all time. I saw it with a bunch of other people who also love the movie and one person who was actually, literally, truly seeing the movie for the first time, and all of us were more than a little baffled when she was like, “It’s okay, I guess.” Inconceivable!

I’ve also read the book, though only once, way back at the beginning of my blogging career, and I was struck by how it could have been a novelization of the movie and not the other way around, except for the very beginning and a very cool part in the middle that I’m sad wasn’t in the movie.

So I was totally primed for this book, is what I’m saying.

And before I say anything else, I would like it noted that my comments are based on not just an advanced reading copy of the book but a digital advanced copy that had some poor formatting choices when it came to the numerous what I’m guessing are sidebars but ended up just cutting right into the middle of paragraphs and sentences in this version. I can only hope that those formatting issues are taken care of in the final digital version.

Okay, so. I had expected this to be a book about The Princess Bride, which it is, sort of, but it’s more correctly a memoir of Cary Elwes’s experience with The Princess Bride, from casting to filming to the strange cult following that has built up around the film since its release on home video. And that’s cool, for the most part, but there are long stretches of the narrative that are just Elwes (and often the people in the sidebars) having a love-fest for all the other people in or related to the movie, which gets a little boring after a while. It also seems like most of the cute stories that Elwes tells are things I already knew from watching the extras on my DVD copy or from the 25th anniversary coverage a couple years back, and I’m not sure how many people are standing in line for this book that haven’t consumed those other things already.

But there are a few stories that I didn’t know before reading this book, and those stories are totally worth reading the rest of this fairly short book and I’m not going to spoil them for you because I will not do them the justice that Elwes does. And these stories will make you want to go back and watch the movie, which is of course never a bad thing.

I wish that this book had been a little different, with more of more people’s perspectives and some tighter editing on Elwes’s wordy style, but I suppose even Westley can only do so much. And hey, maybe someone else (I’m looking at you, Mandy Patinkin) will decide to do this again around another anniversary?

Recommendation: If you love The Princess Bride, you’re probably already reading this. If you don’t, there is nothing I can do for you.

Rating: 7/10

Glory O’Brien’s History of the Future, by A.S. King

Glory O'Brien's History of the FutureEarlier this summer, I had this grand plan to finally catch up on all of A.S. King‘s backlist, because I knew that Glory O’Brien’s History of the Future was coming out and I feel compelled to read things in order. So I read Ask the Passengers, which was her fourth novel but only my second of hers, and clearly this plan was not well thought out from the beginning but I had good intentions, and then I got caught up in all the other books that came out this summer and I was like, eff it, I’ll catch up later, give me my teenagers drinking dead bats.

Because, um, that’s kind of the thing that happens in this book. Not the only thing, obviously, but the thing that everyone’s talking about because weird.

There’s no real reason why Glory and her friend Ellie drink this bat, except that there’s this bat, see, and it’s dead and kind of mummified and there’s this beer, see, and it’s beer and makes all sorts of ideas seem good, and also Glory’s not really sure Ellie is her friend and she’s not sure what her future holds, having not applied to any colleges and having no plan for her “gap year”, and she’s got a dead mom and an absent-ish father and you know, you gotta try everything once, right?

And that, that right there, is why I am in love with this book. There’s the weird-pants conceit of the story, which is that Glory drinks this bat and starts seeing the past and future of every sentient creature she looks at (except for herself), but there’s also this completely realistic base for the story, in which people are people and they have issues and also Issues and they do things and stuff happens and sometimes it’s important.

But also I love the weird-pants part of the story, in which Glory sees people’s pasts and futures and realizes that a) everyone’s got a messed-up life, not just her, and b) that if she gets off her indecisive butt, she can help make the world a lot less messed up. Because as she looks into everyone’s future, she pieces together a world not dissimilar to the one in The Handmaid’s Tale, in which women are legislated into, like, absolutely-last-class status and the country finally splits apart over the issue and there is war and horror and it’s… not great, is what I’m saying. And I’m not sure exactly when King wrote certain parts of this book, but some of the events she has leading up to this awful future have already, recently, come to pass and it’s a liiiiiittle creepy.

I know that at least my corner of the internet is saturated with anti-misogyny rants and pro-awesome-women posts, and it is possible that you are already like, I am not going to read this book that thinks all men are terrible, but let me assure you that this future business is just a small part of the novel, and that “we shouldn’t hate women” is not the only take-away from this story. Glory’s path leads to the realization that she is important in her own way that has nothing to do with her family and the legacy left by her mother’s suicide, that friendship is an imperfect science, and that life is more complicated than anyone wants it to be, among other small lessons learned. Her history of the future could just as easily be about climate change or racism or a world in which teens fight each other to the death, but I am both not surprised and happy that King chose ladies and their rights to write about. Though “A.S. King writes The Hunger Games” is a thing the internet needs to get on right away. I’ll be right here.

Where was I? Oh, right. Glory O’Brien is an awesome kid who is going to do awesome things, and I kind of wish she were real so I could say I knew her when.

Recommendation: For lovers of realistic but not too realistic teen fiction.

Rating: 10/10

RIP Update

Hello lovely RIPers and spectators! The weather around here has been hinting at fall, but it hasn’t quite taken hold yet. My sweaters are quivering in the dresser!

The StandBut it’s definitely been a spooky couple of weeks around here. As I mentioned on Friday, I’ve been reading The Stand for my book club, which so far has been mostly re-reading; I read half of the book two years ago on vacation and then never got around to reading the rest of it. I’m glad I re-read the first half, as I had forgotten all but the broadest strokes of the story, but the fact that it took me two weeks to get through that first half again is a bit disheartening. After the first harrowing bit where everyone’s dying of government-made flu (which is even more harrowing with the start of regular flu season and the recent ebola worries), there’s been a lot of nothing going on, although it’s clear that King’s building up to a big fight between Good and Evil. I’m intrigued to see where it goes, but I’m not really in any hurry to get there.

HannibalIn TV, Scott and I finished up Hannibal season one, which definitely got better and creepier after those first two episodes, largely because it becomes more obvious that Hannibal is not only a bad guy, but the bad guy. He’s very very good at being the bad guy, too, which led to me being angry at fictional characters at the end of the season when Hannibal has them completely outsmarted. I had to look up the storyline for the second season to make sure that I wouldn’t want to kill Hannibal myself whenever that season gets around to being on demand for me. Come soon!

What are you all consuming in the spirit of the season?

Weekend Shorts: Hawkeye, Vol. 1

Hawkeye: My Life As a WeaponIt has been a strange couple of reading weeks ’round these here parts, due to my book club deciding to read The Stand and therefore all of my dedicated reading time being already spoken for by that giant doorstop. Luckily, my un-dedicated reading time — couch time with my video-game-playing husband, can’t-fall-asleep time, that sort of stuff — has been filled with some superfun superhero antics (is Hawkeye a superhero? I mean, if Batman’s a superhero, I guess he must be?). Waaaaaay better than plague fiction, especially these days…

Hawkeye, Vol. 1: My Life As a Weapon
I had heard lots of good things about this comic series, though I couldn’t tell you any specific thing, just that people I know and mostly trust read and enjoyed either the single-issue comics or this first collected volume. All I really knew about it was that it’s about Hawkeye (genius, I am) and that it’s about Hawkeye when he’s not an Avenger, which I thought could be pretty interesting. And… it is? I think?

I’m not sure because none of the issues in this collection are easy to read, which I appreciate in theory but which breaks my brain in practice. The story-telling is in no way linear — the first issue has three distinct timelines (dog, eviction, Hawkeye badassery) that are each told in vignettes that are chronological for their story but which trade off with the other timelines in a non-chronological fashion, if that makes any sense, which it probably doesn’t. Another issue has Hawkeye listing his nine most terrible ideas of the day in order from least to most horrible, which are of course also not in chronological order. I like it. It’s cool. I’m still not entirely sure what happened.

But what little I understand of the various stories is pretty cool, so there’s that. That first story shows Hawkeye as Clint Barton, awesome sharpshooter with a little notoriety but no pressing superhero engagements when the Avengers are out of session, which leaves him free to fight the evictions of his friends in his apartment building. The second brings in Kate Bishop, alternate Hawkeye, to raid a circus run by bad guys, as you do. The third is… I don’t know, there’s a car and a chick and some trick arrows? And then the fourth and fifth are a two-parter in which Hawkeye has to go win an extremely incriminating for himself and SHIELD tape (no, really, a videotape, omg) at what is apparently an auction for villain types, including a really go-getter Hydra member who makes me giggle. There’s also a bonus issue, Young Avengers #6, which explains a little bit of the Clint/Kate relationship. No big overarching story that I can see, just some fun times with Hawkeye and sometimes alternate Hawkeye. I’ll definitely be checking out the next volume, but with probably more brain power on reserve next time!